What to Know About Jalisco, Mexico's Premiere Tequila Region
The tequila production process is complex and diverse and the flavor profiles are often a result of the land where the blue agave is grown. Here's why tequila drinkers should know the difference between the Highlands and Lowlands of Jalisco, Mexico.
Much like Mexico itself, with its diverse, picturesque regions stretching from coast to coast, tequila is a complex spirit that encompasses the essence of the country.
Many tequila drinkers first tasted it as the main ingredient in the classic Margarita cocktail. Some avid tequila fans enjoy sipping it "neat," and experiencing the nuanced flavors that emerge from its expressions: the clear Blanco (un-aged); honey-colored reposado (aged in barrels for at least two months); and slightly darker golden añejo (aged for at least one year).
Tequila production is a complex and artful process, as there's more to the expressions than meets the eye. Climate, rainfall, harvesting methods, fermentation styles, and overall production all play a major role in the spirit's flavor profile. And in Jalisco, the legendary tequila-producing state in Mexico — specific location is another key factor.
The Two Regions of Jalisco
Situated in the western part of the country (about an hour's drive from the city of Guadalajara), Jalisco produces 90 percent of all the agave in Mexico. Home to many famous (and under-the-radar) brands, Jalisco is divided into two distinct regions: the highlands (Los Altos) and the lowlands (El Valle). Many tequila aficionados believe that the tequila produced in these regions is known for its own specific and identifiable flavor profiles —and this has been an ongoing debate in the tequila-loving community.
Once tequila fans learn more about this region and the actual lay of the land, there's no surprise that Jalisco's lowlands and highlands produce tequila with diverse flavors.
The Lowlands (El Valle)
The lowlands (home to familiar tequila brands including Cuervo and Tequila Herradura) are actually situated a bit higher than the name implies, as the area's elevation reaches nearly 4,000 feet. Home to the tiny town of Tequila, this area was developed in the 1600s and is known for its sprawling historic haciendas where the spirit was first produced. Tequila experts say the spirit produced here is known for its dry, herbal and earthy flavor profiles. The blue agave plants, called piñas, are grown in greyish-black soil — from an ancient volcano nearby. They are much smaller than those grown in the highlands, usually reaching about 60 – 100 pounds.
The Highlands (Los Altos)
Perched above the valley, and situated about 6500 above sea level, the area's highlands started producing tequila in the 1900s. Today, a number of noteworthy brands such as Patron, Tapatio, and Tequila Cazadores are produced here. In this region, the soil content is very different from the lowlands of the valley — it's a distinctive sandy, red clay with a high minerality. As a result, the blue agave plants are much larger, growing to an average size of 110 – 155 pounds, compared to the lowlands. Regarding the tasting notes, the tequila produced here is known to be more floral with elements of citrus and a sweeter finish.
Professional mixologist Manny Hinojosa is a native of Mexico City and the global brand ambassador for Tequila Cazadores, a premium brand that's been producing the 100 percent agave spirit with its own recipe for nearly a century.
He explained, "Both the lowlands and highlands of Jalisco are exceptionally beautiful areas, but the surroundings are very different. The lowlands are more historic and feature the traditional architecture of the old haciendas. Then, as soon as you drive into the hills of the highlands, the landscape completely changes. The combination of the red clay soil and the blue agave is really stunning and memorable. Also, the temperature is much cooler in the highlands — and that has an effect on the tequila production as well."
Hinojosa suggests that those interested in learning about tequila should visit the region when COVID restrictions are lifted. But meanwhile, he offers some advice for tequila drinkers to experience a taste of the highlands and lowlands — without traveling to Mexico.
Try a Tequila Tasting at Home
Hinojosa recommends an at-home tasting. He says, "Choose two tequilas — one from the highlands and one from the lowlands -- and be sure to keep the bottles at room temperature. I always like to drink my tequila neat — in a nice, big wine glass. This allows the essence of the agave flavors to shine through. The old-school way of drinking tequila in a shot glass with a lime wedge doesn't allow you to actually taste the elegant notes of the liquid." He added, "When you do this, it's best to first start with the Blanco (unaged) expressions, because this allows the authentic aromas and flavors to appear, and you can really compare and taste the difference between the lowlands versus the highlands. And be sure to sip a glass of water and bite a cracker without salt — so your palate is clean."
He mentioned that there's an incredible amount of behind-the-scenes work and dedication involved in tequila production. After all, it's not just the elevation that affects the beverage…it's the terroir, rainfall, temperature, sunlight, fermentation process — and each distillery has its own unique, secret recipes.
Hinojosa pointed out, "When you drink tequila, you are connected to the land and to Mexico. I don't think there is any other spirit in the world that represents a country like tequila represents Mexico. Tequila is a happy spirit — associated with history, food, friends, fun, and celebrations. Above all, no matter if it's produced in the highlands or the lowlands, it's always a good time."