Immaculate Conception’s 2000-year history has bred theatrical enactments, colonial decrees, geographic dedications, and a third of the globe’s ritualistic fiber. In Mexico’s state of Guanajuato, a town−Purísima del Rincón, or, “Purest of the Corner”−is dedicated to this acclaimed miracle of virginal birth. But its difference: modern demand and sensibilities have inspired strict insularity.
It’s dusk in León. Children freckle the traffic with flowers and fruit, young couples grope in unlit squares, beggars pause and plea, businessmen climb into taxis. On plastic stools, men drink tequila from stout glasses, stare lazily at the bottling heave of poverty and commerce, a city ready for rest.
In hotels and lounges, cacophony, fatigue, are absent. Women sit in candlelight, sipping tequila from crystal, their husbands smoking. The staff hangs, refills glasses, adds wedges of lime and tonic. Later, they’ll stand and embrace, depart into the heat and haze, and join the others already engaged in the night.
In this region of Mexico, tequila−drunk by the poor and aristocratic alike−weaves a uniquely subdued harmony which lasts until daybreak, when the hustle harshly disrupts it. Of late, though, a growing global demand is shifting the landscape, the culture. There’s embrace, but also fear. As the evenings loosen tongues, rumor floating in from up in the highlands, miles out, is thick with news of a new tequila, the Jesus Negro.
Brent Hocking is an anomaly of force and finesse. Climbing from his Phantom (extreme tint, 27-inch rims) in the parking lot of his Venice-based company, DeLeón Tequila, he looks fit to compete as a linebacker. Twenty minutes later, he’s speaking softly, daintily swirling, and tenderly inhaling a blend of his boutique product, known to locals in the area of its production as El Diamante. Hocking left the sobering field of finance for Mexico’s increasingly glutted spirit frontier. After visits to three-quarters of the country’s 131 fabricas, or manufacturers, he found his baby.
By law, tequila can only be produced within a 100-mile radius of Tequila (a city in the state of Jalisco) and restricted areas of the states Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Many produce between 20-35 brands of some 900 national brands, a small chunk of which are allowed export based on standardized alcohol and methanol levels.
The region is comparable to Champagne, France, in its cash crop stringency. This regulation is mandated by a private nonprofit, the Tequila Regulatory Council of Mexico (CRT), which broadly oversees supply, production, bottling, marketing, business practices, intellectual property laws, and protection of origin. They seal barrels and test water more vigilantly than anywhere else in Mexico.
Obviously, this stringency insulates their product in the global economy, one that’s rapidly disposed of the worm-in-the-bottle, belligerent association the spirit’s had for years. But it also speaks to the religious pride in hundreds of years of producing the sacred juice. For some, this pride has had little to do with marketing and commercial opportunities. But for those engaged in an exploding market where mimicry and thievery threaten livelihoods, the CRT is a force of appreciation, and fear.
And with reason. The tequila market is unpredictable, expensive, and risky. Agave needs eight to 12 years from planting to production. Contemporary lore tells of unsanctioned agave being covertly relocated by night, bribery of environmental and political constituents, and proprietary disputes turned brutal.
Hocking’s palate became a fixture amongst the CRT over several years. In one of many meetings, he eyed a blend that dwarfed its peers on their standardized purity test. He asked about the potential expansion of the Mexico Private Reserve and was met with laughter. Produced by an insular, affluent León family, high in the mountains of Purísima del Rincón, the tequila was distributed solely for Mexican aristocracy. They explained that expanding it was impossible, if not sacrilegious.
But, like any exploration of the Immaculate Conception, place, time, and witness aren’t navigable. Hocking’s role in the legend’s evolution was fortuitous. He learned, upon returning to the States, that an old friend he hadn’t seen for years was part of this secretive León family. Coupled with this information came news of the recent death of the family’s 93-year-old patriarch, who staunchly opposed expansion.
León’s downtown bus station is busy with uniformed school kids and food vendors. Teens, their mini-buses idling across the street, flock to tourists, waving maps for private fabrica tours, talking up their unbeatable fare in English, German, French. Many have worked the industry since they could walk. Some are actual family of the producers. They’re aggressive. Mexico’s tourism−with the swine flu outbreak and the escalated drug wars−has weakened significantly There are no tour buses to Purísima del Rincón. Mention of its name goes ignored. The teens insist on the area’s big players−José Cuervo, Don Julio, Patròn, a few major domestic producers−but offer nothing in the way of fringe exploration. The heat is coming on and the tourists persuaded to private tours instead of public buses disappear with their now friendly and relaxed guides.
Hocking built up months of trust with the family before effectively obtaining licensing and exportation rights. He re-named the spirit in honor of their heritage. Though he is now the CEO, certain time-honored traditions prevent him from visiting some production areas of the fabrica.
There are five types of tequila broadly produced in Mexico−blanco, joven, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo−each dependent on color and flavor additives and the duration of aging in oak barrels. DeLeón selectively produces only three: Blanco, Reposado, and an Extra Añejo, as their production methods are significantly stricter than others. Part of Hocking’s contractual agreement with the family, for example, is that he won’t allow any of the additives (sweeteners, colorings, aromas, caramel or glycerin) the TRC allows into exported tequila for taste and preservation.
