By Brian Armstead
Prior to Pursuitist’s excursion to Guadalajara and Tequila, Mexico, I only thought Agave plants were used to distill my favorite liquor, tequila.
So when legendary Tequila maker Jose Cuervo invited Pursuitist to travel to Mexico to explore the brand, the culture of Mexico, and examine the impact the agave plant has had on Mexican history and lives of the people who are involved in its production, we were all in.
First, a brief history of the agave plant:
For hundreds of years, ancient Aztec tribes used the strong fibrous tissue in Agave leaves to make ropes, brushes, sandals, nets, sleeping mats, and other items. In many species of the plant, the leaves can be roasted and eaten. They are quite tasty!
And as we learned later in our trip, the sap of roasted or pressure-cooked agave hearts (piñas) can be fermented and distilled, with different species of the Agave plant being used to make different types of mezcal liquor, with blue agave being the only species used for premium tequila.
Let’s also look at a brief history of our host, Jose Cuervo:
Jose Cuervo is the world’s oldest tequila brand and has been making the spirit for over 250 years with the same experience, craftsmanship and recipes that have been handed down through generations. Still family owned, the brand first started production in 1758 and has been made in central Mexico ever since. Today, the Jose Cuervo collection of brands are the #1 selling tequilas in the world.
By 1880, the Cuervo family had begun individually bottling tequila for commercial distribution. Cuervo was the first distiller to bottle tequila, at a time when other distillers were still using barrels. Tequila was known as “mezcal de tequila” until 1893, when tequila makers and the Mexican government dropped “mezcal” from the name.
Tequila first made significant inroads into the United States during the Prohibition era, when it was smuggled from Mexico into southwestern US states. Tequila made further advances in the US during World War II, when many US distilleries switched to war-related production and there were restrictions on European liquor imports. Then, in the 1980s, more American tourists began visiting Mexico, discovering tequila. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the US demand for tequila has risen over the years, with the fastest-growing segment being premium blue agave spirits, which is where Jose Cuervo’s loyal consumers enjoy the wide range of their blue agave offerings.
Take for example by Jose Cuervo’s Tradicional. It’s the original tequila recipe by Jose Cuervo and is best known as the first spirit distilled from 100% blue agave. The journey of Tradicional begins in the agave fields at the base of the Volcán de Tequila. After seven years of maturation, the agave plants are harvested in small batches and their piñas are sent to the La Rojeña distillery located in Tequila, Mexico. There, the piñas they are roasted, ground and smashed. The resulting extract is placed into fermentation tanks. Finally, it is distilled and aged in toasted oak barrels.
Our trip started in Guadalajara, Mexico, a brief plane ride from Dallas, Texas. Guadalajara is the capital Jalisco state and is part of the Mesa del Central, a high plateau that crosses the States of Jalisco, Durango and Zacatecas. Founded in 1531, today Guadalajara is an international center of business, finance, arts and culture. The city is home to numerous landmarks, including Guadalajara Cathedral, the Teatro Degollado, the Templo Expiatorio and the Saun Jan de Dios Market — the largest indoor market in Latin America.
Guadalajara is also an important cultural center in Mexico and is home to many Mexican cultural traditions including mariachi, tequila and birria (traditional Mexican soup).
While there, we stayed at the luxe Casa Habita hotel, located in Lafayette, Guadalajara’s trendiest neighborhood. Lafayette is known for art, design, and culinary delights. Casa Habita amenities include a swimming pool with a pool bar, bikes available for guest use, and an in-house restaurant and spa.
After time to relax by the pool, we were off to dinner at Hueso, an award-winning restaurant led by renowned chef Alfonso Cadena.
Hueso is set in a refurbished 1940s building, and its whitewashed walls are lined with a collection of over 10,000 animal bones and plant fossils mounted on various layers of wood. The unique aesthetics of the restaurant are not its only draw, the menu is constantly evolving and boasts excellent and innovative dishes, prepared with fresh local ingredients.
There, we met Sonia de la Espínola, Director of the Beckmann Foundation, Mundo Cuervo’s nonprofit arm, to join us at dinner and lead a master Jose Cuervo tequila tasting. Espínola, a master tequila expert, also provided insights into the Cuervo family legacy as well as the brand’s commitment to the land and people of Tequila and Mexico. Mundo Cuervo’s Beckmann Foundation started 15 years ago with a mission to preserve the cultural heritage of the women of Jalisco.
