A Whisky Lover's Guide to Visiting Tequila Country

An agave field at Fabrica Jose Cuervo-owned La Rojeña Distillery.

A Whisky Lover's Guide to Visiting Tequila Country

February 15, 2023 –––––– Larry Olmsted, , , ,

Tequila is made only in Mexico—and primarily in the state of Jalisco, which lies in the center of the country like a beating heart. Like so much of the Mexican countryside, Jalisco is remarkably scenic, offering views of high mountain ranges and scrubland, rolling fields of blue agave and Pacific Ocean beaches. While best known for tequila, Jalisco is also the birthplace of Mariachi music, whose singers will serenade you on many occasions during your visit.

Jalisco’s charming town of Tequila is to its namesake spirit what the town of Sonoma is to its surrounding wine country, and is the heart and soul of the region’s production. Located only 40 miles northwest of the cosmopolitan city of Guadalajara (population 1.5 million), Tequila is home to La Rojeña, Latin America’s oldest distillery (1798), and the only one of three distilleries owned by Mexico’s largest tequila maker, Jose Cuervo, that offers tours. With its hotels, restaurants, and attractions, Cuervo is the big player in town. But there are plenty of other distilleries in the town of Tequila, all within walking distance of one another, from Cuervo and Sauza to artisanal producers like Fortaleza and the local favorite, El Tequileño, far better known in Mexico as the “tequila of Tequila.” Almost all offer tours, many with options for reserve tastings, VIP experiences, tours with lunch, and even bottling your own tequila. The most notable producer without tours, Tequila D’Reyes, says that will change soon.Hacienda Patrón BEN OLIVARESHacienda Patrón, the headquarters of Tequila Patrón, in Atotonilco El Alto, Jalisco. (Photo by Ben Olivares)

The town of Tequila has undergone a renaissance over the past few years as its tourism growth has exploded, driven by visitors from the U.S. and Mexico. Like California wine country, it has become a hot spot for weddings, with gala events held nearly every weekend. All this change has created an incentive to build new hotels, restaurants, and other amenities—which means there has never been a better time to visit. Tequila is also an excellent value proposition, and if you do it right, the fun starts even before you arrive.

Guadalajara is the gateway, and its proximity to tequila country makes the trip easy, either by rental car or one of many tour companies. Bargain seekers can simply book one of more than a dozen daily scheduled departures on the Tequila Plus bus, which has AC, HD movies, reclining seats, takes just over an hour, and costs about ten bucks—round trip ( For actual tours with round-trip transfers, distillery visits, guides, and more, there are many operators in Guadalajara. Viator’s most popular and highly rated fullday tour takes small groups in minivans with hotel pickup and includes the Cuervo tour and tasting, visits to agave fields outside town, and time for lunch and shopping ($75).width=""A flight of tequila served on the Tequila Express. (Photo by David Sayeg Lozano)

But perhaps the most fun way to get there is the Jose Cuervo Express—an offering of the Tequila Express—a full-sized vintage train, reminiscent of the Orient Express. Its big drawback is the limited schedule, as it operates only on Saturdays, but it’s a trip worth taking. Not surprisingly, when you ride the Tequila Express Train, day drinking is encouraged, and even the entry-level package in the Express coach ($126), with its impressive wood interior and leather seating, includes a guided onboard tasting. Tickets also include a La Rojeña Distillery tour, a visit to the new town Cultural Center (funded by Cuervo), free time for lunch and shopping, a musical performance, an agave field tour with machete harvesting demonstration, and the return via bus. All the train packages are also available in reverse, with a bus to Tequila and sunset rail returns to Guadalajara. There are four levels of coaches: Express, Premium Plus, Diamond, and the Elite Wagon. Premium Plus and Diamond have fewer seats, more luxurious interiors with tables, more elaborate onboard tastings, snacks and cocktails, higher-end distillery tours with reserve tastings, and other extras, while the new Elite Wagon features a three-glass, guided educational tasting of Reserva de la Familia tequilas, plus an open bar with specialty crafted cocktails ($160). There is little price difference between the coaches, so you might as well trade up and travel in style.

