Tequila Crash Course โ€“ Part IV: An Interview with Sergio Vivanco

Sergio Vivanco walking through one of his agave fieldsThe Vivanco family seems to be who everyone wants to work with in Jalisco. Three of our best tequilas are all made at Feliciano Vivanco distillery in Arandas: ArteNOM reposado, Siembra Azul, and Gran Dovejo. All three brands subscribe to the new wave of tequila philosophy -- they're all run by people who strongly believe in unadulterated spirits, in stressing the importance of the agave, and in educating consumers about the difference these factors can make in the ultimate flavor of tequila. It is therefore quite telling that all three brands have turned to Sergio and his brother Jose Manual for help in this quest for tequila purity. Located in Arandas, Vivanco distillery has become a haven for producers looking for transparency and quality in their tequila production -- from the sourcing of the estate-grown agave, to the fermentation, to the ultimate distillation. While Siembra Azul and Gran Dovejo bring in their own master distillers, they still call NOM 1414 home.

I spoke with Sergio Vivanco earlier today, hoping to talk about the role that yeast plays in the fermentation of agave. Much like with wine, there are many different strains of yeast that can be used to produce various flavors in tequila. The banana flavors found both in red Beaujolais wine (credited specifically to yeast strain 71B) and often in Bourbon are sometimes attributed to the fermentation process. In searching for terroir in tequila, I wanted to make sure we weren't confusing flavors specific to agave with chemical compounds created by the addition of yeast. The Vivancos are known for their interesting approach to agave fermentation -- namely, their use of naturally-cultured yeast strains (taken from the agave plant itself) coupled with the use of large speakers blaring classical music vibrations to help stimulate the cells into action. We began our conversation there:

David: How did you decide to start using a natural yeast culture? Was that something you had always done or did you switch over at some point?

Sergio: At the beginning we did the same as every other distiller. We used to use a bunch of commercial yeast to turn the mieles into alcohol. At that time, twenty years ago, we didn't know that the yeast was a very, very important step for the profile of the final product. We eventually went to the university to get more knowledge about this subject to improve what we do. Did I tell you how we do the fermentation?

David: Yes, you cultivate a natural yeast strain from the agave and then play classical music loudly to help stimulate it, right? It's a great story.

Sergio: That's right. When you start with a small amount of yeast, you might change -- for instance if you start with Champagne yeast -- you can switch it to produce a different profile. You can start with Champagne yeast to get the fermentation going, but then switch to a natural yeast strain for a totally different result.

David: So you made the switch to native yeast?

Sergio: Yes, but we still use a small amount of Champagne yeast to start. We put a small amount into a small bucket to get it started, but then we switch it over to a bigger container -- about 10,000 liters. Then we introduce the natural yeast. Once the natural yeast gets going in there we transfer that over to the larger tanks and it really gets working. The beginning, however, starts with a fistful of Champagne yeast.

NOM 1414 - the Vivanco distilleryDavid: What are the different flavors that appear in the tequila when you use this yeast?

Sergio: Let's say you're asking me for a citrus profile -- if I go to one of the labs here in Guadalajara where they make yeast, high quality yeast, and I tell them I need a yeast to make the tequila taste like citrus, they can make it for me. I know I need to start my fermentation with that yeast.

David: So do you think those flavors are present inside the agave already and you're just allowing them to materialize?

Sergio: Of course. If you taste the agave from the valley (near Tequila) they have a lot of mineral flavors because there are a lot of volcanoes in the area. In the highlands, you get a lot of citrus flavors that come through in the various highland tequilas. We have different regions that make different flavors of tequila. All the very good distillers of tequila start by taking care of the agave from one rancho to another. There's a word for this, I don't know if I can translate it, but it's French...

David: Terroir?

Sergio: Yes!

David: That's what this article is actually about! I was just trying to lead you up to this point, but you brought it up before I got a chance to!

Sergio: These citrus flavors aren't dependent upon the yeast, but more where the agave was born. You just want a yeast that won't interfere in these flavors. If you analyze the agave from one of our ranchos in comparison to another, there are some changes. And that's very interesting.

David: That's the focus of what I want to talk about. However, I just want to be sure that flavors we're experiencing aren't the result of a special yeast, so that we can identify which flavors are terroir-driven and which the result of fermentation.

