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Tuesday
Jun182013

Mexico: Day 2 - NOM 1107

One thing that's always bothered me about the tequila industry is the lack of information concerning where its spirit is made. Want to know who actually makes Campeón tequila? Or Peligroso? Or Aguila? It's all made at the same place: El Viejito distillery in Atotonilco. This morning Lou and I, along with El Viejito jefe Juan Núñez, drove east of Guadalajara into the Highlands to visit the Núñez family's facility.

White spirits like vodka and gin don't have the strongest reputation with whiskey drinkers because they're unaged. A large part of whiskey's complex flavor profile comes from the maturation period in wood, and most whiskies need ample time to develop these characteristics. It takes nearly a decade to make fully mature whiskey and sometimes longer to make an extraordinary batch, whereas vodka can be whipped up and bottled in a matter of days. I asked Juan how old his extra añejo tequila was and he said, "Three years old. Or eleven, depending on how you look at it." That's a joke around these parts of Jalisco, referring to the fact that it often takes six to eight years to fully ripen an agave plant. While whiskey producers need to decide years in advance how much spirit to actually distill, tequila producers face the same troublesome forecasting, but they face it in the field rather than the stillhouse. The price of agave therefore fluctuates depending on the demand for tequila because you need access to the plant year-round.

Wine makers talk about good vintages and bad vintages, but at least they get to start over each year. Agave farmers need to outlast seven vintages just to harvest one crop! Imagine it – you're three years into a maturation period and there's a flood. Or a drought. Or an infestation of insects. Your crop gets decimated by disease and you're back to square one. There's far more risk for the agave farmer, which is why agave has no beginning and end to its growing season. Optimally, you don't want to pick it during the rainy time of year, but each harvest is scheduled by necessity, rather than season. New crops of agave are sown by picking los hijuelos (the children) of the mother agave plants that grow nearby and planting them in rows or prédios (plots). Like whiskey, there's talk of a growing bubble, but it's based on the supply of mature agave rather than mature tequila.

The first step in the tequila making process, after the piñas have been harvested, is the initial roast. You need sugar to make alcohol, so you need to roast or steam the agave in order to concentrate its tough, fibrous interior into a soft and sweet pulpy fruit. El Viejito uses large, walk-in ovens or hornos that fill with steam, cooking the piñas for sixteen hours before a six hour rest is imposed. After simmering for a bit, the ovens are turned back on for an additional fourteen hours. 

The floors of the ovens are lined with wooden planks that raise the piñas off of ground, allowing the steam to reach all sides equally. As the agave cooks the juices begin seeping out from within. The first liquids to be excreted are the mieles armagas or the bitter honey, which are discarded through a drain on the oven floor. After those juices are siphoned off, the drainage lever is switched to capture the mieles dulces or the sweet honey, which is pumped into a tank and later added as part of the fermentation.

After roasting, the agave piñas are shredded and moved up the conveyor belt into a press, where the fibers can be flattened to squeeze out every bit of sugary juice possible. There are four presses at El Viejito, so the fibers get squeezed four times consecutively. There's a nozzle that extends over the press that sprays the fibers with water to rinse off any sugar still clinging to the agave. The juice and water both are captured in a tray underneath and pumped into a holding tank where they await fermentation.

Fermentation of the agave juice or mosto takes place in these 37,000 liter stainless steel tanks, where the heat and the temperature of the process can be controlled. The process off converting sugar into alcohol produces a large amount of heat, as well as carbon dioxide, which can kill the yeast if not regulated. Back in the day, Juan said, the workers would add ice cubes to the tank in order to cool down the mosto. Today there's cold water pumped in from a well to lower any dangerous levels. Because there is no water system in the area, all the water at El Viejito comes from an underground well next to the site.

The process of tequila distillation at El Viejito is almost exactly like single malt whisky. Unlike Bourbon, where the grain mash is literally added to the continuous column still and boiled inside, both El Viejito tequila and single malt whisky are distilled in batches on a pot still using only the sugary remnants of their base material. The wort or mosto is heated, the heads and tails, or cabezas y colas, are separated, and the process is done in two different batches. The first distillation is called the low wine or ordinario and comes off the still at around 35%. The second batch is the actual whisky or tequila at a much higher percentage, usually in the high sixties.

