Patrick O’Heffernan. Ajijic (JAL).- “Tequila Tour” to most Lakeside residents means catching a bus at LCS or the statue at Las Flores and joining a dozen or more people on the drive to Tequila, where you walk through part of a large distiller like Herradura or Sauza. You actually don’t do a lot of touring; no exploration of agave fields and no careful description of each step of the process while weaving through tanks and pipes and barrels. You may have an opportunity to ask a question or two but the tour is not designed for personal attention because, after all, you are with a group.
The highlight of the tour is usually the tasting room where you get sample cups of the distiller’s brands, often from very entertaining bartenders who will give you some of the finer points of each type of tequila you are sampling. You then spend an hour strolling through the tourist center of the town of Tequila, maybe having lunch at one of the large restaurants, and browsing the stores. You might go into the church at the smaller plaza or walk through the Tequila Museum across the street from the Cuervo distillery. By the time most people get back on the bus for the hour and half ride back to Lakeside they are very happy, slightly poorer and somewhat more acquainted with the national drink of Mexico.
Another way of understanding tequila and meeting the people who make it is not as well-known, but it offers a totally different experience – personal tours that work with the smaller distillers who produce a very limited amounts of the most premium quality tequila. These are brands that have been in a family for generations and that never comprise quality for quantity. Their tequilas are not usually available outside of Tequila or known to people who are not mavens of Tequila Matchmaker.com.
Some of the small premium distillery families have longstanding relationships with private tour guides who can bring up to four people at a time to the meet with the distillery owner or family members, tour the agave fields, carefully go through the small distillery, tasting the raw and aging tequila liquids at each step, and then retire to the tasting room for almost unlimited rounds of different tequilas, paired with fruit and chocolate.
On such tour, run by Magnificent tours of Chapala, took place this past Tuesday to the La Alborada distillery in Tequila. It was led by the founder of the touring company, Juan Pablo Chavez, who has conducted tours worldwide. Before offering Tequila tours several years ago, he researched over 50 distilleries to determine which ones he wanted to bring people to; he chose three, one of which was the La Alborada distillery. He built a relationship with the family and worked out times and procedures to bring groups of 2 to 4 people to meet with the with owner’s son at the agave fields and then to the distillery and tasting room.
The tour he developed and conducted Tuesday for two Lakeside residents and their two US-based guests began at 9:30 am and went by private car directly to the La Alborada agave field, after stops for photographs along the way. They were met by Juan Antonio Alvarez Rodriquez, son of the owner, who took them into the agave field. He explained how the each agave was planted and cared for, showing the roots and shoots of young plants. He explained the crop rotation system and the vegetables planted in the empty rows, and how plant material was composted in the tanks at the edgeof the field to create an organic pesticide that repelled the horned beetles can destroy an agave field. Antonio showed the group how the agave is harvested and the end product – the ”pineapple” – the root ball of the agave that is left when the leaves are trimmed off.
Antonio spent about an hour in the field with the two couples and then took them into the town of Tequila to the family’s small distillery where they were joined by another private tour group and taken on a detailed, stop by stop exploration of the distillation process, from the machine that crushed the pineapples, to the tanks containing fermenting liquids, to the aging barrels to the finishing barrels in the Cave. Antonio let everyone smell the fermenting liquids and at one point put drops in peoples hands so they could smell the agave flavors emerging.
After photos, selfies with Antonio and various pieces of equipment, the group walked across a small courtyard to the tasting room. Antonio and the other tour operator chose one of the tour group to work behind the bar with them, pouring and serving virtually unlimited samples of blanco, reposado, and anejo along with various flavored tequila syrups over ice. Glasses were raised between rounds in toasts to tequila, to Antonio, to the guest bartender.
Lunch followed at the Chulala restaurant, serenaded b y marachis, and an hour to explore the plaza, the gift shops and vendors, and the church. Before they left Tequila, JP took the group into the Tequila Mayor’s office to interpret the elaborate mural in the courtyard that depicts the history of Tequila. The ride back to Lakeside included a stop in Chapala where JP distributed small bottles of his own branded tequila.
There are a number of private tour operators who will assemble a custom tour for a small groups, and some of the family-owned premium distillers have relationships with more than one operator. The personal tours are more pricy than the large bus or van tours (but not the train), but guests report they are well worth it both in entertainment and in a deeper understanding of Mexico’s national drink.
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