MAKING THE TREASURED SPIRIT: Cooking the product at the Herradura Tequila Distillery
Danny Lehman/Corbis


A spirit made from blue agave harvested in one of five Mexican states. Most tequila comes from Jalisco, home to the namesake town of Tequila.

Blanco is clear, straight from the still and unaged. Reposado is aged in oak from two months to a year, and añejo is aged one to three years. A relatively recent category is extra añejo, which is aged for more than three years.

No, just the finer ones. The spirit must have at least 51 percent agave to be called tequila, but premium tequilas are 100 percent agave.

No; that’s mezcal.

Across the street is Arette, a boutique distillery. Eduardo Orendain, the earnest 22-year-old son of the owner, is the fifth generation to work in his family’s business. “I love tequila,” Eduardo says. “Since I was little, I rode horseback in the agave fields, but my family put me to work — I had to clean the bottles.”

Julio, my travel companion, notes that Arette’s tequila embodies the region’s terroir, or sense of place: “pungent, herbaceous, green notes with an earthy vegetal flavor,” he says. “Arette is all of that with a nice body and a strong finish.”

We enter Arette’s barrel room and absorb the warm, welcoming scent of tequila ­combined with oak. “It smells so good in here, but you know who’s reaping the benefit?” Julio asks. “The angels.” Liquor that evaporates is called “the angels’ share,” and Julio says 8 to 10 percent of tequila — ­compared to about 2 percent for cognac — is lost during the aging process. “I’m not sure how much the angels like cognac,” he says, “but I’m sure they love tequila!”

After visiting the boutique distilleries, Julio and I go to see how the big boys work. At the expansive Mundo Cuervo compound, with lush gardens, fountains and modern art on the grounds, Sonia Espinola, the operations manager for Mundo Cuervo, tells us that “it’s don Juan’s vision to make [the town of] Tequila a destination.”

Don Juan is Juan-Domingo Beckmann, the sixth-generation leader of the company. “He sees Tequila as a place with a legend, a story, everything,” Sonia says. And he’s not the only one. Mexico’s secretary of tourism deemed the town a Pueblo Magico (magical town) in 2003, and Tequila became a World Heritage site in 2006.

Many visitors arrive on the Jose Cuervo Express, a train that leaves Guadalajara weekend mornings at 11. It features views of the agave-spiked landscape and the looming Volcán de Tequila, or the Tequila ­Volcano, and all the tequila you care to drink. ­Passengers have about four hours to tour the distillery and have lunch, then most depart at 5:30 p.m. to return to Guadalajara. But with programs such as the Ruta del Tequila, a route of sights in the town and beyond, Cuervo hopes to encourage visitors to stay a night or two.