Drinking agave-born elixirs is key to a trip to Mexico, but the salt-shot-lime routine - and head-pounding regret - are kid’s stuff. Real tequila and its smoky cousin, mezcal, have recently undergone an upscale revolution - from aging in French oak to craft distilleries reviving 18th-century manufacturing processes. Forget about eating the worm...try Mexico's newly haute spirits instead.
Though tequila is a member of the agave-fermented family of mezcal liquors, the only bottles which truly earn the reputed name contain blue agave grown in the rocky volcanic soils of the state of Jalisco. These come in three stages of aging: blanco, which is clear, crisp and unaged; reposado, which is rested for short period of time and softer on the palate; and añejo, the most aged and complex variety.
Since tequila’s international popularity skyrocketed in the early 2000s, manufacturers have become bolder and more sophisticated with aging and processing methods, yielding outstanding results. In 2006, a bottle of Jalisco-made tequila became the most expensive bottle of liquor ever sold: US$225,000 for a litre.
Even so, you don’t have to put out a quarter of a million dollars for a world-class bottle from Jalisco’s ubiquitous and picturesque small distilleries. Set among rolling, rocky, sun-drenched scenery, the region has loads of small batch producers who open their doors to tasting tours, often in English.
Start in the Jalisco town which lent the drink its name, Tequila, and where the National Museum of Tequila offers an overview of the distilling process and a colourful history of banditry, revolution and rebellion.
Things in Jalisco have softened up considerably since the hardscrabble days of old Mexico, though, and the region is dotted with bed and breakfast accommodation amongst the hazy blue agave plantations. Visitors often arrive in the transportation hub of Guadalajara, a city where the elegant Centro Histórico (Historic Center) is dotted with proud colonial relics, bars and hotels. A wander through the shade of leafy plazas, or through the city’s fashionable Zona Rosa, demonstrates just how refined a modern drinking tour can be.
For a more earthy flavour, head to Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca, the destination for mezcal. The smoky forerunner to tequila, mezcal is made from the mashed-up heart of a related type of agave, maguey, and it has become a haute spirit import to the United States and Europe. Compared to tequila’s bold experimentations, magical mezcal comes from deep traditions; an ancient manufacturing process yields a drink that is smokier and more complex, made for sipping, never shooting.
The hilly regions of Oaxaca State produce the world’s best mezcal, especially around Santiago Matatlán and the Albarradas villages, south and east of the Zapotec Mitla ruins. Undiluted white mezcal is the most common type, but there are also smoother reposado or añejo varieties and varieties infused with herbs or fruit. Though tourist markets will be hocking mezcals flavoured with cream or containing a worm, run for the door; these are consumed only by gullible gringos.
The elegant colonial hub of Oaxaca City is the home base for exploring the region, and is a fascinating and hospitable cultural and geographical centre. Around the city extend Oaxaca’s three Valles Centrales (Central Valleys), full of bustling indigenous markets, spectacular pre-Hispanic ruins and artisan workshops specialising in traditional crafts. North of the city are the forested highlands of the Sierra Norte, the scene of successful community-tourism ventures enabling visitors to hike, bike, climb rocks and ride horses amid some of Mexico’s most unusual landscapes.