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Agricultural Distillation

When we were planning our recent email launch of the K&L Exclusive Fuenteseca Tequila (which sold a record 350 bottles in 48 hours), our owner was readying up his list of spirits enthusiasts, preparing to send out the message. That's when I intervened and said, "Hold that thought. You may want to use the wine list for this one." I'm not sure why it's the case, but at K&L there's a decidedly more passionate interest in tequila from wine drinkers than from whiskey drinkers. That may seem odd considering that spirits geeks usually stick with the distilled and wine geeks with the fermented, but I truly haven't noticed much crossover appeal from grain to agave.

There may be many reasons for this phenomenon (the fact that wine drinkers are more likely to listen to Sammy Hagar, or perhaps vacation in Puerto Vallarta), but it might have something to do with the agricultural link – namely, that there's a lot of similarity between how the soil, altitude, and general terroir affect the flavors in grapes and the flavors in agave. Most great wines are the product of great vineyards – special locations where the weather combines with the right combination of geological influences. There are hillsides that have great drainage, so that the vines have to struggle deep into the ground for their water supply, soaking up more of that mineral goodness. There are plains of rich soils, full of vegetal matter and earth that somehow seep their way into the juice of each berry. There are cool climates, and warm climates, each producing grapes different levels of ripeness and acidity, and therefore the levels of sweetness and tartness. These are all factors that wine makers and passionate wine drinkers take into account when tasting a wine. They are the core components of what makes wine appreciation so compelling.

I've rarely tasted a whisky (the 2006 Bruichladdich Bere Barely does come to mind) that purely reflected the grain from which it was distilled. I've never tasted a whisky that reflected its grain's specific geographical terroir. While terroir may play a role in its ultimate flavor (i.e. corn grown in Iowa vs. corn grown in Mexico), I've never heard a detailed explanation as to why or how it does. Most whisky producers focus on fermentation, distillation, and maturation. In Cognac and Armagnac, where viticulture and terroir do play a large role in the ultimate flavor, the distillates are aged in wood for decades – to the point that the uniqueness of the pure eau de vie itself is no longer the focus. Some gins and liqueurs capture the essence of various herbs and spices, but that's more of a maceration or secondary distillation process. Vodka is vodka, for the most part, and it's tough to get excited about that. When you go down the list and cross off all the various options of distillates, the only spirits that specifically, and purposefully for that matter, taste like their base ingredients are fruit brandies (like Poire eau de vie, Calvados, and Kirschwasser) and tequila/mezcal.

Fruit brandies have never really caught on here in the U.S. We've done our best to bring the magic of Calvados to our customers, but it's a very limited market with limited interests. Tequila, on the other hand, enjoys a broad interest in America, partially due to its close proximity to Mexico. What's interesting, however, is that only recently have we really begun to understand and appreciate what quality is for high-end tequila and what that quality can offer us as drinkers. Many producers have marketed rich, smooth, caramel-flavored, Cognac-esque tequilas that taste little like agave. Very few producers have focused on, marketed, and (most importantly) explained why pure, unadulterated, unaged tequila tastes the way it does. No one has spent much time doing this because no one has ever really cared, honestly. Today's conoisseur is different, however. We've gotten to the point where most people appreciate a good story, and even more appreciate clarification and information. What we've started to discover about tequila is that – like wine – the better the agave, the better the spirit. We've learned over the years what makes for "good" grapes. Now we just have to understand what makes for a "good" agave.

As I've continued to filter our tequila selection here at K&L in an attempt to focus on producers who shun the use of additives, I've learned a bit more about the distilleries where many of these spirits are produced. Most of the brands we carry are simply the owners of the label – they do not produce the actual tequila themselves. For example, the ArteNOM reposado, Siembra Azul, and Gran Dovejo tequilas are all produced at Feliciano Vivanco distillery (NOM 1414) in Arandas. Rather than simply trust the owners of each brand, I decided to give Sergio Vivanco (the guy who actually makes these tequilas) a call this afternoon to get his thoughts on a few questions I had. The Vivancos are fifth generation agave growers and all of their agave fields are in Arandas, some near the border of Atotonilco.

"What makes tequila from Vivanco so special?" I asked. "It seems all the best producers want to work with you."

Sergio explained, first and foremost, that they are very particular about their agave and how they cook it – roasting it for 24 hours in an adobe oven, then cooling it for an additional 24. The most important part of the process in Sergio's mind, however, was the use of native yeast for fermentation. "If you use a vanilla yeast in your fermentation, then your tequila is going to taste like vanilla," he told me. "We make sure to use only native agave yeast, however, so that our tequila tastes like agave." A yeast culture is taken from the best of each crop and that strain is used in the fermentaion of the mosto – the agave wort, so to speak – and that yeast keeps the flavor focused on the agave itself.  Agave was the focus of our conversation, mainly because I had recently met with Siembra Azul owner David Suro-Piñera who spoke gravely about the blue agave situation in Jalisco – namely, that monoculture and overproduction were in danger of wiping out the species. Sergio didn't think the situation was as dire, but he did point out that they were very particular in their planting of new fields. "We're very concerned about genetics," he said, "we look for plants that have higher sugar levels and are more resistant to bacteria and we plant only these cuttings."

