Honoring the Ancestral Tradition of Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico

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This post originally appeared in the February 17, 2024 edition of Eater Travel, dispatches from Eater staff about culinary destinations worth planning an entire trip around, direct to your inbox. Subscribe now.

Invisible to those around me, I could feel tiny tributaries of sweat beginning to creep down my backside. Standing outside under a blanket of blazing heat and looking ahead at a field filled with blue agave plants stretching towards an endless horizon, there was a certain peace here. Earlier that day, I’d traveled from my home in Atlanta to the state of Jalisco, Mexico, arriving in Guadalajara proper before journeying further and further away from those city limits, chiefly, to learn about tequila as a guest at the private, invite-only Hacienda Patrón located in Atotonilco El Alto.

Through the years, I’ve blithely joked that tequila makes me cry. Imbibing on the blue agave spirit does tend to inspire me to be more outwardly emotional than usual, and overall, the spirit isn’t my drink of choice. But being in the land of tequila and learning firsthand about the process, one could say I was inspired, and motivated to move past my perpetual tequila indifference.

A cacophony of sounds disrupted the serene silence as a jimador, someone practiced in the art of breaking down an agave plant for processing elsewhere, went to work. Wielding a hoe, he whacked the greenery over and over again with fervor until the bitter outward leaves began to peel away from the winter-white, pineapple-looking heart of the agave. His movements were so precise, his swings appeared to pare the plant like a hot knife sinking into butter.

Our guides had taken us on a tour of Patrón’s facilities and distilling process. It was only after I missed several cues that I realized it was my turn to get involved in the unearthing process. At the direction of the jimador, I shoved a metal tool that looked like a thermometer into the heart of one of the piñas he’d just finished cutting down. My guide quickly translated into English that the tool was used to measure the amount of sugar within the piña that had just been harvested.

Throughout the rest of my time in Jalisco, thought about what it took to make every tequila I drank. Beyond the labor itself, what stuck with me was how central ancestral tradition is to the making of tequila. But the one thing that stuck with me beyond the sightseeing and tasting of several tequilas within was how central tradition and ancestral practice is to the fruit of labor that is a bottle of tequila.

The practice of being a jimador is often generational; a father teaches the art to a son, nephew, or another family member, and when they are of age, they take the baton, making this trade their own. In areas that are otherwise unreachable — in valleys or on mountaintops — jimadores set out on a tequila quest in teams of up to seven people, filling trucks with piñas, that will be cooked, crushed, and fermented at distilleries before landing in a bottle for consumption and delight.

In a world where buzzy celebrity-backed tequila lines are on-trend, especially when viewed as another way of creating a lucrative income stream, there is importance in looking to the artisanal and indigenous practices that are the foundation of what it means to appreciate tequila.

What we drink and the food we eat are not merely touchstones of our tastes and preferences. They can also be a ritual of remembrance connecting us to those who came before us, those who studied a craft to become truly good at something. We eat, we taste, we drink in celebration of them and of ourselves. We honor them and ourselves in continuing to reach for our ancestral and cultural foods.

Tequila, and what unfolds in Jalisco every day in tribute to it, is a manifestation of routine, practice, and the art of commitment to craft. The experience was a good reminder that so many things we consume without thinking are the products of countless people’s passion and labor.

Nneka M. Okona is a Nigerian American freelance writer from and based in Atlanta. Her work focuses on food and travel and how race, culture, and history, namely of Black people, intersect with those two themes

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