The Ultimate Tequila Trail Travel Guide

Courtesy of Patron

When the average American dreams about sipping their way through one of the world’s great alcohol producing regions, places like Napa Valley, Louisville, Provence, Scotland or Tuscany are likely the first to come to mind. Yet while all those destinations are undoubtedly at the top of their respective games, they’ve also become major tourist hubs, their rustic barrel houses and tranquil vineyards all too often overrun with the wide-eyed and thirsty masses vying for extra samples and clutching selfie sticks. It’s enough to harsh even the most exquisite of buzzes.

Enter Jalisco, Mexico. Perched on the Pacific Ocean, this scenic state is rife with history, culture and, most importantly, loads and loads of tequila. And we’re not talking the swill you choked down during all those fateful college ragers. Many of the makers calling the Tequila Trail home are putting hundreds of years of experience and tradition to work, cranking out a variety of top shelf, 100-percent agave bottles from crisp, clean blancos to sultry, complex extra añejos. They’re also letting the public in on the fun, giving curious visitors a behind-the-scenes look at the time-honored production process. Add that to nearby Guadalajara’s multifaceted urban appeal and you’re looking at one stellar getaway.

The best part? The area is still relatively under the radar, making it the ideal time to get in on the ground floor of this boozy adventure. Here’s everything you need to know to plan the vacaciones de tu vida.

Start Your Trip in Guadalajara

The best (and pretty much only) way to start your adventure is via Guadalajara, Jalisco’s capital city and home to the state’s major international airport. But that’s not to say this lively, industrious town is merely means to an end. Guadalajara is a destination in its own right, and folks involved in the tequila industry love to sing its praises.

“Guadalajara is the best city in Mexico,” says Antonio Rodriguez, director of production at Patrón, who recommends making a beeline for the cafes, bars, street vendors and near-constant live entertainment along artsy Chapultepec Avenue. Spending an hour or two roaming this broad historic corridor is a great way to get your feet wet before making the Tequila Trail plunge. “You can find the perfect balance between traditions like mariachi, Charros, tequila and Mexican food and sophisticated food and vibrant people.”

Speaking of food, it’s everywhere. Gastronomy is a huge point of pride throughout all of Jalisco and that goes double when it comes to the Guadalajara area.

Courtesy of Patron

Where to Eat in Guadalajara

“For simple but truly delicious Mexican cuisine, head to Karne Garibaldi and order their beef stew, carne en su jugo,” instructs Barry Augus, founder and CEO of Tres Agaves Tequila. The stew in question is a rich, delicious broth teeming with shaved beef and bacon, and served with housemade corn tortillas slathered in pig fat—it’s basically a frosty Pacífico’s best friend. A meal at Karne Garibaldi isn’t just about the grub, though. “But be ready to eat as soon as you take your seat, because they’ve held the Guinness World Record for fastest food service since 1996.”

For a classier option, the sleekly-designed La Tequila Cocina Mexicana is a must. One look at its ridiculously well-stocked bottle collection—200 different tequilas plus dozens of other agave spirits from mezcal to raicilla—and you’ll know you’ve arrived. After a shot or two, you might even muster up the courage to try some of their fried cricket tacos.

Meredith Heil

What to Do in Guadalajara

Before you run for the hills, you’ll want to check out two important aspects of Guadalajara’s nightlife, both of which are greatly improved with a drink in hand: mariachi and lucha libre. For mariachi, it’s all about Casa Bariachi, a magical, technicolor wonderland where rainbow-hued paper lanterns crowd the ceiling, the Margaritas are as big as sombreros and guitar-strumming cantantes dressed to the nines croon from the wooden stage.

“Lucha libre can only be done right in Mexico,” adds Augus. “In Jalisco, the Arena Coliseo’s Tuesday and Sunday night shows are jam-packed with not only fierce and high-flying luchadores, but an equally as entertaining audience.” Sure, the dark, dingy venue might be off-putting at first, but the experience is definitely one for the books. Best to “when in Rome” this one; slug back some Coronas and join the hordes of costumed fans chanting for their favorite over-the-top wrestlers.

Courtesy of Tres Agaves

How to Get to Tequila

Once you’ve had your fill of city life, it’s time to grab your trusty steed—or rental car, whatever—and head off into the sunset, bound for windswept rolling hills, moonlit volcanic fields and the sweet, sweet smell of juicy piñas roasting away in giant distillery ovens. The town of Tequila sits about an hour and fifteen minutes drive from downtown Guadalajara. Car is the best and cheapest route, though if you’re interested in throwing down some cash, there are two luxury trains offering booze-fueled day trips. The Tequila Express hauls revelers from the capital to the Herradura distillery in Amatitán for a tour, tasting and lunch every weekend, while the Jose Cuervo Express ups the ante with a few different high-roller experiences, all including a visit to the brand’s palatial production facility, La Rojeña, as well as a dance performance.

