Food & Drink

Tequila Tourism Is Exploding and You Need to Get Down There Now

Courtesy of Casa Noble

There are close to 30 tequila distilleries in the town of Tequila. That makes the town, with its population of around 40,000, remarkably dense with its namesake spirit, but it’s just one stop on Mexico’s Tequila Trail. Tequila is not only one of the fastest growing spirits in the world in bars and liquor stores—only Irish whiskey is growing faster. It’s also a rapidly growing source of tourism.

According to the Mexican ministry of culture, visitors to the Ruta de Tequila, which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006, increased from 131,000 in 2005 to 514,000 in 2010—an increase of almost 300 percent in just five years. Those numbers have continued to go up, and the area is currently hoping to hit 1.4 million visitors by 2020. If they get there, they would outpace all of Scotland’s whisky distilleries.

This massive growth in tequila tourism can be attributed, at least in part, to the spirit’s transformation from something you shoot during a night of wild partying into something you sip and savor as you would a good scotch or bourbon. Distilleries are leaning in hard to tequila’s reputation, creating experiences that are drawing in the agave curious from all over the world. “Mexicans make up a large percentage of those who come year-round,” says Jose “Pepe” Hermosillo, founder of Casa Noble Tequila. “But we also see a great number of Americans traveling specifically to experience Tequila and our distillery. We have even started to see more guests visiting from Europe, Asia and Australia in recent years.”

And, to take advantage of the influx of visitors, distilleries are finding creative ways for people to experience tequila that go well beyond the traditional tasting room. Hermosillo has made it so that his visitors never have to leave, as Casa Noble also operates a boutique hotel with visiting chefs and bartenders where every room is an oversized barrel. And while Casa Noble might prefer you stay forever, other distilleries want you on the move. A little more than a year ago, Herradura Tequila reimagined its Tequila Express—a luxe train that runs through the agave fields from Guadalajara to Amatitán. “We wanted people to experience the expressions in a totally different way,” says Herradura homeplace manager Denisse Sanchez, who also notes that Herradura alone gets 40,000 visitors a year. The hour and a half train trip includes cushy leather seats, flat screen TVs and private bartenders.

Distilleries are also luring visitors with distillery-only experiences. At Casa Noble, Hermosillo offers blending sessions during which visitors create their own tequila blend to take home, as well as night tours of its centuries-old facilities.

But tequila, unlike whiskey, offers a unique agricultural experience as well. Both Hermosillo and Sanchez emphasize the importance of walking the agave fields, which, in the spirits world, is an experience fairly unique to tequila. You don’t often hear bourbon makers wax poetic on tours of the corn fields or scotch makers excitedly showing off peat bogs. As Sanchez puts it, the goal is to create something totally immersive, so people don’t just experience how tequila tastes, but how it’s made—from the land to the still to the bottle.

Courtesy of Casa Noble

And then there is Patrón, which offers an extremely intensive experience to a small group of people every year. “It’s not really like a tourist visit,” says Antonio Rodriguez, Patrón’s head of production. For the last four years the world’s second largest tequila producer has brought bartenders, beverage directors and other people who, in one way or another, deal with tequila every day, to its fields, its distillery and its community. Visitors spend a day talking with agave growers and in the production facility where 10 tahonas, the massive volcanic stone wheels that crush the agave, work 24/7. But visitors also leave the distillery to see surrounding areas and are invited to participate in service with local food banks and other charitable organizations. “We want to do experiences that are as deep as possible,” says Rodriguez. “The most important thing to us are people and the community.”

Hermosillo feels similarly. “I think the spirit itself is initially what brings people to our distillery,” he says. “But teaching travelers about our heritage is extremely important to us...and it’s what keeps people coming back.” And if the numbers are any indication they’re coming back and then coming back again—and they’re bringing friends.