When in Rome … this is how to emerge yourself into Puerto Vallarta
Nothing quite says Mexico like Tequila, and Puerto Vallarta’s proximity to the town of Tequila (90 miles as the crow flies) makes it a great place to acquire and learn about what the Mexican poet Alvaro Mutis famously referred to as the “gift from God” to Mexico.
The History of Tequila
Tequila was conceived in the small town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco in the 1600’s. Spanish Conquistadors brought their knowledge of distillation to Mexico and applied it to the fermentable sugars of the Blue Agave plant.
What is and isn’t Tequila
The most important fact you should know about Tequila is that it’s not officially Tequila unless it meets some very stringent Mexican regulations. Most notably, Tequila can only be produced from one species of plant: the Blue Agave (also referred to as Maguey) which has to be grown in very specific areas of Mexico that have a reddish volcanic soil and climate similar to the town of Tequila.
Types of Tequila
“There are two general categories of tequila: mixtos and 100% agave. Mixtos can use no less than 51% agave, with other sugars making up the remainder. Mixtos use both glucose and fructose sugars. With 100% agave tequila, the blanco or plata is harsher with the bold flavors of the distilled agave up front, while reposado and añejo are smoother, subtler, and more complex. As with other spirits that are aged in casks, tequila takes on the flavors of the wood, which also mellows the harshness of the alcohol. The major flavor distinction with 100% agave tequila is the base ingredient, which is more vegetal than grain spirits (and often more complex).”
Tequila on Wikipedia [web]
Catagories of Tequila
Within the two general categories, there are four different Tequila categories, all with very specific distinctions.
plata or blanca (“silver”) – aged no more than a couple of months and possibly direct from distillation
joven (“gold” or young”) is a silver tequila colored to resemble aged tequila containing a mixture of silver tequila and reposado
reposado (“rested”) aged a minimum of one year
añejo (“aged” or “vintage”) aged a minimum of one year, but less than three years in oak barrels
extra anejo (“extra aged”) aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels
80% of Blue Agave is grown in Jalisco.
The Blue Agave plant prefers altitudes of 5,000 feet or more. The plant is bluish green and has very long spiny pointed leafs (it is from the lily family, not cactus as you might expect), and it can grow up to six feet tall. The juices needed for Tequila are from the heart of the plant called the “piña” which is Spanish for pineapple.
Cultivated in orchards called potreros, the plant takes 9-10 years to mature, is never in need of irrigation, and has few predators. The piña is cultivated by skilled caretakers called jimadores using a sharp, long-handled tool called a coa.
Re-harvesting requires skilled caretakers called jimadores who will carefully pick the female shoots (hijuelos) for replanting another crop. The shoots are removed from the females after about a year; this procedure also allows for the heart to grow larger.
The cultivation methods have not modernized in the past five centuries, and the jimadores are taught by experience passed down from generation to generation. The jimadores decide when the plants are ready to be harvested – usually about eight to ten years. The spikey leaves are sheared off, leaving the large piña which averages about 40-70 pounds (but can grow as large as 200 pounds). A jimadore can trim down a piña in three to six minutes!
The size of the piñas can vary significantly and cannot be properly estimated until the leaves are cut back during cultivation, making it very difficult to estimate the worth of any potential harvest.
Video of the harvest process [weblink]
Replanting in this manner is easier and quicker than allowing the plant to grow to it’s fruition, at which point it naturally seeds. However this shortcut has led to a lack of genetic diversity making crops more susceptible to predators and disease, something that has become an issue since the 1990s. Now farmers are readily using pesticides and fertilizers.
The agave’s best position is on hillsides, which has caused some erosion, and some deforestation has occurred due to the agave’s need for sunlight.
Technically all Tequila is Mezcal, but only technically, as the name mezcal pertains to wide variety of distilled agave spirits produced all over the country of Mexico. Tequila in Mexico is strictly regulated and must meet the regulations to be named Tequila. Mezcal is not Tequila, but an underclass of the liquor.
