Road Trip… a family tradition, pile your people into a car or van and go someplace, it’s nice to get to the destination, but the stuff that you experience in between point A and point B is what becomes our story.
Leaving Puerto Vallarta to the north we sorta missed the first turn so we went the long way up the coast to the north, past the mega-resorts, then on to the toll road to the East. They have two roads, the cuota and libre (toll and free), where the cuota road has limited access, better road surface and higher speed limits, the libre has all the little towns, roadside shops and the occasional smooth road. (It was good that we had our Spanish/English dictionary with us to figure out what “cuota” meant.)
Our vehicle for this journey is the cheapest thing rolling, a plain white chevy sedan tonka toy version with maybe a 3 cylinder motor, not much power but a lot of heart.
One the highlights for this part of Mexico is the fact that tequila is made here. Not unlike our own Northern California wine country, the landscape is covered in Aguave plants. These plants are like overgrown pineapples, really pretty similar in the way the fruit looks and grows underground, but the part you see above ground looks more like aloe vera plants. They are a colorful contrast to the surrounding flora because of their blue-green color.
We got off the highway in the town of Tequila (Who among you wouldn’t?) and took a short drive through the narrow streets looking for a suitable hotel. Both of us liked the vibe here and found a clean $30 room. I should add a note here that driving around the town, looking for a hotel was almost a painful experience in our little boo-boo car whose suspension was no match for the rough streets made of stones which could be characterized as small bolders. After subjecting our kidneys to a jaring ride, we returned to the hotel, leaving the car to what was left of its springs and suspension. From there, we walked the town, had some food and stumbled on to the Jose Cuervo distillery. Really, we didn’t know it was there, at the corner of Jose Cuervo and Corona Streets.
After looking at the displays we signed up for a tour the next day, fully in spanish, but would take us through the whole process including harvesting the plants.
Tequila, like each of the little towns we visited so far, has a town square with a gazebo at its center (no doubt where speeches are delivered) and an overwhelming Catholic Church constructed over the last 200 years, mostly from local rock, the focal point of the town square. The interiors of these Churches are really quite spectactular given the humble surroundings. You can sit on the square in front of the church sipping on a latte and watch the local people cross themselves when simply crossing in front of the church doors.
Gayle loves to go inside and sit in the church. There are fantastic chandeliers and paintings on the ceilings. The ceilings are no match for the Sistene Chapel but still very ornate and enlaid with gold. The sancuary is HUGE, very long and wide. And did I mention creepy? Massive crosses with Jesus depicted as cruicified, bloody, nailed to the cross, more blood, adorned with a thorny halo and bloody, that line both sides of the sanctuary. There are severe plaques of dark wood with the roman numeral 1 through 13 (at least that’s all I could count without getting more stares) that the people would follow and say a prayer at each. Two coffins placed on each side of the isle were lit with manequins of Jesus in each. Women would hold on to them and pray and cry. In one of them Jesus was wearing tidy whities for underpants. I don’t mean to offend you if you’re Catholic, but that was just weird. Ok. Back to the story.
There is a food mercado (court) nearby where a bunch of vendors share interior space, with tables in the middle kind of like at the mall, but without any health inspectors. Makes you wonder where health inspectors go on vacation, certainly not here. Click here for a link to the pictures of the food mercado. Mere words are inadequate to describe the site and smells.
One of our meals there came from a cart. Visualize a big round steel sombrero, a hump in the middle, trough all around and raised edges to a vertical lip. The middle part is sitting over a propane flame and is kept hot. They cook the meat (pork, beef and goat) and pile the cooked meat up the sides around the edges (like a wok) to stay warm. When you order your tacos, pointing at whichever meat you want, they grab a corn tortilla (bare handed, no gloves, no soap and water in sight), drag it through some of the meat drippings in the low part of the cooker and heat the tortillaon the hump in the middle. Then they put the tortilla on a plate, heap the meat of your choice in place and hand it to you. There are tubs of pico, jalapenos, grilled onions, fresh onions and tomatos and a salsa or two for you to liven up your taco. We had two each of these little gems for a total of 20 pesos (think 2 bucks). No drinks, somebody else does that, no cheese, no sour cream, no tofu, no kidding the finest taco you’ve ever met.
We met the next morning at 11:00 at the Jose Cuervo visitor building. This is the town’s livelyhood, the Cuervo facility is huge (as big as the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, CA), very functional (like a big winery) and spotless. The visitor areas have wonderful art, statues and elegance. There are different gardens that adorn the facility and each garden has a unique style and statuary to enjoy. For you Jose Cuervo fans, have you noticed that there is a black crow as part of the label? That crow is live and huge. It must be the size of 2 year old and lives in a cage that could store all of Esmirelda Marcos’s shoes. Very grim reaper-ish when it stares at you. Especially if you’re about to have another birthday, putting you one step closer to 60! Ahh, but I digress.
The tour starts by taking us to the fields where a demonstration is put on by a guy who carries 2 machetes, a flat bladed hoe, a pry bar and some knives. Everything is super sharp as he trims off the thick cactus like leaves and roots from the Aguave plants effortlessly, trimming it down to a big pineapple shaped ball. For our benefit, he chops it open and dices up the meat in the middle for us to taste. The stuff is very pulpy, soggy with plant juices, the taste is rather plain and not at all like the Tequila I was expecting.
The plants self-reproduce like bulbs and from each plant they carve off the offspring plant and replant it in the soil next to where they harvested the big Aguave. Very sustainable. Not sure how long it takes to grow to full size, my spanish is too slow, I think it may be 7 years.
We returned to the factory where we got into the innards of the processing. The Aguave is first baked in ovens, and later crushed separating the liquid from the pulp. The pulp is trucked off, some turned into a thick paper product, probably most of it buried. The liquid routed to a rather large set of stills where they actually make the alcoholic beverage.
There were tastings along the way showing off their products and most of it was the very familiar clear and light amber Tequila we’ve dumped into blenders for years. These products are ment for mixing with other things, (good to know as I never really liked the straight Tequila) but some of the product goes into nice barrels just like in Sonoma County wineries.
The surprise for me is the existence of a product that is aged, smooth to the taste and more like a good single malt scotch, high quality bourbon, really good rum, or an aged Cabernet. They have barrel rooms just like the wineries, and smells like brandy fermenting (thanks for that experience, Korbel) in big stone cool caves (cavas) underground.
After tasting as much of the good stuff as you would like, the tour ends with a nice margarita, crackers and cheese in one of their garden areas.
The Jose Cuervo fields, distillery and art museum was the high point of our stay there in Tequila.
Back to the road….