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How the Jalisco Highlands Are Reshaping Tequila’s Reputation

Natalie B. Compton

Terroir is just as important to tequila as it is to wine, and agave that grows at a high elevation produces a smoother tequila with more tropical flavors.

It's sunrise in tequila country and I can hear church bells ringing in the distance. It's a provincial touch to an otherwise sprawling urban setting—Guadalajara is a city of 6 million people, after all. An hour later, I'm in a van on my way out of town to see what's happening in the highlands of Jalisco.

Tequila can legally come from a number of different places. Its denomination of origin includes five Mexican states including Jalisco, where the alcohol's namesake town is located. Agave harvested for tequila is usually from Jalisco's lowlands (el valle), highlands (los altos), or a combination of both.

As the long overdue respect for tequila continues to swell, agave origin is becoming more and more important for spirits consumers.

Sunrise in Guadalajara. All photos by the author.

"The exploration of origin, be it lowland or highland, is something we will almost certainly see more of in the coming years," said Nick King of Wine & Spirits and Sake Qualifications (WSET), a spirits education organization.

Origin matters because terroir is a major player in tequila's flavor, just like it is for wine. "The different soils and climate in the highlands areas, as opposed to the lowland areas, result in different growing conditions and the agave can create different characteristics," King said.

Recently in Los Angeles, Verlaine beverage director Aaron Melendrez had told me something along those same lines.

"The way I tell my bartenders to do this is when we're going to bring someone into the world of tequila, I always think it's best to start with highland-style tequilas," Melendrez said.

"Now, why? Because the agaves grow at a higher elevation. Naturally, when things grow at a higher elevation, they're going to receive more sunlight; with more sunlight there's going to be more residual sugars and more viscosity and more body weight to the agaves."

The road to Los Altos.

Agave of Los Altos.

Highland agaves lead to smoother tequila with more tropical flavors and fruit essence, Melendrez explained.

Back in the van, the flat landscape around Guadalajara began to ascend into dry hills as we made our way to los altos. Up here in the higher elevation, you'll find plenty of key industry players like Siete Leguas, Patrón, Tequila Ocho, and Cazadores.

The van pulls up to the latter distillery in Arandas. There's plenty of construction around the House of Cazadores, but it's still a pretty rustic scene. The community is building paved roads into the bright red soil.

Cazadores was founded in the 1970s by Felix Bañuelos, who used his grandfather's tequila recipe that dates back to 1922. Bañuelos put a stag on the logo to symbolize the deer that used to run through the agave fields.

Juan Ruelas, Jr. harvests agave for Cazadores at a farm near Arandas.

A jimador harvests the agave heart, or piña, in los altos.

Years ago, I bought my brother some Cazadores for his birthday because it looked cool and I could afford it. Now I'm walking through the distillery while classical music booms around the tanks of fermenting agave juices.

Master tequilier Tania Oseguera explained that the brand's master distiller swears by the technique. Music allegedly soothes the yeast and yields better-tasting tequila. Cazadores isn't alone in this belief. There seems to be a larger trend in the beverage industry of serenading yeast with everything from Wu-Tang Clan to Bowie to Lou Reed.

After a tour of the distillery and a nearby agave farm, we break for lunch at the legendary Carnitas Jaimes. Fun fact: Tequila goes pretty damn well with the beautifully caramelized local delicacy.

"It's like a big family here," Cazadores' master distiller Jesus Susunaga said of Arandas. The Veracruz native has been in the tequila game for about a decade, and noticed a shift in the public's tequila preferences.

"Tequila is a pride of Mexico, it's a piece of identity for the Mexican people," he said. "We are trying to go back to the beginning. We are trying to do more traditional tequilas. That is one of the innovation things we are doing right now. For me, we are working on special editions that go back to the roots and I think people like that more."

Tequila in the making at the Cazadores distillery.

Cazadores' master distiller Jesus Susunaga.

That's a challenge for a company as big as Cazadores. While trying to hold on to tradition, they've also worked hard to be more high tech.

Like most brands their size, Cazadores uses roller shredding mills and autoclaves to process and cook agave faster than old-fashioned tahonas (large stones pulled by horses) and brick ovens. They've eliminated a lot of the dangerous manual labor, like using machetes at the distillery, which cuts down on employee injuries.

"We need to increase the production, yes, but maintain the tradition," Susunaga said. "As you see during the tour we have a lot of industrialization processes but you can do it. If you have the heart and the passion to do it, you can do it."

Part of why they want to increase production is to meet the increase in demand. According to the The Distilled Spirits Council of the US, tequila volumes have grown 121 percent since 2002. High-end brands alone have grown 292 percent. At the heart of that growth is the ultra-premium powerhouse Patrón.

Blue Weber Agave growing at Hacienda Patrón.

Love or hate the brand's marketing, it's safe to say that Patrón has helped transform the tequila industry. It took the concept of high-quality tequila across the globe, changing the perception of the spirit category along the way. A win for Patrón led to a win for tequila as a whole.

Still, I was skeptical of Patrón when I arrived at the brand's hacienda in the highlands town of Atotonilco El Alto. If you've been to LA, perhaps you've passed through Hollywood's most cheesy commercial area—think shitty chain restaurants plus tourist after tourist after tourist—and seen the giant glowing neon Patrón bottle lit up in green.

Here in Jalisco, I wasn't picking up the same douche factor usually associated with the brand. That's probably because that's not what they're going for. "We are leading the change from 'shots' to 'best spirit in the world,'" said Paco Soltero, the director of strategic planning and public affairs for Patrón.

We toured the distillery located on the hacienda grounds. The air was hot thanks to the brick ovens cooking the naked piñas fresh from the fields. The production process turned out to be a lot more craft than I had expected for such a globally distributed spirit.

Around the corner from the ovens were not one, but two tahonas (pulled by machines, not horses). The tahona crushes agave slowly with all of its fibers, keeping more of those highland flavors intact. Soltero said there are only about five or six brands that still use this method.

Patrón employees break down the agave hearts and load them into the brick ovens.

Brick ovens cook blue agave hearts, or piñas.

An employee follows the mechanized tahona crushing the agave to smithereens.

Patrón's entry-level tequila calls for part roller mill-processed agave, and part tahona-crushed agave, while their more premium lines won't use roller mills at all. I'm tempted to smuggle home the Gran Patrón Burdeos ($500 per bottle), an añejo finished in Bordeaux wine barrels.

Back in Guadalajara city, I go to a sports bar with friends to watch a soccer game. No one seems to care where the tequila we drink comes from. Tonight is more about compromising on a balance between quality and cost.

The rise in tequila's popularity, Jalisco-produced and otherwise, could pose a problem. There's no sign of slaking the public's thirst for agave spirits now that we're hooked, and there isn't an infinite supply of agave to feed our increasing addiction.

"The challenge in the future rests on whether the industry can still maintain growth and have enough of the raw ingredient, agave, to supply the demand," says David Grapshi, who represents Tequila Siete Leguas in the US. "Right now, 181 municipalities, mainly in Jalisco, supply all the Weber Blue Agave used for production, so the industry must take a serious look at future needs."

At the risk of sounding preachy (again), the disparity between the supply and demand both now and in future can help remind us to treat tequila and agave spirits like the precious gifts that they are. No matter what terroir you prefer, just don't take your tequila for granted.