As anyone who loves tequila will tell you, the more you know about distilled agave spirits, the more you want to learn. Versions of wild agave spirits have existed for centuries, but tequila’s continuously growing popularity has skyrocketed the liquor to the center of the international stage over the past 80 years.
For those who love tequila, a trip to its origins is the beginning of what will surely be a lifelong adventure. Guadalajara, the capital and largest city in Jalisco, is a great starting point for any trip into the so-called “Tequila Country.” The city itself has existed in its current incarnation for nearly 500 years, and is full of neoclassical architecture, cathedrals and plazas, some of which date back to those early conquistadors. The town of Tequila is about an hour away, with close proximity to the other distilling strongholds, and home to miles of agave fields. Tequila lovers from all over the world come to visit “La Ruta del Tequila,” which means the “Tequila Trail” and connects over 150 registered tequila distilleries that have been making tequila since the 16th century. There are tons of ways to check out Tequila, and also enjoy plenty of excellent tequila, experiences range from exploring the town to distillery visits and even a trip to some of the blue agave fields themselves.
The hardest question when it comes to exploring tequila’s roots is where to start. Staying in the town of Guadalajara means easy day trips to many of the wonders of the distilling world from agave fields to train rides and more. Here’s how to get started.
The Mundo Cuervo, or world of Cuervo, should absolutely be one of the first stops on any tour. Yes, it’s one of the most well-known tequila brands (and not necessarily in a good way), but the samples of their premium tequilas, Reserva de Familia, just might turn you into a fan. La Rojeña distillery is a part of the Cuervo family, who have been making tequila since 1795 (or what can more accurately be referred to as mezcal de tequila), and it’s also the oldest active distillery in Latin America. Take a tour of the distillery, conveniently located in Tequila’s main square, followed by a tasting or margarita at their Hacienda. If you happen to be in town over a weekend, the Cuervo Express has special tours, and even offers transportation from Guadalajara.
There are tons of distilleries, but La Fortaleza is a definite stand out. While many tequila production facilities have mechanized and commercialized their harvesting and distilling processes, La Fortaleza sticks to their original techniques and recipes. The distiller, Guillermo Erickson Sauza, is a fifth-generation member of the Sauza family. While the third generation of the family sold their tequila brand to a large corporation (which still makes Sauza; currently marketed as a low-shelf tequila), Guillermo came back to his ancestral land in the late ‘90s, and began restoring it to its former glory. He’s back in the high-end tequila market now, under the name La Fortaleza; he makes hand-crafted tequila using the original artisanal techniques. Pro tip: Request a tour from their website at least 36 hours in advance to get a closer look at the production process, and enjoy the scenic views of sweeping blue agave fields next to the Tequila Volcano. Plus, a tasting follows at the on-site bar, set up in a natural cave.
The town of Tequila was officially designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006, and dubbed Pueblos Mágicos (magic town), by the Mexican government in 2003. It’s the perfect place to explore; stroll along cobblestone streets and head to La Capilla, a tiny bar that you’ll quickly discover offers much more than you might expect of its unassuming exterior. La Capilla’s then-owner, Don Javier Delgado Corona, created the Batanga cocktail in the 1950s, adding Coca-Cola, tequila and lime together in a glass with a salted rim. The finishing touch is a generous mix with the knife used to slice limes, chilis and other ingredients at the restaurant, which makes for a savory base note to balance everything out.
All long days spent touring agave fields and checking out copper stills should end hanging out in a local treasure like Cantina La Fuente. This no-frills bar in Guadalajara has been in action since the early 1920s. Legend has it that a patron couldn’t pay their bar tab and left their bike as collateral, never to return. To this day, a bicycle hangs on the wall over the bar. Customers keep things simple in this watering hole, with pours of blanco tequila and cerveza, best enjoyed while listening to music from a piano that gets the whole place singing along.
No tequila lover’s visit to Mexico is complete without a stop in CDMX. Licorería Limantour, which opened its doors in the Roma Norte section of Mexico City in 2011, has maintained an active presence on the World’s 50 Best Bars list since 2014, and is currently at number four in North America. The stunning Art Deco bar attracts locals and tourists alike, with modern riffs on iconic cocktails like the Margarita al Pastor, which combines tequila with orange liqueur, lime and taco mix. The playful interpretations and locally-made spirits are numerous and truly inspired.