Author Justin Goldman Photography Alexis Lambrou
DAY THREE I’m going to need a good base for today’s activities, so I start at La Cafeteria, a popular brunch spot in a lovely old stucco house nestled among French mansions on Avenida Libertad. The specialty here is chilaquiles—nachos drowned in spicy tomato ranchero sauce and topped with crunchy chicharrón—which I devour as I sit on the shaded patio, enjoying the perfect morning weather.
Now I’m ready to get acquainted with the spirit of Mexico. Juan Pablo Ramírez, a guide for Jose Cuervo who goes by J.P., has agreed to take me and my friend Matt—an Angeleno in town on business—to the town of Tequila, an hour northwest of Guadalajara, for a tour of La Rojeña. The oldest distillery in the Americas, it has produced Cuervo tequila since 1758.
J.P., a former rock musician, grew up in Guadalajara but moved to Tequila because he liked the small-town feel. “Also, the tequila,” he adds with a laugh. From Guadalajara, we take the historic Ruta del Tequila, passing the 9,580-foot Volcán de Tequila, roadside tequileros, and the sprawling, 145-year-old Herradura distillery in Amatitán. We descend into a valley, crossing railroad tracks where migrant laborers wait to jump the train to the States, and cut through fields of blue agave.
We pull onto one of the tracts, tires crunching on the parched, rocky soil. Between rows of spiky blue agave, sprouting waist-high from the earth like alien tentacles extricating themselves from shallow graves, we find Ismael Gama, a fourth-generation jimador who has worked these fields for nearly 50 years. He doffs his white cowboy hat, then selects a good-size agave plant—one with a piña, or pineapple-shaped heart, of about 130 pounds, which will produce about seven liters of tequila—and takes his machete to the leaves. In a matter of moments, he has uprooted the heart, which he splits so we can taste the fibrous, jicamalike center.
We continue into Tequila, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, over cobblestone streets, past an 18th-century church, to La Rojeña. J.P. leads us through the gates of the yellow-walled hacienda, past a tall statue of a black bird (cuervo is Spanish for “raven”), and into the production facility. All around are heaps of harvested piñas; the air is full of the sweet, bready smell of fermentation. By the stills, where the agave wine that’s extracted from the plants is distilled into tequila, we stop to taste a 110-proof blanco, then continue into the barrel room, where we sample reposado (aged six months) and añejo (aged a year or more) tequilas to see how the wood mellows the agave and imparts oak and vanilla notes to the liquor.
“What I look for in tequila is the taste of the plant,” J.P. says. “When I drink the añejos, I taste the wood, so I prefer the blancos.”
Next, J.P. takes us down to the La Reserva de la Familia Cellar, home to bottles of 100-plus-year-old blancos and barrels of the three-to-seven-year-old Reserva, one of the world’s finest liquors. (“It’s the cognac of tequilas,” J.P. says.) I ladle myself a glass straight from the barrel. “This must be what magic tastes like,” I say to Matt. “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he replies.
Tour finished, we cross the plaza to La Antigua Casona, the main restaurant in Mundo Cuervo’s Solar de las Ánimas hotel. After a much-needed three-course meal—a tuna-poke tostada with avocado sauce and cucumber, beef tenderloin in mole sauce, and a fluffy slice of chocolate cake—I feel as if I’ve reinfused some blood into all that tequila in my veins.
After lunch, J.P. arranges for a friend to give us a ride back to the city. I’m still a bit bleary when I walk into the Demetria, but everything gets clear when I lock eyes on that tub. It’s time. After a long soak and a quick snooze, I go upstairs to the hotel’s rooftop pool and pass some time on a lounge chair looking down on the tree-lined streets of Lafayette and Chapultepec. A few laps to work up an appetite, and I’m ready for dinner.
A short cab ride brings me to the upscale Providencia neighborhood. I’m reuniting with Matt at La Tequila, a two-story brick restaurant that offers high-end takes on traditional Mexican fare—and lots of its namesake spirit, as evidenced by the bottles on the walls. We sit on the upstairs patio, where we watch a pickup soccer game going on across the street. The drink menu has 11 pages of tequilas, mezcals, and sotoles (another spirit distilled from agave), but that Cuervo Reserva was so good that we can’t help but order it again. We’re a little more adventurous with our appetizers: chapulines (chopped grasshoppers) and escamoles (ant larvae), which look like lentils and serve as a salty tortilla topping. For an entrée, Matt has a molcajete, a stone mortar filled with steak, shrimp, sausage, avocado, and nopal (cactus strips), while I opt for suckling pig that’s been slow-roasted in dried chiles and pulque, a traditional fermented beverage.
It would be easy (and almost certainly advisable) to call it an evening, but it’s my last night in Mexico, and I ain’t going out like that. So:¡Carajillos!
We hop a cab to Avenida de las Américas, a busy strip of shiny malls and office towers, disembarking at Evva, the city’s trendiest club. Inside, the sounds of Ricky Martin, J. Lo, and Pitbull (“Pitbull’s some kind of god here,” Matt tells me) pump across the dance floor and the rooftop pool, causing insanely good-looking men and women—seriously, the most attractive people I’ve ever seen—to shake it. We find a table and watch through the neon light as waiters parade by bearing champagne in ice buckets, sparklers shooting into the air. A friendly local guy comes over and photobombs one of our selfies, then pours tequila in our mouths.
When the lights come on, we head down the escalator to find the sun creeping over the tops of the palm trees on the avenue. I turn to Matt, smile, and say, “Who’s ready for a fourth perfect day?”
Hemispheres managing editor Justin Goldman knew he would love Guadalajara—after all, his favorite hot sauce is Tapatío.