Tequila Valley: Charm and Character Built this Margarita Region
By Kevin Douglas West
It was just last night I was having fajitas and margaritas in my local Mexican spot, Las Mananitas in Katy, Texas. We all have a Mexican place like this. We get the same waiter every time, he knows our order, remembers we don’t like salt in our margaritas, and orders us a special Tres Leches cake at our kids birthday parties. Now I’m in a car driving toward San Martin de las Canas, a tiny village one hour west of Guadalajara and just a few minutes from my ultimate destination, Tequila.
We arrive and are greeted by a Dr. Jaime Villalobos, a magnanimous personality wearing jeans and a cowboy hat. He speaks good English and immediately makes us feel welcome in the high desert area surrounded by mountains.
We’re 4,000 feet in the air at Casa de Carmen, a blue agave estate home to Jaime and his wife Carmen, a fifth generation Sauza who smiles beautifully and offers us little bottles of Corona to quench our thirst. It’s hot and dry and the sun is blazing as we walk to the fields and meet Jaime’s jimador and caretaker of the estate.
The jimador, a skilled agriculture craftsman, quickly goes to work showing us how he slices the sharp leaves of the agave off in seconds trimming it down to the 50-pound pina, the heart of the agave. The process of harvesting is called jimas. It looks like a giant pineapple but the taste isn’t sweet. It has a wood-flavored chewy texture with a clean taste. This is the fruit that will become tequila in just a few days.
Underneath he shows caterpillar worms burrowed inside the ball and offers them for a barbecue. We react in disdain, but hours and a few sips of tequila later, I would eat one. It’s was crispy and salty but one was enough.
We stroll through the fields admiring the tall plants. It takes about 7 years for a blue agave to mature enough to be harvested. At this level of age, the plant leaves can reach up to 8 feet tall and the jima can weigh as much as 70 pounds.
We return to the estate and settle in for a tasting of Carmen Sauza’s Tequila Realeza Mexicana Anejo which just recently arrived in the U.S. market. Jaime serves a small amount in a champagne-style tequila sipping glass. It’s elegant, smooth, and rich in flavor. While we sip and attempt to make conversation each botching the other’s language, the jimador now grills skirt steak which will soon be served with verde sauce and homemade tortillas.
Unfortunately we can’t stay the night as we have return to Tequila to rest for a big day. We exchange goodbyes as if we’ve been friends our entire lives and head down the winding road 10 minutes to Tequila. We arrive at the beautiful Hotel Abolengos. This 21-room historical hotel is graced with dark wood, stone, stucco, iron, and period Spanish furniture. We’re exhausted so we retire early in the cool comfort of the only air conditioning we’ve felt since leaving the airport.
The next day we spend in Tequila walking the village streets. It’s Sunday and the political parties are out promoting their candidates for upcoming elections. People fill up the cathedral steps, many stand just outside the doors hoping to catch a few brief words of the message. Tourists and visitors from the area float around the market shopping for goods, eating tacos, and visiting with friends. It feels more like a Saturday here rather than the sleepy Sundays I’m use to in the U.S.
We hire a guide to go on a tour of the town visiting all the old dilapidated distilleries, estates of Cuervo and Sauza, and the old public washateria where all the locals brought their clothes and cleaned them using stones. She told us the story of a monk who owned a small distillery in town that fell into disrepair so he allowed the homeless to stay there. In the morning, the sleepy and smelly guests would emerge from the distillery – locals called it the Monster House. She shared the Romeo and Juliet style love affair that pitted the Sauza family against the Cuervo family years ago. Sauza is now owned by Beam Global, but Cuervo remains a family business.
We wrap up the day at Esmina’s Counter where we eat chicken fajita stewed with peppers on a plate of fluffy rice and refried beans. The tortilla maker brings a fresh hot tortilla every few minutes. The locals float in and out grabbing food on the go and enjoying conversation at the counter. This place was recommended by our tour guide and it is the “hole in the wall” that every off-beat tourist hopes to find in their travels.
We’re on the road early travelling to El Arenal, another village about 15 minutes from Tequila. We visit an artisian cheese maker, a tortilla factory, walk the courtyard, then wrap up our visit to this town at Tequila Cascuin, where third-generation tequila maker, Salvador greeted us and walks us through the entire process of turning blue agave into tequila.
The giant pinas are split and then loaded into a large oven that can hold 2 tons of plant. Once loaded in, a worker packs the door edges with a concoction of ground up pina and mud that will seal the doors while the pina steams for 72 hours. Once the door is opened and the pinas cool, he grabs a piece for us to taste. It’s similar to a sugared sweet potato and the fruit just melts in your mouth.
We next see massive steel tanks full of fermenting agave juice. This brown and amber liquid is bubbling on the top, a reaction as the sugar turns to alcohol. Salvador measures the sugar and tells us this won’t be tequila for another 48 hours, but rest assured he has some nearly ready to bottle. At a smaller tank, we can see the crystal clear liquid as it makes it’s final round of filtration before going into the bottle. He pours the liquid into a tiny plastic tasting cup and shares with us. The mineral, smoke, and silky flavor come alive in my mouth. Now that’s artisan tequila!
We return to the road and make stops at Herra Dura, Jose Cuervo, and Chohola for dinner. These big brand tequila distilleries and restaurants make for good shopping for t-shirts and admiration of all that is big tequila business but nothing compares to being able to speak to the maker of the tequila – perhaps this is what it was like in Sonoma in the mid-sixties.
I’m home now and back at Las Mananitas sharing stories and pictures from my trip. Most of these guys have been to Tequila and can relate to what I’m saying. I sip the familiar margarita but somehow it tastes a little different. I correct myself knowing it’s not any different – what’s different is the way I think about how it tastes. I can taste the pina, the candied blue agave, the unfiltered tequila and remember all the charming people of the Tequila Valley.