The town of Tequila isn’t the only region where tequila is distilled. Some of the best producers are in the highlands (where the elevation is higher than 6,000 feet), a two-hour drive east of Guadalajara, so we travel to Arandas to visit Casa Centinela and Tapatio. Although Centinela makes more than a million cases a year, the distillery still uses traditional stone ovens to roast agave. As we tour, Julio notices that Centinela’s Clasico Blánco, available widely in Mexico for less than $15 a bottle, is being fermented with bagazo, or agave fibers.
“It doesn’t make sense to make a cheaper tequila with this expensive process, but we do it for the taste,” says Diana Jimenez, our tour guide, noting that centinela means “sentinel.” The company’s chemist, Ramiro Morales Galindo, says fermenting with fiber is not new, “but few do it, and we’re bringing it back.”
After lunch with a side of música de banda at Carnitas Jaime’s, we visit Tequila Tapatio. Carlos Camarena, Tapatio’s director, welcomes us and shows us the company’s new bottling line, but he’s most proud of adhering to generations of tradition. A tahona mashes the agave for Tapatio’s premium brand, El Tesoro de Don Felipe. The process is “old and inefficient,” Carlos says, “but this is the way my father and grandfather did it.”
We go down to Tapatio’s fragrant barrel room, where rows of casks stand 20 feet tall. Carlos jokes that it would be the ideal bomb shelter: “In case of nuclear war, we have our bunker ready and plenty of tequila. Just bring the appetizers.” At one point, The Seagram Co. approached the Camarena family and “offered way more than the company was worth,” Carlos says in English. “But you know what? We didn’t accept. One reason is that we don’t want our kids to have plenty of money and nothing to do — it would destroy them.”
Perhaps the most important reason is Carlos’ deep appreciation for the company’s legacy. “To build a reputation takes lots of years,” he says. “We have 76 years of tradition of making a good, quality product. That could be destroyed in a minute. We have a decent living. That’s all we need.”
A trip to Tequila and Arandas is inspiring and educational. The area is inviting, with storied bars on cobblestone streets, where bartenders can dance while they pour or call upon 76 years of tequila\ pouring experience. Visitors can find tequila stored in a cave or a bunker and learn that angels apparently have a few sips while no one is looking. You can see tequila in its rawest form and at its most refined, a work of art in a glass. You can find passion, history, tradition and magical towns, where Mexico’s treasured spirit continues to thrive.
MICHAEL SHAPIRO, author of A Sense of Place, wrote a story exclusively for the American Way website about the narrow-gauge trains of Wales.