Depending on your geographical location in the United States or even the world for that matter, the near mention of Tequila usually causes at least a few people to shudder. They’re instantly reminded of “That one night in Cabo”, or even just a night in the dorms during college that got a little out of hand due to the supreme decision-making skills of a 20-year-old. Sadly, this impression of tequila has been muddled and is a direct result of drinking what is barely passable as tequila. The country of Mexico has put very specific guidelines on what a real tequila is and what is needed to call it such.
As some of you may know, there is a cousin to Tequila called Mezcal. Mezcal is the smokier, richer cousin to tequila and is still relatively new to the United States. In order for these to be separated, Tequila is only harvested from Blue Agave while Mezcal can be made from any 32 different types of Agave. So looking on the label of your Tequila, you better be able to find “100% Blue Agave” on the bottle. If you don’t see it, you don’t have good tequila.
Recently I traveled to the town of Tequila where you guessed it, tequila is made. Now this isn’t the sole location of tequila production, but it’s obviously the main producer compared to the other states within Mexico. My friends and I had a private tour that was negotiated because of some mutual friends they had. The Los Abuelos distillery only does private tours and they’re usually kept to bar and restaurant personnel. So this seemed like it was going to be one hell of a trip.
Produced the same way for over 140 years, Los Abuelos is more commonly known outside of Mexico as Fortaleza. Great-great-grandfather, Don Cenobio first founded the distillery in the small town and was actually the first person to export tequila to the United States as well as the man that mandated that all tequila be made out of Blue Agave. Five generations later, the old distillery was defunct and unused, so family member Don Guillermo put everything he had into getting the business back up and running; and in 2005, Fortaleza was born.
The process of making tequila starts with the agave harvest. Where men with long shovel handles with sharp blades cut the fans of the agave in order to isolate the Piña or center core of the agave. These Piñas are harvested no earlier than seven years into the plants maturity. Hundreds of Piñas are loaded onto big dump trucks and delivered to the distillery from the fields. Once at the distillery, the Piñas are placed inside an above ground steam oven called a ‘horno de mamposteria’. This steam oven heats up and breaks down the Piñas into a sugary caramel-like root that is actually quite delicious but can cause you some diarrhea if consumed in a decent dose.
These soft Piñas are then broken down by being crushed by a massive stone wheel that once was drawn around by a Donkey. The Donkey has since been replaced by a little tractor, but the stone and the pit are still the same since the early 1900’s. These extracted juices are then placed in massive barrels where they let the sugars ferment before placing them in the still. This process is hot and tiresome, but the smiles on the faces of the employees, and the fact that they’ve been employed there for decades, just stands to defend how Guillermo treats everyone like family.
Once the proper percentage of alcohol is reached, the tequila is now ready to be bottled as a Blanco- also referred to as silver. This is usually the cheapest tequila due to there being no aging process. Some prefer this straightforward style due to the lack of color and mild flavor, but real tequila drinkers will tell you you’re wrong. What I found amazing about the aging process at Fortaleza is they use American Oak barrels from the Jack Daniels distillery- before they aged bourbon. But it’s this rich flavor that embeds itself with the tequila and lends to their Reposado and Anejo bottles having a more flavorful, caramel oak notes that really sets this tequila apart. Smashing shots of Fortaleza like you’re on Spring Break is not necessarily discouraged here; they love all types of tequila drinking. However, you actually want to taste this finely crafted Mexican Spirit and someone may pass judgment.
The tour of the various processes was coming to a close so we were invited to the obligatory tasting (My favorite part). But what I didn’t know was just how awesome of a bar they have. Carved into the pre-existing stone, we were told to follow the dim lights leading into a cool and humid cave that wrapped around into an open room. Rock pillars were left around the cave system, holding up the seemingly untouched dirt ceiling. It took a few moments to let my eyes adjust, and when they did I was amazed at just how incredible this cave was. Large enough for a good party, with rooms and dark hallways leading into the unknown I could see how wild it could get with a bunch of bartenders and endless tequila. Even the occasional bat would flap its wings furiously as if annoyed with our presence taking off to find a more secluded location. We ponied up to the bar and the corks started coming off. Our host Kobe, the first certified Tequila Master from Belgium, and now a dedicated employee to Fortaleza, started to discuss the various traits in each of their four different types of tequila. A bright neon sign behind him reminding everyone of one cardinal rule -Water Up.
It’s truly incredible to see this beautiful and expansive property nestled in a pristine corner of Tequila, Jalisco. Existing for generations, it’s our duty to preserve not only our own rich family history, but to the companies that still hold traditions close to their chest. They’re craftsman and a dying breed in a world where time is money and instant gratification reigns supreme. Quality takes time and time makes quality tequila.