Since only the piña of the agave plant is used to make tequila, the Beckmann Foundation found a way to utilize more of the plant and offer local women more of an opportunity to create and produce items from the plant and get paid for their work.
For example, workshops for aspiring women entrepreneurs teach them how to use agave bagasse (agave fiber) and recycled tequila bottles for artisanal crafts. The workshops have had a major impact on the lives of the women. Says Espínola, “The women don’t only learn how to make the products, but how to sell, incorporate their businesses, create business plans, logos and much more.”
Demonstrating their support for Tequila’s ambitious women, many hotels including Hotel Solar de las Animas, where we later stayed in Tequila city, proudly display agave paper notepads and journals in the bedrooms for guests’ use, a commitment to the local products of the region.
Before dinner, Espínola guided us through a Jose Cuervo tequila tasting, using various spices and fruits between varieties so we could clearly and cleanly the differences between: Traditional Plata, Traditional Reposado, Traditional Añejo and Traditional Cristalino.
About Plata: Tradicional Silver is 100% blue agave silver tequila. When bottled, a special process is used to conserve its flavor and finish at freezing temperatures. This means that it can, and should, be kept chilled in the freezer and served as a crisp, smooth, frozen shot.
About Reposado: Cuervo’s Tradicional Reposado is 100% blue agave rested tequila. It has been aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two months, giving it the smooth and subtle complexity that aficionados seek.
About Añejo: Cuervo’s Tradicional Añejo is aged in charred American oak and then finished in single malt Irish whiskey barrels for a rich, complex flavor and smooth finish.
About Cristalino: Cuervo’s Cristalino is a Reposado dominant tequila that offers smoothness and clear appearance, all while maintaining a rich, layered taste due to the complex aging process. This expression is Cuervo’s latest Tradicional offering.
A superb dinner followed with local pork and fish specialties, and of course, rounds of Jose Cuervo.
Let’s Hit the Rails!
The next morning we convened at the local Guajajara train station for an epic ride on the Jose Cuervo Express. Yes, the Jose Cuervo Express! The train is a local fixture, transporting bands of tourists (and lifestyle writers!) from Guadalajara to Tequila, Mexico, the city where Jose Cuervo is distilled.
The two-hour journey from Guadalajara to Tequila travels through the Rio Grande Canyon, which provides sweeping views of bluish agave fields.
Onboard, we danced to DJ music, ate great food, and of course, there was plenty of Jose Cuervo to go around. What fun! The picturesque landscape was breathtaking, as mountain ranges and lush fields full of Agave plants were omnipresent.
When we arrived in Tequila, we were met by a local Mariachi band. Great music!
Una Lección de un Jimador
We then traveled to one of Jose Cuervo’s agave fields, where we learned how the plant is grown and harvested.
There, we had a Jimador (agave harvester) show how the agave plants are trimmed with machetes for maximum growth and output, and how the base of the plant, called the piña, is harvested using a coa de jima (a sharp-blade instrument with a long wooden handle) and then transported to Jose Cuervo’s La Rojeña distillery in Tequila. I then was able to harvest one, keeping in mind the ultra-sharp blade’s proximity to my toes!
After the Jima demonstration, we traveled to Tequila’s city center, where the town square is encircled by the local church, shops and tequila bars. Party wagons with music blasting and tequila shots for the partygoers are everywhere, and the feeling in the town no matter what time of day or night is one of safety and good vibes.
While in Tequila, we stayed at the Hotel De Las Animas, which is set alongside the church of Santiago Apostol. The hotel is not far from the dormant (last eruption was more than 200,000 years ago) Volcán de Tequila, part of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains and is perfectly located for all attractions and tours in the area, the so-called Pueblo Magico (magical town).
The hotel design is based on a Creole colonial house and is typical of Mexican architecture from the 17th and 18th centuries. There are 93 rooms in the hotel, and the rooftop pool and bar provides breathtaking views of the church and city square, and surrounding volcanic mountains. It’s a five-star property with beautiful rooms, loads of guest amenities, and a very courteous and professional staff.