Traditionally, most tours have long been day trips, but there is so much to see and do in tequila country that it no longer makes sense to visit and not stay there. Today the town easily warrants a two or three-night stay and has become a destination even from the east coast. In addition to distillery tours, other top area attractions include horseback riding in the agave fields and the locally beloved (but long) hike to Los Azules Waterfall—the Blue Falls—which has been called Tequila’s best-kept secret. You can swim in a pool at the base; it’s a three-and-a-half-hour round trip that you can do solo, but there are plenty of local guides for all area activities. Your hotel concierge can book those, and prices are very reasonable. The other top hike is up to the rim of the extinct 9,000-foot Tequila Volcano that towers over the area. The full hike is an eight to nine hour round trip, but many opt for guides to drive up to just half an hour below the peak to enjoy the stunning views with far less effort.Guachimontones Pyramids SOLLINA IMAGES/TETRA IMAGES/GETTY IMAGESThe Guachimontones Pyramids are among the most exquisite archeological sites in the country. (Photo by Sollina Images/Tetra Images/Getty Images)

One day trip not to be missed is the Guachimontones Pyramids, about 45 minutes outside of town. This is one of the finest archeological sites in Mexico, and is so recently discovered (excavation began in 1996) that it’s relatively unknown outside the region. Not actual pyramids, these are more like wedding cakes—stone structures of concentric circular terraces, ten “pyramids” in all. The largest one has twelve tiers and stands five stories tall. The site’s origins are largely unknown, though it is believed to be pre-Aztec, occupied from around 350 BC to 350 AD. Architecturally, it’s completely different from the more famous ruins at Teotihuacán and Chichen Itza. As with other area attractions, lots of local tours are available and affordable.

Culture Abounds

The town of Tequila itself enjoys Mexico’s highest cultural designation as a Pueblo Magico, or Magical Town. Guided historical walking tours are popular, though it is easily explored without a guide. Most of the distilleries are located along the main drag, with the town’s square—filled with food, drink, and shopping options—right in the center.

Cuervo recently opened the Juan Beckmann Gallardo Cultural Center in the town square, with a mission to disseminate, promote, and preserve Mexican culture, and in particular that of the tequila-producing region through art, cultural, and historical exhibitions. Not to be outdone, Sauza, whose distillery La Perseverancia opened in 1873 and has its own nearly 40 year old family museum devoted to the production and promotion of tequila (temporarily closed since the pandemic hit). The National Museum of Tequila is also in the main square.Town of Tequila BEN OLIVARESThe town of Tequila has Mexico's highest cultural designation, Pueblo Magico. (Photo by Ben Olivares)

This tourism rebirth arguably can be traced to 2014 when the venerable family-owned tequila Orendain opened its new modern distillery, La Mexicana. The place has since given more than half a million tours, and claims to be the country’s most visited distillery. In 2015, Cuervo opened its luxury hotel, Solar de las Ánimas. Based on traditional Mexican architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries, it features 93 rooms decorated with colorful tiles, fountains, exposed wooden beam ceilings, and arched stone doorways in the center of town. It boasts a spa, sauna, fitness center, and popular rooftop pool, with the open-air Sky Bar offering direct views of the Tequila Volcano. Inside is an upscale cocktail bar and the fine dining La Antigua Casona, generally considered the best gourmet spot in town. Cuervo’s smaller and less opulent Hotel Villa Tequila, set in a large 19th-century home with two restaurants, has not yet announced a reopening from the pandemic closure.

Most recently, local brand El Tequileño opened its own luxury boutique hotel, the 25-room Casa Salles, which opted for contemporary design instead of the traditional Mexican heavily tiled model every other hotel in town employs. It sits directly across from the distillery on a large plot shaded by 150 year old mango trees that surround an outdoor pool, and includes a top-notch fine dining spot of its own, Mango Cocina de Origen, plus a cocktail bar and spa.

