TEQUILA, Mexico (AP) — Jose Luis Hernandez wheels his motorbike up alongside a car as it slows to cross the railroad tracks at the bottom of a winding road leading into the small Mexican town of Tequila, whose famous drink carries a big reputation.
He makes a fist, sticks out his thumb and bends his elbow as if to take a swig from an imaginary bottle. It’s no mystery what’s coming next.
“You looking to buy some tequila?” Hernandez asks. “How about a tour of a distillery?”
Hernandez and a half-dozen others, motorbikes parked under a nearby clump of trees near the tracks, say they make a living showing outsiders — even more so now with the Pan American Games in nearby Guadalajara — where to buy the drink that has inspired so much music, and produced so many headaches.
“We are here to serve people and take them to the factories, to learn everything about tequila,” added Leticia Esparza Garcia, who offers the sales pitch once the cars stop.
Sorry, but finding tequila — or its sister drink mezcal — is no chore. Simply drive to the center of the town of 25,000.
The history of tequila is long, and so is Avenida Sixto Grojon, which runs through the heart of the pueblo — neat and tailored in the center and dusty on the outskirts. Every shop on the cobblestone street seems to be either selling tequila, makes reference to tequila — there is the Tequila Hotel and Tequila Museum — or has a human-size tequila bottle fastened near the entrance to attract customers.
A small open-air tour bus passes frequently — Tequila Train Tours — and even a flower shop displays a few bottles.
“Tequila is the essence of Mexico,” said Luis Manuel Martinez, who works as a “tourist policeman,” walking the sidewalks and chatting in English with foreigners.
“To speak of Mexico is to speak of tequila, mariachi and charros (cowboys),” he added.
Martinez estimated tourism was up 40 percent since the Pan American Games opened its 2½-week run on Saturday in Guadalajara. And he laughed when asked what products foreigners were after.
“Are you crazy, man?”
Large ceramic tiles grace many corners on the main thoroughfare, explaining the virtues of a drink that historians say was first produced in the 16th century near the present town, about 35 miles northwest of Guadalajara and not far for Mexico’s Pacific coast.
One tile hanging near the entrance to a chapel, just across from the town’s main church and square, carries the title: “The Medicinal Virtues of Vino de Mezcal.”
Basically, it says the drink is good for you and quotes a writer recalling the visit of Spanish doctor Geronimo Hernandez in 1651.
“The doctor drank it after it had recently left the still … and declares he is pleased with the special drink.”
Up the street, Luis Serrano waits for customers at a tiny shop named “El Vado.” Basic gray metal shelves display locally made tequila you’re not going to find in a London supermarket or a U.S. liquor store.
Hanging from one shelf is a handmade sign written in black on pink paper: “The samples are free.”
Too tempting for some, apparently.
“Imagine, so many places here selling tequila,” Serrano said. “Tourists usually test practically everything. There is a lot to test and they usually leave happy. Of course, you can see a few drunks here in Tequila; on a corner, people out cold or on a bench really out of it.”
Standing alongside is Maria de Jesus Aguas Beltran, the 18-year-old daughter of the shop owner, Hector Ramon Aguas. She said her father owns several similar places in town.
“Business is best in winter because people drink more tequila because of the cold,” she said.
The increase in tequila-loving tourists has given the otherwise modest pueblo an economic boost and provided jobs in a remote corner of Mexico that might be considered risky, given the recent violence with drug traffickers.
The green mountain valleys surrounding Tequila are spotted with fields of blue agave, the plant that is fermented to make the drink. The vast fields and the large factories that distill the spirit have been declared a World Heritage Site, which generates local pride for a town that might otherwise be overlooked. So does the nearby Volcan de Tequila, the 9,500-foot volcano that overlooks the valley.
“This is an old-fashioned town, and so is everything around here including the tequila factories,” said Israel Velazquez, working in another tequila store on the main street. “It is good to be recognized world wide by our name. People walk around happy here.”
Stephen Wade can be reached at http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP