Fortaleza, a journey to the city of tequila

of Federico Bellanca 22 novembre 2022


A light fog is hanging in the air and, looking down from the top of the weather tower on the hill, the agave fields look as though they're floating among the clouds. An illusion, of course, but the notion, however naive, is not entirely wrong. The city of Tequila, the Pueblo Magico, is located 1180 meters above sea level, and although a European’s naive eye may perceive the surrounding landscape as little more than hilly, we are actually at a considerable altitude.
"Remember to drink water," says a voice behind me, concerned that I may get dehydrated. I turn around and in the soft light of the Mexican morning shines the white smile, even more dazzling against his surfer's tan, of Mitch, American by birth but now inseparably tied to this land. He was the first to welcome me here, with his typically American young-forever attitude combined with the warmth of his adoptive Latin people. He guided me from the sprawling, teeming Guadalajara through the roads of Jalisco to this village of just over 40 thousand souls called Tequila. 

There are a few rare cases around the world where a product - or, more precisely, a designation - gains such a strong name that it eclipses its very origins. If I say Champagne, I’m sure the first thing you think of is a bottle, not a region in France. Tequila is an even clearer case in point. Its wide global fame is in sharp contrast with how little people know about the place where it was created and how it’s produced. For this reason, before going into Fortaleza’s production and history, I believe it's important to spend a few words about the destination of my trip.

While at first glance this town seems to have remained anchored to its past with its mix of local entertainment options and basic restaurants, the reality is quite different. Thousands of visitors flock to the town every year, a crucial source of income for the entire region second only to tequila. However, contrary to expectations, most aren't international tourists but travel here from the interior of the huge state of Mexico. If on the one hand this allows souvenir shops, distillery museums and large companies to thrive, on the other hand it also ensures a more authentic experience, preserves local crafts and traditions and keeps away major global restaurant chains, in an effort to keep the town's original soul pure.
Just like other small businesses, tequila distilleries are scattered around town amid newsstands, tire dealers and florists. 

A door opens on the street, offering a glimpse of a heap of fresh agave. A truck turns the corner to the clinking of the empty bottles crammed on the bed. A mural dries on a wall, and the woman it depicts is Mayahuel, the Aztec goddess of agave.
While in Europe the Chartreuse distillery has moved its centuries-old distillation tradition from the city center to the countryside due to urban safety regulations, here the problem seems far from even being imagined. And what's even more amazing is that here agave is not just distilled – it's still grown, which means the supply chain is very short and incredibly fascinating. This is especially true for those who still have a deep connection to the land like Fortaleza Distillery, which I will soon (please bear with me for a few more lines) talk about.

The history of tequila

Since the pre-Columbian era the Aztecs have been enjoying a slightly alcoholic drink made from fermented agave, still very widespread today, called Pulque. With the arrival of the first stills in the colonies in the first half of the sixteenth century, this light drink eventually gave rise to an agave spirit. 

The town of Tequila, which we mentioned earlier, was founded in 1512. Here in 1795 Charles IV of Spain would grant the Cuervo family the right to distill the spirit that was soon to take the same name as the town. In 1873 Don Cenobio Sauza, founder of the eponymous company, became the first to export tequila to the United States, thus setting the stage for what would prove to be a global success – a success that, however, requires rules to prevent counterfeited or inferior quality products. The first Tequila production specification was established in 1974. Among other things, it requires Tequila to be made exclusively from Azul Tequilera Weber agave as a raw ingredient and defines different types based on ageing: white, Reposado (at least two months in oak barrels), Anejo (at least one year) and Extra Anejo (at least three years). 

However, if on one hand the regulations set by the specification ensure high quality standards, on the other hand a growing worldwide "thirst" for tequila has led major beverage groups to invest in acquiring small, artisan brands and making them increasingly mechanized and standardized in quality. One by one, historic tequila brands were sold to multinationals, making what used to be an intangible heritage of ancient knowledge increasingly tangible – thus quantifiable, improvable and stripped of any poetry.

