The Tequila Tradition

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In 1991 Billy and Akaisha Kaderli retired at the age of 38. Now, into their 3rd decade of this financially independent lifestyle, they invite you to take advantage of their wisdom and experience.

Tradition, Passion, Pride

Part II

Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico
(Pronounced: Tay-KEE-la, Hah-LEES-coh, MAY-hee-coh)

The Town, The Tradition, The Taste
Currency Conversion Site 

Billy and Akaisha Kaderli

It is safe to say that most people don't know the history of Mexico's national drink, tequila. Nor do they know that there is a city in the Mexican state of Jalisco which bears that same name. A popular image surrounding this beverage is one of charros, desperados, shoot 'em ups and heavy machismo.

Who would have known that there is refinement, culture, elegance, passion, and Mexico's heart and history involved too?

We invite you to read on and learn of the tradition, the perseverance and pride that pervades this famous golden liquid.


Church of Santiago Apostol, central Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico

Less than 2 hours by bus from Jalisco's capital city of Guadalajara, today, the city of Tequila is a World Heritage Site. Legends and myths envelop the distilled drink of the same name, and to appreciate the finesse and the fire of tequila, one must reach deep into the core of Mexico to learn more.


The Blue Agave, agave tequilana weber azul

Archeologists say that agave has been cultivated for at least 9,000 years. Legend has it that centuries ago, a lightning storm caused a fire in the native agave fields. Plants exposed to the heat of this fire were roasted and split open. Sweet juices oozed from these cooked and burst succulents and the indigenous people found them to be agreeable to their taste. The plant had already been used to make rope, thread for clothing, with the prickly points being fashioned into a sort of nail for construction or used as a needle to sew.

Now they had food, and surprisingly, a sweet drink called agua miel or honey water.


Aztecs enjoying pulque

The local indigenous people considered this sweet drink from the agave to be a gift from the gods. After all, it was discovered after powerful light from the heavens struck the earth causing the juices to flow. Later they learned to make a kind of beer from the fermented agua miel, and that drink was called pulque.


Stone archways reflect the architecture of the Spanish Conquistadores

Tequila is North America's first distilled drink and its first commercially produced alcohol.

When the Conquistadores came, they made distilled 'tequila wine' from the pulque drink of the Aztecs. Don Pedo Sanches de Tagle established the very first tequila factory at his hacienda in 1600. One hundred-sixty-five years later, the Spanish government wanted to favor the importation of Spanish wines and spirits to the New World, so consequently the Crown banned all locally made spirits including this mezcal wine.

Legally, production was halted, but of course the trade simply went underground.

King Ferdinand IV lifted the ban in 1792, but it wasn't until after the Mexican Revolution from the Spanish in the 1800's that tequila regained its prominence.


The Jose Cuervo distillery complex in Tequila

The first licensed manufacturer was Jose Antonio Cuervo who received special rights in the mid 1700's from the King of Spain to cultivate a plot of land in New Spain. His son, Jose Maria Cuervo, obtained the first license to produce mezcal wine and founded Casa Cuervo, the first official Mexican distillery in 1795.

In 1812 when Jose died, his son-in-law, Vincente Albino Rojas, changed the name of the Casa and increased production. By the middle of that century, the family rancho holdings had more than 3 million agave plants.

Today, the largest manufacturer of tequila is Jose Cuervo, and their export market is huge.


The National Museum of Tequila is a must see.


Big museum, easy to find

Located on Corona #34, this national museum presents the history of the making of tequila. Providing good photographic exhibits, a large collection of bottles from the many distinct styles of the local distilleries, there are explanations of the mechanics and history of tequila, as well as good displays of the local culture.

There is a tequila tasting in the gift shop at the end of your self-guided tour. Certainly worth the 15 Peso admission fee, and we recommend that you visit!


Entrance to the National Museum of Tequila

Each of these individual rooms house displays of the history of tequila, the first distillers, photographs of the fields, the jimadores or harvesters working, collector bottles, antique displays of tools of the trade, live Blue Agave plants and more.

