In Tequila, Mexico, at Fortaleza Distillery

In a Guadalajaran cemetary

Agave fields on Fortaleza grounds

Fortaleza is truly a special tequila. On my recent visit to Tequila, Mexico, this distillery enchanted with its agave covered hillsides and haunting caves. Fortaleza means fortitude, though in Mexico, you’ll find their bottles labeled Los Abuelos in memory of the grandfathers of Guillermo E. Sauza, the fifth generation producer who passionately runs Fortaleza by old world methods. He comes from tequila royalty as a Sauza… yes, that Sauza (his family sold Sauza back in the ’70’s so don’t attribute the current quality level to them). Despite offers to be bought out by major tequila companies, Guillermo refuses, running his little distillery with a primary focus on quality and historical production. Here are just a few highlights of my visit over Day of the Dead in November.

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS at the distillery

Entering Fortaleza’s caves

The workers of Fortaleza and their children threw us one unforgettable Day of the Dead party. They exhibited impressive effort in a play performed under the stars of the distillery grounds. Tacos were filled with fresh-grilled chorizo and beef. A woman squeezed dough into a giant vat of bubbling oil, making the best churros I’ve ever tasted. Young men serenaded us with guitars while impromptu dancing erupted. Palomas (tequila and grapefruit soda), Mexican beers, and of course, tequila flowed. The caves glowed with candles, friendly skeletons and the occasional bat. We caroused, celebrated, sang by a campfire, and reveled in the magic of a night that could not have been recreated elsewhere.


Sauza family grave

In a surreal moment, I took in sunset at the Panteon de Mezquitan cemetery in Guadalajara with Guillermo Sauza. We stood at the grave of his great great grandfather Don Cenobio, the first to export tequila to the US in 1860’s, of his great grandfather, Don Eladio, and grandather, Don Javier, who carried on the tradition. Crumbling graves huddled in a maze of statues and crypts recall European cemeteries. But unlike those hushed sanctuaries, this graveyard swarmed with local families, music streaming from loud speakers, food for sale.

Guillermo pours

We stood over the Sauza grave ablaze with orange flowers and streamers. Guillermo poured us shots of Fortaleza blanco while making a toast to his lineage. Over their graves we respectfully but joyfully partook of the fruit of their talented labor.

From a place of death, I walked away having breathed in life, the riches of shared gifts and family.

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Sifting through agave

Think old world tequila production practices: small copper pot stills, mature agave plants steam-cooked in a brick oven to release natural sweetness, then crushed by a volcanic stone wheel pulled by a man-driven tractor in a circular pit.

Mules used to pull that two-ton wheel but now a small tractor takes care of the heavy crushing. Two men still follow behind, sifting through the fibrous mash to achieve the right texture.

The pot stills are labor-intensive being the smallest I’ve seen at a distillery of Fortaleza’s output. They double distill, then age in American oak in reused whiskey barrels.

GLASS-BLOWING (of Fortaleza bottles) in TONALA

Glass-blowing in Tonala

In Guadalajara’s Tonala district, Fortaleza’s beautiful, hand-blown bottles with agave top are created. Hipolito Gutierrez, a third generation glass-blower, holds the Guinness World record for largest hand-blown bottle and runs this Tonala shop. Watching Fortaleza’s bottles being made is a mesmerizing dance of deft and delicate maneuvers. One misstep would lead to a serious burn as artisans flit between fire and searing hot molds with ease. I attempted to blow a glass myself, finding the greatest amount of breath I could muster was far from sufficient to fill even half a bottle with space. The skill required to blow continuously and fully is akin to the control Satchmo himself needed to play his trumpet.


Mountains of agave

For those wanting to explore the riches of Tequila themselves, I met Clayton Szczech of Experience Tequila while in Mexico. Clayton regularly leads tours in the area, filling a rare niche for knowledgeable, passionate expertise on the region without rigid schedules and touristy stops one normally associates with a tour group. He purposely keeps it small, tailoring it towards the needs of each individual group. Clayton has good relationships with the distilleries (certainly with Fortaleza), maintaining a relaxed stance, as if traveling with friends, which, in fact, you just may become.

For more photos, see my article in the SF Guardian and also my three-page article in the January 2011 issue of 944 magazine.