Whack. Clink. Whack-thud. Clink. Whack. Thump-thump. Clink. Ching. Whack-whack.
After riding for a couple of miles in the back of a rickety old pickup truck to a field of blue agave in the heart of Mexico, I'm standing in the hot, swirling dust and listening to the sounds of a coa as a jimador jabs it again and again into waist-high agave plant.
The jimador, probably the closest translation is farmhand or harvester, is fast and efficient as the coa — a long-handled ax-like tool as sharp as a lion's claws — neatly slashes away at the agave until he gets to the heart of the plant.
From the edge of the field — this particular plantation belongs to Herradura Tequila — as far as I could see, the landscape was completely stippled with endless acres of blue agave, adding a colorful, spiky dimension to the landscape in the mountainous shadows of the Sierra Madre Occidental in Jalisco State near Guadalajara. The elevation is high here, and the air is crisp and clean underneath a brilliant blue sky.
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A few cows wander the agave fields, munching on weeds. "They're mowing the lawn," laughs Ruben Aceves, Herradura's global brand ambassador, as he points to the bovines before explaining, "Everything on the agave grows above the ground. We don't have to water the plants, as they get it from the rain that falls from June until September."
With complete respect and a serious dose of awe, I walk up to a handsome jimador and ask, "May I touch your arm?"
He laughs and nods quietly, "Si. Yes."
There may be a few things more solid than a jimador's arm muscles — a brick wall, perhaps, or a slab of granite — but not many. Pure physical strength is required to completely harvest the heart of the agave, which can weigh in at more than a hundred pounds.
Until that day, all I knew about tequila was that it tasted mighty good in margarita, the No. 1 selling cocktail in the world.
But I would learn that the journey from the agave field to the cocktail glass is slow but steeped in tradition. Much like cognac and champagne, tequila has its own protected zone, primarily in Jalisco, but also from the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. Think of it sort of as the Napa Valley for tequila.
And parts of the tequila region are considered significant enough to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Here's where your education begins. There are two types of tequila. One is 100 percent blue agave, and the other is mixto, which contains a minimum of 51 percent blue agave and 49 percent from others sugars. And for those who think otherwise, blue agave is not a cactus, but a member of the lily family.
"All tequila comes from blue agave," explain Aceves. "And the agave is all about sugar content and how it reaches its peak from planting in about seven years."
After harvesting, the hearts — or the pinas — are then brought in from the fields and steamed or roasted in huge ovens before they're crushed to extract the agave juice, leaving the air around the distillery heavy with melodious scents of honey and brown sugar.
Fermentation is next, where yeast is sometimes added. Herradura, like most producers of fine tequila, uses only natural yeast. The juice spends between four and seven days in the fermentation tanks before it is slowly distilled. Aceves explains that Herradura's tequila is twice distilled, leaving it, in his words, "so pure and so clean." And, he adds, "You don't get a hangover from fine tequila."
From there, depending upon the tequila industry's 152 producers, it is either bottled straightaway or placed in oak barrels from Kentucky, France and even Hungary for aging to bring out distinct characteristics of flavoring and coloring.
Tequila is generally placed in five categories: blanco, which is white or silver and typically unaged; a gold that is not aged but has added color and flavor such as caramel; reposado, a "rested" gold tequila aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two months and less than 12; the copper-colored anejo, one that is aged for at least a year but less than three; and extra anejo that is aged a minimum of three years for deeper hues and richer taste.
After aging, the tequila is bottled, and then shipped to distributors and retailers. From there, it becomes a margarita or tequila sunrise or whatever concoction your favorite mixologist can create.
Whether you're headed to Guadalajara for business, nearby Puerto Vallarta for pleasure, or to Jalisco just to learn more about this mysterious spirit that is found no place else on earth except in the heart of Mexico, visit and explore any of these well-known tequila distillers:
—Herradura, which means "horseshoe" in Spanish, was founded in 1870 in Amatitan. Casa Herradura's Hacienda San Jose del Refugio is open to the general public with daily distillery tours and tastings. The exceptionally well-preserved original factory museum is a favorite tourist destination in the area. Visit www.Herradura.com
—Jose Cuervo is like the Disneyland of tequila. Their La Rojena Distillery offers tours and tastings every day of the year except Christmas. Cuervo, truly a class act despite its fun, circus-like atmosphere, is probably the most well-known brand of tequila, dating 250 years and 10 generations of the same family. Cuervo has been around for longer than Mexico has been a country. Visit www.Cuervo.com.
—Other smaller craft distilleries in Jalisco are open for tours by appointment only and are worth comparing and contrasting with Herradura and Cuervo. Try Pernod Ricard's tour of Casa Pedro Domecq, home to Olmeca Altos Tequila and Agavia (www.domecq.com.mx) in the town of Arandas. Another is Bacardi's Tequila Cazadores and Corzo (www.cazadores.com), also in Arandas. Visit Destileria La Perseverancia, home to Tequila Sauza (www.SauzaTequila.com) in the town of Tequila, or Tequila Don Julio Distillery (www.DonJulio.com) in the town of Atotonilco to learn old-school traditions. Included in the tequila highlands is the palatial palace of Hacienda Patron (www.PatronSpirits.com), a beautiful distillery rising like a scepter against the backdrop of the agave fields.
If you travel to Guadalajara, a city of 6 million people, and Jalisco State, just know that it's all considered tourist-friendly. "This is a very nice, very clean, very safe city with fantastic weather," says Cuervo's Alejandro Lopez, citing that National Geographic named the area's weather the finest in the world second only to Kenya. "And best of all, we're very friendly."
IF YOU GO
Guadalajara is a safe, bustling city with tree- and flower-lined streets. An excellent central hotel from which to explore the tequila-producing Jalisco State is the Hotel Quinta Real Guadalajara (www.QuintaReal.com) in Guadalajara. Another is the NH Hotel (www.NH-Hotels.com). For additional information, visit www.Tequileros.org, www.whs.UNESCO.org, or www.VisitMexico.com.