I am a very innocent drinker, as they say, but when one is in Guadalajara, one visits a tequila distillery. Gotta happen.
After all, the entire agave-growing region around Tequila (Yes, there IS a town by that name.) is a UNESCO World Heritage site just for its tequila-making tradition. As one approaches Guadalajara, in fact, fields of spiky agave are as common as corn in the Midwest.
But which distillery to visit? There are dozens, from the familiar Papa Bear names like Cuervo and Sauza to Baby Bear family stills. You could go to Tequila–the town that is the epicenter of the eponymous beverage–and take the well-trodden and touristy Ruta de Tequila. You could also take the train–the Tequila Express–that travels to the Herradura distillery and that will certainly keep you entertained and well-lubed with music and dance and lots of tequila. (“I think the goal was to get passengers as drunk as possible,” said one blogger, who resisted temptation but poorly.)
But I’d also heard of a tequila-growing region north of Guadalajara, called “Los Altos,” where several smaller distilleries were located. The region was at a higher elevation, which causes the agave to grow big and sweet. Since I was heading north and east toward Guanajuato, one of those towns might be a good overnight stop
What to do? What to do?
Eventually, my course of action was determined by this:
Who could resist the allure of 7 Leguas? This distillery is named after Pancho Villa’s favorite horse–Siete Leguas (Seven Leagues). The founder of the 7 Leguas distillery, Don Ignacio Gonzales Vargas, was a big fan of Pancho Villa, a.k.a. “the Centaur of the North,” thus, his distillery is named after the revolutionary leader’s legendary horse.
After several email hiccups, Berta, the PR person at the distillery, had me all set up for a private tour. All I had to do was to get to the small town of Atotonilco el Alto. After several more dead ends as I tried sorting out the bus lines, Berta told me, “The Flecha Amarilla line goes by here about every 15 minutes. You catch it at the Camionera Central.”
Bingo. I’d been by the big first-class bus station several times on my way to Tonala.
Accordingly, the morning of the tour, I was jouncing merrily along in a rattletrap local bus toward the Camionera Central.
Then, we were going through places I had never seen before, and the streets were becoming narrow and rutted through a tiny maze of neighborhoods. Then, the streets turned into dirt. Then, there was almost no one on the bus. I was beginning to feel that creep-crawly tickle of anxiety.
Finally, I asked the driver where the bus station was. He looked startled.
“Lo paso.” We passed it.
He launched into a flurry of gesticulations and rapid-fire Spanish. I must have looked alarmed because a woman on the bus took me by the arm and explained to me very S-L-O-W-L-Y in Spanish that I needed to cross the street, wait for a bus going the other way, and ask to be let out at the bus station.
Okay. Okay. I can do this.
Finally, the second bus stopped by a grove of trees, and the driver pointed, “Alli. Alli. Modulo uno,” and I understood why I’d missed the huge station the first time. Instead of going through it, this bus line merely grazed the station on the main highway. I peered through the trees, and yes indeedy, there was Building 1 of the Camionera Central.
I arrived at Atotonilco el Alto with an hour to spare. (With maturity comes the tendency to “get an early start.”)
With its 400-year-old church nestled tight against small mountains, the town was much sweeter than I had anticipated. As I wandered around killing time, I wished I had arranged to spend a night here.
Siete Leguas is a small, artisanal distillery and the only one that still makes some of its tequila in the traditional way–with mules and a big millwheel, called a tahona that crushes the roasted agave must. The mules are so gentle and accustomed to their work that they plod along, stopping and starting without any intervention.
Siete Leguas was founded in 1952 by Don Ignacio, and it is still a small-ish distillery that produces about 800 to 1000 bottles a day. While it sells internationally, most of the tequila is sold in Mexico. Production Manager Arturo stressed that 7 Leguas is a natural, artisanal product, made the way it’s been done for generations.
Unfortunately, I never did get into the fields to breathe the smell of dirt and watch the jimadores wrassle with the huge, 200-pound pinas. (Tequila is made from the agave root, called a pina. Jimadores are the guys who dig up the pina and cut off the spiky leaves.)
Then, the pinas are split and roasted in ovens for three days and cooled for one. At this point, they are mushy and extremely sweet. Then, they’re mashed in the tahona and put into vats to ferment. Finally, the fermented liquid goes to the stills, and the mash goes back on the fields.
After two distillations, the tequila is 55 percent alcohol and pure white. After a bit of messing around with the alcohol content, the unaged tequila is called blanco, and it carries quite a kick. Although it’s pretty rugged for my sissy taste, I liked the straightforward, unmitigated agave taste. This, folks, is the real McGonzales.
The other tequilas are aged in white oak barrels that come from, you guessed it, Kentucky. (I’ve toured the Maker’s Mark bourbon distillery in Kentucky and saw those very barrels. They are also shipped to Scotland to make, yup, Scotch.) Tequila Reposado is aged for 8 months; Anejo for two years; and Extra Anejo for five years.
After touring the modern and traditional plants, both of which were spotless, we repaired to the tasting room, where Berta and Arturo had prepared a little tasting of all four tequilas–just for me! So as not to embarrass myself, I had studied up on how to taste tequila. So, I sniffed and swished and sipped like–oh, maybe the clueless, tea-swilling gringa that I am.
Arturo smiled indulgently.
But I did determine that the Extra Anejo was too mild and subtle for my jaded palate. Besides the unaged Blanco, I liked the Anejo best. So that’s what I decided to get for my brother-in-law, who is a more discriminating and hearty drinker than I.
The very generous folks at 7 Leguas gave me a lovely sample set of their tequilas and sent me to Pepe Carrillo for my brother-in-law’s booze.
Thank you to Berta and Arturo for their time and attention. I loved the tour, and I can enthusiatically recommend both their hospitality and their tequila. For more photos of the distillery and of Guadalajara, please visit my Facebook page at wanderingnotlost.org. Please “like” it while you’re there. Thanks.