A Visit to the Don Julio Tequila Distillery

A Visit to the Don Julio Tequila Distillery

It’s the stuff of a Hollywood movie, or a novel about rags to riches. Except it’s all true. In 1940 in the town of Atotonilco El Alto in Jalisco, Mexico, 15-year-old Julio Gonzalez-Frausto Estrada lost his father. Julio became head of the family, and worked as a farmhand for nine pesos a week to help the family’s meagre income.

Julio also worked with his Uncle José, who made tequila, and he learned the skills of distilling from him. At the age of 17, before he was legally old enough to drink tequila, Julio started his own distillery in the hopes of earning a bit more money. With all the confidence of a teenager, Don Julio told people: “I’m going to make the best tequila in the world, even if I don’t sell it.”

He would carry his tequila around the dusty roads of the Jalisco highlands on the back of a donkey, and sell it he did. He was soon making nine pesos a day from his tequila, and could stop working as a farm laborer. He exchanged the donkey for a bright blue Chevrolet truck.

In 1947 Julio moved to larger premises right in the center of town, and that’s where I went to see where Don Julio, the number one luxury tequila in Mexico, is still made. I was met by Master Distiller Enrique de Colsa, who has been making Don Julio since 1999.

“When I arrived,” he told me, “we were making 8,000 litres a day. Now we do 32,000 litres a day, in the same space! I believe we’re one of the most efficient distilleries in the world. We work 24/7 to produce those 32,000 litres.”

Enrique showed me the receiving area, where the blue agave pinas arrive on their journey to being turned into tequila.

“We only take agave that is mature and ripe,” Enrique explained. “Not all agave are ready at the same time, even in the same field. We go after five and a half years to see which are ripe and we take maybe 20% of the agave. We go back six months later, then take maybe another 20% that are now ripe. And we keep going. Other distilleries will clear a whole field at the same time as it is more economical.

“If I’m going to make the best tequila I need to start with the best agave. In one hectare, when you would normally plant 3,000 agave, I will plant 2,500. The agave will grow bigger and be more flavorful. Giving them more space also gives each plant more sun.”

In front of us men are hacking the mature agave into pieces, prior to cooking.

“We cut them into even pieces so that we can cook all ones of the same size together,” Enrique told me. “It might look like the guys are just kicking an agave and cutting it but all the time they’re looking at the size of the agave and deciding how to cut it. We cook in 72-hour cycles. There are no books to tell you how to make tequila. You have to know how to change cooking times, depending on the agave, and the year, and the conditions.”

Enrique then explained the next stage in the process, once the agaves have been cooked.

The distillery was first called La Primavera

“Just like you clean clothes,” he said, “with the fibre of the agave you soak it in water and squeeze it, and repeat and repeat. With clothes what remains is the dirt, with agave fibre it’s the sugar. So now we have agave sugar. Next we ferment with yeast. You can do it in two ways. One way is to use wild yeast, the yeast that’s in the atmosphere, but that doesn’t give you consistency. The second way is to use a specific yeast from a laboratory. This gives you consistency, but the bad side is that someone else can buy the same yeast as you. What we do at Don Julio is adapt the yeast to our own flavors. We have had our yeast now for 35 to 40 years.”

After 24-30 hours of fermentation, the liquid is ready for distillation.

“Here’s where we concentrate flavors and aromas,” Enrique explained. “Everybody has to remove head and tails. The key is how much you remove. As a consumer you wouldn’t notice in the taste if some head and tails were left in but your body would notice as it would give you a bad headache, stomach-ache and so on.”

Enrique then showed me a sample of the spirit after one distillation. It was a little cloudy, and still had waxes in it. You can drink it, it’s about 24-25% abv, but the second distillation is pure and clear.

“At the end,” Enrique said, “we produce tequila at 55% and then reduce it to the required strength. If you distill too many times you are removing aromas and flavors.”

Enrique de Colsa conducts a tequila tasting

After the tour, and naturally a tasting, I’m shown the small museum in the distillery, dedicated to the remarkable life of Don Julio. His distillery and tequila was at first called La Primavera, “The Spring.” It was only in 1985, celebrating Don Julio’s 60th birthday, that his sons as a gift created a tequila which they called Don Julio. It met with their father’s approval.

A tequila tasting at Don Julio

The first Don Julio tequila also met with the approval of the people of Atotonilco El Alto, and its success spread throughout Jalisco and to the state’s capital, Guadalajara. What’s surprising is that at the time the tequila was the most expensive tequila ever sold. The world’s first luxury tequila had been born. All photos by Mike Gerrard.

IF YOU GO: The Don Julio Distillery is not open for public tours, but private tours can be made by special arrangement.


Mike Gerrard is an award-winning travel and drinks writer who divides his time between Cambridgeshire in England and Arizona in the USA.


  1. Robin DeWinne on December 21, 2018 at 8:19 am

    I would love to have a private tour/tasting at Don Julio as you did…but there’s nowhere on their website for contact info or number to reach them. Can you tell me how to reach them to set up? Thanks in advance

  2. Mike Gerrard on December 21, 2018 at 9:47 am

    Thanks for the question and it is a wonderful place to visit. I’ve been looking through my contact details and business cards but can’t find a point of contact to arrange a visit. I suggest making contact in the first instance with their PR company, [email protected], or sending Don Julio a private message via their twitter account, @donjulio.

  3. Jessica Spindler on May 11, 2019 at 10:39 pm

    Hello, how can I arrange a private tour? What did you do? I am having a hard time making the arrangements.

  4. Mike Gerrard on May 12, 2019 at 12:08 pm

    I was invited by the distillery along with several other journalists. All I can suggest is making contact with the people mentioned in my previous reply.

  5. Anonymous on December 21, 2019 at 10:48 am

    You’ll love it!

  6. Renata Nowak on January 21, 2020 at 8:14 am

    Hi Greg Zyn,
    Did you visit Don Julio Distillery? How did you arrange the tour?

  7. Johnny on July 10, 2020 at 1:39 pm

    Hello I was wondering if someone can help me get a original don Julio 1942 in the wooden casket before they changed the bottle?

  8. Claudia Esparza on February 27, 2021 at 2:44 pm

    Hi! So I’m trying to arrange a private tour to don julio distillery but can’t find a contact info..would you happen to know how to reach them when you went?


    • Anonymous on February 27, 2021 at 6:34 pm

      Hi Claudia. Thanks for your comment. You can try the Master Distiller, [email protected], or their PR contact: Dominic Benigno, dbenigno@hunterpr.

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