If the words “tequila trip through Mexico” bring to mind hopeless hangovers and spring break, you weren’t doing it right. Tequila is more than just a shot taken out of a sunburned co-ed’s navel.

In 2006, UNESCO designated the blue-agaved region, along with the historic distilleries in Tequila, as a World Heritage Site. And much like the wine trails of Bordeaux or Napa Valley, visitors can travel along the trail, starting in Guadalajara and sipping fine tequilas, and checking out distilleries, churches, museums, and archeological sites on the way to the town of Tequila.

Just as we often fail to think of cows while strolling the meat section of the local Costco, slinging back a few at the bar rarely brings up images of the men and women who produce our tequila. On a recent trip to Mexico, I was fortunate enough to visit a few distilleries. We trekked out into the fields and met the agave farmers. These jimadores often inherit their life’s work from their fathers before them. They begin harvesting and planting before dawn, and the process from ground to glass for tequila is one that’s often dangerous, always painstaking in detail, and a constant and understandable source of pride for the people of Mexico.

The Tour-gist

Not every distillery offers tours, but in the ones that do, you will learn about the entire process of distillation. For your first time, make sure to select one that begins out in the fields where you can witness the jimadores at work. Each fully matured agave plant may weigh anywhere from 100 to 200 lbs., and a skilled jimador can harvest the piñas or “hearts” from 2,000 pounds of ripe agave in a single day. Wearing shin guards, they stab the plants with precision using a razor-sharp, circular axes called coas. Once transferred by trucks from the fields to the distillery, the piñas are then split into sections and cooked in giant steam ovens. The roasted piñas are allowed to cool before being ground in a mill process to extract the juice. That juice or mosto is stored in stainless steel for yeast to gather and turn the sugars into alcohol. The liquid is then distilled and mixed with water for dilution purposes, resulting in the blanco or sliver tequila. It is then aged accordingly in barrels to produce a reposado, anejo or extra-anjeo tequila. (That’s the very short, extremely simplified version, of course).

3 Distilleries with Recommended Tours:

The Jose Cuervo La Rojena distillery
Entering this distillery is akin to walking through an outdoor museum of stunning sculpture and landscaping that has you looking for Edward Scissorhands around every llama-shaped bush. A cold Margarita lands in your palm immediately upon entering the first garden courtyard, where you’re surrounded by bright mustard-colored walls and mosaic tiles. Cuervo is frankly epic in size. (Think of a scene from Scarface, sans the cocaine and shooting sprees). The grounds here alone are worth visiting, but leave time to tack on extras like the Mundo Cuervo Museum or watching a roping demonstration by the local cowboys. The VIP tour package ($25) also concludes with a private sampling of La Reserva de Familia, an extra-anejo aged 3 years with a blend of 30-year-old tequila. The Cuervo family annually commissions a Mexican artist to design the boxes, many of which have become collector items.

With Herradura, one might say it’s the journey, not the destination. The distillery offers a Tequila Express Train, which you can pick up in Guadalajara. Traveling via railway car through the Jalisco countryside is understandably romantic, and on the 90-minute route there’s a quick lesson about the history of Tequila and the agave-growing region overall. You’re not driving, which is fantastic because the complimentary cocktails are stiff and it certainly helps make loud Mariachi music seem apropos. You alight at Amatitán and enter Hacienda San Jose del Refugio. Your tour ends with an afternoon Mexican buffet and party.

This distillery provides a great tour option for large groups (got 20 friends with you?), and on a nice day, one could spend forever lounging in the manicured tropical gardens of Quinta Sauza. However, you won’t exactly doze off thanks to the distillery’s ornate live performances. The VIP package can be tailored to include two such performances. The first, witnessed outside on the lawn, among the towering palm trees with cocktail in hand, is an ancient dance performed for Mayahuel, the goddess of fertility and mezcal. After that has concluded, everyone dines al fresco on classic Mexican dishes, and mid-way through the meal there’s another show featuring elaborately costumed Mariachi dancers with live guitar accompaniment.

Have your own tequila trip story? Let us know in the comments.