After exploring our hotel, hora de almorzar! We traveled to the Hacienda El Centanario, a Jose Cuervo-owned property which serves Tequila city and surrounding communities as a first-class event and convention center, boasting over 75,000 square feet of event space distributed within gardens, patios, terraces with fountains, and interior event space. Wedding, meeting, party and convention space is available for groups from 10-1500 people.
Our lunch at Anexo Chucho Reyes on the Hacienda El Centanario property was catered using local ingredients, with traditional Mexican fare and Jose Cuervo margaritas.
Afternoon saw me relaxing at the hotel pool to get ready for the evening’s big event, the Akamba Festival.
Akamba is a two-day festival that celebrates the agave plant and what is has done for Mexico, Jalisco state, the city of Tequila, women, and local residents and businesses. The festival is also a celebration of the music, art and the rich heritage of the region.
The music at the Akamba Festival was great, and highlighted by fire dancers who lit the night sky. As expected, our VIP lounge area offered special cocktails all made with Jose Cuervo. The festival was an all-out party, with the last bands closing at 6 am!
Later that morning, we headed to an unexpectedly touching ceremony, dubbed “The House That Tequila Made.” At the home site, we reunited with Sonia de la Espinola, who showed us one of the many philanthropic activities of Jose Cuervo.
The “House That Tequila Made” is a continuation of Jose Cuervo’s efforts as part of The Agave Project, an initiative started in 2019 to spearhead the company’s commitment to agave and create a circular economy by repurposing materials that result from the tequila production process to ultimately make the process of producing tequila more sustainable.
We visited a near-complete home built by reusing, repurposing and recycling materials and products that come from the tequila production process, including: bottles, agave bagasse and discarded barrels. The house will also repurpose resources from the land of Tequila, including soil, clay and rocks from Tequila’s volcano, including obsidian, a black, glass-like volcanic rock.
We met a couple and their young son who will soon move into the home. The father is a Jimador with Jose Cuervo, and he and his wife both spoke passionately about the impact their first home would have on their lives. Hearing them speak was a touching moment, and reinforces the fact that no matter where you are on earth, most of us share the same dream of living a happy, healthy life while being able to provide for the ones you love. Well done Jose Cuervo!
Wiping away those tears at the home site burned a bunch of calories, so next we headed to Salón Tradicional for lunch at the Hacienda El Centenario.
Our lunch was prepared by women cooks and chef Fabian Delgado. It was a superb meal, again using local ingredients and recipes.
How Jose Cuervo is Distilled
Our post-lunch agenda included a tour of the La Rojeña Distillery, the oldest active distillery in Latin America, where Jose Cuervo is produced. There, we saw small hills of piñas bulbs ready for tequila production and we learned more about Jose Cuervo’s significance in this very important landmark distillery. Our visit to the distillery included a tour of the below ground area where rare, super valuable vintage Jose Cuervo blends are stored. And yes, we got the chance to sample one.
Before dinner, we toured the Juan Beckmann Gallardo Cultural Center. Juan Beckmann Vidal is the principal owner and chairman of Jose Cuervo, and the center that bears his name offers a rich archeological, historical and cultural content related to the history of tequila and Mexico. Thousands of rare finds that define the region are were on display. It’s a “must visit” if you are lucky enough to spend time in the Tequila region.
After a round of Cuervo cocktails at the Hotel Solar de Las Ánimas we headed to the Tienda de Raya, one of the many halls located on the Hacienda el Centenario property.
Tienda de Raya boasts the largest bar counter in Latin America, and the bar’s character is enhanced by a host of local and regional objets d’art and mementos. The historic bars collected together here each preserve their original personality while combining into a unique work of art.
After dinner, we participated in the Akamba Closing Ceremony “Agave Experience & Consciousness.”
The outdoor ceremony on the grounds of the Hacienda el Centenario started with a heart opening cacao agave drink ceremony and meditation guided by The Gipsy Wolf, who performed and shared an instrumental session under a partial lunar eclipse.
The sound journey ended with deep meditation as we laid on our backs on mats made from agave leaves.
The experience was spiritual and cleansing, and we left the ceremony with energy and a new found appreciation for the simpler things in life.
What a journey! Thank you Jose Cuervo for not only educating us about the history and production of a superior spirit, but also in opening our eyes to the lives of those in Mexico who work hard to embrace the positive influence the agave plant has brought to the history and daily experiences of the region.