Everywhere in Mexico has tequila, but there is only one part of Mexico that is Tequila.
In the US, tequila is currently poised to overtake vodka as America’s favorite spirit.
At least in the figurative sense, we’ve all been to Margaritaville. But it’s often forgotten that, just as champagne comes from Champagne, so tequila (by law) must hail from Tequila.
Tequila — a town surrounded by the red volcanic district of Jalisco 40 miles northwest of Guadalajara — is the home of blue agave.
Legend has it that the spirit was discovered hundreds of years ago when lightning struck some of the agave.
Today, due to its historic importance, the area is a UNESCO heritage site and, as you might expect, Tequila (the town) caters to the all-you-can-drink crowds and cruise ship day-trippers.
Tequila (the spirit) tasting trains can take you to the juggernaut distilleries, but there’s a much better way to see and taste your favorite shooter.
For a start, the small town is walkable and lively, lined with food trucks, drink stands and outdoor performers. It also boasts the world’s oldest tequila bar in La Capilla, a tiny unmarked backstreet hostelry which, despite its rustic looks, frequently makes the lists of the world’s best bars. It looks to be the kind of hideaway where you’d have found Hemingway or Kerouac, since the tequila here is poured straight down your throat.
Walk the cobbled streets from here over to the La Guarreña district and you’ll find a selection of distilleries, including El Tequileño, a boutique brand of eight distinct and delicious tequilas, the first of which was originally minted by founder Don Jorge Salles Cuervo over 60 years ago. He was able to get sole rights to the local volcanic spring water, giving the family-run business a pretty good head start in achieving a unique blend.
A trip to El Tequileño’s distillery is a must, since witnessing the manual hard labor behind the scenes is a revelation. Each agave grows for about seven years before being harvested by hand in the surrounding fields.
In a process unchanged for centuries, the plants are cut down to the stalk with machetes before being fed into huge ovens to start the magic, resulting in pools of sweet-smelling amber liquid that will be distilled into tequila.
Head out of the sun and into El Tequileño’s cool tasting room to sample the goods, including the world’s first Reposado Rare, created by El Tequileño’s third-generation master distiller Jorge Antonio “Tony” Salles. Reposado means “rested” and this 100% agave liquor spends six years languishing in huge American oak pipons (25,000-liter casks) to get its unique, deep flavor.
You can also sip on the limited edition Sassenach Select — a smooth reposado tequila launched in collaboration with “Outlander” actor Sam Heughan, who shares a passion for boutique liquor, having launched his own Sassenach whisky in Scotland in 2020.
No need to make this a passing trip, either, since El Tequileño now boasts the newly opened Casa Salles Hotel Boutique, right on site.
Once a tasting room also used for family gatherings, the renovated, compact space sits among cool mango trees clustered around an ancient 40-foot rubber tree. The relaxing courtyard also boasts a serene pool, all belying the industrial machinations just behind the tall brick walls.
Inside, the space is modern with clean lines, offering large rooms in neutral palettes with thoughtful small touches, such as notebooks created by using the waste fibers from the tequila production.
With just 25 rooms — the best ones have balconies that face the pool and courtyard — Casa Salles offers a personal and intimate experience with a blend of local chic.
The on-site restaurant, Mango Cocina de Origin, was designed by Cuban artist Rafael San Juan, and is where Executive Chef Sergio Perez creates deliciously fresh dishes, from barbecues to seasonal street food-inspired tasting menus and five-course dinners complete with, of course, tequila pairings.
This is the perfect one-stop shop for a bachelorette party or wedding — after all, you’re never going to run out of cocktails — with buyouts at an affordable $5,800 starting point.
Add a plated three-course dinner and a five-hour premium bar, and prices start at $10,522.
It can be a bit too easy to over-indulge, though, so what about the morning after?
A treatment in the onsite Reposado spa (“rested” — get it?) could be just the thing, or grab some local coffee and head to the rooftop for an early yoga session. Flocks of green parrotlets fly by as you strike your warrior pose and realize it’s … well … just another Tequila sunrise.
And there’s an earworm that will stay with you all day.
Room rates at Casa Salles start at $230 per night.