11 APR 2011: The blade of the coa used to cut the agave plant is sharp. Very sharp. People who slip up have lost toes to it. Thus I held the coa (a shovel shaped tool with a round cutting blade) gingerly and carefully made a slice or two just for the camera. Then I passed the tool back to el jimador, the skilled worker with the true knowledge of how to harvest agave, a tough desert plant with sword shaped leaves.
Jimadores are the heroes of tequila making.
They determine when the agave plants are ready for harvesting--after 7 to 10 years--and then they slice off the green outer leaves with the coa leaving the large agave piñas. (The piña resembles a pineapple after the leaves have been removed hence the name.) The Jimadores I met were impressive people, proud of their skill and dedicated to their work despite the danger.
I was at San José del Refugio a tequila-producing hacienda that has been making Herradura tequila since 1870. The only 100% hacienda-made tequila in the world, Herradura is located in the town of Amatitán within the state of Jalisco.
In 1974 the Mexican government designated Jalisco and four other Mexican states as the only regions that could produce government certified tequila.
Like the appellations systems found in Europe, this helps establish local quality standards and ensures authenticity of a product. The climate in Jalisco is ideal for Blue Agave cultivation, tequila's primary raw material. (Agave tequilana weber azul is one of over 130 species of agave and the only one authorized for tequila.)
This spiny succulent plant, deified by the Aztecs, is distantly related to the lily and aloe family and takes about nine years to grow to harvest size. The spirit itself got its current name from the town of Tequila, named after the Tequili tribe who first inhabited Jalisco.
The region is at the heart of México’s culture and represents a wonderful fusion of the past and present. Along with distillery tours and tasting, visitors can experience ancient archaeological sites, 300 year-old haciendas and the colonial heritage of Guadalajara, Jalisco’s cosmopolitan capital and México’s second-largest city.
I started my trip in Guadalajara with visits to bars such as the one at the restaurant La Tequila, which offered over 130 different brands ranging in price from two bucks a glass to over forty-five dollars for an ounce of the best.
I discovered that those throat searing tequilas I remembered from college days have been replaced by deluxe brands that are as smooth as a top cognac. All the best were made from 100 per cent blue Weber agave – with no grain spirits or other distillates to stretch the product.
From there I could have taken the Tequila Express, a 90-minute ride from Guadalajara to the agave fields of Jalisco. The historic passenger train travels into the Jaliscan countryside and includes tours of the modern and old factories, tequila tastings and a fiesta featuring local cuisine, Mariachi music, folkloric dancing, singing, charreria (roping) demonstrations and many many toasts which add to the general merriment.
The train makes over 100 visits to Casa Herradura every year, transporting over 45,000 visitors from the bustle of Guadalajara to this magical spot.
As I was with friends who had a car, we drove up, stopping on route to admire the agave fields.
Once at Herradura we did have our own fiesta complete with serenades by Mariachis at the hacienda. That was after a memorable tour where we learned about how the agave is grown, harvested, baked, distilled into tequila and then aged.
Recently the official Tequila Trail was developed, a multi-million dollar sustainable tourism route through the remarkable landscape of agave fields and tequila distilleries. Its inspiration is drawn from the success of renowned wine and spirit routes as Napa Valley in California and the Whisky Trail in Scotland.
Now I and other tequila aficionados have even more compelling reasons to visit Jalisco and surroundings.