Sergio: Listen to this -- we have seven different places where we grow the agave. If you grow the agave up in the hills, not on a flat plane, it makes a difference.

David: What would those be specifically?

Sergio: Let's take the agave plant in a flat field -- that plant didn't work too hard to get its sugar from the dirt. Agave on a hillside, however, has to work more and it will take more time to get the volume and sugar it needs. In my opinion, it creates a better profile -- the one that grows on the hill. Even if the shape isn't very nice -- the one in the flat field is bigger, totally round. The one on the hill is smaller -- like the shape of an egg.

David: Egg, like huevo?

Sergio: Yes, like a huevo. They are different. But if the weather is good, I like to prepare the ones from the hillside for a very special tequila.

David: Have you made any tequilas like this? The ones we have here from Vivanco are David Suro's Siembra Azul, Jake Lustig's ArteNOM Reposado, and the Gran Dovejo tequilas distilled by Leopoldo Solis.

Sergio: Of those three, David Suro is the one who's trying to show others where the agave was grown, who harvested the agave, who stripped the's all there on the label. Which ranch the piña came from, etc. He's the one developing that marketing culture.

David: What do you think about that? I'm really interested in what he's doing and how these things affect flavor.

Sergio: It's very difficult for us to sell big amounts of tequila with that kind of marketing. Tequila for most people is a way to get drunk. We are trying to erase that concept, to teach the consumer that tequila has a variety of rich flavors and aromas. I would like to be like David Suro, teaching the people...he's a leader! Every place he goes, a lot of people want to learn from him. I wish I could do that.

David: You should! Why don't you come up here and do that at K&L?

Sergio: You think they can understand my English?

David: Yes! I can understand you just fine!

Sergio: OK, we will do it some day. I thank you for the opportunity.

-David Driscoll


Tequila Crash Course โ€“ Part III: Tequila and Food

Tomas Estes, owner of Tequila Ocho and long-time industry veteran, wrote in his recent book The Tequila Ambassador:

"I had an awakening in 2002, during a visit of 40 tequileros accompanied by Mexico's then president Vicente Fox. They were in London at the Royal Academy of Arts for the opening of the art exhibition "The Aztecs". Afterwards, at my restaurant, the 'tequileros' were proudly sharing their own tequilas. I noticed pitchers of cola and ice going out to some of their tables. I thought they were refreshing their thirsts with this but, as I soon observed, they were mixing their most treasured bottles with the cola and enjoying themselves thoroughly in the process. I had not thought to mix fine tequila with cola – and still don't – but who am I to question their customs?"

Sometimes, when we become interested in a foreign culture, we take the customs of other countries, glorify them, pretend to understand them better than the people who customarily practice them, and then realize we've completely overblown them into something ridiculous that no longer resembles the original. Wine and spirits appreciation is the perfect example of this phenomenon. Over the years, a mindset has materialized in America that somehow equates purity with true connoisseurship – as in all fine spirits must be enjoyed neat without any water. We assume that this is how the professionals do it. But when Lou Palatella and I went to Mexico this past Spring, we drank tequila and Coke, tequila and Squirt, or tequila and soda the entire time (which you can see in the above photo) because that's what the tequileros were doing. That's how the distillers in Guadalajara enjoyed their tequila and we were their guests. Why is that so surprising to people?

That's not to say that we never sipped tequila while we were in Mexico, or that a simple glass of tequila was never enjoyed or savored, it's just to say that not every experience with tequila, or any spirit for that matter, needs to be reverent. That's why last night, at our favorite hot spot in San Mateo, K&L customers and staff got together to enjoy our new Campeon tequila with a fine meal. We had bottles of the new blanco on the table, we had grapefruit Jarritos and Coke bottles to mix with, and we had buckets of ice – just like we had experienced in Guadalajara and much like Tomas Estes described during his experience with the tequileros. The goal wasn't to be authentic or act like Guadalajarans, but rather to continue the exploration of this week's topic: to show that tequila is not only similar to wine in terms of production and terroir, but that a bottle of tequila can be also enjoyed like a bottle of wine – you can pass it around the table, pour a shot to sip on or make a refreshing Paloma, and enjoy your food simultaneously. If you don't know which bottle of wine to open with your fajitas, maybe you shouldn't open a bottle of wine at all!

