by Robin Esrock
Rows of blue agave plants cover the
highlands, their sharpened spikes piercing the blue sky like mohawks at a
punk-rock show. As his grandfather and father has done before him, Izmael Gama
uses a machete to hack away the leaves, which are so sharp they were once used
as weapons themselves.
Gama is a third-generation jimador,
an agave harvester who works the plantations for Jose Cuervo, the world’s
largest tequila manufacturer. Operating the oldest distillery in the Western Hemisphere, the company has more than 50 million
agave plants in the region. The process of turning this hostile plant into the
world-renowned party-starter is not an easy one.
Izmael hands me his machete and
gives instructions on how to trim, or barber, the agave to its valuable core –
the heavy pine that will be collected and processed at the factory. He is
worried I may accidentally hack my fingers or toes off, or impale myself on an
Beneath a punishing sun, jimadors
cut down up to 400 plants a day, or lightly trim thousands of others. Their
very name has its root in the Spanish word for “moaners,” and I can see why. I
am pierced by needle-like edges, and sprayed with the plant’s rash-inducing
sap. Once the spikes are removed, Izmael picks up a steel coa, a heavy tool
shaped like a pizza-oven spatula, but its edges are sharp enough to split a
skull. Slicing off the remaining spikes, he jams the coa edge into the pine,
which has taken from eight to 12 years to mature, and breaks it free from the
root. I can barely pick it up, sticky as it is with resin and with an average
weight of 40 to 60 kilograms.
Mexico’s national drink has its roots with the Aztecs, who
produced a fermented drink named pulque from the agave plant. When
Spanish conquistadors ran dry of their imported liquor, they adopted this drink
to produce mescal, the name still given to a variety of liquor also produced
from the blue agave. But a drink can be called tequila only if it is produced
in the region of Jalisco, in and around the town of Tequila,
about 60 kilometres from the city of Guadalajara.
Tequila and its surrounding area is
a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protected and promoted by the Mexican government.
The town features an impressive 18th-century stone church, as well as the
National Museum of Tequila. The town is surrounded by blue agave plants and
lined with shacks selling hundreds of brands of tequila produced locally. The
liquor is sold in all manner of packaging, from bottles with award-winning art
to five-litre plastic containers. Other towns, such as El Arenal and
Teuchitlán, are included in a “Tequila
Route” that allows tourists to explore agave
fields, processing facilities and tasting rooms. I headed to Jose Cuervo’s La
Rojena distillery in the town of Tequila,
where the company offers daily factory tours.
Jose Cuervo began production in 1758
and is the oldest distillery in Latin America.
A giant crow greets me outside La Rojena (Jose Cuervo translates as “Joe
Crow”). I am warned that in some parts of the distillery, the air is so thick
with alcohol that flash photography could ignite a fire, and therefore is
In 24 hours, La Rojena produces more
than 65,000 litres of tequila, churning through 350 tons of agave. Men in
overalls heave and hook the heavy pines into stone ovens, where they are
steamed for 24 to 36 hours, depending on the type of tequila. This process
transforms the pale yellowish agave heart into a rich brown fibre, dripping a
sweet, candy-like juice ready to be extracted. A washing and crushing process
presses out the juice into a liquid called aguamiel (honey water),
before it is ready to be distilled and aged in barrels.
I taste examples of different stages
of fermentation, learning how time and the addition of sugar changes the
flavour. Cuervo Gold is a mixto, with 51 per cent of the alcohol coming
from agave, the rest from other sugars. This product is supposed to be used
exclusively for mixed drinks like margaritas, while 100 per cent agave tequila
should always be sipped and enjoyed slowly. Rows of French oak barrels, 10
high, add the only ingredient that mellows the taste: time.
The tour descends into a dark cellar
(or cava) where one can sample the company’s best liquor: Reserva de la
Familia Tequila. Illustrious visitors – such as Bill Clinton and Paris Hilton –
have signed some of the barrels, a good representation of the drink’s wide
We use a ladle, dipped directly into
the wood barrel, to pour the rich elixir into a cognac glass, swirling to
release the complex fragrance. My humble experiences with Mexico’s
national drink relate primarily to late nights in cheap bars, and deep regret
the morning after. Here in the private cellar of tequila’s most famous family,
I realize just how far up the ladder one can climb in appreciation. Instead of
barbed hooks down my throat, I lubricate my taste buds with a tang of sour and
A nasty rash appears on my arm the
next morning, accompanying a nastier well-earned hangover. Raw agave has
properties not unlike poison ivy, which future gringo tourist jimadors
might want to keep in mind before picking up a cone. In the future, it’s best I
stick to drinking the stuff, which like most things, tastes a lot better once
you actually see it being made.
Robin Esrock is the host of the
OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels. His website is