As they explore Mexico, curious visitors soon learn that agave is behind many of their favorite spirits. Native to Mexico and part of the Caribbean, agave was considered a sacred plant in pre-Hispanic culture and played a major role in Aztec religious ceremonies. It is believed that the first intoxicating beverage was made from agave plants as far back as 1000 BC. Today, the piña, or central core of this succulent plant, is distilled into sotol, mezcal, raicilla and tequila.
With the trend toward artisanal natural products, agave-based drinks are being produced on much larger scales than ever before to meet demand from trendy bars and consumers across the world.
Intricacies in plant varietals, distillation processes, flavor profiles and place of origin determine how the spirits are named and categorized. For example, tequila is only made from Mexican blue agave, just as champagne can only be from the Champagne region of France.
In contrast, mezcal, a colloquial term for any agave distilled spirit, can be made from about 40 to 50 of the 200 known species of agave. Raicilla can be made using different types of wild agaves.
Whether you are looking to expand your knowledge, experience a part of the culture or simply savor these popular alcoholic drinks, here are three destinations in Mexico where agave spirits reign supreme.
Luxury seating on the Jose Cuervo Express. Courtesy of Mundo Cuervo
JALISCO: THE BIRTHPLACE OF TEQUILA
Hop aboard the Jose Cuervo Express, also known as the Tequila Train, in Mexico’s western state of Jalisco to start your 11-hour culturally immersive tour from the bustling city of Guadalajara to the colorful town of Tequila. You’ll traverse expansive agave fields planted along the rolling hills of the Rio Grande Canyon and enjoy curated onboard experiences such as Mexican-style bingo, educational tastings, Mexican botanas (snacks) and cocktails prepared with Jose Cuervo tequilas.
On arrival in Tequila, you’ll be greeted by the sweet aroma of roasting agave emitting from the chimneys of two dozen distilleries in this UNESCO World Heritage town. The cobblestone streets and colorful buildings of Tequila also are a federally designated Pueblo Mágico, one of 132 towns in Mexico recognized by the government for their beauty, history or legends. Visit the National Museum of Tequila to learn about the history of this beloved spirit as well as Centro Cultural Juan Beckmann Gallardo to admire Mexican sculptures and art galleries.
The Agave Studio at Conrad Punta de Mita in the Riviera Nayarit. Photo by Joe Thomas
You can also take a behind-the-scenes tour of Jose Cuervo’s La Rojeña distillery to learn the proper way to sip tequila (hint: it’s not in a shot glass) from a professional Maestro Tequilero.
As guests of Jose Cuervo Express, you have a rare opportunity to visit the agave fields located outside the city and see how the delicate native blue-hued Agave tequilana azul weber plants are tended to and harvested year-round by local men called jimadores. Pop into a few of the bars to taste agave-based cocktails, and check out the gift shops selling crafts made from recycled tequila bottles and paper made from agave plants. Then settle in for the day’s finale: a musical journey and Mexican ballet folklore performed in an open-air pavilion by tap dancers and women in colorful long skirts.
In the evening, travel back to Guadalajara on the sunset train (or by chartered bus if you’re on the sunrise itinerary). If you prefer to linger to uncover the transformation of the small town for an evening filled with open-air food stalls, live music and congregating families, stay overnight at Hotel Solar de las Animas, which overlooks Plaza Principal, or the main square.
Auberge Susurros del Corazón resort in Punta de Mita, Mexico, hosts a Raicilla Master Class and community dinner. Courtesy of Auberge Resorts Collection
RIVIERA NAYARIT: SUN, SAND AND SPIRITS
The 200-mile stretch of coastline in western Pacific Mexico is known for its beachfront all-inclusive resorts and surfing villages. But this tourist getaway also attracts some of the best chefs and mixologists from around the country, making it a hip spot to taste agave-based spirits.
At the Agave Studio located at the Conrad Punta de Mita, take the hotel’s immersive journey through Mexico to learn about the traditions, growing regions and flavor profiles of six unique agave-based spirits paired with chef-driven antojitos (street food). You can also blend your own mezcal concoction to take home.
Discover the lesser-known spirit raicilla in the Raicilla Master Class at the Auberge Susurros del Corazón resort. Here, Ana Lopez and Juan Pablo, founders of the sustainably crafted La Reina brand, reveal the history of the spirit fondly known as “Mexican moonshine” for its forward flavors, and they demonstrate artisanal fire and in-ground oven cooking processes.
The learning portion of the class is followed by an exclusive community dinner. Once a month at the resort, you can also experience an emotional shamanic ceremony with drums, dance and raicilla tasting led by medicine woman Sandra Gutierrez.
The colorful old section of the city of Oaxaca. Photo by Eskystudio/stock.adobe.com
OAXACA: A CULTURAL CAPITAL
For generations, growers and distillers in the Zapotec mountains of San Baltazar Guelavila in the state of Oaxaca have contributed to more than 90 percent of the country’s mezcal production. Each July, communities around Oaxaca come together to celebrate the culture of mezcal with concerts, competitions, dances and fireworks at the annual Guelaguetza Festival and Feria Internacional del Mezcal.
Convite Mezcal was the first in the state of Oaxaca to introduce an intensive program to promote mezcal internationally. In addition to a four-room Airbnb, Casa Convite houses an exhibition room where you can learn the traditional process of producing mezcal, the sustainability of the Casa Convite brand and how they salvage endangered species of indigenous wild agaves.
Tours of the palenque (mezcal distillery) include tastings at different stages of production and directly from the barrel. Here, you can visit the wild agave plantations and soak up the backdrop of mountains and waterfalls as you enjoy a traditional barbecue lunch of chorizo, bean stew and handmade tortillas.
Back in Oaxaca City, sip Oaxacan mezcal straight up or blended in signature cocktails at renowned bars, tasting rooms and restaurants. Some of the best cozy settings, tasty food and people watching can be found at Sabina Sabe, Selva Oaxaca Cocktail Bar, Casa Oaxaca, Criollo, Restaurant Tierra del Sol and La Quince Letras.
As your cultural curiosity takes you sipping around different states, you will realize that agave is not just an ingredient for a spirit; it is a part of the history and culture of the Mexican people that connects everything from the gastronomy to landscapes.