David Suro, who I did the podcast with this past Monday, is also quoted in Tomas Estes's book as saying:

"For me, to drink tequila is always a feeling of being festive, being open, getting close to people, relaxing...I always feel I can last longer and be in control of myself longer from drinking agave spirits compared to other spirits. You have all of the buzz without the discomfort. You can be more coherent and have more fun."

While it's great to appreciate tequila's complex and distinctive taste, enjoyment is not always just about flavor. Sometimes it's just about getting your buzz on! Sometimes it's simply about having fun. Actually, it should always be about having fun. 

-David Driscoll


Tequila Crash Course โ€“ Part II: An Interview with Enrique Fonseca

While we've built up quite a reputation for Enrique Fonseca's ultra-mature, extra-añejo tequila here at K&L (both with the ArteNOM 1146 and our upcoming Fuenteseca blend), Enrique Fonseca was a farmer long before he was a tequilero. In fact, he's one of the largest landowners of agave in all of Jalisco and he worked in those fields for more than four decades, inheriting the trade from his father. In my quest to understand more about terroir in tequila, who better to ask than the man with agave fields in more than ten different regions? I called Enrique this morning and chatted with him for a half-hour about farming, the maturation of agave, and understanding how regional differences specifically affect flavor. The following transcript is an edited version of that conversation, edited both for brevity and to make sure you don't zone out halfway through reading it. I understand that we're still building an understanding here, so I don't want to overload your brain too quickly!

David: Enrique -- you're one of the biggest land owners of agave in Jalisco, is this right?

Enrique: Well, there are other companies that are larger in terms of the agave they contract, but they don't own the land. They purchase the agave from other farmers. So, yes, we are one of the largest owners of our own agave.

David: And you use only your own agave to make your tequilas?

Enrique: That's correct.

David: In the wine world we would call that "estate" fruit, meaning the difference between using someone else's grapes and using your own.

Enrique: That's right. We use only "estate" agave for our production.

David: Do you believe there's a big difference in the flavor of blue agaves that comes from the land?

Enrique: Completely. Agave is definitely the product of a specific place. 

David: How did you get into the agave farming business? Is it something you inherited from your parents?

Enrique: Yes, my great-grandfather was an agave farmer in the late 1800s, so I am the fourth-generation in my family to harvest agave. I spent more than forty years of my life working with my father in the field.

David: And you own agave fields all over Jalisco, right?

Enrique: Yes, I am from Atotonilco so we have many fields in Los Altos, but we also own property in Arandas Tototlan, Tepatitlán, and over in the valley near Tequila where our distillery is.

David: Your distillery is in tequila? I was thinking it was also in Atotonilco.

Enrique: Yes, it's in Tequila. I purchased it from Bacardi in the 1980s when there was a glut of agave and prices began to drop. We had contracts with major distillers, but they didn't want to honor those contracts, so we needed to find a way to preserve our mature agave or risk losing it completely.

David: That's like the idea of distillation itself – preservation of the harvest.

Enrique: The distillery had been making tequila since the early 1900s, so it's quite a historic building. 

David: Besides Jake's ArteNOM Añejo tequila, do you produce any other tequilas that are sold in the United States?

Enrique: Yes, I am a partner in Don Fulano, which I run with my nephews, and we produce Asombroso for another company that contracts from us.

David: How do you differentiate the two brands? What do you do differently to create them?

Enrique: With Don Fulano we have a profile we're going after. With Asombroso we do what the owners ask us to do to create the style they're looking for.

David: When you bought the distillery did you know anything about distillation, or did you have to hire someone to help you with the process?

Enrique: We had to bring in engineers to help us. I didn't know anything, so I was completely lost!

David: When did you start to become more interested in the process?

Enrique: In the late 1980s there was a push for higher quality and I wanted to educate myself about the business to make better tequila.

David: When did you start realizing that the flavors of tequila could differ depending on where you sourced the agave from?

Enrique: Probably about thirteen years ago, around 2000, when I decided to take more of an interest in the wood. I became fascinated by the aging process and wanted to educate myself further, so I travelled to Scotland and to France where I met with Cognac and single malt producers and learned from them about maturation in wood. It was then that I realized the ultimate factor would be the flavor of the blanco tequila itself, which would have to determine how I should choose to mature it. They've been aging spirits for 400 years in Europe, so I learned a lot from that experience.

