Thanks to Facebook, I now have hundreds of “friends” I wouldn’t know from Cantinflas.
One day a new one popped up by the name of “Caballito Cerrero,” which happens to be the brand name of spirits made in La Barranca de Tecuane, a place I believe may be the cradle of tequila-making in Jalisco. So, I immediately wrote to my new friend: “Hello Caballito … Could you possibly help me visit the ruins of La Taberna del Tecuane?”
To my delight, back came the reply, “Of course, John, when do you want to go?”
The Tecuane Canyon lies five kilometers north of Amatitán, which is located 32 kilometers northwest of Guadalajara on “libre” Highway 15. A narrow road, sometimes cobblestone, sometimes dirt, gives you a glorious view of the valley as it takes you down to the Santa Rita Distillery, home of … you guessed it: Caballito Cerrero Tequila. Note that this road is only for high-clearance vehicles!
At the entrance to Santa Rita, we met Don Rosario Villagrana, who told us to drive another 285 meters down the road to the spot where the tour begins.
The ruins of the old taberna are completely enclosed by a stone wall topped with coils of razor wire. We passed through a gate and as we walked up to a wide, flat meadow, Don Rosario told us this place had been built sometime in the 1600s, but the earliest written documents mentioning it are dated 1723, when the Spanish Crown granted permission to produce “vino de los indios” here. Now vino means wine, but in Mexico this word is still used today to cover any sort of alcoholic drink. The implication here is that agave spirits could be consumed by indigenous people while colonists were expected to drink wine and brandy imported from Spain.
Don Rosario, we learned is “El Güero” (Whitey) to all his friends. He led us to a round pit whose walls were completely covered with a layer of volcanic rocks. This, he told us, was the horno or oven where the agave hearts were cooked. The procedure, he said, was to build a huge wood fire inside the pit, and when it was reduced to embers, the agave hearts were piled on top of the coals and covered with bagasse, which, in turn was covered with banana leaves – and finally, dirt was piled on top of everything, producing a very large mound.
What we were looking at is the pre-Hispanic oven, which the Spaniards later replaced with the sort of oven we are familiar with: an enclosure heated from beneath.
Next to the pit, on the natural stone surface, was a flat circle where a huge stone wheel – called a tahona – was used to mash the cooked piñas. “This wheel was turned by animal power,” said El Güero, “but there’s an older one here which is much lighter and was probably pushed around by humans.”
Just below the cooking and crushing area, there is another flat space where 44 fermentation pots have been carved into the living rock. Most of these holes are big enough to hold 3,000 liters of sweet, fermenting agave juice. The rock is called tepetate, famous for being soft enough to carve, but impermeable to liquids.
According to Don Rosario, the pots were filled in two ways: first, the sugary, crudely mashed fibers from the crushing circle were carried down here and placed in one of the natural rock containers, into which a naked man would jump and then separate and squeeze the fibers even further with his hands and feet.
Secondly, juice from above would reach the pots “assisted by gravity,” this because the crushing takes place on top of the impermeable tepetate stratum. “It would ooze out right here,” said our guide, “and into the pots it went.” Water was then added to each pot and better-left-unmentioned ingredients were added to initiate fermentation. The area was probably roofed to keep rain out of the pots.
Further downhill was the distilling area, situated alongside a small aqueduct which brought spring water to cool the alambiques or stills, which the Arabs had brought to Spain and which the Spaniards brought here to El Tecuane.
Don Rosario told us that the contents of one fermentation pot (3.000 liters) would, at the end, yield from 80 to 100 liters of “destilado de agave” as he called it, popularly known as tequila today, but a term frowned upon by the townspeople of Amatitán, who, over the years, have argued that the distillation of the Blue Agave originated with them and probably right where we were, in El Tecuane Canyon.
These days, adults must pay 300 pesos per person for the combined tour of the old taberna ruins and the Santa Rita Distillery. Of course, tequila tasting is included in this fee. El Güero says anyone who shows up at Santa Rita’s gate can have a tour on the spot, but you can greatly improve your chances of making this happen by contacting his son Jesús at 332 013 3530 (using Whatsapp) and making an appointment at least a day in advance.
Note that there is no mobile service in Tecuane Canyon…but they do have internet!After visiting the old ruins, we toured the modern distillery of Santa Rita. This establishment was started in 1873, once again utilizing pots (60) carved in the tepetate rock. Today giant metal vats have replaced those holes and modern techniques are used to produce Caballito Cerrero, which means “wild horse,” a free-spirited creature which “has no need of
herraduras (horseshoes),” a play on words referring to a squabble in the family which originally owned Herradura Tequila in Amatitán.
Finding Santa Rita is easy with Google Maps. Just search for “Balneario y Criadero de Mojarra.” When you reach this fish farm, continue downhill 280 meters to a big white building, which is Santa Rita, but don’t forget that you need high clearance on this road! Driving time from Guadalajara is just over one hour – double that if you are coming from Lakeside.