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Thursday
Sep222011

A Look at the K&L Tequila Department 

Tequila is the new Wild West both for spirits producers and for passionate spirit drinkers.  Every week I learn about another new brand, distillery, or distributor that is throwing a party in Las Vegas or having a tasting at my nearest Porsche dealer.  There are tons of distilleries making agave spirit for multiple labels and, most of the time, the person whose name is on the bottle knows nothing about how “his” tequila was actually produced.   If there was ever a spirit that was in desperate need of a quality guidebook, tequila is it. Single malts made at Talisker usually say Talisker on the bottle, but what does it mean when you find out that a certain tequila was made at Destileria Morales or Casa Tequilera de Arandas?  I can look up any Scottish or American distillery on Google and find loads of information about what they make and the style of their spirits.  Besides the NOM database on Tequila.net however, the average consumer looking for tequila help is pretty much on their own.  This is partly because many distilleries in tequila function as co-ops, where farmers can bring their own agave and use the facility’s crusher and still, or where anyone with money can pay a producer to make it for them.  Few companies own their own distillery and for this reason, tequila is still a category dominated by brand names – Sauza, Don Julio, Cazadores, and Patron. 

So what is a bonafide spirits geek to do when looking to discover exciting new tequilas?  Part of our enjoyment as aficionados comes from the information we learn about the harvesting of materials, the methods of distillation, and the cooperage used for the maturation process.  I have to admit that, as much as I love tequila and desire to learn more about it, I’m not always sure of the facts, which makes purchasing new brands an uncomfortable practice.  Buying wines and whiskies direct from the producer has always been the K&L business model because we could go straight to the source.  There are never any vagaries or advertising campaigns to consider when buying from smaller producers, just good booze made by good people.  When looking to shape the direction of our tequila department, we tried to utilize this same philosophy because at least we would know something about the products we were selling and why they were special!  For this reason tequila shopping at K&L can be a bit confusing with its many unfamiliar faces.  However, the same used to be the case with our Champagne selection until our customers discovered the big secret.  Like many agave farmers, the vintners of Champagne sell most of their fruit to big houses like Roederer and Moet.  A very select few attempt to make a living by producing wine from their own crops, but those that do can make exquisite stuff - wines of character that would never be possible on a large-production scale.  I’m finding that the same phenomenon is true with tequila, so let me tell you a bit more about some of our more interesting selections and why we carry them.

Los Osuna

Notice that I didn’t type tequila after the name above?  That’s because Los Osuna is produced in Sinaloa, just north of the tequila producing state Jalisco.  Because it’s not grown or produced within the legal confines, Los Osuna must call itself Agave Azul much like a sparkling wine made in California cannot label itself as champagne.  Besides the fact that Los Osuna’s spirits are absolutely delicious, there’s the wonderful fact that they actually harvest their own blue agave at their La Vinata field and distill it themselves at Vinata Santa Clara, their family-owned distillery at the Los Osuna hacienda in La Noria.  The Osuna family began planting agave there in the mid-19th century and distilling it by 1876.  The distillery had been dormant for much of the late 20th century until the family decided to re-establish its longstanding tradition.  Today it might be my favorite tequila we carry. 

Los Osuna Blanco Tequila $39.99 – Beautiful, vibrant, peppery, and zesty.  Classic blanco for people who like bold flavors with balance.

Los Osuna Reposado Tequila $49.99 – Simply an aged version of their terrific blanco.  More vanilla and oak character, but the guts of the original formula are still present.  Outstanding.

