TEQUILA, Jalisco — Near the town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, the highlands are as sandy as gladiolus fields before rain. The sand and sun combine to provide perfect conditions to grow the blue agave plant.

It has something to do with the dry soil, blistering sun, mountain breezes and the effect all three have on the ancient plant. That “something” transforms a simple agrarian area into the only internationally recognized appellation for the production of tequila.

The harsh environment challenges the plant to survive, at least for eight years and possibly 14, before it is ready to be harvested. And survive it does.

Jimadore’ at work, La Cofradia, Tequila, Mexico
Jimadore at work, La Cofradia, Tequila, Mexico
Photo: Group Tour Media/Mary Lu Laffey

The planting, watching and harvesting has been going on for more than 9,000 years or to approximately 7,000 B.C. — a humbling thought as I walked toward the fountain at the center of the courtyard at La Cofradia.

La Cofradia, a blue agave grower and tequila distiller, participates in La Ruta del Tequila, a program that promotes agricultural tourism.

A medium-sized artisan distillery, La Cofradia is located on a plateau above the town of Tequila. To age the tequila, the distillery uses organic agave, a triple distilling process and virgin French-oak barrels. La Cofradia is more than 50 years old; the town of Tequila was established before the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s.

From the town, the blue agave appellation stretches through parts of five Mexican states, but it is Jalisco that is responsible for 99 percent of the tequila production.

Anything grown elsewhere is just not tequila, Roy said as he tapped the curved brim of his hat. Roy is a tour guide for La Ruta del Tequila.

La Cofradia is one of the many tequila producers in Jalisco. Like the bigger names of Cuervo and Sauza, La Cofradia offers tours and a tasting room. Guests arrive by shuttle in trolleys, tour buses and some by car.

One sure way to recognize true tequila, Roy told us, is to read the label. Look for CRT certification from the Consejo Regulador del Tequila or Tequila Regulatory Council. Without a CRT designation, what’s in the bottle isn’t true tequila.

The tour begins with a mango juice slushy, made possible by the 100-year-old mango trees towering above us. Each year in June, the fruit will be ripe enough to pick. At the moment, an occasional mango free falls to thump onto the patio or kersplash in the reflecting pool — much to the chagrin of the ducks.

Roy leads us from the comfort of the shade into a small demonstration field where we meet Joseph, a jimadore.

Harvest and history

A jimadore or “jima” is a skilled worker who uses a coa to cut the sharp, spike-like leaves from an agave plant to access the piña, or juicy, pineapple-like core bulging at the center of the leaves.

A coa has a broom-like handle topped with a blade sharpened into a round disc. Once the sword-like leaves are cut back, he unearths the piña and trims the remaining leaves.

On average, a jima can harvest a piña in two minutes or less. A single piña can weigh 80 to 200 pounds.

At the end of a workday, Joseph will have unearthed one and a half tons of piñas. At La Cofradia, 20 jimadores work the 1,730 acres.

Archaeologists say the process from field to fermenting hasn’t changed much since the Aztecs prepared the piña’s juice for their leaders, calling it “honey-water” because of its sweetness.

When the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s, they renamed the plant to agave, the Greek word for “noble.”

Once the Spaniards started to distill the honey-water, the drink also was renamed. This time for the place where the process happened, Tequila, the same town that is found at the base of the plateau today.

Modern techniques

Mango trees in courtyard, La Cofradia, Tequila, Mexico
Mango trees in courtyard, La Cofradia, Tequila, Mexico
Photo: Group Tour Media/Mary Lu Laffey

Modern production starts with an industrial steamer to caramelize the sugar in the piñas and break down the fibrous hearts. Each of us chewed a piece of cooked piña, being careful not to swallow the sugary fibers. The texture is much like sugarcane and is as sweet too.

Juice is extracted from the cooked piñas for fermentation and then distillation.

In one day, La Cofradia produces 22,000 liters of tequila. About 70 percent of their product is exported. Some tequila remains clear; others age in barrels to a golden hue.

Sip to taste

Walking toward the tasting room, we passed rose gardens, paddle cactus beds and more mango trees before stopping at the site’s museum, which honors its founders and farming. Tools, an art gallery and a collection of rare bottles also are displayed. La Cofradia’s artisans create customized bottles for its collection of tequilas.

La Cofradia’s setting among the mango grove was not lost on the owners. No tree was moved or removed for construction. To the contrary, when a cellar was needed to store tequila barrels, an aboveground facility was designed for fear of disturbing the roots of the trees.

Adios

On the 45-minute ride returning to Guadalajara, the chatter on the motorcoach was all about tequila, peppered mostly with “Who knew?”

Before a morning on La Ruta del Tequila, most of us hadn’t realized the importance of the blue agave plant as an agricultural product. Let alone the position that it holds in employing the area residents in Tequila or the role its honeyed juice played in the history of the Western Hemisphere.