Drinking Diageo โ€“ Part II: Tanqueray Malacca

As a spirits retailer who is friendly with people in the spirits industry, I end up ringing up purchases for many of my vendor appointments once we're through meeting. The people who spend their day selling booze usually spend their nights drinking it, but they rarely come to K&L to buy back their own products. The K&L liquor shelf is where they let loose. It's where craft distillers can indulge in all the big market booze they've been hearing about and where corporate sales guys can grab that micro-gin they read about in the Chronicle. That's always the way it works, too -- everyone wants to buy the polar opposite of whatever it is they sell! "I thought you weren't interested in all that Diageo stuff?" I'll say. "Are you crazy?" they'll reply. "If it weren't for Lagavulin I'd never have wanted to be in the booze business!" Despite what fronts people like to put up about craft booze versus corporate booze, in the end people like to drink what tastes good.

Gin production is one of the easier spirits to launch into the spirits industry -- mainly because you can purchase grain neutral spirit, source your own botanicals, and redistil that into something unique. There's no aging involved, there's plenty of room for experimentation, and gin is something that people drink in volume (meaning you can sell enough to stay afloat while you work on other things). Much like with craft beer, there has been an explosion of new craft gins over the past five years and there's no end in sight. Yet, even with all of the nuance, the creativity, and the fun new flavors we've seen over the past year, there's no doubt in my mind what the best gin of 2013 is for me: the Tanqueray Malacca. Judging by what I've seen in the store with the purchasing habits of industry professionals, bartenders, brand ambassadors, and local distillers, I'm not alone in this summation. Everyone I've talked to within the booze business is crazy about that gin -- even the crafty people who swore off corporate booze forever.

Tanqueray gin has been around since 1830 when it was initially distilled by Charles Tanqueray in London's Bloomsbury District. The brand was continued on after his death by his son Charles, who operated it until the distillery was severely damaged during WWII. Today, Tanqueray is produced in Cameron Bridge, Scotland and is owned by Diageo, who have launched several spinoffs during their ownership -- the most recent being the relaunch of Malacca. Diageo was so far ahead of their time with Malacca that they had to pull the brand off the market in 2001, only a few years after creating it. Originally introduced as "a wetter, fruitier" version of Tanqueray, the public had no idea what to do with it. Serious bartenders at the time loved it, however, and lamented its loss by stashing cases away for their own private consumption. Eight years later, Old Tom gin and other rounder, sweeter versions of gin would come back into fashion, making it the perfect time to bring Malacca back for a second round. Yet, with more serious competition and high-quality alternatives on the market, does the Malacca stand up next to other options?

First off, the price is very competitive. With most "craft" gins clocking in at $30+, the Malacca will run you $32.99 at K&L, but that's for a liter-sized bottle. Were it a standard 750ml, you'd be looking at about $25 -- very reasonable. When I nose the Malacca straight in a glass, I pick up the botanicals, but also a decent amount of fruit. It smells like it's already been mixed into a cocktail, but it's never pungent or intense. There's nothing that strikes me as new-wave or radical about the Malacca. There's nothing pronounced or extreme in either the aromas or the flavors. It's just simply delicious, in the same way that Campari is just delicious. I know there's nothing special or artisanal about what they did to flavor the liquor, they didn't travel to remote regions of Africa for a special plant or desert flower, I just know that I love it and I want to drink more. The Malacca makes a killer Tom Collins, a luscious Martinez, and fruitier Negroni, and, perhaps more surprising of all, a floral and quite lovely gin and tonic. I've personally gone through more bottles of Malacca gin this year than any other spirit in my home bar. I've repurchased four separate times, which is not something I usually do with any spirit.

When I wrote yesterday that, rather than buying out the competition, Diageo was retooling and remodeling its already stellar portfolio of products, this is perhaps the best example of that process. Rather than create a new gin, or attempt to be "crafty," Diageo reached back into the past, pulled out its trump card and said, "Yeah, we already did that, but we'll do it again if you want." And, boy, do I want it. The Malacca is a prime example of what Diageo can offer spirits consumers -- a multi-nation release, available to drinkers around the world, not allocated or impossible to find, that tastes good, provides quality for the price, and offers serious spirits fans an exciting alternative to the regular old thing. It pretty much does what other craft gins do, it's just more available (saving customers from serious frustration) and offers a better price point.

