We got rained out of a private Day of the Dead concert that was going to be the subject of this week’s LA LA Land, so I am writing a review of a tequila tour we took earlier that day with my wife and two friends from Atlanta. “Tequila Tour” to most visitors to Mexico means a bus or a train full of happy, chattering tourists to the town of Tequila.
Once there you shoot a picture of the tequila harvester statue by the tourist bus stop and then you are driven into town where you are herded through a small part of a large distiller like Herradura or Sauza. You actually don’t do a lot of touring, mostly short walks and gawks You may have an opportunity to ask a question or two but the tour is not designed for personal attention because, after all, you are with a group.
The highlight of the tour is usually the tasting room where you get tiny sample cups of the distiller’s brands, often from very entertaining bartenders who will give you some of the finer points of each type of tequila you are sampling. You then spend a couple of hours strolling through the tourist center of the town of Tequila, maybe having lunch at one of the large restaurants, and browsing the stores. You might walk through the Tequila Museum across the street from the Cuervo distillery. By the time most people get back on the bus or train for the hour and a half ride back to Guadalajara or Chapala or where ever they started, they are very happy, slightly poorer and somewhat more acquainted with the national drink of Mexico.
We had the chance to experience another way of understanding tequila and meeting the people who make it. We took a personal tour to La Alborada, one of the smaller distillers who produce a very limited amount of the most premium quality tequila. These are brands that have been in a family for generations and that never comprise quality for quantity. Their tequilas are not usually available outside of Tequila or known to people who are not mavens of Tequila Matchmaker.com.
Our tour to the La Alborada distillery in Tequila, run by Magnificent Tours of Chapala was led by the founder of the touring company, Juan Pablo Chavez (JP), who has conducted tours worldwide. Before offering Tequila tours several years ago, he researched over 50 distilleries to determine which ones he wanted to bring people to; he chose three, one of which was the La Alborada distillery. He built a relationship with the family and worked out times and procedures to bring groups of 2 to 4 people to meet with the owner’s son at the agave fields and then to the distillery and tasting room.
The tour he developed and conducted Tuesday for us began in Ajijic at 9:30 am and went by private car directly to the La Alborada agave field, after stops for photographs along the way. We were met by Juan Antonio Alvarez Rodriquez, son of the owner, who took us into his family’s agave fields. He explained how each agave was planted and cared for, showing the roots and shoots of young plants. He explained the crop rotation system and the vegetables planted in the empty rows, and how plant material was composted in the tank at the edge of the field to create an organic pesticide that repelled the horned beetles can destroy an agave field. Antonio showed us how the agave is harvested and he lifted up the end product – the “pineapple” root ball of the agave that is left when the leaves are trimmed off.
Antonio spent about an hour in the field with us and then we went into the town of Tequila to the family’s small distillery where we were joined by another small private tour group. Antonio guided us on a detailed, stop-by-stop exploration of the distillation process, from the machine that processed the “pineapples”, to the tanks containing fermenting liquids, to the aging barrels to the finishing barrels in the Cave. Antonio let everyone sniff the fermenting liquids and at one point put drops in our hands so we could smell the agave flavors emerging.
After photos, selfies with Antonio and various pieces of equipment, we walked across a small courtyard to the tasting room. Antonio and the other tour operator chose me to work behind the bar with them, pouring and serving very generous samples of blanco, reposado, and anejo along with various flavored tequila syrups over ice. Glasses were raised between rounds in toasts to tequila, to Antonio, and to the guest bartender, and requests for seconds were happily honored.
Lunch followed at the Cholula restaurant (a famous hot sauce made in Chapala) serenaded by a mariachi, and then an hour to explore the plaza, the gift shops and vendors, and the church. Before we left Tequila, JP took the group into the Tequila Mayor’s office to interpret the elaborate mural in the courtyard that depicts the history of Tequila. The ride back to Lakeside included a stop in Chapala where JP distributed small bottles of his own branded tequila.
The concert would have been fun to complete, but we had to leave in the middle of a tropical storm that dropped over an inch of rain in a half-hour, so when we finally got home and threw our soaked clothes in the dryer and calmed down the dog freaked out by the sheets of lightning, I stayed inside and sipped, what else, tequila.
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