Valladolid Tequilería Mayapán
One tequila, two tequilas, three tequilas, floor!
Yes, you come to the Mayapán distillery just outside Valladolid to see how tequila is made, but also to taste it. Well, in my experience three little tequilas will not bring you down on the floor but you will indeed leave this place jolly. Because you will taste six small shots of tequilas of different ages. If you pay a tip to the tequila barman, you can taste even more.
Technically, this distillery on the outskirts of Valladolid can't be called a tequilería. This is because tequila can only be made in the designated states of México: Jalisco, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán and Tamaulipas. While they follow the traditional process of making tequila here, they still can't call it tequila, as it is produced in Yucatán. I am sure the owners started it here on the ranch Blanco Flor for tourist reasons. And we are grateful for that, of course, as it is special to have a chance to see how it is made. And it is on the main tourist track. But do notice when you taste or buy the drink at this distillery that the drink is simply called Mayapán. It does not take its taste or value away; it just can't be officially labelled as Tequila. It’s the same deal as with Champagne. And here, as in every other distillery, they have their own recipe, so their drink is unique, like every other tequila.
I list this distillery under my category of Museums, so I will use the same template for my report: The People, the Focus, the Mystery and Don't Miss.
The PeopLe: Jimadores (Agave farmers)
You will actually not see the farmers in action, unless you are really lucky. But I can't tell the tequila story and miss them out.
The blue agave (Agave Weber), used for tequila production, has a hint of silver and I love just observing the fields here. You can also spot some nopal (cactus) plants; sometimes they are in bloom or have buds. They are commonly known as prickly pears (or opuntia). The pads are edible, as is the fruit; Mexicans use it for nopal soup, drinks, eggs with nopal, tacos with nopal and also put it in salads (but first removing the small spines!). When you are outside, admiring the fields, look across the road. You will see that this ranch has more fields, not only those adjacent to the distillery.
The agave plants grow in the fields for about eight years, or until the piña (the core of the plant, looking like a pineapple) is roughly 50 kilos in weight. Only then do the farmers called jimadores harvest them. One agave plant makes from two to five litres of tequila.
The agave can be harvested year-round. However, not all agaves planted at the same time will mature in the same year. The jimadores know when the agave is ripe to harvest. When it reaches maturity, a stalk or spike will begin to grow from it, and the jimador will cut and remove the stalk. The plant will be ready for harvesting two to three months later. The key to harvesting the agave plant is to get the maximum sugar content before the piña begins to ferment. When it’s ready, the jimador cuts the leaves off, to reveal the core (piña). He then digs the piñas out of the soil and cuts them up into smaller pieces with a tool called a coa (a sharp blade on a wooden handle, like a hoe). It is a very heavy tool to lift, yet alone to use for cutting. Try it; they have it inside the distillery, by the oven. Be careful, as the metal blade is heavy and sharp.
The skills of the jimador are traditionally passed from father to son but, although demand for tequila is booming, the younger generation are deserting the land. I can't imagine how they even found the jimadores for this distillery ranch of Blanco Flor, as it was not here historically.
You may know the figure of a jimador, cloaked in romantic mystique from literature or Mexican telenovelas. The craft of the agave harvest, still done entirely by hand, has remained virtually unchanged since around 1600 when tequila was first invented by the Spanish conquistadors. The dearth of a new generation of jimadores is symptomatic of a widespread decline in agricultural work in Mexico. They prefer to study and/or work in town, and I can't blame them. Perhaps within the next decade somebody will invent a machine to harvest the agave; otherwise we won't be able to get this unique drink any more.
The FOCUS: the TOUR
The staff will take you around, to show you the whole production process. The tour takes a maximum of ten minutes and then you drink! Not too bad, hey?
Immediately when you pull into the parking lot you can see the beautiful agave fields. Agave is a very distinct plant that is also used for decorative landscaping in some areas. It can withstand high temperatures as well as drought and requires low maintenance.
After the harvest, they bake the piñas in a giant stone oven for four days. They seal the oven with a paste made from corn, so no steam gets out. It is good that they bake here for four days, because larger brands often utilise an autoclave (a steam-fuelled pressure-cooker) to speed this process up to as little as 12 hours to a day. I like the fact that they do it traditionally here. And the whole process is organic.
Then they grind or crush the piñas. In the recent past, they used a giant grindstone and a mule going around in circles, grinding down the fibre. Now, having in mind the protection of the animals, they use a metal grinder. The grinding process basically extracts the juice, just as you would for grapes and wine production. This juice is called aguamiel or honey-water, and the crushing separates the fibres or pulp from the aguamiel.
Next, they move the fibre into a large stainless-steel pot, cover it with the leaves of the agave and add water. They let this sit and ferment for another four days, covered with agave fibres. In all honesty, at this stage it does not look appetising. You can actually smell the odour of the baking and fermenting from outside, on your arrival. It reminds me of the smell of marmalade. I am not sure if they use yeast here, or leave it to nature. But I do know they don't use any sugar.