We've still got plenty, but I definitely plan on squirrelling away a case before all is said and done.

-David Driscoll


Drinking Diageo: Part I

When people ask me for my take on the current state of the boutique spirits industry, I usually give them the Star Wars analogy. If the past few years have been like Star Wars, with rebel craft distilleries popping up all over the place, uniting in their front to take on the Diageo Death Star, we're definitely entering the Empire Strikes Back phase of this story -- the part where Diageo flexes its muscle, regroups, and builds a bigger, badder, smarter version of the same thing. It's no secret that the spirits giant (and other spirits giants, too, like Pernod-Ricard, Campari, etc.) have taken a hit in the sales department as consumers have begun drinking outside the corporate box. However, rather than simply co-opt the movement by buying it out, likely ending up with a bunch of extra weight it can't support, Diageo is simply retooling its lineup, using the size and scale of its production to offer value where the market is lacking it. Whereas two years ago I was using this blog as a pulpit to vent my frustrations about Diageo's price increases and margin-squeezing tactics, today I find myself in a completely different mindset. Today I'm more upset by exploitative pricing and overvalued quality than I am by marketplace adjustments. I've become both older and wiser and I understand a bit more of the story now that it has progressed farther along.

While we all groaned at the $5 price hikes on things like Caol Ila, Lagavulin, or Talisker, these increases were only a tremor compared to the price-shattering earthquake that was to follow. As other companies realized that they could no longer keep up with the demand for their products, prices began to skyrocket. Diageo had simply been one of the first to respond. Laphroaig 10 went from $29.99 to $42.99. The Yamazaki 12 year went from $29.99 to $49.99, while its older brother, the 18 year, went from $99.99 to $154.99. Macallan 18 went from $139.99 to $199.99. Like many of us here at K&L have come to understand: when you're the first person to raise your price on the market, you usually bring most of the anger along with it. As we raised our prices in response to the new costs, customers were livid. People began hoarding, buying cases against other possible increases. The fear was spreading, but it wasn't limited to just single malt whisky.

All of sudden, independent releases of rye whiskey started coming in at the $60 price point, while 10 year Bourbons like Michter's began releasing at $99.99 (and selling out in minutes!). Longtime consumers were incredulous, connoisseurs were incorrigible, and the venom was prolific among internet bloggers and message-boarders. What had happened to old-fashioned, easy-to-find, drinkable whiskey? The market was adjusting itself to the demands of new consumers and no one was quite sure how high the ceiling would go. Many predicted a bubble, but it never seemed to really burst, and prices started to settle into a new normal -- one that has not slowed sales down one bit (we're actually selling more whiskey today at these new prices than we were last year at the old ones). People began to search for a new hope, a company that could harness the force and provide consumers with a new, exciting, affordable, and dependable whiskey that would help deflate the inflated market and bring prices back to where they once were. Could the craft whiskey industry play Luke Skywalker?

After three years of Craft Wars I think consumers are finally understanding just how difficult it is to make good whiskey. Perhaps even more important, however, is how long it takes to make good whiskey. With producers looking to rush their products to the market and capitalize on the momentum, consumers were left with underwhelming, unpolished, and expensive versions that only slightly resembled the products they loved. While they wanted to (and still want to) support the movement, it was difficult for many to get on board because the whiskey was neither cheaper, nor better! That's when a number of people realized that maybe Diageo wasn't as terrible as they once believed. In fact, when the core of Diageo's products are compared to general market pricing today, they're downright affordable. To take it even further, I'd venture to say that Diageo might be in the unique position to offer relief to the inflated market many people blame them for creating!

Now I know what you're thinking -- why would I buy Don Julio tequila when I can buy ArteNOM or Siembra Azul for about the same price? Why would I buy Bulleit 10 year old when I can buy Weller 12 or Eagle Rare 10 for less? There are plenty of Diageo products out there that simply can't compete with certain artisinal producers. We know this. But that analogy can work both ways. Why buy Templeton Rye when you can get the same Bulleit or Dickel whiskey for more than $10 less per bottle? Why buy Hangar One when you can get Ketel One? While it's true that Diageo's size and scale often prevents it from creating the nuance found in small-production spirits, it's larger capacity also provides more affordable options for those who can't always afford to splurge. What other company could afford to sell Dickel #8 for $14.99 a bottle? What other company could keep Lagavulin 16 under $70, while other 15 year olds are clocking in well over $100?