The first thing to greet you is this stainless steel still with the Virgen de Guadalupe etched boldly on the center front. Mexicans are still asking those of heavenly patronage to bless this beverage. On the top sides, Blue Agave plants are etched in as well.


Mule driven cart

The cart above is an antique. In years past, these carts would be loaded up with harvested pinas and brought to the distilleries by mules, oxen or horses. Carts are still used in fields today, if the terrain is such that trucks cannot reach the plants.


Blue Agave pinas after being harvested from the field

When the spines are hacked away, the center of the agave plant looks much like a pineapple - hence the word, pina. In olden days, these pinas would be slow roasted in a brick or adobe oven for 24 to 36 hours to process the natural juices and soften the fibers.

The consistent, slow cooking temperature of about 150*F keep the agave from caramelizing which would add a darker color and bitter flavor.


Only three or four more rotations and Billy will have this down!

After the pinas cooled for another 24 to 36 hours, they were crushed by a stone wheel such as the one pictured above. These stone wheels were driven by mules, oxen or horses until the fibers were pulverized and in shreds. These stone wheels, called tahonas, could weigh up to 3 tons.


If you look really hard you can see the chair she is sitting on. If you cannot see it perhaps you need more tequila!

There is a distinct tequila art culture displaying the effects, the joy and the history surrounding the beverage. This art culture is heartily embraced by the locals complete with awards given.

The Sauza distillery named La Preservancia

Sauza is another historic name in the tequila industry. In 1873, Don Cenobio Sauza bought his first distillery and started making mezcal wine. Some say he was the first to determine that the Blue Agave was the best maguey with which to make tequila, and the other distillers followed his lead.

Sauza was the first to export tequila to the USA when, in 1873, he sold three barrels to El Paso del Norte, The Passage to the North, or what we know as El Paso, Texas today.

These days, Sauza owns around 300 plantations of agave and is the second largest manufacturer of tequila.


Our tour guide at Sauza distillery, Karina Sanchez Huitron

We arranged for a private tour of the Sauza distillery, and Karina was our guide. Behind her you will see a commissioned oil painting that depicts the history and stages of  production in which tequila was made centuries ago.

 After being cooked in ovens, and crushed by the tahona, what was left of the pina was transported to fermentation tanks. The resulting juices were distilled to make tequila.

If you look closely at the fermentation tanks in the painting above, you will see one worker transporting the crushed agave into the tank, and another worker in the tank itself. Centuries ago, fermentation was done through bacteria, and the manner in which this bacteria was introduced into the vats was by having workers come in from a day in the fields and stand in the juices. The bacteria from their bodies mixed with the agave sugars and began the distilling process.


Sauza distillation tanks today

Of course, today, yeast is used for the fermentation process, and emphasis is placed on sanitation of the product and worker safety.

Sauza has a distinct manner in which it processes its tequila, different from the methods of ages past. Instead of roasting the pinas in an oven to release the sugars of the agave thereby giving a smoky taste to the resulting liquid, Sauza decided to keep the unique flavor of the agave plant itself. At this stage, the Sauza distillery shred their pinas and through steam and hot water, juices and sugars from the pinas are released. This non-roasting approach is considered a high volume method of production.


Entranceway out of the distillery and to the original home of the Sauza family

Quinta Sauza was built in 1836. Today, it is protected by World Heritage restrictions, where nothing is to be modified. It reflects the home as it originally was years ago.


Running fountain in Quinta Sauza

There is a curious historical fact about this home. The last woman to live here had no children to whom she could will her estate. Approaching the Cuervo family, she offered to sell her property to them, but was rebuffed. Apparently the rival tequila family thought the Sauza holdings could be purchased cheaply at auction since there were no direct inheritors.

The business plan backfired, and the home and gardens were willed to the servants.

Today, this prized piece of land sits in the Center of the Cuervo landholdings. The Cuervo family is the number one tequila manufacturing distillery in Mexico. Sauza, producing 23 million liters per year is the number two.


