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TEQUILA, Mexico – It's said the national drink of Mexico has magical properties: It closes contracts and opens doors, makes shy people bold and helps form friendships.
To the uninitiated, the wrong tequila consumed incorrectly also opens medicine chests.
The first thing one learns on a tour of the heart of Mexico's tequila country is that no one here drinks tequila as a shooter — it's better sipped from a brandy snifter or champagne glass so that the full sweet and buttery flavors and aromas of the agave can come through.
And the aficionado would never drink anything other than a tequila made from 100 percent agave. Anything less, like the popular Jose Cuervo Gold, is a "mixto" that by law only has to contain 51 percent of alcohol distilled from agave. The rest could be any other sugary plant like the beet, which makes it potentially hangover-inducing.
Tequila consumption has increased 45 percent in the U.S. over the past five years. It's no wonder, then, that the country is waking up to the tourism power of tequila, the drink, and Tequila, the place — the center of the farming region of the prickly Weber blue agave plants from which the spirit is distilled.
"Tequila is like wine, and those of us who get into it know our favorite tequilas in the same way that a wine lover would know why they like certain wines," said Rachel Nicholls-Bernyk, who travels here from Fresno, Calif., at least once a year. "I enjoy learning something new about the language and the culture and the people, and of course, making tequila."
The affair margarita-loving Americans are having with premium tequila has fueled a tourist boom here in the mountainous state of Jalisco, where tequila was born centuries ago in the town that shares its name.
In this once-sleepy village hotels are being remodeled, new bed and breakfasts are opening, and the main drag is getting a cobblestone makeover. In April a slick new OXXO, Mexico's version of 7-11, became the first chain store to open in downtown, a concession to the growing number of tequila-loving tourists who lack the adventure or language skills to navigate the quaint marketplaces and lively street food stands that thrive in the shadow of the historic stone cathedral in the city center. The town expects an even bigger tourist influx in October, when the Pan American Games will be held in nearby Guadalajara.
The popularity of premium tequilas means increasingly varied travel options. Almost all tequilas are from in and around the state of Jalisco. Tequilas from the less touristy "highlands" near the towns of Arandas and Atontonilco about 65 miles east of Guadalajara are generally light and sweet. El Tesoro, Don Julio, Don Pilar and the highly regarded 7 Leguas are among those from the region, as well as market leader Patron. Of these, only 7 Leguas and Don Pilar have tours by appointment; the others cater to industry insiders. However, travel to these slightly more out-of-the-way spots is now considered somewhat risky without a guide because of violence from drug traffickers. Even some of the distillery owners stay away.
But here in tequila's primary namesake destination, the safe Valle de Tequila, everyone from the tequila snob to college students can find their place. A favorite stop for both crowds is Don Javier's cantina La Capilla, home of his 50-year-old invention, the Batanga, a mixture of Coke, tequila, lime juice and salt. Now well into his 90s, Don Javier still spends time behind the bar.
The town sits in the shadow of the 9,500-foot Volcan de Tequila, an ancient volcano that gave the region its lava-rich soil. While there are hundreds of varieties of the agave lily that can be distilled, to be called tequila it must come from the Weber blue agave. The spiny plants grow for between six and 12 years in neat rows on hillsides, the valley floor, and even in medians along the highways.
Tours of the biggest distilleries such as Sauza and Cuervo are easy to find. Mundo Cuervo is the Disney of distilleries, and its swank cantinas, restaurants and gift shops occupy a huge swath of the town.
A self-guided walking tour through town is part of the Ruta de Tequila, a trail that links Jalisco's tequila-producing cities that was patterned after Napa's wine trail.
Also appealing to some is the Tequila Express party train that on weekends ferries tourists from Guadalajara 40 miles to Casa Herradura in neighboring Amatitan, where visitors can sip tequila from a barrel carried by a donkey or see a man dressed in the traditional white garb of the field workers (jimadores) cut the spines off the agave, leaving only the pineapple-looking center for baking.
The smaller operations often produce the most interesting spirits, often offering historical glimpses of the manufacturing process that the big labels long ago abandoned. Tequila explorers can see and taste agave that has baked in modern autoclaves for eight hours (the equivalent of a pressure cooker) and compare the flavors to those at a distillery that still bakes for days inside stone ovens.
Competition has inspired many distilleries to alter old techniques. At Casa Noble, the country's first California Certified Organic Farming operation, new French oak aging barrels have replaced used American bourbon barrels, which gives the final product notes of vanilla. Don Pilar uses champagne yeast to enhance fermentation and, distillers hope, impart a unique flavor; but like the best boutique winemakers, El Tesoro still allows native yeasts present in the open-air fermentation room to dictate how each vintage tastes.
At Destileria La Fortaleza, visitors will find the last tequilero that still painstakingly presses 100 percent of its sugary juice from the agave using a giant lava stone, called a "tahona," instead of modern shredding machines. The historic hacienda was home of industry giant Sauza, which the family sold in the 1970s. In the 1990s, Guillermo Erickson Sauza, who represents the fifth generation, revived the old operation using original equipment on land his family still held. Tours are available through the Sauza museum on the main plaza.
Any tourist who looks lost in Tequila's main plaza will be approached by a guide selling tickets on one of the many wacky tourist buses shaped like barrels and bottles.
The luckiest tourists arrive with Clayton Szczech of Experience Tequila. He's a Portland resident who loves the culture and history so much that he now guides tequila-curious tourists. The Lonely Planet-recommended guide is the first gringo to hold the TT certification of the country's Tequila Regulatory Council, which means he is as adept at discerning flavors as he is at explaining how it all came to be. He took us to an obscure, one-man operation where the tequilero used a garden hose to fill our liter Coke bottle from his lone aging barrel. And he's friendly with premium distillers such as Casa Noble, which don't usually open their doors for tours.
"True tequila and a tequila culture thrive down here, you've just got to know where to look," said Szczech.