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“Where’s the worm?” asked the gentleman behind me as he scrutinized his first libation of the day onboard the Tequila Express train. “That’s only certain mezcals,” said our server. “You’ll never find a gusano [worm] in genuine tequila.” This was one of many lessons learned during our train trek onboard the Tequila Express from Guadalajara to the town of Amatitan and Hacienda San Jose del Refugio in Mexico’s state of Jalisco.
Don’t be confused: The celebrated Tequila Express is a far cry from being simply a touristy booze cruise on terra firma. It’s also popular with local families seeking a pleasant Saturday outing through the countryside where blue agave fields and ancient distilleries are recognized on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.Several hundred passengers gathered at the station about an hour prior to departure, soaking in a little “Tequila 101” and mugging it up with a dozen handsome mariachi musicians who would accompany us throughout the journey. Our guide explained that, to be classified as tequila, the product must be concocted from at least 51 percent Weber blue agave. He added that Mexico’s fiery national drink is taking on a more refined tone these days. Once largely confined to margaritas and shooters, fine tequilas made from up to 100 percent Weber blue agave are highly coveted by collectors worldwide — for sipping the smooth aromatic liquor and collecting the handcrafted decorative bottles.The actual Tequila Express train consists of five color-coded cars holding 68 passengers each in assigned seats. Much more comfortable than I expected, the air-conditioned cars feature comfortable seats with armrests. Each one is also equipped with separate restroom facilities for men and women, music, private security, medical services and bilingual guides. Large viewing windows make it easy to soak in vistas of rolling hills covered with thousands of the spiny, cactus-like blue agave plants used in making this Mexican staple. But sightseeing along the 24-mile, two-hour excursion tends to take a back burner as the roving mariachi band fills the aisles and belts out one festive tune after another. With more than 134 registered tequila distilleries producing 953 certified brands — nearly all located within a 100-mile radius of the iconic town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco — there’s no better way to quench your thirst for fire-water knowledge than via this legendary fiesta on rails.
Out and AboutOne stop on the route, Hacienda San Jose del Refugio, has been preserved as a museum and working distillery of the Herradura tequila firm. It was here in 1870 that Don Ambrosio Rosales discovered a horseshoe in a field and made it the “good luck” symbol of his tequila. Today, Herradura is one of the most famous and traditional of all tequilas.The sprawling hacienda is actually a small, self-contained town where five generations of Herradura workers have lived in its colorful compound of houses and cobblestone streets. A tour of the grounds gives an overview of tequila production, which is handled entirely on-site — from the plants in the field, through the harvest, fermentation and distillation process and, ultimately, to the bottling of the final product. We were pleased to learn that while modern distilling requires tequila to have a minimum content of 38 percent alcohol, Herradura kicks it up a notch to 45 percent. While walking through the enormous cavern of the original 19th-century distillery, I could almost hear the sounds of its past — the clacking of ox hooves on the cobblestones straining to pull the enormous stone wheel around to crush the hearts of the cooked agave against the bottom of the milling pit. Certainly, this step into a bygone era has great appeal; however, the ultimate highlight, was the full-blown Mexican fiesta — complete with free-flowing tequila, a hearty buffet lunch, mariachi music and a colorful folkloric performance with a lasso lariat rope show. On the return trip to Guadalajara, I especially enjoyed watching as the less inhibited passengers, who donned sombreros and joined the mariachi band, danced down the aisle of the railcar. Clearly, it was all aboard to Margaritaville.