Accordingly, the bottle is extra thick and translucent, its heavy, metallic cap featuring Mayan skulls and masks engulfed by snakes, which Hocking explains, over our third pour of his Reposado, symbolizes the purity and history of the spirits inside.
Tequila is manufactured by roasting the core−piñas, or “pineapples”−of the blue agave, which grows most prominently in Mexico. The agave’s carbohydrates and starches gently and slowly transform into fermentable sugars and the plant’s rigidity is compromised. From here, it’s pressed and re-pressed for more juice, which is later treated with yeast for fermentation, and potentially aged in barrels, depending on its variety.
Before the late 19th century, producers in Mexico, who borrowed the method from the Conquistadors before them, cooked the piñas in rock-lined pits in the ground, insulated with dirt and agave leaves. Now, piñas are roasted in ovens above ground or over an open fire.
Hocking has cracked his Extra Añejo−a mouthy, woodsy, floral encounter that softens his office into a warm vapor−revealing a production secret he’s only recently been allowed to share: DeLeón, unique to any fabrica, doesn’t fire-roast or oven-bake their agave. Instead, they steam it for nearly three days at a range of 104 to 107 degrees Fahrenheit. The cakes slowly extract and come out cooked chocolate brown. Thereafter, they’re pressed only once, then disposed of, the results of which are proven in its purity ratings.
In contrast, many producers cook their agave for a fraction of the time, hurrying it through production to meet volume demands. This emphasis on volume over quality can perhaps attribute to large-scale effects on the region and economy. Last year’s federal distillery investigation found that of 72 tequila distilleries inspected, 65 failed to adhere to state environmental norms in treating the water involved in the disposal of the cooked agave piñas. At least one major exporter was closed for a recovery period after their holding tanks were found to have over flown into watersheds after heavy rain. DeLeón was one of the few not flagged.
This may be attributed to the DeLeón family’s distillery placement, higher in the mountains (7,842 feet) than any in the region. Traditionally, the higher agave is grown, the sweeter and more florally noted it tends to be. Its unique consecration of two springs from the same water source assures purity.
Like many tequila brands, the type and source of its yeast, used for fermentation, is crucially secret, and despite Hocking’s heavy-handed pour, he won’t relinquish its source, only that it’s absurdly priced.
His involvement in production has limitations but the family has allowed him to experiment with some of the aged blends. He’s been working on the winter release of a pale tequila, aged in revered French wine barrels. Leaving his office, he gifts a couple cases of Reposado, and smiling, hints at the coming of an Extra Añejo likely to cause stir in and around Purísima del Rincón. He calmly assures, with a massive hand on the shoulder, that the rise of a new legend may be the best thing for the tequila world. Outside, he’s already called a cab.
From a public bus, agave blue colors the horizon. Men hack and clean leaves between its dense rows. The land is rugged, glowing with late afternoon light. In Purísima del Rincón, there’s little going on. The station is lazy, no tour touts. People sit in in the shade in squares, push trolleys. It takes a heavy tip to convince a taxi to deal with the gravel roads to the town’s nearest fabrica.
Left at a featureless point in the road−no bus stops, vendors, or small communities−there’s no signage, no indication of its location. It’s nearing dusk. There’s an unpaved road leading to the facilities, which sit a mile or two back from the main road.
Closer now, there’s barbed-wire the whole way around the perimeter. This is unusual, even in this climate of expansion and proprietary wars. No one comes out. There is no movement.
The far-off sound of an engine echoes a humming cadence through the valley. There’s no other traffic. Headlights of a large, dark sedan bob over the folding road in the distance, which merges closer, gains speed
The CRT’s ubiquity is invested in agave’s uses beyond tequila. A German chemical company recently invested in an industrial plant to process agave honey in Capilla, Jalisco for its unexploited, chemical potential. They’ve increased the site’s commonplace honey production tenfold to 8,000 liters per day. In a study released in 2008, tequila was found capable of producing diamonds. The liquid agave is heated to become vapor, wherein it produces carbon atoms in the shape of a very thin diamond film. Though too small for jewelry, the residue can be used as silicon alternative in computer chips or for extremely precise medical procedure. Even the cheapest of bottles of tequila were found to be capable of the results.
Back in Leòn, the hotel staff smiles excessively and the single room has been upgraded to a suite. A citrus basket sits on the table and the linens are newly made. A half-drunk bottle of tequila sits next to it, the now too familiar logo of DeLeón sandblasted across a black, square bottle. Burned into its Mayan, snake-covered mask is a three digit numeral presenting an alcohol proof rarely seen out of Mexico.
The staff keeps its distance. They eye it with awe. It’s a gift, but perhaps an apparition, a spiritual reconfiguration. For some of them, and later spread to others, comes an accessible new deity: the risen legend of Jesus Negro, the Black Jesus.
Perhaps this Immaculate Conception will incite faith wars. Perhaps it will inspire offspring or provoke disloyalty. Its availability will run short and be limited to certain communities. Its attainment will be risky. And like this conveyance of its inaugural witnessing, it will likely leave a blackout trail.