Gonza, the barrel maker

Tradionally, tequila was kept and transported in barrels. In the late 19th century, Cuervo was the first distillery to put tequila into bottles, but the barrel maker is still very much in demand even today.

All tequila is clear right after distillation and any subsequent color is derived from aging in wooden barrels or from additives.

Gonza shows his imported French, Canadian or American barrels

Reposado or anejo tequila is aged in white oak barrels stored in warehouses. This aging process smoothes out the fire of tequila and imparts a golden color.


Gonza's son cutting wooden pieces from used barrels

Used white oak barrels from North America or France are broken down, sanded and cut into smaller strips.


A closer look at hand cut wooden pieces for smaller barrels

Since these barrels have previously stored wine or other spirits, they have already been cured. Gonzo sanded and chipped away at a sample piece of wood, and the scent coming from the wood was very aromatic.


Nothing is wasted

In order for the narrow pieces of wood to bend properly into the barrel shape, the inside of each strip is chipped away at its center making the wood easier to form a curve.


A quick hammering and steel bindings

Wooden strips are fit into steel circular forms and pounded into a tight fit.


Barrel strips softening in hot water

The next step is to place the barrel into hot water to soften the strips so they can be bent into a round shape more easily.

Notice the fire under the steel drum filled with water.



After the partly finished wooden barrel has been soaked and softened, steel cables are wrapped around it. The steel cables are tightened and the remaining end of the barrel becomes narrower so that the last steel form around the barrel can be put into place.

Wood chips smoke the insides

The lip of the barrel completes the form. Then the dried barrel receives another touch: burning wood chips. This will add color and flavor to the stored tequila.


Gonzo burns a design into the barrel top

Barrels are made into popular 1 liter, 2 liter and 5 liter sizes. Larger barrels for distilleries are made as well. Designs are burned into the wood by hand.


Barrels almost ready for us

A hole is drilled into the center of the barrel to fill, where the tequila will be 'rested' (reposado) or aged (anejo).


Gonzo's barrel factory

Gonzo and his family have been proudly making barrels for five generations. He told us that he also makes these large barrels (pictured above) for the local tequila distilleries in the area and he has a thriving business.


An example of one famous distillery using these white oak barrels


Stunning surroundings of Cofradia distillery

Founded just over fifty years ago, Cofradia is a newcomer to the world of tequila and is now the 7th largest exporter of this distilled beverage. The name 'Cofradia' means brotherhood.


Don Carlos Hernandez, the founder of Cofradia


Blue Agave pinas being harvested in the fields

In order to be labeled 'tequila' there are certain requirements to be filled according to Mexican law. The key distinguishing identity is that it be made from 100% agave. Some bottles will put 100% agave azul, which means it is made from agave tequilana weber azul.  In order to be sold as tequila, it must be made only from this particular succulent, approved by government inspectors to insure purity, and be bottled in Mexico.

If the bottle is not labeled 100% agave, they are considered 'mixtos'. Up to 49% of the alcohol can be made from other sugars such as cane sugar. They have less taste than the agave sugars, and caramel and almond essence can be added for both color and flavor.

Mixtos are generally used for Margaritas and other mixed drinks. They are not sipped straight since their flavor is not prized.


Closer view of harvested pina

The agave tequilana weber azul has a lifespan of 8-14 years, depending on soil, climate and cultivation methods. It grows in developed fields on high plateaus in mineral-rich red soil and volcanic earth. There can be 1,000 to 2,000 agaves growing per acre.

The Blue Agave takes from 8 to 12 years to reach the stage where the sugars are suitable for fermentation. The more mature the plant is, the better its natural sugars.


Jimadore working in the field

Today, most fields are still hand cultivated. Traditional methods are passed down from generation to generation and some fields have three generations of harvesters working them.

Notice the shin guard that this Jimadore is wearing. Perhaps experience has taught him something. Those tools are razor sharp.


