Rows of blue agave plants cover the highlands, their sharpened spikes piercing the blue sky like mohawks at a punk-rock show. As his grandfather and father has done before him, Izmael Gama uses a machete to hack away the leaves, which are so sharp they were once used as weapons themselves.
Gama is a third-generation jimador, an agave harvester who works the plantations for Jose Cuervo, the world’s largest tequila manufacturer. Operating the oldest distillery in the Western Hemisphere, the company has more than 50 million agave plants in the region. The process of turning this hostile plant into the world-renowned party-starter is not an easy one.
Izmael hands me his machete and gives instructions on how to trim, or barber, the agave to its valuable core – the heavy pine that will be collected and processed at the factory. He is worried I may accidentally hack my fingers or toes off, or impale myself on an agave spear.
Beneath a punishing sun, jimadors cut down up to 400 plants a day, or lightly trim thousands of others. Their very name has its root in the Spanish word for “moaners,” and I can see why. I am pierced by needle-like edges, and sprayed with the plant’s rash-inducing sap. Once the spikes are removed, Izmael picks up a steel coa, a heavy tool shaped like a pizza-oven spatula, but its edges are sharp enough to split a skull. Slicing off the remaining spikes, he jams the coa edge into the pine, which has taken from eight to 12 years to mature, and breaks it free from the root. I can barely pick it up, sticky as it is with resin and with an average weight of 40 to 60 kilograms.
Mexico’s national drink has its roots with the Aztecs, who produced a fermented drink named pulque from the agave plant. When Spanish conquistadors ran dry of their imported liquor, they adopted this drink to produce mescal, the name still given to a variety of liquor also produced from the blue agave. But a drink can be called tequila only if it is produced in the region of Jalisco, in and around the town of Tequila, about 60 kilometres from the city of Guadalajara.
Tequila and its surrounding area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protected and promoted by the Mexican government. The town features an impressive 18th-century stone church, as well as the National Museum of Tequila. The town is surrounded by blue agave plants and lined with shacks selling hundreds of brands of tequila produced locally. The liquor is sold in all manner of packaging, from bottles with award-winning art to five-litre plastic containers. Other towns, such as El Arenal and Teuchitlán, are included in a “Tequila Route” that allows tourists to explore agave fields, processing facilities and tasting rooms. I headed to Jose Cuervo’s La Rojena distillery in the town of Tequila, where the company offers daily factory tours.
Jose Cuervo began production in 1758 and is the oldest distillery in Latin America. A giant crow greets me outside La Rojena (Jose Cuervo translates as “Joe Crow”). I am warned that in some parts of the distillery, the air is so thick with alcohol that flash photography could ignite a fire, and therefore is prohibited.
In 24 hours, La Rojena produces more than 65,000 litres of tequila, churning through 350 tons of agave. Men in overalls heave and hook the heavy pines into stone ovens, where they are steamed for 24 to 36 hours, depending on the type of tequila. This process transforms the pale yellowish agave heart into a rich brown fibre, dripping a sweet, candy-like juice ready to be extracted. A washing and crushing process presses out the juice into a liquid called aguamiel (honey water), before it is ready to be distilled and aged in barrels.
I taste examples of different stages of fermentation, learning how time and the addition of sugar changes the flavour. Cuervo Gold is a mixto, with 51 per cent of the alcohol coming from agave, the rest from other sugars. This product is supposed to be used exclusively for mixed drinks like margaritas, while 100 per cent agave tequila should always be sipped and enjoyed slowly. Rows of French oak barrels, 10 high, add the only ingredient that mellows the taste: time.
The tour descends into a dark cellar (or cava) where one can sample the company’s best liquor: Reserva de la Familia Tequila. Illustrious visitors – such as Bill Clinton and Paris Hilton – have signed some of the barrels, a good representation of the drink’s wide appeal.
We use a ladle, dipped directly into the wood barrel, to pour the rich elixir into a cognac glass, swirling to release the complex fragrance. My humble experiences with Mexico’s national drink relate primarily to late nights in cheap bars, and deep regret the morning after. Here in the private cellar of tequila’s most famous family, I realize just how far up the ladder one can climb in appreciation. Instead of barbed hooks down my throat, I lubricate my taste buds with a tang of sour and sweet.
A nasty rash appears on my arm the next morning, accompanying a nastier well-earned hangover. Raw agave has properties not unlike poison ivy, which future gringo tourist jimadors might want to keep in mind before picking up a cone. In the future, it’s best I stick to drinking the stuff, which like most things, tastes a lot better once you actually see it being made.
Watch a clip of Robin harvesting agave plants here.
Robin Esrock is the host of the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels. His website is moderngonzo.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail