WORKING THE LAND: Tequila begins when the spiky leaves are removed from the agave plant with the formidable coa.
Hiram Trillo

A wide, heavy wooden door creaks open, and the bright sunshine in the Mexican state of Jalisco is replaced with near pitch-blackness. “Follow me into the cave,” says Guillermo Erickson Sauza, the fifth generation in his family to make tequila, Mexico’s treasured spirit. Slowly, my eyes adjust to the darkness as we walk gingerly underground. I leap back when I see a skull-topped, slumping effigy, but Guillermo attempts to calm me by saying, “Watch out for the Cuervo drinker. He’s dead.” Tequila humor aside, the generations-old rivalry between Sauza and Cuervo, Mexico’s two leading tequila families, remains alive even though the Sauza family sold its brand decades ago. It is now owned by Jim Beam, Inc.

In 2005, Guillermo opened a distillery in the town of Tequila, about an hour’s drive west of Guadalajara. He now makes an ultrapremium tequila called Fortaleza, the way his tatarabuelo (great great-grandfather) did, by crushing agave with a tahona — a stone shaped like a wheel that weighs more than a ton — and distilling it in copper stills. The Fortaleza distillery doesn’t have scheduled tours, but it welcomes visitors by appointment.

Fortaleza is the first stop on my tour. Over the course of two whirlwind days in Tequila and one in the highlands town of Arandas, I visit eight distilleries with Julio Bermejo, beverage manager of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco and a longtime evangelist for fine tequila. At Fortaleza, the process starts with harvesting the football-shaped agave heads, which can be 2 feet long and weigh 50 to 200 pounds. The spiky leaves are hacked off with a long-handled blade called a coa. Then the heads, called piñas because they look like enormous pineapples, roast under pressure in brick ovens.

As the agave cooks, steam fills the air and produces a smell reminiscent of Thanksgiving: molasses, brown sugar, sweet potatoes and a hint of pumpkin pie — though none of those ingredients are in the mixture. When the agave fibers are removed, the liquid, called mosto, is fermented in potbellied vats. We sample three varieties. The blanco is clean and crisp, the reposado has a rich caramel flavor, and the ultra-smooth añejo lingers with a full-bodied aftertaste.

Although Guillermo has achieved success with Fortaleza, I ask if he regrets that his family sold Sauza. “My heart is here in Mexico — I thought I’d be running Sauza,” says Guillermo, sipping his tequila. “Unfortunately, my father sold (Sauza) in 1976. I was 20 … but I’m fortunate to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors. It’s a battle — agave shortages, broken bottles — but it’s a labor of love. There’s a lot of competition in this business. But I thank God every day that I get to do what I’m doing.”