Another in-town distillery, La Cofradia, owns the kitschy Matices Hotel de Barricas, where the handful of “rooms” are in freestanding giant wooden barrels located on the distillery grounds. Another new boutique hotel, the 80-suite HS Hotsson Boutique Casa Newton, is under construction and scheduled to open in early 2023, with a restaurant, bar, gym, and spa.Juan Beckmann Gallardo Cultural Center ADRIAN IBARRA/EMOTION PHOTOGRAPHYInside the Juan Beckmann Gallardo Cultural Center. (Photo by Adrian Ibarra/Emotion Photography)

After the day trippers depart, Tequila becomes very tranquil at night, and dinner at one of the main hotels is the best option. For locals, lunch is the big culinary event, and in Tequila that often means one of the tempting stalls at the Mercado de Comidas food market in the town square—better known as Taco Alley. One notable exception for sit-down lunch or dinner is Fonda Cholula restaurant, flagship of the globally beloved hot sauce brand Cholula, once owned by Jose Cuervo. The dishes are pretty basic—tacos, enchiladas, chips, and such—but it’s the brand recognition that pulls in diners, and every sauce flavor is offered.

Cuervo’s La Rojeña is the most commercial distillery tour in town, yet still a must, with five levels, from the most basic group tour ($13) to the top-tier Maestro Dobel Blending experience, which adds tours of the Reserva de la Familia cellar and the original tahona (millhouse), a guided tasting of the Maestro Dobel lineup, and an expert-led blending seminar with a one-liter bottle of your own concoction to take home ($115). Tiers in between include some of these extras: deeper tours, elevated tastings, the blending and bottle experience, and the option to tour the agave fields. Cuervo’s giant retail store is unequaled in its variety of gifts, logo ware, local foodstuffs, and cocktail accessories. It offers exceptional prices on top-shelf options, gift packs, and bottles typically not available in the U.S. For instance, Reserva de la Familia reposado, aged in three different barrels, is extremely allocated outside Mexico and hard to find. When you can get it in the U.S., it sells for about $75, but is priced at under $60 at the Cuervo shop.Cantarito is a local signature cocktail in Tequila. BEN OLIVARESThe Cantarito is a local signature cocktail in Tequila. (Photo by Ben Olivares)

Most of the distilleries have retail shops with good prices and rare or special bottlings. Many of these are scattered across the region, but there are numerous tequila specialty shops in town, such as The Station (La Estacion Tequilas & Mas) which has more than 50 varieties, with several stores around Tequila. The duty-free allowance for the U.S. is one liter per person. If you declare more, excess duty may be collected by Customs, and the FAA limit on alcohol in your luggage is five liters per person.

The Cuervo visitor center also has a public watering hole, the Margarita Bar. But Margaritas in Tequila are the sole province of American tourists, and the official town drink is the Batanga, a cocktail of tequila, fresh lime juice, and Coca-Cola. La Batanga was invented at the town’s oldest bar, La Capilla, which is the place to have one, though every bar in town serves its version with a tequila of choice. La Capilla has been using Tequileño blanco, made just down the street, for all of the 60 years since they created it. The other local signature cocktail is the Cantarito—fresh orange, grapefruit, and lime juices, with a healthy pour of tequila, topped with grapefruit soda and served in glazed clay cups. Cantarito stalls ring the main food market. But like La Capilla, there is one classic spot: Cantaritos el Güero, a massive openair roadhouse 10 minutes outside town (take a taxi) that jams in 3,000 people on weekends and sells clay cups that you keep refilling, in every size from coffee mug to punch bowl.

Tequila’s other big distillery, Casa Sauza, offers three versions of its large-scale tour (which all include a mix-your-own Cantarito), while the higher tiers let you plant your own agave and/or take home a souvenir bottle. The most elaborate of the small tours is at El Tequileño, which recently upgraded its offerings in conjunction with the opening of the new hotel, including a dedicated bar and tasting room that debuted in February.