Gran Dovejo Tequila

Distilled at the Feliciano Vivanco y Asociados facility, which also produces Muchote and Mañana, Gran Dovejo is the brainchild of the Mendez family who took a very special approach to their project.  While not farmers or distillers in their own right, the Mendezes wanted to make a tequila of quality that also spoke to a very specific place.  They contacted the Vivanco family about purchasing some top quality agave from their Los Altos Highland farm to make a single estate tequila and the rest is history.  Rather than have the Vivancos distill it for them, they brought in a family friend to help them do it themselves – master distiller Leopold Solis Tinoco of Siembra Azul and Don Pilar fame.  The result is Gran Dovejo – a wonderful, top-shelf selection of tequilas that, rather than hide the source and production methods of their spirits, showcases the quality of hand-harvested agave distilled by a true expert.  While it’s true that the Mendez family did not grow the agave itself, they still worked carefully to source it from a small estate that did, so it’s not as if they’re a large scale operation.  Their tequilas still have little publicity and are currently treasured by those who have taken a chance via our recommendation.

Gran Dovejo Blanco Tequila $44.99 – clean as a whistle, pure flavors of citrus and baking spices, zippy on the finish, but still the essence of elegance.

Gran Dovejo Reposado Tequila $49.99 - mild mannered, hinting at greatness, but never unleashing its full fury.

Gran Dovejo Añejo Tequila $54.99 – big, woody flavors of new oak mingling with the baking spices inherent in the spirit.  I've never tasted a tequila more suited for bourbon drinkers.  It has all the texture, the new wood, the spice, and the mouthfeel.  I love that they didn't let this thing get all supple, soft, and smooth because there's enough of that in the market.

Tequila Piramide

I love this tequila because to look at the bottle you’d automatically assume that it just couldn’t be good.  It’s so fun to recommend it because the customers make a funny face and say, “Really?  This one?”  Tequila Piramide is the classic example of “don’t judge a book by its cover.”  The tequila is made from 100% certified organic agave at Destileria Refugio in Arenal, Jalisco.  Everything is done by Oscar Rodriguez and his family – the growing of the agave, the harvesting of the plants, the roasting of the piñas, and the distillation of the spirit.  The tequila that comes as a result is brimming with character and full of life.  I love working with Oscar and his importer Karolina because both are charming people who only want to bring their humble tequila to those who love it.  When I ask a question about the fermentation process, they know it.  They can talk about the mineral content of the soil where the agave plants are grown.  They understand tequila.  That’s why it’s so freaking good.

Piramide 100% Organic Blanco Tequila $25.99 - zesty, full of citrus, cinnamon, and pepper.  Clean on the finish.  Lovely.

Piramide 100% Organic Reposado Tequila $31.99 – cinnamon, cloves, and baking spices galore without ever losing its gusto.  I love this stuff.

Mi Casa Tequila

The Rodriguez family planted agave in their Michoacan estate over a decade ago because the tequila industry was facing at a shortage and they felt it could prove to be a wise investment.  Little did they know that many other farmers did the exact same thing!  The resulting agave boom left them little option other than selling it off to large producers, or transporting their hand-harvested agave over to Jalisco to have it distilled into something profitable.  Unlike most producers however they were committed to making a quality spirit even if it meant taking more time and money to do so.  The fact that they're based here on the SF Peninsula is exciting because we're always dedicated to doing business with local producers.  Distilled at Casa Tequileria de Arandas in the Los Altos Highlands, where Mejor is also made, the tequilas they produce are richer and more supple due to the high sugar content of their outstanding agave plants.  These are true sipping tequilas and are smoother in texture than any of the above, making them easy crossover spirits for the uninitiated. 

Mi Casa Blanco Tequila $38.99 – remarkably pure, soft, and clean with subtle spices and delicate citrus notes.  A fantastic balance of both old and new world.

Mi Casa Reposado Tequila $42.99 - soft and slightly creamy, hinting at butterscotch and caramel, but without being rich or cloying.

Mi Casa Añejo Tequila $46.99 – lovely baking spices dance with pepper and citrus.  Well made with rarely-seen grace and lovely balance.

So now you understand why we carry these unknown, “weird,” not-Patron tequilas.  They’re real spirits made by real people who work closely with the production team and the farmers who grow the agave.  Beginning on October 26th we will be inviting these four producers into both the K&L Redwood City and San Francisco locations to meet with customers and pour their amazing products.  Stay tuned!

 -David Driscoll