When was the last time you even tasted through Diageo's portfolio? If it's been a while, you might want to revisit some of these selections. Ever since the rebels began chipping away at Diageo's empire, there's been an increased push for increased quality within the consortium. Do these changes offer enough to those consumers skeptical of recent NAS releases? Do they justify giving in to the dark side when perusing the liquor shelf, or could it be that the craft spirits industry is becoming the real Senator Palpatine? This week's theme on the blog will tackle these questions as I begin revisiting some of Diageo's highest profile brands and attempt to put them into context along side some of their craftier competitors. We may find a few surprises along the way. And we may find that, like Vader himself, many of Diageo's producers were once young Jedi knights themselves.

-David Driscoll


Tequila CC Part VI: An Interview with Carlos Camarena

Often times customers will peruse the tequila shelf at K&L and eye the various brands, with labels adorning bottles of various shapes and sizes, not knowing that numerous tequilas are often made at the same place – even when they're owned by different companies. Carlos Camarena's family has been distilling Tequila Tapatio since 1937 when his grandfather founded the brand, but it wasn't available in the U.S. until nearly seventy-five years later. Most American customers are much more familiar with his father's creation for the U.S. market, El Tesoro de Don Felipe. Our hardcore tequila enthusiasts are probably more excited about Tequila Ocho – the single estate-distilled, vintage-dated portfolio that helped bring terroir to the forefront of your tequila bottle, spearheaded by industry veteran Tomas Estes. In talking with Carlos today, I learned not only about the history behind some of tequila's most recognized brands, I learned about how important tradition is to one of Mexico's most traditional distillers. Here's what he had to say:

David: The first question I have for you, just quickly, is concerning the NOM system in Mexico – you produce both Tapatio Tequila under NOM 1139 and Tequila Ocho under NOM 1474, yet they're both made at your La Altaña distillery. How does that work?

Carlos: The NOM is like the official permit number that the Mexican government grants to a distillery or producer to create their own tequila, so it's kind of like the fingerprint – it's your identifcation on the market. Each number belongs to an official producer. We have two different NOM numbers because we run two different companies. One of those companies is Tequila Tapatio which produces Tapatio, El Tesoro de Don Felipe, and Excellia. Then we have another company which is Compania Tequileros Alambiques with a different NOM number with which we produce Ocho Tequila. Both of them are produced at the same distillery. When we acquired that company, however, the company was distilling at some place in the Lowlands. Then my brother was leasing a distillery here in the area and we began producing tequila there under 1474, but then we decided to just do everything in one place. So basically when Tapatio isn't using La Altaña distillery we lease it to this other company, which we also own, but with a different permit and NOM number. Originally they were actually two companies at two different distilleries.

David: Your Tapatio label says "desde 1937". Has La Altaña been in operation since 1937 or was that just when the brand was started?

Carlos: It's actually when my grandfather established the distillery and Tapatio is the brand he started with.

David: Has everything stayed the same since then? Have you been able to continue on in his tradition?

Carlos: We are a very traditional distillery. We just got electricity here for the first time about fifteen years ago and that was mainly for the lights. My grandfather started doing everything by hand and we remain one of the most, if the the most, traditional distilleries in Mexico. We still use the tajona for El Tesoro, everything is fermented only in wood, we don't use stainless steel, we use only natural fermentation, we've been using the same strain of yeast for the past 76 years. All of our distillation is done in small copper stills. It's a very hands-on distillery. We're not very big, but we don't want to be big. We want to do things the best we can, but in order to do that we have to use our hands and our hearts.

David: This is the first time that Tapatio has been sold in the U.S., is that correct? Now that Marko is bringing it in here in Northern California? It wasn't exported before right?

