LIFE IN TEQUILA: Agave is plentiful in Jalisco
Danny Lehman/Corbis

We drive 15 minutes to Amatitán and the storied Herradura hacienda, a seven-generation-old family distillery until the spirits conglomerate Brown-Forman Corp. purchased it in 2007. Herradura means horseshoe, and hitching posts remain in front of the hacienda’s gates. Angel del Gado, our guide, tells us fine tequila is made by cutting the spikes completely down to the agave head and by using very ripe agave for high sugar content.

Nearby, in the hills above Tequila, is the Casa Noble brand, which has gained notoriety with its triple-distilled, organic and kosher premium tequila. Aged in French white oak barrels, Casa Noble is made at the La Cofradía compound, which includes lavishly decorated hotel rooms and a restaurant called La Taberna that serves everything from fishbowl drinks to locally sourced lunches.

Casa Noble uses atmospheric fermentation, which means its tanks are open to wild yeast. The best way to evaluate tequila is straight from the tank. “You can’t imagine what tequila really tastes like,” says David Yan, our guide, “until you’ve tasted it straight from the still.”

Guitarist Carlos Santana, who was born about 50 miles from here, recently became an owner of Casa Noble. His image now adorns a line of its bottles, with profits going to Santana’s Milagro Foundation. As we sit down to taste, David notes that taking a shot isn’t the way to enjoy tequila. “It’s like drinking boiling coffee and getting scalded,” he says. The right way is to sip it, slowly.

David shows us Casa Noble’s “time machine,” a collection of hand-labeled bottles storing memories from various barrels. “This is seven years of history,” David says. Making fine tequila “doesn’t happen by chance, it happens by studying your past.” Gesturing to the wall of bottles, he adds: “This is like a family album of how a barrel looked and smelled and tasted.”

Returning to town, we stop in to see don Javier Delgado Corona, an 89-year-old bartender, at La Capilla, which means “the chap­el.” Wearing a white, button-down shirt, silver-haired don Javier makes his classic drink, the batanga: blanco tequila, Mexican Coke, lime and a stir with his favorite knife, the one he uses to slice chilis for hot sauce. He tells us he’s been pouring tequila for 76 years. I ask what he’s most proud of in his life. “Pride, no,” he says in Spanish. “What makes me most grateful is everyone who has come and shared hospitality with me. I don’t want you to feel like you are in our house — I want you to feel like you are in your house.”