Fortalezza, or back to the roots

"NOT FOR SALE". The arrogant, confident, provocative words stand out on the chest of Stefano Francavilla, an Italian national who moved to Guadalajara several years ago. The t-shirt he's wearing is meant to be a humorous challenge from someone who is conscious of representing a family business that has been through good and rough times and has chosen where to stand. 

Remember Don Cenobio Sauza, who was the first to export tequila to the US in the late 1800s? After several generations, the company that bears his name was sold to a multinational, which carries on his work and has kept the original label. All happy then? Maybe, but some, like fifth-generation Guillermo Erickson Sauza, were still thirsty, though definitely not for money. He had a burning desire to keep alive his family's ancestral tequila tradition from before the advent of mechanization. And he planned to start from the last distillery he had left after the sale called "La Fortaleza" and the fields around it. He wanted to build back from the edge of the town, where a green sea of agave clashes against the houses, like huge waves of nature breaking on the rocks of human civilization. 

Here, amid gentle hills and artificial ponds, the agave plants grow, waiting to be harvested upon reaching their 6th or 7th year. This kind of timescale requires meticulous planning of crop rotation and careful management of every production step. One can fully understand the agricultural side of the process by walking around the fields with the boys who spend their days here. Some of the plants are so small they could be potted and kept on a balcony, others are so gigantic their leaves touch the neighboring plants, making it impossible to walk between them and forcing us to wind our way around the rows. 

Once harvested, the huge mature plants are loaded onto trucks and taken to the distillery where they are baked in large steam ovens for about 30 hours and then "juiced" using a giant volcanic millstone called tahona – just as it was done in ancient times, altogether abandoning automation. It's a process Guillermo and his family are particularly attached to – so much so that the large granite millstone is used as a symbol on labels, and in some way is also a symbol for the return to tradition advocated by the family. Day and night the stone continues its incessant grinding work covered in teardrops of agave liquid, leaving masses of dark, macerated fiber ready to be removed.

The dense juice from the pressing is left to ferment in large open vats, where it stews giving off the primordial, sour smell of life – a thick sugar foam that day after day creates its own endless magic. After 3 days, the liquid is finally transferred to the stills for the first distillation. The small copper pot still yields the first smooth, fragrant liquid about 16 ABV, the chrysalis of what will eventually become a butterfly before being bottled. The second step produces a strong spirit, sharp and full of character, at 57 ABV. Now in its new, bold, adult form, the product is ready to be savored by the most demanding palates. For a version that caters to the average drinker, the strength is normally lowered by a few points down to the standard 40 ABV we are all used to. 

The product is filtered using carbon, which keeps all of the flavor notes and fragrances unaltered. Proof of this is not so much the aged version as Blanco, preferred by Mexicans and purists alike. Aromas of citrus fruits and herbaceous notes are immediately perceivable together with an intense fragrance of agave, while in the mouth you can appreciate the complexities of baked agave with hints of vanilla, basil, olives and lime. 

What makes this spirit so unique? To borrow a word from wine jargon, we could say that the volcanic "terroir" where the agave grows certainly plays a role. At Fortaleza, you can live a unique experience, as fun as it is necessary to better understand the geology of the land. In the side of the mountain, next to a pile of agaves that seem to have been stacked by some Robespierre of the Asparagaceae, opens a dark, yawning cave. Entering by candlelight, visitors follow its underground tunnels to a ceremonial hall made of dark lava, where of course there is a bar. 

Toasting beneath agave roots feels unreal – after all, hardly anything in this whole story seems rational. Or perhaps it is: a few years ago, the price of agave was 3.5 pesos per kilo; today it's 28 pesos. While for years tequila has often been perceived as a basic product, partly due to some terrible drinking habits imported from the US and now also common in Italy like drinking "shots", today the spirit is increasingly valued for its amazing potential in mixed drinks and aromatic complexity when enjoying it straight, thanks among other things to a more appropriate price positioning. This is why it needs to be presented under a different light, with a new narrative and interpretation. Once again, the Sauza family has proven more far-sighted than others and has laid solid foundations for the family epic to go on for many more generations to come.