Carlos: That is correct. It was never exported to the U.S. until now. Small amounts of Tapatio were exported to Europe, Asia, and into Japan, but never to the U.S. It's very recently just launched. Why is that, you ask? The main reason is that, being a very small and traditional distillery, we couldn't keep up with production to supply the U.S. market – being the second largest tequila market in the world. For us it was impossible. We couldn't even keep up with our orders here in Mexico. We grew our facility over the years, but only using the same traditional techniques. Only recently we finally said, 'OK, we have enough to maybe supply a few states now.' We didn't want to fail with any follow up orders, so we didn't do it at all.

David: Robert Denton came down in the mid-80s to import tequila from you, but he decided to pass on Tapatio, something about the label being too rustic or traditional, and instead created El Tesoro with your father. Is that right?

Carlos: Yes, Robert Denton used to be the importer in the U.S. for Chinaco tequila from Tamaulipas, but then that distillery closed and they didn't have tequila to import. They came to Jalisco looking for tequila of a high quality and they found us because other tequila producers told them my father was the only one who could create something of that quality. So they came here and at the beginning they wanted us to supply tequila for the Chinaco brand and my father said, 'No way, we won't sell any tequila that's not under our own brand or name.' For them, Tapatio as a brand, it wasn't attractive. Tapatio has no meaning in the U.S. The people will mispronounce it and it has no translation so they didn't want to use that name. So my father said he could create a brand for the U.S. if they weren't happy with Tapatio, so they proposed El Tesoro de Don Felipe, thinking of him, but actually my father liked that name because that was his father's name – my grandfather. He was known as Don Felipe in those days in this area, while my father was known as the "Camarena Engineer." Therefore, my father said OK because it reminded him of the heritage of the distillery.

Robert Denton and his partner, Marilyn Smith, only found out recently that back then I was kind of their worst enemy. Why is that? Because when my father was first deciding to export I told him exactly what I said to you just a few minutes ago, 'Why do you want to supply the U.S. market when we can't even supply our own regional demand here in Mexico?' The U.S. is a huge market, I thought. My father told me, 'I have my reasons and I want to do it, and I will do it with or without your approval.' So I said, 'OK, of course, sir, you're the boss,' but at first I thought it was crazy. He told me that Denton's was a very small company, a two person company, so the volume they wanted was very small – only a few cases every now and then – so that's how we started with El Tesoro Don Felipe in 1988 as an export brand only.

David: And then it took off. Then eventually it was sold to Jim Beam, right?

Carlos: Yes, it started growing and then Robert Denton got a distribution contract with Jim Beam. Denton was the importer still, but Beam did all the distribution. Beam eventually decided to buy Denton's contract, so they became both the importer and the distributor. When Bob and my dad did the original contract, however, so they were co-owners, and Bob sold his ownership as well when he sold his contract. We then became partners with Jim Beam. They would eventually become the global distributor as well.

David: And it's still co-owned today?

Carlos: No, when Beam acquired Sauza they were focusing on that tequila brand more. At that time my father had already passed away, so I made the decision to tell Beam that I wasn't happy with their marketing. I said I wanted to finish out our contract with them and move on. However, since we were partners they said that we either had to sell our half of El Tesoro or buy them out of their share. To make a long story short, we set up a price to buy or sell, but after talking with my family we realized even if we owned the brand we wouldn't have any distribution. We didn't have a global trademark and there were already other brands using that name in China, etc, so we realized it couldn't be global. We therefore decided to sell Beam the brand, but with a long-term contract that said we are the sole producers.

David: How is El Tesoro different than Tapatio?

Carlos: For El Tesoro we use the tajona to crush the agave – by the way all of the agave at La Altaña are cooked in brick ovens, not cooked in stainless steel, and it's very slowly cooked. For El Tesoro we squeeze the juice of the agave using the tajona – which is the round stone pit with the stone wheel on top – we crush the agave and we end up with a mash of agave, which is wet with its own juice. We collect the liquid and the honey as well, but we also take the pulp and ferment them both together. After fermentation, we don't separate the pulp and fiber, but rather distill it with the agave. That's what gives El Tesoro it's unique flavor: a lot of agave because in the end it's cooked with the piña itself. With Tapatio we cook it exactly the same, but we use machinary to squeeze out just the juice and we distill only the juice. We add nothing to the juice, no enzymes, all natural. So we press the juice, ferment the juice, and distill only the juice.

David: Where do you source your agave from? Do you buy from other farmers or do you own your own land?

