All Aboard the Booze Train!
After visiting blue agave fields on the way to the town of Tequila, our tour continued at the Jose Cuervo tequila distillery known as La Rojeña. The decision to visit Jose Cuervo, and not any of the other numerous tequila distilleries in the area, was an easy one. Jose Cuervo is the birthplace of tequila mass production. The distillery is the oldest in Latin America, having been founded in the early 19th century. Today, it is run by the descendants of its founder Don Jose Antonio de Cuervo. The distillery works like a time machine transporting you back in time. Stepping a foot in the premises of the distillery, you can’t get rid of the feeling that you are visiting a colonial hacienda of the old Mexico. The distillery is decorated with numerous statues of crows, (“cuervo” is a crow in Spanish), which gives it a strangely poetic feel.
As we entered the distillery, we were greeted by a small, stubborn bulldozer battling a giant hill of oversized blue agave piñas and shoving them towards distillery ovens. Our guide explained that after piñas are taken from the fields to the distillery, they are baked for 36 hours at 96 degrees Celsius. After the baking process is finished, the ovens are emptied by hand, and baked agave plants with a sweet taste similar that of yams are then shredded or mashed. The juice extracted from the baked blue agave plants is then placed in giant vats, where the fermentation process takes place. The next step is distillation and on and on the guide went with all the technical explanations of every step. At some point, I noticed that people in our group were losing interest in learning the specifics of the tequila-making process, and instead were very impatiently waiting for the promised tequila tasting in the end of the tour. Our guide paid no attention to the wandering gazes and occasional pained sighs, she marched through her presentation like a trooper, bombarding us with facts about distillation, bottling and storage. She finally finished off by proudly boasting that Jose Cuervo is the world-bestselling tequila, claiming 35% of the word’s market, but the mood of the group was “show, don’t tell.”
Finally, we were seated in a large open-air auditorium and offered to sample four types of tequila: blanco (“white”) or plata (“silver”), reposado (“rested”), anejo (“aged”), and extra anejo (“extra aged”). Our guide explained that the main difference between them was the duration of aging and whether they were aged in oak or stainless-steel barrels. We were warned that blanco tequila didn’t have a smooth taste and was mainly used for making cocktails such as margarita. The guide was right: the flavor was harsh, and most people could not even finish it. Julia took a tiny sip and pushed the rest of her sample towards me. I ignored it, as I couldn’t even finish my own. Blanco tequila was just white spirit, aged less than two months in stainless steel barrels. On the other spectrum, extra anejo, aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels, had a dark color and a very smooth flavor with the notes of chocolate or coffee. That was the only sample Julia did not immediately push towards me and kept on sipping. The guide explained that the longer tequila ages in a cask, the more it takes on the flavor of wood, mellowing the harshness of alcohol. It is no surprise that extra anejo is the most expensive type of tequila.
After tequila sampling, we had about two hours of free time to walk around (or in cases of some overzealous tourists, stumble around) the town of Tequila and then we had to come to the distillery for the rest of the program. The center square of Tequila was just a couple of blocks from Jose Cuervo distillery. This was a sunny Saturday in March, and the main street and the town’s square was bustling with tourists. The word “tequila” was on every single sign and banner. We chuckled as we remembered visiting Springfield, Illinois years ago and seeing the word “Lincoln” plastered all over the town: barbershop “Lincoln”, auto repair shop “Lincoln”, etc. Here, it was impossible to miss that we were in the town of Tequila.
Having done tequila tasting on empty stomachs, we were quite hungry. We dropped by a colorfully-decorated restaurant named after Mexican hot sauce Cholula and indulged ourselves with a delicacy of the state of Jalisco, tortas ahogadas (“drowned sandwiches”), sandwiches covered/drowned in a tomato-based sauce with a hint of chili. We love Mexican food, and Tequila did not disappoint.
After lunch and a short stroll through the town, we were back on the premises of Jose Cuervo distillery for an afternoon dance show and mariachi music. I didn’t expect much from this portion of the trip as I thought it would be cheesy and touristy. Surprisingly, it was not. The state of Jalisco gave the world tequila and mariachi music and experiencing these two very Mexican things in their birthplace felt totally appropriate. The tequila-based cocktails were flowing with no limits, and the Mexican and foreign tourists got rowdy singing and dancing to the festive sounds of mariachi music.
The best part of the trip was saved for the end: a luxury Jose Cuervo Express train ride back to Guadalajara. As we arrived at the train station, the elegant train of black color with Jose Cuervo’s name and logo was awaiting us. As we were taking our seats, the mariachi band was playing a farewell tune, and our tour guide was waving a goodbye to us. The luxury part of the ride was of the least interest to us, so we bought tickets to the least expensive wagon. In all honesty, our Express wagon with its beautiful wood-panel walls and comfortable seats divided into groups of four had more luxury than we were usually accustomed to. The more expensive types of wagons, Premium Plus and Diamond, offered even more comfort and privacy, but we didn’t care about an extra level of glamour. Consistent with the theme of the day, tequila-based drinks were unlimited throughout the train and were flowing non-stop for the entire duration of the ride. At some point, Julia and I got tired of drinking and asked a server for non-alcoholic drinks, thus drawing disappointed looks on our random travel companions’ faces.
The main attraction on this booze train, at least for us, was riding at sunset through blue agave fields. The train left Jose Cuervo distillery train station at 6 p.m., and for the first 30 or 40 minutes of the ride, we were riding through dreamy blue agave fields. We stared out the window, entranced by the rolling hills, endless agave, and glittering sky. The train ride was a magnificent experience, even after we stopped drinking all the free tequila.
Generally, we don’t like signing up for packaged tours, as it usually involves a highly structured day with cheesy guides, long drives in packed buses, sales pitches disguised as educational presentations, and most importantly – very little time spent at important sights. Tequila Jose Cuervo Express trip was a pleasant exception. Maybe it was well organized with plenty of free time. Maybe it nicely balanced educational parts with fun activities. Maybe it was the unlimited tequila.
Yeah, it was probably the tequila.