Courtesy of Tres Agaves

What to Expect from the Town of Tequila

There are a few different hotel options in Tequila, including swanky newcomer Hotel Solar de las Animas Ramón, an airy, amenity-filled oasis complete with a central pool, rooftop bar, gym and quality restaurant in spitting distance of historic downtown. The town itself is postcard-level beautiful, with all the gorgeous churches, winding narrow roads and tucked-away taco stands you’d expect from small town Mexico. There are also two tequila museums, the brand-specific Sauza Family Museum and more general National Museum of Tequila, both perfect for soaking up a little pregame knowledge before setting out for the distilleries.  

One important note before we get to the juice: If you do anything, I mean anything, in Tequila, you absolutely have to hit up La Capilla. The king of all dive bars, this barebones cantina is a true industry darling. Aside from the requisite poster of dogs playing poker, chain smoking teens, mismatched chairs and soccer blaring from a corner tv, the real draw is beloved 95-year-old owner Don Javier’s signature cocktail, the Batanga. The simple blend of lime juice, blanco tequila and Coca-Cola with a salt rim is said to get its unreproducible zing from the long knife the barkeep uses to stir each concoction. It’s the stuff of legend.

Meredith Heil

Getting to and Exploring Tequila’s Distilleries

Next up: the distilleries! There are two ways to master the land, here, either on a guided group tour or on your own armed with a GPS and whatever sedan Hertz provided this time. Tour-wise, there are a few different companies to choose from, each offering stops at a handful of boutique and major distilleries around the area’s two major production regions, Los Altos (aka the Highlands) and the Tequila Valley. If you’re going that route, Experience Tequila is a trusted go-to, with its variety of multi-day excursions, packed itineraries and smart-as-a-whip guides. The biggest benefit to booking a set package is that it allows you entrance into distilleries that might not be open to the public, as well as trips into the fields and special demonstrations you might not get otherwise.

Solo adventurers shouldn’t despair, though, as there’s plenty to see and do off the beaten path. Tequila’s Hacienda La Cofradia, known for making Casa Noble among some 40 other labels, offers daily tours through its a massive complex, which not only houses a distillery but also a restaurant, succulent garden, duck pond, museum, its own ceramic factory and even a boutique hotel with four art-strewn casitas. Other easily-accessible facilities include Casa Sauza, where guests have the option of meeting a real agave farmer, called a jimador, and helping with the harvest; Jose Cuervo, which offers daily tours, lots of hands-on demos and an inhouse restaurant a bar; and Amatitán’s 256-acre Tequila Herradura, with its crash course in wild fermentation, towering clay ovens and green efforts like water treatment and composting plants. If you’re in it for the tastings, you really can’t go wrong with any of these heavy hitters.

Courtesy of Tres Agaves

For a taste of something on the (comparatively) smaller end of things, call ahead and book an appointment at La Alteña distillery or Hacienda de Oro. Stationed in the Highlands town of Arandas, La Alteña has been around since 1937 and is currently the force behind Tequila Tapatio, Villa Lobos and the award-winning El Tesoro, which makes a mean añejo. It’s old-school all the way—they cook in masonry ovens, extract sugars with a tahona wheel instead of a roller mill, and distill in copper rather than newfangled stainless steel. As for Hacienda de Oro, father-daughter team David and Iliana Partida helm the Amatitán operation and are responsible for a slew of respected brands in addition to the distillery’s eponymous flagship. You won’t find any fancy gift shops or white tablecloth dining here. Instead, the rustic 40-year-old stalwart keeps things technical, leading guests through each step of the process: steaming agave in massive steel autoclaves, milling the pulp, naturally fermenting the juice and finally collecting the finished product as it pours out of the modest still. Science geeks, this one’s for you.

Production methods vary from site to site, from the ways in which they harvest the agave, to how they roast it, how they extract the sugars, what kind of still they use, and how long the aged stuff sits in a barrel, so packing a few different outposts into a day’s work will give you a more comprehensive view of how the magic happens. The whole shebang is fascinating and is worlds apart from the whiskey, gin and vodka distilleries you might come across stateside. Even the most modern facility oozes with history, and watching a jimador prune a massive agave plant down into a bulbous piña with seemingly effortless precision, slicing into each hulking leaf as if it’s made of butter, is a sight you won’t soon forget.

Courtesy of Patron

At the end of the day, it’s the landscape that really makes the Trail. Looking out upon neat rows of blue Weber with a fresh Paloma in hand evokes a sense of serenity and wonder you’ll never find at some generic Cancun resort. “To really understand Jalisco, it’s so important to find yourself among the rolling fields of agave and their azure blue wash,” explains Augus. His Tres Agaves team is currently building out a brand new state-of-the-art distillery, nestled deep within the fields and slated to open to the public by the end of this summer. “Spending time in the region’s distilleries allows you to appreciate the deep, generational heritage of Tequila and its producers.” Salud to that.