As Bordeaux is to France and Porto is to Portugal, Tequila is to Mexico: both a libation and a destination.
But not just anywhere in Mexico. The wellspring of tequila production is in the west-central state of Jalisco, home to Mexico's second-largest city, Guadalajara, as well as the nearby town of Tequila, both largely spared the wrath of the monster-turned-mouse Hurricane Patricia.
U.S. tequila sales have doubled in the last decade, and the spirit's growing popularity prompted my wife and me to set out in January to trace the river back to its source.
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During a long weekend, our guide, Mexico City-based Clayton Szczech (sounds like "check") shepherded us through a crash course in tequila production techniques, tasting, history and culture.
Intermingled with forays for shopping, art and architecture, we visited bars and bottle shops, tasting rooms and fields. We stumbled across tequila tributaries even when we weren't looking for them: borrachitos (milk candies flavored with tequila) in the gigantic San Juan de Dios market; hand-blown Dama Juana glass bottles designed to transport tequila; small sponges made from agave fiber in the Tonalá shopping area; and, resting against a wall in the Palacio de Gobierno, a 2-ton volcanic stone wheel known as a tahona, its edges worn from years of crushing cooked agave to release the juices.
"This is the house that tequila built," Szczech told us, introducing the government palace, finished in the late 1700s in part from taxes on agave-based liquors known as mezcales. Tequila is a mezcal, but only a mezcal made from the Weber blue agave can be called tequila.
After a brief afternoon introduction to tequila tasting, followed by a shopping break, Szczech took me to Mezonte (www.mezonte.com), an appointment-only mezcal tasting room. There, surrounded by photos of small-scale family producers, owner Pedro Jimenez led a discussion that was as much about the individuals making the spirits and their growing regions as the drink itself.
We passed most of our second day shopping in and around Guadalajara, leaving our final day for Tequila itself, about an hour's drive northwest.
It's a company town — Jose Cuervo — and at Mundo Cuervo, you have your choice of group tours (charges apply) and can browse the giant gift shop.
Instead, we took a road less traveled, visiting the Museo los Abuelos (admission 10 pesos, about 65 cents) to see tequila-making artifacts and spend a couple hours at the small-scale Tequila Fortaleza distillery.
Fortaleza relies on old-world production methods such as using stone tahonas to crush the agave and not modern mechanical rollers. We watched a laborer — a jimador — harvest an agave plant and rapidly strip its leaves, and we meandered through production areas filled with boilers, copper stills, pits, fermentation tanks and a bustling bottling room.
Then into underground caves, where tequila hibernates in barrels. We sipped and listened as Szczech poured at a bar set inside the cave.
In the dim lighting, as the spirit warmed us, it felt almost as if Szczech were holding service in tequila church.
A shopper's paradise amid the handicrafts of Guadalajara
As Mexico's handicrafts capital, Guadalajara and its environs dangle seemingly endless shopping possibilities.
High-toned Tlaquepaque and more down-to-earth Tonalá deservedly dominate the shopping marquee, but to immerse yourself in Guadalajara and Mexico itself, direct your first steps to Mercado Libertad. The three-story marketplace is better known as San Juan de Dios for the neighborhood and the church of the same name.
With more than 2,600 stalls wedged into nearly half a million square feet, San Juan de Dios contains a dizzying array of merchandise, fruit, vegetables and prepared foods. A goat skull signifies that birria is bubbling in a pot, or try a regional specialty known as a torta ahogada — literally a "drowned sandwich" swimming in a tomato broth.
"Uvas, uvas," a vendor intoned, advertising grapes above the chattering of caged songbirds. Other stalls sold sugar cane, candy, ornate belts and buckles, pottery, brightly woven fabrics, even spells, in powder form, promising potent doses of steady work, money or even hate.
We began with market day in Tonalá on a Sunday (it also falls on Thursdays). In retrospect, based on the poor-quality merchandise in street stalls and the pressing crowds, I'd recommend any day but the two market days.
The shops in Tonalá, unlike most street stalls, carry a variety of merchandise, from blown glass to intricate tile to fine furniture.
A couple of our instant favorites were the Cristacolor glass-blowing works (www.cristacolor.com.mx), where we watched orange blobs of molten glass being transformed into peacock shapes, and Forja Española (www.forjaespanola.com), populated by fantastically shaped metal sculptures and brightly painted furniture.
Allow an entire afternoon or more to explore Tlaquepaque, where shops — and prices — aim higher than in Tonalá. Goods range from a $5 bracelet to a $2,300 granite-topped bar. When you need a break, listen to mariachi bands — Jalisco state is the birthplace of mariachi music — at the garden courtyard known as El Parián.
Steer clear of the food and mixed drinks there, however; they tend to be overpriced and underwhelming. Along Calle Independencia are several worthy restaurants, among them Casa Fuerte and Casa Luna, both set in courtyards graced by trees and a fountain.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO GUADALAJARA, MEXICO
From LAX, Aeromexico, American, Alaska, United and Delta offer nonstop service to Guadalajara, and Aeromexico, United, Delta and American offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $326, including taxes and fees.
If you haven't arranged transportation with a guide, taxis are your best bet in and around Guadalajara. For a day trip to Tequila, rent a car or go by bus
Experience Tequila, 503-922-1774, www.experiencetequila.com. Mexico City-based guide Clayton Szczech, a self-styled tequila evangelist, offers tours, tastings and events. Native English speaker, highly fluent in Spanish. Four-day, three-night package tours (not including airfare) start at $1,255 per person, double occupancy.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Villa Ganz Boutique Hotel, 1739 Lopez Cotilla, Guadalajara; (877) 232-2218, www.en.villaganz.com. Consistently rated the top hotel in Guadalajara on TripAdvisor.com, for good reason. Charming, with gilded mirrors, tile floors, studded wood doors. Like staying in a mansion — which it was — except for the affordable price. Rates begin at about $99 a night (depending on exchange rates), excluding meals. Kitchen on site for breakfast in the small garden.
WHERE TO EAT
La Tequila, 2830 Avenida Mexico, Colonia Terranova, Guadalajara; 011-52-333-640-3440, www.latequila.com/eng.html. This upscale restaurant serves tequilas by the dozens — you can't miss the entryway display — and also has a fantastic salsa made tableside and fresh, warm corn tortillas. Main dishes about $12.
Casa Luna, 211 Independencia, Collonia Centro, Tlaquepaque; 011-52-331-592-2061, www.casalunarestaurante.com. Lanterns sway overhead in the courtyard setting, a fountain gurgles, a band plays. Prices are high by Mexico standards, but the passion fruit margaritas are intoxicating in more ways than one. Main dishes about $16.
WHERE TO DRINK, BUY TEQUILA
Cantina la Fuente, 78 Pino Suárez, half a block behind the Hidalgo statue in Plaza de la Liberación, Guadalajara. Don't look for the sign — there isn't one. Step inside and savor each sip of tequila in a setting that hasn't changed much since the cantina opened nearly 100 years ago.
Tequilas El Bújo, 164-B Juárez, Cololonia Centro, Tlaquepaque; 011-52-333-659-0863, www.tequilaselbuho.com. Wall-to-wall bottles in a variety of shapes and colors, reasonable prices, free samples and knowledgeable staff. Check out the museum room of tequilas in the rear.
TO LEARN MORE
Mexico Tourism Board, www.visitmexico.com/en/guadalajara