Of all of my travels, Mexico and Oaxaca were my favorite. In May of 2007 My Party Source colleague and friend Jay Erisman and I traveled to Mexico to learn about Tequila and Mezcal. As we flew to Guadalajara I leaned over to Jay and said ” this may be one of the best cultural experiences of our lives!” Well, it was… Jay and I visited La Alteña and Herradura Tequila Distilleries near Guadalajara and Various Mezcal palenques in the Southern state of Oaxaca. Jay and I not only got to try the best Tequilas and Mezcals in the world but we also had some of the best meals of our lives. I’m Writing this almost six years after the trip so my recollection of chronology may be a bit fuzzy but it all seems to be coming back to me. I would also like to thank The Party Source for all the wonderful opportunities and education.
Jay and I arrived in Guadalajara mid afternoon and were quite hungry. Jay and I share a love many things; one of them being good food. I asked our cab driver in Spanish if he knew of any good restaurants near our hotel. He recommended La Chata a local chain of restaurants. I was skeptical of a chain but Jay and I walked around until we found it. One look and we knew La Chata was going to be dinner. La Chata’s open storefront gave us a view of a large comal (steal cooking bowl) filled with manteca (lard) and a lady making fresh tortillas in a tortilla press. Jay and ordered Chile Rellenos, Pozole, Guacamole, pork with green chili and several others. The food was absolutely wonderful and we finished everything. Jay and I took in some sights and walked around central Guadalajara before retiring for the night. Guadalajara is not a place to be wandering around to late, this is where people get kidnapped and worse. Don’t get cocky while traveling!
Jay and I woke up early to make our way to La Alteña in Arandas 1 1/2 hours to the east and higher elevations. We arrived at La Alteña around mid morning not expecting to see owner and Master Distiller Carlos Camarena but as luck would have it he was there. Carlos gave us guided tour of La Alteña and explained the entire process. Along with the popular Tapatio Tequila, La Alteña is also home to the Ultra Premium El Tesoro and Tequila Ocho. Tapatio Tequila is crafted much differently than El Tesoro and Tequila Ocho, the agave are roasted and the juice is extracted via machine. El tesoro and Tequila Ocho are crafted with much more care. Carlos explained how their agave are harvested only when ripe regardless of size. The agave we saw were already turning brown. Ripe agave have much more residual sugar than unripe mass harvested agave of the more popular brands like Patron or Herradura. More sugar aids in fermentation as their is no need for chemicals like urea to speed up the process. These additives produce a foul or funky smell in the Tequila.
The agave are cut and and the bitter stems are removed from the male agave. La Alteña is one of the few tequila distillers to remove the bitter stems from their agave; one the many things that separates their “Ultra Premium Tequila” from other makers. The ripe agave are roasted in large ovens for 72 hours where their starch is converted into sugar. The roasted agave are now very sweet and sticky, we ate some like candy. Our driver took some home for his family for desert. The agave is then taken to the Tahona where it is mashed. A Tahona is a large pit with a stone wheel pulled by a burro in the old days. The whole agave mash is used in fermentation for El Tesoro and Tequila Ocho; another reason for the big flavor.
The agave mash is fermented for 4-5 days using natural yeast in wooden fermentation tanks. The
fermentation rooms have no windows allowing for more air flow. After fermentation the the juice is distilled twice. The first is a 3600 liter stainless steel still and the second being a 600 liter copper still. These stills are quite small compared to the larger stills we would see at Herradurra. Carlos explained much of the heads and tails of the distillation are used because they contain much of the flavor. The tequila is then either bottled as Plata (un-aged) or placed in used American whiskey barrels. The barrels used at La Alteña have already been used at least 6 times before they get used for Tequila Ocho or El Tesoro. The used barrels are said to effect the tequila with a more subtle touch allowing the tequila to express itself.
The Tequila at La Alteña is some of the best in the world expressing the true agave flavor. By harvesting only ripe agave, using small stills, no chemicals and cutting out the bitter leaves of the male agave; La Alteña strives to maintain the traditional ways of making tequila. The best Tequila!
After our visit to La Alteña we decided to have lunch at Jaime’s restaurant in Arandas. Jaime’s was being touted as one of the best for Carnitas in all of Mexico. When we pulled up we saw a huge “Comal” filled with manteca “Lard” and cooking pork parts and intestines. I knew we were in for quite a treat. Jay and I were about to have one of the best meals of our lives. Jay and I ate as much as we possibly could before driving back to Guadalajara. Jay and rested a bit at the hotel before going back out to sample some local Tequila in Guadalajara.
Our third day started when we were picked up by a representative of Herradura Tequila. The drive northwest from Guadalajara to Amatitán took about an hour. Amititán was in the lowland region for Tequila production and said to exhibit a more herbaceous flavor than the larger sweeter agave of the highlands. Herradura was quite impressive; upon arrival Jay and I were brought to a room with a video projector and tray of soft drinks and cocktail wieners. The video was in my opinion Tequila propaganda for tourists telling the story of Herradura. After the video we were given a quick tour by a company representative that could offer very little insight into the company and production. Jay and I did get some good pictures as we figured out some things on our own.
Herradura also produces the El Jimador brand of which is a very good inexpensive Tequila. The production level at Herradura was massive compared to La Alteña. As Jay and I walked toward the Huge expanse of roasting ovens we noticed mountains of Agave Piña being dropped off by trucks. The Agave were huge but not the brownish color of those from La Alteña.
There were around 24 large stainless steel stills at Herradura to help them keep up with production. The stills were brand new most likely due to the acquisition of Herradura by the Brown Forman company for 776 million in 2006.
Jay and I started back for Guadalajara, Somewhere about half way back we asked our driver to pull over so we could try some Pulque a fermented drink made from the agave. Pulque is sweet and sour with a milky color. The small stand where we stopped was a little sketchy but it’s what we had. The Pulque was good but not my cup of tea; I was glad we tried it though.
Jay and I were traveling to Oaxaca later in the day so we stayed close to the hotel for the remainder of the day. We had a flight connecting in Mexico City on our way to Oaxaca and the second part of our trip… MEZCAL! We would arrive starving in Oaxaca after midnight to a deserted city and nothing open, or was there?
I will be posting the Mezcal and Oaxaca portion of our trip in a few weeks.