Sunday, March 9, 2014


The town of tequila sprouted from the base of a now extinct volcano that was originally responsible for creating the unique terroir that makes tequila's appellation so important. Agave grown in the valley grows small and has deep roots in a soil featuring obsidian and a great minerality. The plants grow larger and more dense with sugar in the mountains thanks to an abundance of iron there.

There are over 240 species of agave. Somewhere between 30 and 40 are used to make mezcal. Only one agave, called weber or blue agave, can be used to make tequila, and it has to be grown within a government controlled appellation region.

Agave's life cycle is too long to repopulate fields by traditional methods, so fields are repopulated by plucking and replanting rhizomes, little clones that each plant will sprout four to five of in its lifetime. The plant signals its maturity by oozing a red goo, rich with the starch so important for distillation. At that stage, a jimador will cut the agave out of the ground and remove all of its fronds, leaving only the piña. Each piña will yield roughly twelve bottles of tequila. The piñas are then transported by truck, or even still burros in rough weather or uneven terrain. The piña must then be cooked. Many of the big distilleries today, including Sauza, Cuervo, and Herradura, shortcut the process using a chemical cooking method with machines called diffusers. Traditionally, the piñas are crushed by a large stone wheel called a tohoma. Many distilleries still implement a percentage of stone crushed agave – Don Julio does, but they don't disclose the percentage – but Fortaleza is the only distillery on the scene to use stone crushing exclusively. This process extracts mosto, the juice that will be fermented. The first distillation yields ordinario. The second, tequila.

In all, we toured three distilleries and I probably had a couple hundred dollars worth of fine aged tequilas, including an extro añejo aged nine years retailing for $230 a bottle and a three, four, and five year blend retailing at $500. A passionate young representative at Don Fulano opened a rare master blend for us to try, his uncle's swan song as he put it, as it was the last blend his uncle made before passing.

The Sauza name was sold decades ago when the owner thought the business wouldn't remain family run. The Sauzas retained a 30% share, but the company was run at a loss to dilute those shares. Now Guillermo and his son Billy are underdogs in a town their family helped build. Ceurvo wants to turn the place into something of a tequila themed amusement park, and they drew a mockup of the town with a big tequila train running right through the Sauza family's property.

Fortaleza Distillery

Walking through agave fields framed by other natural growth was oddly soothing. The topography wasn't at all unlike that where I grew up in Southern California, just being perhaps an amplified version of it. The agave, cactus, tamarind trees, and all kinds of goofy looking plants I couldn't name, contorting themselves into clever shapes to survive in such an arid environment, had me feel like I was walking the the landscape of a Dr. Seuss book. By sunset, the clouds were deeply stained in pink and the blue in the agave glowed all the bluer.

This night's party was to be a the Fortaleza distillery and in its adjacent hill set cave, developed to accommodate aging barrels and guests with a dimly lit bar in the back. Locals were catering and I had the best churros I've tasted in all my life. I stole away from the party with two others for a moment to climb a hillside agave field and lay out on stones beside the hill path. Above us were stars I hadn't seen in too long – the stars behind the stars – and fruit bats whizzing about, their nights having just begun.

I rejoined the fray in the cave and took some reposado. And then some more. An Englishman borrowed a local's guitar and delivered a gorgeous set of American southwestern style folk music with a voice scratched with tin and cactus needles (why are the English so good at American music?). Shots were being lapped up from thighs under raised skirts. Shouts and embraces of drunken camaraderie were in every corner, culminating into proud and bellowing renditions of Mexican anthems. It was my fantasy of what a wild night in Mexico should be.

For people who make liquor their living, a surprisingly large number of us didn't seem to know how to pace themselves or eventually maintain even a modicum of composure. Back at the hotel, a girl in the group stormed up to our floor with a man I hadn't seen before – both of them half naked – and inquired, “have any of you seen my boyfriend?” Glass was broken. Fights were narrowly avoided. Moans emanated from behind the banyos. Lips locked that would never be recalled. It was great.

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