After distillation the tequila is either bottled as blanco (El Viejito make both a 42% and 55% silver tequila) or it's put into ex-Bourbon barrels for maturation. Juan uses his casks more than once much like a single malt producer, therefore he needs to make distinctions between three years in first-fill wood, second-fill wood, etc, as older barrels will add decreasing amounts of richness to the spirit. Most of the casks at El Viejito are from Heaven Hill, but we did see a few Beam barrels floating around.

What really blew my mind was the fact that all barrels in Mexico are sealed with a label from the CRT - Consejo Regulador del Tequila, which mandates that all samples pulled be verified and done with their permission. The same type of thing exists in Scotland, but they don't actually seal off the barrels and look for torn labels to see if you're being honest. 

I could tell that Juan and I were really going to be friends when he brought out his extra añejo expression – three years in the barrel, yet it's the same color as most reposados. Like me, Juan doesn't believe in replacing the vibrant flavor of good tequila, distilled from only the finest agave, with extracted vanilla and wood tannins. He uses only refill barrels to age the extra añejo, making sure that the peppery spice of the tequila still shines through the mellowing effect of the wood.

And after a long day at the distillery it was time for lunch. Juan rounded up his employees and took us to El Bosque, a local Guadalajaran restaurant renowned for its flavorful carne asada. We shared tequila, plates of chillies and salsa, and stories about telenovelas, but Lou really stole the show, despite the fact that he doesn't speak a word of Spanish. His sailor's mouth and mobster mentality always blend beautifully with his heart of gold.

"David, how do I tell this guy to fuck off?" he said with a smile, squeezing Juan's arm while laughing hysterically.

"Chíngate, Lou."

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jun182013

Mexico: Day 2 - Vamos a Ver

It's a little overcast this morning in Guadalajara City. We might get some showers in the afternoon, but we're hoping the mid-day holds for some sunshine in the agave fields. The temperture is about 90 degrees during the day, which wouldn't be all that bad if the rain didn't bring the humidity level up with it. I went for a walk yesterday evening through town into one of the local shopping centers and I think most of what I drank came right out of my pores.

At dinner last night, Juan and I connected over our love for the food of a grandparent. It's the idea of someone understanding a process as it was handed down to them, without needing to read a recipe or take any formal training. They can simply put their soul into the cuisine, rather than their science. We both agreed that if we had to choose between eating at a restaurant with formally-trained chef and eating at the house of an old Mexican woman, we would choose the viejita every time. 

In a sense, this is the same principle that Juan Núñez values in his tequila – the fact that they make it the way they do because it's the way they've always done it for more than three quarters of a century. After the sale of the old El Viejito distillery to Patrón, workers for the tequila giant would come by their new facility to watch how they made the tequila. They wanted to make sure they could mimic the flavor on their own, without the help of the Núñez family. They would ask questions, "Why do you cut the agave like that?" Because that's the way we've always done it, Juan would answer. 

There are obviously scientific explanations as to why certain chemical processes take place and make the tequila taste the way it does. The Núñez family, however, isn't really sure of what they are, nor do they really care. They know their way of making tequila works, just like my mom's grandmother knew how to make bread. You knead it this many times, add a pinch of this or than, feel the dough, you'll know when it's done. It's that experience that most often makes for good cooking in my opinion, not a recipe or a modern scientific update. More importantly, it's not as easy as simply following a few steps. Some people seem to have more of a knack for it than others.

Off to the distillery in a few minutes! More later.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Jun172013

Mexico: Day 1 - Guadalajara

I'm standing at the gate about two minutes before the airplane doors are going to close, searching the terminal walkways for Lou Palatella. There was a line from hell at security this morning, so backed up and slow moving that even the hour-plus leeway we gave ourselves was meaningless. Luckily, just after the attendents told me they couldn't wait any longer, I see a pastel pink polo shirt on a lineman's figure working its way down the escalator. It's Lou. We were going to make our flight.