Dave’s “Been There” Tip: There is no worm in Tequila; finding a worm in a bottle means it’s NOT Tequila. The “worm” found in bottles is a moth larva sometimes found in infested plants, which indicates poor quality product.
How it’s made
After the harvest the piñas are roasted in an oven, where the heat will convert starches to fermentable sugars, then pressed to release the sweet juice (a sugary sap called Mosto) which is put into vats or barrels for several days to convert the sugars to alcohol. After the fermented juice are cloudy (at which point it’s called “ordinario”) it is then fermented once or twice more producing a crystal clear product which is Silver Tequila.
The juices are fermented with each distiller’s distinct yeast for a couple of days, distilled twice (distillation is the process of purifying a liquid by evaporation and condensation), then bottled, aged, or blended.
A typical piña will produce an average of 3 to 4 liters/quarts of tequila. Some consider that distilling three times removes too many flavors and consider it less desirable.
Tequila can be produced by adding 49% of non-aguave sugars and only those labeled “100% pure blue agave” are pure.
45% of all Tequila is produced from the area around Tequila
Consuming Tequila the Puerto Vallartian style …
It is traditional in the Puerto Vallarta region to serve a shot with a side of sangrita which is a small glass of a blended drink of citrus and tomato juices.
Around Puerto Vallarta, another type of mezcal is produced moonshine style and it’s called raicilla (say: ‘rye-see-yah’), which is generally a VERY potent liquor. When drinking raicilla, proceed with caution as the proof can be very high or even wrongly judged and labelled by the producers!
Important tips on how to read the label(s)
Look for the Hecho en Mexico (“Made in Mexico”) or “Product of Mexico” proclamation.
Look for the Distiller Registration Number, or NOM. NOM (“Normas Oficial Mexicana”) All 100% agave tequilas must have NOM information printed on the bottle or its label. The number links the tequila brand with the name of the parent company that is responsible for its distillation.
Look for official government certification. On most newly bottled tequila products, a CRT stamp has been affixed to the label by the government’s Tequila Regulatory Council.
For more on-line information weblink
John Esser’s Tequila Procurement Study Analyzation –January 5, 2012
The best place to buy Tequila in Puerto Vallarta
“I am just back from Puerto Vallarta. While there I did a study of tequila/mescal/raicilla and their availability. I thought I would share my findings.
Three places to buy tequila in Puerto Vallarta are La Playa, El Coyul [site], and the liquor section at Liverpool in the Galleria (they have D’Antano at $138).
The best selection is at the La Playa, but note that they do not sell mezcals or raicilla there. El Real Raicilla from San Sebastian can be purchased at Cork & Bottle (in Zona Romantica) and at El Arrayan (in El Centro). I did not get out to El Tuito, where you can buy raicilla as
The tasty “Little Cake” (i.e. tortilla) has been the Mexican staple for centuries.
Originally tortillas were exclusively produced with maize (e.g. corn) flour, but recently wheat flour is being used to produce tortillas in Mexico.
The corn based tortilla is a Mexican classic and they kind that you’ll most likely find served with your meals. Just as bread is usually served as a side with most meals in the US and Canada, in Mexico they swap the bread for the tortilla, which is served as a side with almost every meal. They contain about 60 calories and have about 2-3 grams of fat each.
Corn tortillas provide vitamin B, iron, calcium, potassium and fiber and they are naturally low in fat and sodium (and tasty).
Although flour tortillas are more popular in the Northern regions of Mexico, the flour tortilla can be found in Puerto Vallarta (flour tortillas are the those we most associate with burritos). They average about 115 calories with about 2-3 grams of fat each.
Originally produced by hand in each individual’s household, tortillas are now most often produced at the towns the local tortilla factory. Zona Romantica has both a corn and flour tortilla factories (fairly well hidden) tortilla factories.
The corn based factory can be found at the corner of de Febrero and Constitucion right across the swaying pedestrian bridge over the Rio Cuale (a fun trek in itself) in the Romantica Zone.
