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Destination: Mexico

The Essence of a Town Called Tequila : Finding the source of a drink that's fiery and mellow

May 26, 1996|MARGO PFEIFF | Pfeiff is a Montreal-based freelance writer and photographer

TEQUILA — In the open courtyard beneath bougainvillea blossoms and strings of lights, a couple are dancing the jarabe tapatio, the traditional Mexican hat dance. The music picks up and the tall slim beauty in a colorful flaring dress whirls tight circles around the sombrero set on the ground.

Suddenly the music reaches a feverish climax. Someone rushes out and sets a bottle of tequila alongside the hat. Deftly, the dancer whirls around the bottle, her feet a blur. She finishes to waves of applause and shouts of "Bravo!" The bottle is opened and poured for all those at neighboring tables.

This is Guadalajara, birthplace of the charro (the Mexican cowboy) and the mariachi, and, above all, the capital of tequila country. Following the time-honored method, I sprinkle the back of my hand with a pinch of salt, raise my glass to my nose, inhale the pungent aroma hinting of mysterious spices, lick the salt off my hand, tilt the glass back with a bold gulp then suck a lime wedge plucked from a bowlful on the table.

The potent combination of salt, liquor and lime first shocks my mouth and throat with a 90 proof bite, then leaves a warm soothing aftertaste, a pleasing balance between tequila's fire, the acidity of lime and the relief afforded by those grains of salt. "Salud!"

*

Immortalized in song and literature, tequila reflects the Mexican character and is as fiery as the chili-pepper-laced cuisine it complements. "Tequila is a perfect national liquor because it is mestizo--a mixture--just like the Mexican people themselves: part Indian, part Spanish," says Jorge Berrueta Vallin, former Director General of Tequila Sauza, Mexico's second biggest producer.

Tequila's fame today belies its humble origins. As long as a millennium ago, Mexico's Indians would suck the sap from the fleshy arms of a spiky desert plant called the agave. The sap would then be fermented into the mildly alcoholic brew pulque.

The Spanish invaders, however, turned up their noses at the beer-strength pulque, craving more potent aquardiente, or firewater. Bringing with them the secrets of distillation, the Spanish soon found the agave plant yielded a fairly clear liquor with a bite that became known as mescal, the potent forerunner of tequila. In 1910, when a "Tequila Wine" from Mexico garnered a trophy in San Antonio, Texas, the centuries-old conqueror's brew had finally won its modern name.

Since I began visiting Mexico more than 20 years ago, I have had an interest in tequila, not just the rough varieties mixed into Margaritas, but some of the finer brews that, with age, take on some of the mellow characteristics of fine brandy. I was intrigued to learn that tequila is grown in only one region of the country--the boundaries are drawn by the government to ensure quality--and that it is produced from just one species of agave, which I always thought was a cactus, but is in fact a plant more closely related to the lily. "Tequila is a gift of the sun, we Mexicans like to say," says Alejandro Angeles, a friend and fellow tequila aficionado from Mexico City, as we speed down a highway leading west out of Guadalajara. "Because the agave plant from which this liquid sunshine is harvested survives months of blistering desert heat each year without water."

Angeles and I were headed to the very heart of tequila country--a small town 35 miles from Guadalajara that is actually called Tequila. We drove into the mile-high foothills of the Sierra Madre, past adobe farmhouses set in a landscape of dry brown grasses and rocky outcrops. On both sides of the road, and spreading toward small volcano cones that pock the treeless horizon, is a patchwork of blue-green, spiky agave plants. In his book, "The Old Patagonian Express," Paul Theroux described them as "a field of upright swords."

Only one of about 400 species of gave is used to make tequila, the blue agave. It grows well only in the dry highlands of the state of Jalisco and in small portions of four neighboring states. This extraordinary agave, which shimmers a brilliant blue green in intense sunlight, requires from eight to 10 years to reach maturity.

Angeles pulls up alongside a field where a worker, an obrero named Jose, sharpens his coa de jima, a long-handled tool with a round flat blade. After a few whacks he uproots a plant at its base and neatly slices off the spiky bayonet-like arms. Within moments all that remains is an egg-shaped core roughly the size of a large watermelon, weighing about 100 pounds and resembling a giant pineapple--or pin~a.

A few minutes later we reached Tequila, a whitewashed stucco town of 30,000 that resembles the set of a B-grade Western except for the tall brick smoke stacks of the 12 local distilleries. The biggest 10 produce three-quarters of the country's tequila. Hand-painted advertisements for a variety of brands festoon the whitewashed houses.

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