Gets paid by the pina

This harvester was a bit shy but it's possible that he didn't want to be disturbed in his production. He told us that, depending on the size of the plant, he could harvest 100- 200 pinas in a day.

A mature pina can weigh from 80 to more than 300 pounds.


A closer look

The Jimadore slicing tool cut through the succulent stalks like a knife though softened butter. We had never seen anything like it. There was no hacking, no jerking motion, no repeats;  just smooth swings one after another which removed the blue-green pencas.


Finishing one row, beginning another

It can be a long day in the fields. Row after row is harvested and the Jimadore is paid by the pina.

Fields are not irrigated. The agave plants depend entirely on the rainy season for their moisture. Irrigation experiments were tried, but the larger plants did not result in producing more agave sugars, so the technique was abandoned. 


Individual coas are kept razor sharp

When left to grow in the wild, mature agave plants produce a tall stalk with a flower on the end. These flowers are pollinated by long nosed bats to produce seeds so the plant can reproduce. As long as the shoot is growing, all the nutrients and life of the pina is being used up to support the flower.

In other words, as the stalk and flower live, the pina dies.

This is why the stalks on the agave plants in the orchards are cut before they take the nutrients from the heart, and the hearts are harvested at that time.


Blue Agave shoots

Another method of reproduction of this succulent are the shoots that the plant sends out when they are between 4 to 6 years old. When the shoots are about the size of a leek, they are transplanted, and the agave fields are replenished.


Billy tries his hand at pina harvesting - picking up some extra cash in retirement

When the plant is ready for harvesting, the carbohydrate-rich heart is cut from its roots. The Blue agave must be replaced with new shoots and the cycle begins again. In another 8-12 years that next crop will be mature.



Blue Agave fields

Since it takes so many years to harvest the pinas for tequila-making, alternate crops like corn and beans are often planted in between the rows of agave plants. This helps to rejuvenate the soil as well as bring in backup income from the fields.


Tools of the trade

The harvesting of the agave plant is still done by hand. In this manner, the size of the pina is controlled which is necessary to facilitate its consistent cooking in the ovens. Pinas of  differing sizes cause some plants to be overcooked while others are are under cooked.

Our guide, Alejandro, demonstrates the pina size that is preferable.


This series of machines shreds and crushes the pina after cooking

After the pina is harvested, it is brought to the distillery, baked, then crushed, shred and drained of its juices. This modern machine is a bit like a wood chipper. 


Five generations in the tequila business

Vincente Orendain acquired a distillery from Jose Antonio Cuervo in the 1830's. Through the generations, the Orendain family has bought and sold their factories and modernized them.

Tequila Orendain is the third largest exporter of mixto tequila.

El Lano is a boutique distillery that sells several brands of tequilas, including 100% agave azul.


An inside look

This is the distillery and the tanks are modern stainless steel.


Our guide at El Llano proudly explains the distilling process


Different bottles, different styles of tequila, same distillery

Each distillery that we visited made numerous labels to sell their product, some with as much as 80% of their tequilas being exported.

There are blancos and platas, mixtos, reposados and anjeos. Each style appeals to a different type of customer and their preferred taste.


Different brands, different flavors

A symbol of Mexican national pride, the production of tequila is now a thriving business, with most tequila being exported around the world. There are 911 different domestic brands of tequila, plus 158 labels used for export only.

How do you know what kind of tequila to buy?

Stay tuned for Part III, The Taste of Tequila!

 If you want to know more about the city of Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico, click here

For more stories about places of interest in Mexico, click here

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About the Authors

Billy and Akaisha Kaderli are recognized retirement experts and internationally published authors on topics of finance, medical tourism and world travel. With the wealth of information they share on their award winning website, they have been helping people achieve their own retirement dreams since 1991. They wrote the popular books, The Adventurer’s Guide to Early Retirement and Your Retirement Dream IS Possible available on their website bookstore or on

Retire Early Lifestyle appeals to a different kind of person – the person who prizes their independence, values their time, and who doesn’t want to mindlessly follow the crowd.

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