The flour based tortilla factory can be found Jacqui AND Dave’s “Been There” Tip: Do not underestimate how many of these tortillas you can eat on your walk back to your hotel!
Traditional Open Air Markets of Puerto Vallarta
If you want to shop like a local, make a run for Bocas, the fresh produce market where the locals shop. You’ll find all locally grown produce in open display and for sale.
Just to the east of Bocas there is an open-air poultry, fish and meat market. It feels like you fell back a few decades to a time when “fresh” meant “same day”. Everyday farmers and ranchers sell their goods here, and you’ll often see animal parts hanging from hooks on display for sale.
Every Saturday from 10am-2pm Puerto Vallarta holds two Farmers Markets. One is in Old Town and is held by Margarita Grill inside the food court of the school at Basilio Badillo and Pino Suarez.
The other is at Paradise Community Center on Pulpito.
The markets are fun and social community events. Both have an array of foods, jewelry, tours, haircuts, music, and accessories. You can pick up all sorts of goodies for yourself, and find gifts for everyone not lucky enough to be in Puerto Vallarta with you!
The Music of Puerto Vallarta
Mariachi music is the sound of Puerto Vallarta, and it’s not just a convenient tourist magnet – Mariachi music originated in the state Puerto Vallarta is in, Jalisco.
Mariachi is performed by a group of five or more musicians that wear charro suites (traditional formal ware of Mexican horseman).
You will find many roaming Mariachi bands in Puerto Vallarta that will offer up songs for your enjoyment. They will stroll over to your table and ask you if you’d like to hear a song or two, but you need to keep in mind that if you say yes, you are expected to pay them for each song.
The Sunday Tradition
There are two things that come with virtually every town in Mexico: a town square (usually with a gazebo in the center of the square), and a family tradition of gathering there every Sunday evening. It’s a time for friends and family to get dressed up, catch up with old friends and meet new ones (especially for the young).
In Puerto Vallarta the town square is in the middle of downtown, giving visitors an opportunity to enjoy a truly native experience. Dave Says: To me, the Sunday nights in the town square speak to the values of the Mexican culture, a culture which holds family in the highest regard. I’ve always cherished Sunday evenings in Puerto Vallarta just for this reason.
Although Puerto Vallarta is super chill during the day, at night it becomes a world class “party town”. Large dance clubs line the Malecon while the Zona Romantica offers up live music, everything from Blues to local traditional music.
Without going into the ethics of human vices (we’ll leave that to your judgement), Puerto Vallarta is perfectly capable of satisfying just about any vice you may have.
Super cheap bottled beers are EVERYWHERE. More often than not, you’ll find two for one, or “bucket” beer specials. As for the hard stuff, everything from the locally produced Moonshine (know as Raicilla) to the highest of International “top shelf” is readily available in Puerto Vallarta.
Puerto Vallarta does have strip bars, although they are almost all located outside of the typical tourist areas. But be aware, they are NOT the “Gentleman Clubs” of back home, but are often quite dark and dingy. Most strip clubs in Mexico allow patrons to leave the club with a “date”.
Prostitution in Mexico is a very strange thing and a bit of a foggy area. Although Prostitution is regulated by the Federal government, it is enforced at the local level. Sex trade workers have to be registered with the State, they are required to receive weekly health checks, and they have to carry a health card to prove it.
The age of consent in Mexico is 18 and strictly enforced. With that said, Puerto Vallarta is NOT a “Sex Tour” destination.
Getting “hooked up” in Puerto Vallarta is reportedly not a very difficult task. Some beach vendors in Puerto Vallarta and Yelapa may offer to sell you marijuana as you walk the beach, and harder drugs like cocaine can reportedly be found in the big dance clubs.
Warning: Mexican law and the enforcement of it, is, and has always been, a VERY dicey domain. What would actually happen to you if you were caught with even a very small amount of drugs in Puerto Vallarta is anyone’s guess – and it’s safe to assume that it would not be a pleasant experience to be arrested out of your home country!