Distillation is done as the last stage, in stainless-steel pots. The agave fibres are often included with the aguamiel for this process. Tequila is distilled twice, with a final result of 38%.
And then there is the ageing process, for which they use oak barrels, up to 15 years.
And finally, the tasting. You will taste six tequilas of different ages. You will start with blanco (white), not aged and therefore clear (it is bottled immediately like this as well). Then comes reposado (matured), aged in wooden barrels. Usually the tasting includes one-month-old, three-month-old, and one-year-old reposado. The more mature, the darker (from yellow to brown). And finally, you will taste añejo (old). Tequila is called old when it is more than one year old. Here you can taste three-year-old and six-year-old, nearly black.
I have been in this distillery many times, sometimes with clients and other times with friends and family. I have tasted the products many times. My favourite is the three-month-old. As a bonus, you can put large sombreros on and also some ponchos, for a great photo op! And for fun, you should try the Mexican toast for every round. If you are a group, stand in a circle:
- Arriba (Up: glasses up)
- Abajo (Down: glasses down)
- Al centro (To the centre: glasses to the front or the circle centre)
- A dentro (Inside: gulp it down)
It is a fun toast with a lot of noise. If you prefer a quiet version, you can just say Salud (To your health).
The Mystery: Tequila is Mezcal but Mezcal is not Tequila
Most people think that mezcal is the same as tequila but it has a worm, which tequila does not have. Well, the worm apparently alters the taste slightly. It is actually the larva of a moth, Hypopta agavis, that can infest agave plants. If added, it is done so during the bottling process. There are conflicting stories as to why worms are added. Some say that it is purely for marketing reasons; others claim that it impacts the flavour.
However, the main difference is that tequila is made from blue agave (Weber), while mezcal is made from any type of agave. That makes mezcal smokier. There are at least 24 types of agave that can be used for its production. Espadín is the most common agave used, while arroqueño, barril, tepextate and tobalá are often used in blends.
Interestingly, the ancestor of both tequila and mezcal is pulque, which was produced by the ancient tribes of today's Mexico. It was made from any type of agave, but from its sap rather than the piña. To make the drink from the piña is a Spanish invention. Yes, it was they who tasted pulque and experimented until they created tequila.
Apart from the plant variety, the location also determines the drink. As I already mentioned, tequila can only be made in the designated states of Mexico and the same applies to mescal. There are eight states in México which are allowed to produce mescal: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Durango, Tamaulipas, and recently added Michoacán. If it isn’t made there, you cannot call it mescal.
The third difference sits in the baking. Tequila piñas are baked in stone ovens for up to four days (often shorter) while Mezcal piñas are roasted in a stone-lined pit in the ground. Then the piñas are cooked over a wood fire, which is enclosed by banana leaves and agave fibres, and then covered with earth.
And my recommendation for a good mezcal? Try Zignum Reposado; it is dry and balanced, with a hint of smokiness. Del Maguey Vida is smokier and great for mixing cocktails.
As for tequila, I have tried many brands, and still can't decide which one is my favourite. I do like Jose Cuervo, Jimador and Azul from the cheaper brands and Don Julio from the medium price range.
Don't miss: The shop
There is a gift shop at the site, where you can buy their Mayapán drink and some souvenirs. The Mayapán añejo is about 1,600 pesos but the younger versions are much cheaper. I don't recommend buying other brands here, as they are much cheaper in supermarkets. However, you won't get the Mayapán drink anywhere else. So if you like it, buy it!
The best thing about the shop is that you can do some further tasting here. Certainly try the agave syrup; it's sensational. Also the home-made honey from the local Maya villagers is amazing (I will never buy honey in supermarkets any more, after this experience). And finally, you can approach the cashier staff and ask for mezcal to taste. They have it under the counter, but will provide it happily. Mezcals are not easy to find in supermarkets and they have a reasonably priced brand here. Just try it first, before purchasing.
How to get there:
The distillery as well as the Blanca Flor Ranch, is located in the beltway from the city of Valladolid, about 100m from the crossroads between Valladolid and Temozón. Valladolid is 2km down the road from this junction.
The address is Anillo Periférico N, 97780 Valladolid.
Drive off highway 180D (toll road) between Cancún and Chichén Itzá, take the Valladolid exit at highway 295. Go south toward the town of Valladolid, then at the first major intersection (a junction with highway 180) turn right onto 180. The distillery should be on your right (across from Valladolid Zoo).
Take the road to Cobá and after 70km you will find the turning to Valladolid.
The distillery has a free parking lot for visitors.
Opening hours: 9am to 6pm. However, don't leave it too late; I have experienced it closing by 5pm. On Sunday they close at 4pm; you will need to be here at 3.30pm at the latest.
The entry fee is about 50 pesos.