Tequila sunrise - with a twist

Tequila sunrise - with a twist

TEQUILA, MEXICO — The two-hour train ride from Guadalajara to the rare blue agave fields of this, the birthplace of Mexico’s favoured alcoholic drink, is the start of an extraordinary journey.
 In the last decade, Tequila, the town, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and christened “Pueblo Magico”  (Magical Town), by the Mexican Government.
On board the vintage-styled Jose Cuervo Express, attendants welcome passengers with traditional antojitos (snacks) and tastings of tequila, the spirit which is made from the blue agave plant that flourishes in this area’s volcanic soil, which is rich with silica,  potassium and obsidian lava rock.  Only tequila made in Tequila can be called tequila.  
The train snakes through Mexico’s central countryside and as we climb in elevation, fields of spiky blue agaves appear outside my carriage window.  In the distance, the Volcan de Tequila  (Tequila volcano) hovers 2,920 metres above sea level.   
Legend has it that the liquid was first discovered when the Aztec goddess Mayahuel zapped earth with a lightning bolt and an agave caught fire.  The aroma coming from the burning plant lured inhabitants to taste the sweet syrup.  The result?  Very happy villagers.  

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Above: The train ride to Tequila reveals the vast fields of agave from which the drink is made.


Fast forward to 1758. King Ferdinand of Spain issued a land grant to Don Jose Antonio de Cuervo to cultivate the blue agaves.  Almost 40 years later, Spanish King Carlos IV gave permission to Cuervo’s son to commercially produce tequila and the start of Mexico’s tequila industry commenced.
Our tickets include visits to the agave fields and La Rojena Distillery, the oldest in Latin America, which was founded and is still operated by the 11th generation of the Cuervo family.  But until we reach Tequila station, we’re happily held captive on the train while learning all things tequila, with delicious samplings of the potent liquid under the tutelage of a master tequilier (tequila sommelier).  
Colour is everything, we learn:  Blanco (white) tequila is clear right after fermentation; plata (silver) is aged but becomes clear after long periods in the barrels;  oro (gold) tequilas include three varieties aged in oak barrels;  reposado is a light hue of amber aged two to 12 months; anejo is a deeper gold aged one to three years; extra anejo, aged over three years, is the darkest gold and richest in taste.
The best takeaway from our tequila tell-all?  Mastering the art of enjoying the fine spirit – and avoiding “the burn.”  
Holding a stemmed Riedel tequila glass, I repeat the mantra “inhale, sip, swallow, exhale.”  For the first time, I don’t grimace, but savour the delicious, lingering flavours.
Goddess Mayahuel must be the happiest deity in the heavens.
 When the express (it only runs on Saturdays) finally pulls into Tequila station, passengers decked out with Fedoras and Panama hats and wearing western boots are greeted by mariachis playing lively tunes.

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Above: Farmer Ismael Gama is the chief spokesman for Tequila and shows how plant is harvested.


“Most people come to Tequila for the day, but many stay overnight to visit the agave fields,” says Genoveva Garcia, marketing director of Mundo Cuervo, the tourism arm of the Jose Cuervo organization.

 

A short taxi ride from the station is Villa Tequila, a former hacienda and retreat for wealthy Mexican families that now serves as an upscale hotel. It welcomes Saturday train visitors with a spectacular buffet spread featuring lots of regional Mexican specialties.
The unique once-a-week train brings life to Tequila’s otherwise sleepy existence, which is increasingly luring urbanites from Mexico’s major cities.
Before sunset, I walk the colonial town square and church of Santiago Apostol immediately across the threshold of my hotel, the 17th century-styled Solar de las Animas, which is built on the former loading zone of the historic distillery.
A colourful marketplace filled with happy people taking group photos and selfies next to Tequila’s city sign inspires me to adjust my Panama hat and join the fun.  
Come morning, the rising sun, views of the dormant volcano and the lull of church bells make it hard to leave our tranquil quarters to meet our guide Alfredo Quezada for the drive to the agave fields.

 

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Above: Tequila sits in the shadow of an active volcano. The town is also famous for its culinary delights.


Indeed, it’s a crowning moment stepping into the sea of the rare agaves where long-time jimador (farmer) Ismael Gama demonstrates the harvesting of the succulent, cousin to the aloe vera plant.  With intense precision, he makes the dangerous job look easy as he whacks away each thick leaf with the hefty coa to reach the round heart of the agave.  One wrong swing and a foot could go the way of the leaves on the ground.
Gama (he’s featured in many tequila documentaries) explains that the blue agave is rich in fiber, its high fructose miel (honey) is a substitute for refined sugar, and that skin cream made from the honey provides great hydration.  
On the picturesque grounds of La Rojena Distillery and the original residence of the Cuervo family, the story of tequila comes together.  Agave hearts are steamed in huge ovens.  The fleshy cores are then crushed to squeeze out the sweet juices.  And during fermentation, distillation and aging, the artistry happens, which we discover when Quezada leads fun and enlightening sessions in tequila blending and tasting.
Tequila production here has catapulted the spirit into one of Mexico’s top agricultural industries.  But there’s more.  The chef at Solar de las Animas showcases the agave heart’s culinary prowess with our dinner’s first course:  Like Italian-style cannelloni, thin slices of the heart wrap around requeson, Tequila’s regional cheese, with drizzles of reduction of blue agave honey finishing the composition.  
The verdict? Very happy guests.

JUST THE FACTS

• Learn more about Tequila, including its equine history at the new Juan Beckman Gallardo Cultural Center, at http://www.mundocuervo.com

• My overnight accommodation:  Solar de las Animas, one of Mexico’s three Relais & Chateaux properties; http://www.solardelasanimas.com

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