Carlos: All the tequila we have ever produced has come from our own agave fields. My grandfather actually started as an agave grower and his grandfather had a distillery, my family's original distillery that was built five generations back, that was abandoned and destroyed during the Mexican Revolution, and right after that, in this area, we had kind of a civil war due to religious purposes, the Cristero War, so with those two events the distillery my great-great-grandfather made from adobe was destroyed. But my grandfather kept on growing agave, selling to big brands in Tequila Valley, but as you know agave take seven to eight years to grow, so there are cycles. Some years there is a lot of agave and prices begin to drop and some years there is not enough agave and the prices go up. It was during one of these gluts that my grandfather was unable to sell his tequila to one of his contractors, and that is when he made the decision to build a distillery. He knew the agave wouldn't hold in the fields, it would spoil, so that's when he decided to follow in his grandfathers's footsteps and build La Altaña in 1937. From that point up until today we have been self-sufficient in agave.

David: Part of what we've been talking about this week on the blog with other producers is the idea of terroir with agave. How much of Tapatio's flavor do you think comes from the specific flavors of the agave itself?

Carlos: Actually I am happy to see that other tequila producers are beginning to discover terroir – to think about it and talk about it. For years I was telling the people at Beam that if I see a bottle of El Tesoro on the shelf, I can look at the lot number and the date it was bottled and I can tell you everything about the agave used to make it: from which specific field, the average weight, how much sugar the agave had, the acidity level, from which location, and why that imparted this particular flavor. For our 70th anniversary, six years ago, we released a seven year old tequila from a very special agave field – the best location that my family has ever produced from. That was distilled in the year 2000, so even thirteen years ago we already knew about terroir and its effect on tequila. I told Beam we could use this for the bottles, put the location and the harvesting date on the bottle. But thirteen years ago this was a crazy idea. People said, 'Come on, this isn't wine! There's no terroir with distilled spirits.'

That's why we started the second company and partnered with Tomas Estes. We created Ocho because we shared the same ideals and he said, 'Let's do it! Let's bring a tequila to the market that can express what terroir is for a distilled product.' Ocho is all about terroir. The only change on the production is the source of the agave. Where was it grown, the altitude, all of these things will impart different sugar levels and acidity into the agave and into the tequila. With Ocho now we already have blanco tequilas produced from eight different fields, so people can actually try them side by side. When people do this they are shocked and say, 'Man what a big difference!' and we say, 'Hey, that's what we were trying to express to you!' With the larger brands everything is about homogenizing the flavor and standardizing it so that the tequila always tastes the same over and over. With us, after more than 70 years of making tequila by hand, we knew that the tequila from different fields would always taste different, so we always had to blend to keep the flavor as consistent as possible. That's what was always done with Tapatio and El Tesoro – blends – to keep the same profile. The consumer wouldn't notice the difference unless they compared the lots side by side and we didn't want them to notice. Now it's becoming more common, the idea of terroir, but ten years, twelve years ago, it was a crazy idea. Terroir was only for wine. We were one of the pioneers in this case, I believe.

David: How important do you think vintages are to agave harvesting? Every wine has a vintage so that you know it will be different from year to year. How important is that to agave?

Carlos: It's even more complex with agave. Again, as every field will behave differently, the other part of the puzzle is that we can only harvest the same field every eight to ten years – as it usually takes about seven or eight years to grow an agave and it's common to practice crop rotation for two years, planting corn or beans or other organic materials to revitalize the soil, before planting agave again. So we're looking at ten years average. Our main idea was to use the first ten years to express the differences between each field, so that after that we could go back and finally distill a second tequila from each location. Then people can compare two tequilas coming from the same field, and how ten years of weather made a difference. The plant spent a decade opening its leaves to the sunlight and transferred that energy into its flavors.

The weather in each microclimate will never be the same over a ten year period – especially with global warming and climate change – so we don't expect the flavors to be the same for the second harvest either. We'll know that it's not just about the soil and the location of the field, but how those ten years of climate affected it. Right now it's still an assumption, but we're getting closer to ten years now. We launched our first single field in 2007. But it makes a difference for Tapatio and Tesoro as well. For each batch I might be harvesting from two or three fields. But for those products we need to keep it consistent, so we have to blend it rather than express those specific flavors. With Ocho, however, each label has the name of the ranch and you can even go online and search it on Google maps and see the location, with the altitude and soil type in each place. For us, it's very important.