“We wanted to create an experience where people could learn about tequila in a more intimate way, with a family feel,” says El Tequileño vice president of global marketing Steffin Oghene. “Tequila is associated with parties and good times, but we want people to understand it is a fine spirit—for sipping, not shooting—and we always serve it in proper Riedel tasting glasses. We love to have visitors see us, but it is good for them to see other places too, what they do differently.” He cites next-door neighbor Fortaleza, the craft tequila created by Guillermo Sauza, the fifth generation of the family. “A lot of people take that tour and then come here for our tour and lunch,” Oghene adds. El Tequileño offers three reservation-only options, from a basic tasting ($13) to a more in-depth tour and bigger tasting, and a tour, tasting, and three-course lunch ($54)at Mangoes, located in Casa Salles Hotel, adjacent to the distillery.Casa SauzaCasa Sauza, one of the biggest distilleries in the region, offers three different tours.

A new free tour option is a lengthier three-distillery tour run by Fortaleza that also visits Arette’s El Llano and El Tequileño, which also produces the Don Fulano brand. The century-old El Llano Distillery was the original home of Tequila Orendain and is still owned by the family. Orendain moved to La Mexicana and brothers Eduardo and Jaime Orendain now produce Arette and their new brand, Paladar, at El Llano. Tours are available Sunday to Wednesday and must be booked in advance. Tastings include samples of the multiple brands produced at these distilleries.

Tequila has officially reached the point where the town is worth more than a one-day visit. As Oghene notes, “The locals say that tequila is not a spirit. It’s a culture.”

Beyond Tequila

Experience Agave: This U.S.-owned, Guadalajara-based tour company specializes in upscale, in-depth tequila distillery and food and cultural tours in Tequila and the Jalisco Highlands. One to four-day small group, private, or custom tours are offered, visiting small locally owned distilleries that do not otherwise offer tours, such as Casacahuin and La Alborada (one day from $150).

Casa Herradura: The top distillery tour outside of Tequila, Herradura dates to 1870 and has its own Express Train, like Cuervo’s, with three classes. The one-day round trip includes a distillery tour and tasting. At press time, this tour is still closed due to the pandemic. Get there on your own (you can taxi from Guadalajara or Tequila) and enjoy a two-hour tour, regular or suprema ($12-$19).

Tequilas del Señor: Perhaps the easiest distillery to visit, located in the renowned artisan craft shopping area Tlaquepaque, in Guadalajara. Founded in 1943, Tequilas del Señor is a short cab ride from the city center. Intimate daily tours are offered by appointment ($8).

Tres Mujeres: One of the newest distilleries; opened in 1996, purpose-built for visitors, with free tours, a saloon, and retail shop. Located in Amatitán, the second largest tequila-producing town, a 35-minute cab ride (under $30) from Guadalajara.

Patrón: Patrón’s distillery boasts old-school style with its volcanic stone tahona for crushing agave, and copper pot stills. It is in El Nacimiento, about twice as far from Guadalajara as Tequila, in the opposite direction. Visits are by invitation only, so Patrón has created a vivid 360° virtual reality online tour—no tastings included.

Guide to Visiting


Jose Cuervo “La Rojeña,”

Sauza “Casa Sauza”

Tequileño “La Guarrena”

La Fortaleza

La Cofradia


Orendain “La Mexicana”

Arette “El Llano” (For tours contact Eduardo Orendain Jr.


Bar La Capilla (Calle Miguel Hidalgo 33)

Bar Cantaritos el Guero

Margaritas Bar

Sky Bar

Mango Cocina de Origen

La Antigua Casona

La Fonda Cholula

Mercado de Comidas


Solar de las Animas

Casa Salles

Matices Hotel de Barricas (La Cofradia)

Hotel Villa Tequila (temporarily closed)

HS Hotsson Boutique Casa Newton (opens early 2023)


Jose Cuervo Store

The Station (La Estacion Tequilas & Mas)


Jose Cuervo Express Train

Jack Beckmann Gallardo Cultural Center

National Museum of Tequila (website under construction)

Los Azules Waterfall

Gauchimontones Pyramids

Tequila Volcano

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