Tequila: From the fields to your glass (Part 1)

May 25, 2015
A trip to Mexico is much more than a life experience, especially when your final destination is the Tequila capital and one of the most famous distilleries in the world, Jose Cuervo.

I was so happy to be back in Mexico, a country full of colour, spicy flavours, delicious fruit and with tequila taking centre stage. Our final destination was tequila town, in the Jalisco region: a small village which many of us want to pay humble thanks to as it’s where the biggest production of our favourite spirit takes place. Santiago de Tequila is 60km away from Guadalajara and is a Unesco World Heritage Site.  Its almost kitschy colourful alleyways are full of little stores selling everything from spices to anything else the locals might need. All the most famous tequila distilleries are around the central square with Jose Cuervo being the most imposing because of its size and due to the fact that they are the biggest tequila producers in the world.

We reached our destination after a very long series of flights and the amazing Jose Cuervo Express, a train put on for us by the company which took us on the last leg from Guadalajara.  It was a once in a lifetime, two-hour trip full of Mariachi music, margaritas and palomas; the best-known tequila cocktails.  Feeling a little light headed, the multi-coloured tiny buildings seemed even brighter and the fermentation smells from all the distilleries in the area became even more intense. That essence so reminiscent of baked croissant will be forever etched in my memory.

Everything begins in the field

On the way out of tequila town, what you come across is endless fields of blue agave, the plant the drink is made from.  These agave fields are also Unesco protected as some are centuries old. The soil here is volcanic and in fact the volcano still cuts quite an imposing presence despite being inactive for centuries. The fields on one side of the volcano are full of agave and on the other side, full of sugar cane used for rum production.

Mexican farmers, known as jimador, begin work very early in the morning tending to their fields.  Their main tool is called coal and it looks like a shovel with a flat, very sharp end reminiscent of a small metallic plate. The Jimador are a crucial part of the chain as the ones working for Jose Cuervo have been doing this for over 40 years and pass on their knowledge to younger generations.  As they told us, working for Jose Cuervo is more enjoyable as their agave fields are in the Buenos Aires region, which has ‘good air’ due to the area’s particular microclimate.

Our guide on this magical trip was Jose Cuervo’s Greek ambassador, Stelios Papadopoulos who gave us some more interesting facts. Just like in the case of cognac or champagne, tequila has a protected designation of origin so it has to be produced in a certain way and it can only come from the tequila region, which includes Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.

It’s in these areas that we come across blue agave plants, which are part of the lily family, not cactus as is the common misconception.  The Jimador told us that in order for the agave to be ready to be harvested, it needs 7 to 12 years of daily care and attention, making the tequila making process even more intricate. At the mature stage the agave root or pina weighs between 50 to 60 kilos, which can produce about 7 litres of spirit.

Growing agave is as intricate as the process of getting it to your glass. The plant doesn’t have a gender from the start; that is determined when it grows.  If it’s female then it will sprout a flower (quiote) from the middle of its sharp leaves, which can grow to 4 meters tall.  The Jimador remove the flower straight away as it stops the root developing.  They also have to cut the extremely sharp leaves’ edges because if they’re allowed to grow, they curb thus creating the perfect breeding ground for insects and worms. It also re-energises the plant so the leaves can develop properly and the root can get stronger, which is everyone’s main goal.

When the agave gets to the period between its 3rd and 5th year, smaller plants, or its ‘kids’, start growing from the same root and the farmers have to remove and replant them. A single agave plant can produce more than 60 new roots, out of which the Jimador will replant 10 or 15 in the tequila region.  The first ones are the ones usually considered stronger and healthier and more suitable to reproduce the kind of quality Jose Cuervo demands. This process has been repeating itself since 1795, when the company first opened its doors.

All the fields in the Jalisco region are now owned by Jose Cuervo, meaning the company has absolute control from planting the roots to distillation.  Before the pina get loaded onto vans on their way to the distillery, the Maestro Tequilero makes the first round of categorisation.  For the basic Cuervo range, the pina are collected throughout the year.  For the Reserva De La Familia however, they harvest the roots strictly before the rain season and they only keep the heart of the agave so that its characteristics can be even more intense.  For special labels, even the way the pina are cut is different.

Look out for part two and our journey to the Jose Cuervo distillery.
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