Given that three of our most popular tequilas are all produced at his distillery, I asked Sergio what differentiates the three expressions to help our customers understand the differences. "Siembra Azul have their own alembic still that they bring in for the secondary distillation," he stated, "Plus, both Siembra Azul and Gran Dovejo use their own distiller Leopold Solis. He has his own recipes and we've learned a lot from working with him. They also use a different yeast." Jacob Lustig's ArteNOM selection is the result of a different heart cut (corazon in Spanish) that separates the heads and tails (cabezas y colas) at a different point. One of the things Vivancos is famous for is his use of classical music to stimulate the indiginous yeast strain he cultivates. He said only Vivaldi while the ArteNOM tequila ferments. Maybe that's the reason it tastes so good!

One of the biggest agave growers in all of Jalisco is Enrique Fonseca – the man responsible for the ancient tequilas in our upcoming Fuenteseca release. I had never spoken directly to Enrique before, but I figured now would be as good a time as ever, so I gave him a ring as well. Fonseca owns agave fields in a number of different regions – Arandas, Atotonilco, Tototlan, Tepatitlan, even on the edge of Lake Chapala. No one understands better how these different soils and climates affect the flavor of agave, and ultimately the tequila itself. "Soil and altitude are very important" he said, "we have agave that is grown on a high plateau, about 1800 to 2400 meters above sea level, and they create a tequila that is more fruity and spicy. Some are grown on the sides of hills, with yellow and black soils, maybe 1400 to 1700 meters above sea level, and they usually result in a more floral and mineral tequila, due to the flinty soil. Then we have agave in the lowlands, on the floors of these canyons below 1400 meters, that are also fruity, but vegetal and earthy at the same time. The town of Tequila, for example, on the other side of Guadalajara, is at about 900 meters above sea level, so their agave is also different."

I also asked Fonseca about Piñera's claim that blue agave might face a shortage soon, but he didn't seem as worried. One of the problems, he said, was that larger producers were trying to control their own agave by growing it themselves, but ultimately they're tequila producers not farmers. Some of the big guys are having difficulty keeping their agave healthy, it seems, and are facing issues with insects, bacteria, and fungus. Fonseca seemed to believe, however, that these problems were avoidable and that better agricultural practices could relieve these symptoms. He didn't anticipate too many issues with his own agave. Another aspect that Suro-Piñera had stressed in our conversation was the role of the jimador (the agave harvester) and the size of the jima – the cut that the jimador takes when he cuts off the pencas (agave leaves). I had never heard someone speak so romantically about this process, so I asked Fonseca about his thoughts concerning their significance: "This is indeed a very important part of the ultimate flavor," Fonseca explained, "because a lot of the character comes from the penca the vegetal flavors."

Fonseca continued to detail how the role of the jimador became quite fashionable nearly ten years ago when producers like Don Julio and Patron believed that a low cut jima (fewer leaves) would produce less methanol in the distillate – providing a cleaner and smoother flavor. When I said that some producers were starting to list the jima cut on their label (Siembra Azul for example lists "2 cm") he stated that unless they're using two to three inches it was rather insignificant. "We try to cut the jima like they did in the old days about two or three inches because we want that vegetal flavor. Most mezcal producers will use three to four inches, which is where a lot of that intense and vegetal flavor comes from. Sometimes it can be overwhelming."

One of the aspects of agricultural labeling he did find compelling was the use of the CRT tarjeta registration number – an agave passport, so to speak, that can be used to show inventory levels of agave plantings per producer, as well as the origin, date of planting, and date of harvest for each crop. Of course, I asked Enrique if he would be interested in producing a set of these tequilas for K&L, all blanco, each with their own CRT number, regional location, altitude, and soil type on the label – hoping to illustrate the differences between the agave and their affect on the flavor of each spirit. "Someone needs to make a big map," I said, "just like the ones we see from Bordeaux and Burgundy that details the terrain and elevation of each plot. That would be cool." He suggested that I come down and do it myself. He would be happy to help.

And, of course, we could distill those blanco tequilas while we were at it. But after talking to Jake Lustig today and his importer Haas Brothers here in San Francisco, it seems like they might already be in the works. Fuenteseca Single Cosecha Blanco tequilas? I'm drooling.

-David Driscoll