David: And you think the flavors in blanco tequila begin with the flavors from the agave?

Enrique: Yes, but there are many other factors that also play a role.

David: How do agave plants from various regions of Jalisco differ from one another?

Enrique: The biggest difference can be seen in the agave grown near Tequila, around 1000 meters in elevation, and the agave grown in Los Altos – the Highlands – at a much higher elevation. When we harvest the agave on the plains near Tequila we're getting about 1.25 grams of penca (the leaves from the agave) when we crop. Contrast that with Los Altos where we get about .60 grams of penca per agave.

David: So you're saying that the size of the piña is smaller with the agave plants near Tequila, that's why there's a larger percentage of penca?

Enrique: Yes, completely. There are large agave plants near Tequila too, but usually they're much larger in the Highlands.

David: And you think this is due to the soil?

Enrique: Yes, that and the humidity, the altitude. The soil in the Highlands is mostly red soil and it's more arid. This creates an agave that matures more slowly, so it has the chance to get riper. You have to remember that the agave plants in each region differ in their window for maturity. You only have a certain window to harvest the agave before they start to go downhill. In the valley near Tequila, you might have a window of six months during peak maturity, whereas in Los Altos that window might be two years.

David: Wow, that's a big difference.

Enrique: Completely, and it's up to the producer to decide when that window is, depending on the type of flavors they want in their tequila.

David: So what would some of the biggest differences be in the way these agave would affect the flavor of a tequila?

Enrique: Tequila made from Lowland agave tends to be more vegetal in flavor, almost like you'll find in some of the mezcales from Oaxaca. Tequila from Los Altos is fruitier, but it can also be peppery, depending on exactly where the agave was harvested from. Because the agave from Los Altos can be riper, with more sugar, the flavors tend to be riper as well. The agave near Tequila will mature faster, but you have a shorter window of optimum maturity and the sugar levels are less.

David: Again these are big differences.

Enrique: Yes they are. Even when you look at just the penca from an agave in the Lowlands versus the Highlands, you'll see a big difference. They're not completely different, but you can tell that they're not the same.

David: Yet, even within the Highlands there are sub-regions where terroir affects flavor?

Enrique: Yes, entirely.

David: So ultimately the flavor of a tequila can be controlled by first selecting agave from a specific region, then harvesting it at a specific time by selecting the desired ripeness, and cutting off the pencas by leaving a certain length of jima (the stem of the pencas) in place for fermentation. Is that correct?

Enrique: Yes, all of these things will affect the ultimate flavor of a tequila. But then there is the production side of the business. I think you will have to come down and see our distillery so we can talk further about this. There is still so much more to explain and to understand.

David: Well that can be arranged!

-David Driscoll


Tequila Crash Course -- Part I: Some Things to Know

Tequila is made by distilling a fermented liquid made from pressed agave piñas that have been roasted or steamed. The plants are harvested from the ground. The leaves are hacked off. The hearts are cooked and the sweet juices that escape during this process are captured (called the mieles dulces). Once the sugars are concentrated, the agave is shredded and pressed and the liquid captured is added to the tank where it is fermented. This is called the mosto. The rest of the process is just like single malt whisky. The mosto (or wort) is distilled twice on a pot still and the resulting spirit is tequila.

Agave is a plant that is native to the southwest United States and Central America. There are over 200 species of agave, but only the blue agave (agave azul) can be used in tequila production. Its high sugar content makes it a natural candidate for the fermentation of alcohol.

By law, tequila must be comprised of at least 51% agave spirit. A tequila that is distilled from 100% blue agave can claim this on its label. Any tequila not distilled from 100% blue agave is a mixto or blend. Much like blended whisky and single malt whisky differ, blended mixtos use both agave and sugar spirits, while 100% agave uses only the pure agave distillate. Currently there are no mixtos sold at K&L.

No one really knew there was such a thing as 100% agave tequila until 1983 when Chinaco hit the American market. Bob Denton and Marilyn Smith were the importers in Texas. Chinaco was twice as expensive as many of its competitors at the time, but the taste was enough to convince people of the difference. It was clean, pure, smooth, and nuanced. By the late 1980s, the "premium" tequila market began to take shape, comprised of other 100% agave tequilas.

