There's more to tequila than margaritas and slammers. Tim Wapshott hits the agave trail and learns to savour the real thing

Cleo Rocos is on a mission. She'd like to teach the world the virtues of tequila. This year, she even set up The Tequila Society to educate and encourage more of us in the UK to get a taste for her favourite tipple. The comedian may seem an unlikely ambassador for tequila, but it is a quest she not only relishes but takes very seriously.

Last month she was officially named the UK's Tequila Queen by the Mexican tequila chamber, which owns and runs the country's long-established tequila industry. Every few months she is a well-received visitor in Guadalajara, the city at the heart of Mexico's tequila world.

"My love of tequila goes back 10 years, to when I had my first sip of El Tesoro," she told me as we set off for the dusty town of Arandas, an hour east of the city, where several of Mexico's finest tequilas are bottled. "I loved El Tesoro after my first taste, and then got a thirst to try more and more tequilas. My favourites are 100 per cent blue agave tequilas, made from the blue agave plant for which the Arandas region is famous."

Most of us have probably tried mescal, which technically cannot be called a tequila since it can be made from any agave plant and produced and bottled outside the country's designated tequila 'appellation' areas. Most mescal boasts a signature worm in the bottom of the bottle – plucked from the agave plants when they are being harvested. The inclusion of the sodden worm in the bottle is simply a marketing gimmick.

It was not merely the taste of blue agave tequila which seduced Rocos: "I found that I could drink it without putting on weight or feeling bloated. In fact, it's a digestive: I have always had a 'nervous' stomach, but I find tequila very easy on the stomach."

Come rain, shine or influenza, tequila remains one of Mexico's main earners and a staggering 74 per cent of the country's tequila production is traditionally bound for North America. The biggest consumers are California, its neighbouring states and – perhaps not too surprisingly – New Mexico. In Europe it is the Germans and us Brits who are the biggest consumers of Mexican agave tequila and, if Rocos gets her way, we could leave the Germans standing in our level of consumption.

El Tesoro is one of the oldest that can be officially dubbed a "100 per cent blue agave tequila". It has always been bottled in the town of Arandas, along with other well-established brands such as El Charro and Tezon. Down the road from the impressive Arandas Cathedral, the El Tesoro bottles roll out of the bottling plant just as they have done for more than a century.

Now they do so under the watchful eye of the the two sons of the founder, Don Felipe Camarena. Carlos and Felipe Camarena continue the family tradition and also produce the Tapatio and Tequila Ocho brands. The bottling plant is literally awash with the spirit: the empty bottles are rinsed out in tequila rather than water before being filled, to make sure no impurities get in.

Tequila is brought to the plant from the Camarenas' rural distillery, 20 minutes away by road. The fields around Arandas are lined with rows of blue-green agave plants and there are many things that will impact on the flavour of the tequila they finally produce. The ideal soil for the plants is red in colour, a sign that it is rich in iron oxide. Each plant takes eight years to mature fully, but then they must be quickly harvested otherwise they will start to rot.

Fully grown, a healthy blue agave plant is about 5ft tall and 4-5ft round. Its spiky leaves are hacked off to leave a large "nut" husk 1ft by 1.5ft long, which looks almost like a giant pineapple. The nuts are stacked in steaming huts where they are cooked for a day-and-a-half. It is the intense steam that turns the starch into sugar, or "honey".

The nuts are then taken out of the huts and placed on a small thrashing production line that squeezes out a sweet, brown nectar. This is stored in towering wooden barrels that quickly start to ferment. "Yeast is a vital part of the fermentation process of agave tequila, and most Mexican distilleries are obsessively protective of their special yeast formulas," says Rocos. "At the La Altena distillery they are more relaxed, perhaps because their yeast formula is practically impossible to replicate. Most of the Camarenas' fermentation barrels have been in use for more than a century, so that even after a thorough rinsing some of the living yeast remains in the wood – and this springs back to life whenever new agave juice is added."

"Some distilleries even play music in the fermentation process," adds Carlos. "As yeast is a living organism, it is thought that they enjoy the music. But this is not something we have tried at La Altena."

The fermentation process lasts four or five days and the resulting brown liquid is distilled to leave ethanol – that is, the alcohol that humans can drink safely. Then a second distillation process removes various impurities, and the resulting tequila is barrelled up for maturing.

"The source and quality of the wood for the barrels can dramatically affect the flavour," explains Cleo. They all tend to be made from oak, either American or French ... As a rule of thumb, when American oak is used it gives the tequila a vanilla flavour, but French oak delivers a darker chocolatey taste."

"We prefer to use the same methods that our father perfected," adds Carlos. "Automated plants could turn around the harvesting-to-barrelling process in just five days, but we don't like rushing things. After all, we waited eight years for the agave plants to mature so our thinking is, what's a few more days? Our process may take us about 10 days – but we believe the results are worth that extra wait!"

Apart from promoting The Tequila Society (, Rocos is also about to start importing a number of tequilas into the UK via her company Tequilas of Mexico. Her visits to Mexico nowadays involve endless meetings with small, family-owned tequila makers at all hours of the day.

It can come as something of a shock to join her for breakfast meetings in the cafe of Guadalajara's Fiesta Americana business hotel and be sampling shots of several aged tequilas alongside the coffee, eggs and bacon. It is not a combination that really works too well, but I was almost surprised that she didn't simply pour tequila on her cornflakes and have done.

It's not something that's likely to appear on British breakfast menus any time soon, but there are signs that a new interest in tequila is stirring here. Restaurants and bars such as Green and Red in Shoreditch, London, and the Mexican restaurant Wahaca, which has just opened its third London branch in Canary Wharf, both say tequilas are finding favour among discerning young drinkers.

Mark Selby, owner of Wahaca, believes Britain should "sip, not slam" to get the best out of tequila. He is adamant that the key to Britain really relishing tequila is to disassociate it from its current party image. "There are those tequilas that are best as before-dinner drinks, those that are the perfect accompaniment to a meal, for example a Blanco is great with spicy food, and those that make an ideal after-dinner digestive," says Selby. "A true 100 per cent blue agave tequila is like nothing you've ever tasted before. There are flavours of caramel and dried fruits. It's novel and fascinating."

"Almost all of the 100 per cent blue agave tequilas are organic," Cleo explains. " I am now sourcing lesser-known, family-run brands to bring in to the UK." She claims: "I've never had a hangover from drinking too much tequila – so for me it is a very dignified spirit."

Indeed. Pass the coffee, Cleo love. I seem to have one hell of a hangover.

Hot shots: Top tequilas

El Tesoro

This legendary tequila is renowned for its quality and superior taste. Part of the Tapatio family of tequilas, it is smooth and a favourite with aficionados.


Aha Toro

No fewer than six varieties, one of the more interesting is the pink Diva Aha Toro which gets its colour by being aged for a while in Merlot wine barrels.


Ocho Añejo

A new arrival to the UK, this has a crisp and delicate taste. The exact field in which the agave plant was sourced to produce the tequila is detailed on every bottle.

Don Julio

Traditionally produced, the soft flavour of this tequila makes it ideal for tequila novices.

Siete Leguas

One of Mexico's oldest tequilas, this has a creamy texture with complex flavours.



Produced by one of Mexico's legendary distillers, these tequilas have refined, soft flavours.

Gran Centenario

Its ' reposado' ('rested') version is produced from 10 year-old agave and is ideal for margaritas and cocktails.