By: David Othenin-Girard
K&L Staff Member
Visiting La Alteña distillery was truly a dream come true for me. Jalisco is one of the most interesting and dynamic places in Mexico and the drive up to Arandas was like a holy pilgrimage. What's striking about the drive from Guadalajara is how gradual the ascent to nearly 6000 is. You barely notice it. You also don't see a lot of Agave growing along the way, a sign that the agave shortage might actually be real. Once you've reach altitude, you begin to see tiny blue green dots contrasting the vibrant red earth. The tiny young agave planted in small fields near homes and around villages on any exposed patch, another sign that some locals are hoping to cash in on the current high prices of agave. Unlikely that they'll be getting the inflated price once those plants are mature, but the haphazard nature of the plantings mirrors the industry's crisis perfectly. Arriving at La Alteña, you notice the incredible security. High agave prices mean potential for agave thieves and our guide Carlos Camarenas eluded to the problem as we walked through the fields. Carlos is a wizard in the fields and his depth of knowledge is astounding. He jokes and smokes a cigarette and the green smell of cut agave wafts through the air. The striking red brick and open air distillery are exactly what you'd imagine an old tequila distillery to look like, blue agave stretches out in every direction. The old way of making great tequila isn't that complicated, but it's a lot of hard work. Simple tricks have made La Alteña more efficient, like driving the Tahona with a tractor instead of a donkey. A conveyor belt to lift the freshly cut agave to the ovens. A mesh bag to hold the bagasse in the fermenters for easy cleaning. The process is the same as it would have been when Don Felipe opened the distillery 80 years ago. We were offered 9 samples to select from when the tour was over, but they had another 40 cask samples awaiting our evaluation. IT was a race to find the best. Carlos had separated the samples into three flavor profiles going from lightest bodied to heavier. When I came across barrel 158 I knew instantly that we'd found a gem. Big bold nose of fragrant agave, steamed pumpkin, subtle mineral, deep floral and tropical fruit only accented in the most subtle way by nine months in oak. The palate was luxurious and rich, with an unexpected softness that belied the pungent qualities on the nose. The unprecedented purity of the spirit itself matched only by the purity of this most authentic of experiences.