Let’s be honest. Do any of us Brits actually like Tequila? When "that" person orders a round of shots, complete with salt and lime, no one ever looks too pleased about the situation. Yet, there is something very amusing about drinking some cheap liquor out of a plastic thimble, only to watch just how disgusted everyone is moments later. On my first night in Mexico, I was poured a tequila and told to sip it slowly. To my surprise, the first taste did not provoke the customary averse response. Smooth, crisp, and fragrant, I had wrongly written off a whole spirit, on the basis of a cheap version. So when an opportunity arose to work at the Partida distillery in the town of Tequila, I thought it was about time I discovered the real deal.
Once upon a time in Aztec Mexico, a young woman was walking among the fields when she saw an agave (similar to, but technically not, a cactus) that had been struck by lightning. A small bird had perched on the agave and was drinking the nectar. Moments later the bird started to behave very strangely. To satisfy her curiosity the woman tried the liquid and ran back to the village to share her discovery.
This is one of many stories that speculate how the Aztecs discovered that cooking and fermenting agave juices created a drink that could "aid spiritual communication with the gods." However, this liquid, known as pulque, was only a similar strength to beer. Centuries later when the Spanish invaded in 1518, they brought with them their brandy distilling abilities and soon discovered that, when distilled, pulque made a pretty damn good tipple.
And so tequila was born.
Today, two aspects separate tequila from other spirits. Firstly only the blue agave is used in production, and secondly, with a few exceptions, tequila must be produced and bottled in the state of Jalisco. Other cactus/agave-based spirits exist but are not tequilas (such as mezcal —another favorite Mexican hangover tool). Due to the excellent volcanic soil, two main areas grow blue agave — the highlands of Los Altos and Tequila. I spent my time in latter with Jose Valdez, Maestro Tequilero of Partida Tequila located in the town of Tequila.
My time began in the fields with the agave farmers known as jimadors. The jimadors carefully select the ripe agave (the best sugars are in seven- to 10-year-old plants) and remove the spikes with a coa de jima, a flat-bladed knife on a long pole.
The jimadors are real characters. I harvested along Enrique, who at 61, told me he had been working (and drinking) for 50 years. Harvesting is back-breaking work and I was curious how at 61, Enrique was still chopping away like a young chap. "Alex, when I get drunk I can work for a week nonstop!" I was lucky, during my time on the farm it was cloudy and a reasonable temperature. On a hot day, Enrique tells me they can get through 25 liters of water a day (and I suspect a few tequilas as well)!
Photo Credit: The Foodish Boy