David: You're also doing something new and exciting with the new high-proof Tapatio. First you were making tequila for wine drinkers, now you're catering to the cocktail crowd. I'm surprised no one did this sooner because this is long overdue.

Carlos: Let me tell you something – there are people in this area who refer to us as 'the crazy guys' because we always have some crazy thinking in mind and are trying to do new things. I used to say that we have two faces: one of them is always looking to the past, remaining traditional in what we do and how we do it, but the other is always looking to the future, saying 'what if we did this instead of that?' People say 'This is crazy because no one has ever done it!' but that doesn't mean it can't be done. It means that all you need are some crazy people who are willing to do it and see what happens. That's us.

With the Tapatio 110 proof, a distilled spirit is comprised only of ethanol, water, and flavor. The higher the proof, the more alcohol but also the more flavor. When you add more water you're diluting the alcohol, but you're also diluting the flavors. Cocktails are becoming more and more the trend, so now we need to give the cocktails something strong with flavor, not only strong with alcohol. We wanted it to be high in proof, but at the same time quite smooth in flavor – a tequila that can offer agave flavor to a cocktail, but one you can still sip and savor without burning your mouth. For most spirits, 110 proof is a challenge because the alcohol will dominate. What did we need to do to help mask the alcohol? Flavor. That helps to cover the burn.

When Marko Karakasevic was here a few years back and was tasting tequila off the still he said, 'Hey, this is so rich in flavor, why don't we bottle it this way?' I said, 'I don't think there's a market for that. People will think this is just a faster way to get drunk!' Later on I was convinced, however, because the cocktail movement is really asking for a tequila like this. The more we are lowering the proof, the more we are diluting flavor. Cocktails should help to enhance the agave flavor and that's what this is for. For years we have been distilling at this high proof and then adding water so that it's acceptable in the general market. We see it now as the purest expression of agave – in plain sight of distillers for years and years, yet no one was doing it.

David: Thanks for doing this, Carlos. I need to get down and visit your distillery soon.

Carlos: Yes, I think this is important for you to do. Sometimes I believe people think, 'This guy isn't really doing things traditionally. This is just marketing or some bullshit, I don't believe it's all fermented naturally and all that. This isn't true.' But when people come here and see what we're doing they leave completely convinced. I am excited for you to come here because I know that after you come you won't be drinking other tequilas. It will be your job to taste and compare other tequilas, but I know what will be at home in your private liquor cabinet!

David: Tapatio already is in my liquor cabinet! I'm drinking it now!

-David Driscoll


Tequila Crash Course โ€“ Part V: Tasting the Blancos

It's Saturday night. I'm home alone. I've got the last part of Michigan and Notre Dame on the big screen (did anyone else see that poor girl on the sideline get absolutely drilled when a player got pushed out of bounds?). And I've got a load of blanco tequilas to distinguish between. You might as well know something about the way these things taste now that you're becoming a tequila expert. Tasting products side by side is the best way to understand context. Let's go through them one by one, shed some light on their origins, and see what we find:

Tequila Ocho Blanco – NOM 1474 – $44.99 (2009 Rancho Pomez) Of all the producers we carry at K&L, Tomas Estes's Tequila Ocho seems to most understand tequila's relationship to wine. If the agave makes such a difference, and terroir is important to flavor, then why wouldn't the vintage, location, and batch matter as well? Tequila Ocho bottles have a rancho location and vintage date on the label. They're distilled at Carlos Camarena's La Alteña distillery, which is confusing because that means two different NOM numbers are used at the same location (Camarena's Tapatio tequila uses NOM 1139). As I've stated in earlier posts there are some confusing aspects of the whole NOM number thing. How does it taste? The nose is incredible – pepper comes first, but behind it are drifts of cooked agave and sweet citrus. The palate is light, lean, and clean. The flavors are zesty and lively, with more peppery accents, but the finish doesn't live up to the nose. That's asking a lot, however. Good stuff.

