Three days into my trip to Puerto Vallarta, I had an ephiphany. I’d traveled there with the Tequila Interchange Project, a nonprofit group working to preserve sustainable, traditional, and quality practices in the tequila industry, and we would spend seven days drinking the Mexican juice and learning about the process of making it. But my ephiphany had less to do with the mission and more to do with the realization that I was about to spend the next four days geeking out over tequila with the industry’s elite on the trip of a lifetime.
On Monday morning, we departed early for the town of Mal Paso. It’s a humdinger of a drive from Puerto Vallarta and off-roading in a tour bus was quite the rush. After arriving at the tabernas, we met with two Raicilleros—Don Japo and Don Niko. It was here where I felt like we’d stepped into a time machine, witnessing and taking part in some of the oldest and most traditional ways of distilling not only in Mexico, but in the world. The stills were built of earth, wood, and copper. The water was straight from the source. The fermentation was completely natural. The distilling, done twice, was craftsmanship at its finest. We tasted, we learned the pearl testing, we helped crush agave, and even removed the borgaz (the leftover product in the stills) from the kettles. Then, we tasted some more.
Wednesday was the beginning of our mezcal adventures. We traveled a couple of hours to the Zapotitlan area and rolled onto a ranch, where we partook in the process and witnessed the creation of an agave distillate. The United States consumes 80 percent of all agave distillates created, but this particular concoction can’t be called what it is (mezcal) due to the Mexican government and the larger tequila houses blocking these folks from having a Denomination of Origin, but it’s made in the tradition of the more than seven generations who have harvested and distilled on this particular site. While we worked, we listened to the concerns and needs of the producers for their segment of the industry, mostly how it’s regulated by the government.
Thursday, when we awoke after a night of driving, tacos al pastor, and muchos cervezas, we headed down the streets of Tequila to Fortaleza, a smaller producer with deep roots in the industry. It was nothing like the large producers: There were small ovens, a tahona stone (the wheel that crushes the pinas), and smaller vats for fermenting. There weren’t any tanker trucks pulling in and out. The aging rooms were small and quaint. The distillery had a dog too, a happy, goofy boxer that followed us everywhere. Family and tradition are strong here; you could see how happy the workers were without it feeling like it was a show.
We ended the day in Tequila with tacos, but not before heading to one of the most important places for a bartender in the town: El Bar La Capilla. The purveyor of this small joint is Don Javier Delgado Corona. He is 89 years old and still comes to his bar daily. He’s a living legend. He invented the Batanga (like a Cuba Libre, but with tequila, Mexican Coca Cola, and salt). He stirs the drink with a boning knife and serves it with a genuine smile. The man is amazing, warm, funny, and full of so much information and history. He told us that he and his father started out as coopers for the the tequila houses. The man has seen it all and is very open to sharing his knowledge. If you are ever lucky enough to get to Tequila, I cannot stress enough how empowering and important it is to visit this place. He will touch a piece of your soul.
The last day of our trip took us to Santa Rita, the oldest known production site for agave distillate in Mexico, and Guadalajara, where we’d sit in on a round table of five of GDL’s best bartenders. I call Santa Rita the genesis site of the spirit: old fermentation holes chiseled into the ground, a large horno that cooked what looked like about three tons at a time, a tahona and crushing pit in between. The site dates back to the pre-Hispanic colonization of Mexico, which accounts for the Asian influence in distillation methods.
Now that I’m home (and missing my Mexican adventure), I have a lot of work to do. I’ll start spreading the gospel with this one word: sip. Sip the next tequila you purchase. Sip it neat, without lime or sprinkle of salt. I’ll be there to pour. If there’s one thing I learned from Don Javier, it’s that I’m lucky to do what I love.
Nick Crutchfield is the bar manager at Commonwealth Restaurant & Skybar.