After a heavy night of tequila slammers you’d be correct in thinking you’ve imbibed a cocktail of compost and spent fuel isotopes, condensed in a rusty radiator by a moonshiner wearing a floppy sombrero and a sweaty moustache. Though not all tequila is made this way…apparently. In ancient times the Indian tribes of Mexico believed tequila was a gift from the gods. They soon discovered how a few slugs of this sweet juice weeping from the heart of a roasted agave plant not only induced a remarkable personality change, but they were suddenly gifted with an ability to mumble with the gods. Wonderful! It’s always heartening to learn that some things in life never change. Prior to their moment of enlightenment, the Indians only ever used the leaves of the agave for such tasks as roofing their huts, tossing the piña (the heart of the plant) aside. One day, or so the legend goes, as they cowered from a thunderous storm, a lightening bolt burst from the clouds and struck the pile of piñas, setting them alight. From this roasted pulp seeped a goo emitting the most seductive aroma. ‘Uhm, we’ll have some of that,’ the people cried, lapping it up by the handful. They were instantly smitten, calling it the nectar of the gods. And there was even better news to come: left to ferment, the juice became “knock-out” gorgeous. Tequila fortified many an elders gathering, at the end of which the heartfelt declaration, ‘I really, really love you.’, was invariably followed by a collective THUD! Hence the infamous line by the late comedian George Carlin: ONE TEQUILA, TWO TEQUILA, THREE TEQUILA, FLOOR.
The thought of drinking a tequila you might actually appreciate, as opposed to one that just gets the job done, has a definite allure. Would you ever consider passing Reims without dropping in for a glass of champagne? Of course not. It’s time to investigate further and so with some difficulty we extract ourselves from the cake shops of San Miguel de Allende, commencing a circuitous route to the Town of Tequila. Initially our journey takes us north, via Dolores Hidalgo and Guanajuato, and then south, along the north shore of Laguna de Chapala, and then north again (and then a little bit west), into an agricultural heartland, which in mexico often means less of the road signs and more of the potholes. Having been lost and pummelled in equal measure, we alight upon Delia’a RV Park, a wonderfully peaceful place set amid a parkland of lawn and tall trees, which shade us from the heat of the sun. Bonnie the owner is out, though we are welcomed by Thomson, Pepito Wilson, Luna and Chabala, the household dogs, who are most eager to learn where we have come from. There is a profusion of hand-licking, followed by reading the news on our tyres … that is until Thomson considers it an appropriate moment to embellish the tyres with his own version of the “Breaking News”. From Delia’s, or Bonnie’s, we will make our tour of the town of Tequila and its rival Amatitán. This being tequila we’re talking about, we’ve elected to err on the side of caution, picking a single producer, Herradura, as the place to visit. We’re delayed 24 hours whilst a persistent storm causes the lawn of Delia’s RV Park to disappear beneath a layer of ice balls, however the next day dawns blue and sunny. Now, I must admit: I’m not a great fan of tequila. If I’m to wake up feeling like I’ve been bludgeoned by a battalion of cavemen I’d like to be able to say, ‘Gosh, I feel bloody rough today. But didn’t it taste good.’ I could never say that about tequila. But here goes.
The first surprise at Herradura is that the entrance is guarded by a man with a pump-action shotgun and a belt full of cartridges, which I deem a very good sign, because anything that needs protecting with a pump-action shotgun must be good…right? Beyond the guard the cobbled street leads to the office, where we pay our dues and meet Mercedes, our guide. Of course, like all good drinking stories, the Herradura story began with a priest – Padre José Feliciano de la Trinidad Escobado Romo – in the early 1800s. He bought a hacienda, naming it Hacienda del Padre, where he allegedly produced a tolerable vino mezcal. He deeded the business to his godchildren, the three orphaned Zalazar sisters, who in turn managed the property with the aid of Felix Lopez. Sr Lopez took full possession of the property in 1870, registering it as a tequila-producing hacienda and renaming it Hacienda San Jose del Refugio. Mercedes explains how the company was managed by seven generations of the same family. In 2007 the business was sold to the US corporation Brown-Forman. It is an impressive establishment covering several acres and a far cry from my image of how tequila is made. After an hour-long tour comes the moment of truth. For me it’s not until we get to the Añejo that we start moving away from the realms of lighter fuel. The Añejo is starting to get interesting. Which leads us nicely on to their top range Seleccion Suprema, which the company’s own tasting notes describe as .. “a complex balance of cooked agave, rich vanilla, toasted oak and dried fruit”. It is aged 49 months in the barrel and has a 40% alcoholic content. In 2012 it won the San Francisco World Spirits Competition Gold Medal. Uhm! It isn’t half bad, this stuff. I think I might have another.
Without doubt tequila is infused with legend and mystery. Next time you’re wobbling on that bar stool and calling up another slammer, think on this one: the Aztecs believed that when the world began, an evil goddess by the name of Tzintzimitl ruled the sky. She devoured light and forced the natives to make sacrifices in order to illuminate their dim world. Quetzalcoatl, the god of redemption, tired of this and ascended to the sky to rid them of Tzintzimitl. However, when he got there, understandably his head was turned by Mayahuel, who has always been portrayed as the goddess with 400 breasts. Unfortunately, Mayahual was also the grand-daughter of the evil goddess and when Tzintzimitl discovered she’d eloped with Quetzalcoatl she flew into a fury. In order to hide from the evil goddess both Quetzalcoatl and Mayahual escaped to the Land of Anahuac and turned themselves into trees. Every evening, when the wind blew, they could caress each others branches. Eventually Tzintzimitl discovered her treacherous grand-child and tore her into a thousand pieces. Struck with grief, after he’d buried his loved one, Quetzalcoatal sought out the evil goddess and killed her. With the death of the evil goddess light returned to earth but Quetzalcoatl could not be consoled. Each day he wept over the grave of Mayahual. One day, the other gods noticed how a plant grew from Mayahual’s grave and this they nurtured with hallucinogenic properties. When the agave plant matured they drained the juice, serving it to Quetzacoatl as a means of easing his sadness and encouraging many happy visions.