The CRT (tequila regulatory council) was founded in 1994 by the Mexican government to help protect and foster the high-standards concerning premium tequila production. It is a board of farmers, distillers, bottlers, and merchants who work together on behalf of the industry. The CRT enforces the tequila NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) which is the set of guidelines and rules concerning tequila distillation: all distilleries must have a four-digit NOM number to designate the tequila's origin (yet there are some complications with this system as distilleries were allowed to use different NOM numbers to designate different brands). The CRT not only polices the industry, it also works to improve it with scientific studies and research on behalf of better production.

Tequila can be sold as blanco (unaged), reposado (aged two months to a year), añejo (aged one to three years), and extra añejo (aged more than three years).

Tequila is one of the few spirits that tastes distinctly like the product from which it is distilled (some others being fruit eau de vies, Calvados, and agricole rum). Like pear brandy or kirschwasser, the goal is to translate the flavor of the produce into the spirit itself -- hence, why better agave can result in a better tequila.

Some people think the fructans in cooked agave and ultimately tequila are much easier on the body than the sugars in other distilled spirits, creating a healthier buzz that's easier on our metabolism. That's why 100% pure agave tequilas are said to be better for hangovers, while mixto tequilas with their pure sugar distillates blended in can cause terrible symptoms the next day.

Just a few things to get your minds ready for the onslaught of information to come.

-David Driscoll


A Week of Tequila

Since I received so much positive feedback (mostly from non-vodka drinkers) about last week's vodka series, I decided I'd do the same thing this week with tequila. No other spirit has inspired me more over the last few months and no other drink has filled me with as much wonder and curiosity. This is mainly due to the advancements made in quality and production methods, mirroring many of the changes we've seen in the wine industry over the last two decades -- the same dynamic changes that inspired me to quit teaching to work in a wine shop. Wine appreciation has gone from merely enjoying the flavors of different grapes to understanding the influence of the land itself upon them -- terroir, as the French say. Part of the fun comes from knowing that only grapes grown in this particular type of soil, in this particular climate, in this particular part of the world can taste this way. That is, as long as the vintner doesn't fuck everything up by adding all kinds of new oak and designer yeasts during fermentation.

The idea of minimalist wine making, or "hands off" production, has become very fashionable over the past five years; stemming from the mindset that we should do as little as possible to alter the pure flavor within the grape itself. Look at Burgundy, for example, where grapes from one plot of land might cost ten times as much as grapes from another -- despite only being fifty yards apart on the same hillside. There are vineyard maps, geographical documents, and soil charts that point out which parcels have the potential for greatness and decide which wines are superior -- before the wine has even been made!! And this is all concerning a fruit that grows not under the ground, but on the vine -- far above the soil itself. The terroir is said to make its way into the grape via the roots and the stems, ultimately expressing itself within the juice.

Terroir is a tough sell to many wine customers already, let alone spirits consumers. The idea of geography and climate playing such an important role in a wine's flavor is sweeping and romantic, but suspicious if it results in a higher price tag. "I'm paying an extra $10 a bottle to taste earth?" When you distill that flavor out of the wine and into a brandy that spends twenty years in French oak, terroir isn't only tough to sell, it's also difficult to taste under all that wood. Terroir in whiskey? Good luck. Terroir in rum? Not when you're distilling from molasses. But what about tequila? Blanco tequila specifically. Not only does tequila come from a plant that grows in the ground, but more importantly, from a piña that actually grows within the ground. The agave piña itself spends six to eight years developing its flavors within various types of soils: rocky, gravelly, volcanic, mineral-rich. It might be said that an agave plant, even more so than a grape, is prone to flavors of terroir due to its actual, physical contact with the tierra itself.

I've already begun the dialogue about terroir and tequila this week by spending an hour on the phone with Siembra Azul's David Suro -- a man who strongly believes in agriculture's role within the flavor and quality of a tequila. That conversation is available to everyone via our podcast archive. However, I'm still looking for more clarity. How exactly does terroir affect the specific flavors of a tequila? What exactly makes an agave piña fruity, floral, spicy, peppery, or tangy? How can consumers use this information to help them choose a tequila that speaks to them? More importantly, why should anyone care about terroir in tequila in the first place? By shedding some more light on the producers who are actively working to express the intricate flavors of their agave, I think we can understand how the industry itself has developed to this point and where it still might take us.

Stay tuned!

-David Driscoll