Tequila Tapatio Blanco – NOM 1139 – $32.99 (1 liter bottle) Carlos Camarena's legendary brand is finally available in the U.S. thanks to Marko Karakasevic from Charbay here in Northern California (who also distills his Charbay tequila at La Alteña). Tapatio has been a brand in Mexico since 1937, but the old-school, traditional label was never seen as desirable by American importers. Personally, I love it. I also love the girth of the one-liter. The aromas on the blanco are mild and slightly herbaceous. The palate is quite round for a blanco, but it's never sweet or overly fruity. The pepper, fruit, and agave flavors are perfectly in balance with one another, almost preventing one from picking them apart. Really well done and a fantastic deal.

Calle 23 Blanco – NOM 1529 – $22.99 Calle 23 is distilled at Agaveros y Tequileros Unidos de Los Altos and is is owned by French-born biochemist Sophie Decobecq, who first worked with agave in South Africa. It spawned a love of both tequila and eventually Mexico itself. Her tequila represents a great value for those looking to find something affordable, but authentic. The nose on the blanco is vivacious and filled with cooked agave notes. The palate is a bit spicier than the previous two with more peppery and tangy vegetal flavors. Tough to beat for the price.

Siembra Azul Blanco – NOM 1414 – $37.99 We've covered quite a bit about David Suro's tequila distilled at Feliciano Vivanco distillery. Let's taste it! The nose is heavenly – all fruit, sweet agave, and floral herbaceous notes. The palate is also wonderful. It's clean, delicate, and very elegant in style. Lots of pure agave flavor with the spicy accents wonderfully balanced. This is tough to beat at any price.

Campeon K&L Exclusive Blanco – NOM 1107 – $29.99 There's a ton of information here about El Viejito distillery from my visit earlier this Spring. Let's break down the flavors now from our first ever Mexican exclusive: the nose shows saline, mineral aromas with light pepper. It's quite different from the others. The palate is clean and delicate with more pepper and light spice. There's not a lot of floral, fruity components to this. It's much more mineral driven. I really like the contrast and the profile. But that's probably because I contracted over 1,000 bottles for K&L. Of course I'm going to like it.

ArteNOM Blanco Tequila – NOM 1580 – $39.99 Jesus-Maria is a Highland region known for having some of the best agave in Jalisco. Its high altitude and arid soil helps stimulate large, sugar-loaded piñas to grow under the earth, resulting in fruity, creamy tequilas when distilled. ArteNOM's blanco used to be labeled 1079, but a new ownership purchased the distillery and changed the NOM number. Today it's still made at the same place. I once called this tequila the "best blanco I've ever tasted". Is it still the best? The nose is amazingly fruity, almost like the fermentation brought out white wine and red berries. That's gotta be from the super ripe agave. The palate is round, yet spicy, with almost a white whiskey component – that beery earthiness that sometimes overpowers moonshine and corn whiskey. This is only a slight background characteristic. The finish is pepper and spice. I think the ArteNOM still really stands out in a group, mainly because it's totally different than the others. I still really like it. Alot.

Chinaco Blanco – NOM 1127 – $29.99 In the mid-1980s Chinaco was a revelation to inexperienced American tequila drinkers. 100% agave? What does that mean? Today 100% agave tequila is the norm, but it wasn't back then. An interesting fact about Chinaco is that it's distilled outside of Jalisco, in one of the few regions that can legally call its products tequila: Tamaulipas – a state to the east of Jalisco along the Gulf of Mexico. Chinaco was the first real boutique tequila on the U.S. market. Today, it's not quite the same as it once was, but it's still one of the most interesting and diverse tequilas on our shelf. The aromas are strong with roasted agave and a slightly earthy component. The palate is tangy with more cooked agave and a lovely combination of spice and bell pepper on the finish. Really great stuff and well balanced.

Don Julio Blanco – NOM 1449 – $35.99 And where does Don Julio Gonzalez's legendary blanco fit into this boutique tequila tasting? I can't say that it does. While Don Julio's aged expressions are still top notch and worthy of praise, the blanco simply can't hang with this group. The nose is pleasant enough, but the palate is rather vegetal and lacking in pop. There's not much fruit, mostly pepper and bitter vegetal notes. It's not bad, but it's not better than one of the tequilas I've tasted so far. I'd still happily drink it if poured a shot, but remember this tasting is about side-by-side context. 

Still more tequila talk to come!

-David Driscoll


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