Four hours later we landed in Guadalajara City where we were met by Juan Núñez, the gerente general of El Viejito distillery, the home of Campeón tequila. He and his co-worker Pancho had a car waiting outfront where they would be whisking us away to a downtown lunch. I couldn't wait having only nibbled on some crackers with hummus all morning. We pulled into an upscale, yet traditional Mexican restaurant with a tequila collection that featured hundreds of different selections.

There were all kinds of crazy bottles on the shelves. Old school Don Julio botellas, a vintage label called Tequila Marijuana, adorned with a Farrah Fawcett-looking, feathered-hair belle from the 1970s. The four of us perused the cornucopia of booze before sitting down for lunch.

The most important bottle, however, was Juan's El Viejito blanco tequila, a botella we had brought to the table for our enjoyment. I had it neat and also with Squirt. Lou poured his on the rocks. Pancho shot it straight. Juan actually mixed it with ice and water. Tequila is such a versatile drink with so many different ways to enjoy its flavor, as was evident after we all chose completely different methods of imbibing. After a fifteen minute drive where Juan, Lou, and I shared our passionate views for the spirit, we were ready to finally drink some actual tequila.

The original El Viejito distillery was founded by Indalecio Núñez in 1937 in Atotonlico, located in the highlands of Jalisco known for having the best land, climate, and altitude for growing quality agave. It has remained a family-operated affair since that time. However, after Patrón ended its relationship with Siete Leguas distillery the tequila giant needed a source for its spirit – fast. That's when Juan and his father entered into a contract with the company and began distilling Patrón at their El Viejito site. Having been burned in the past by an ever-increasing contract price for its tequila, Patrón wasn't eager to repeat past difficulties. After deciding it was happy at its new home in Atotonilco, the company made a bid to buy the distillery from the Núñez family – a deal Juan and his father were all too happy to make since they had already begun discussions on a new facility. Patrón would take the old El Viejito, while the Núñez family would build another.

However, seeing that I'm spending all day at the distillery tomorrow, we can cover all those basics in a later post. What I found most endearing at lunch time was Juan's passion for quality, unadulterated tequila with no additives or artifical coloring. He got super pissed at one point when we were talking about a competitor that doctored their tequila to increase sales. Whether or not Juan was putting on a show, I was impressed. I think he was relieved that I cared.

And I really liked the El Viejito's rustic nature. It's old school tequila in an old school package. And it went particularly well with a dish I had been dying to try for years, especially after two failed trips to Oaxaca: Tacos de Chapulines. Yes, you translated that correctly, that would be grasshopper tacos.

Earthy. Tangy. Absolutely stunning when paired along side the tequila. 

Lou about fell over watching me eat it. "You're actually eating it!" he screamed with glee.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Jun162013

A Tequila Adventure

This is a photo of the 1955 San Francisco Forty-Niners. 1955 was the first year that a young guard out of Pittsburgh protected a future-hall-of-fame quarterback named Y.A. Tittle. That rookie lineman's name was Louis Palatella. Or Lou for short.

Lou Palatella played four seasons for the 49ers before his football career came to an end. What was a young, tough, charismatic athlete supposed to do after the gridiron? 

Liquor. 

Lou Palatella is a 79 year old booze legend in the Bay Area. He's even more beloved as an industry veteran than as a former 49er. A few years back Lou thought he would ride that booze horse into the sunset with his own tequila brand – Campeón. However, Lou's old-school, brand-focused ways of doing things weren't adapted to thrive in the new world of "craft," artisan spirits. He was doing alright with the brand, but definitely wanted some help with the boutique market.

Unlike most brand owners I know in the tequila industry, however, Lou actually wanted to embrace the authentic side of his spirit. Lou himself is one of the most authentic spirits I know! I told him I was interested in doing some research on the tequila distilleries of Mexico and that, if he wanted, I would buy a ticket and fly down with him the next time he planned on traveling to Jalisco. That way I could document the NOM 1107 El Viejito distillery and do some research on the highlands, while perhaps giving Lou an opinion of what might help the brand.

It would be an adventure to say the least. Me, a 79-year-old ex-49er, and an overnight bag on the 6 AM out of SFO to Jalisco. Two nights. Guadalajara City. 

I was up for it. Lou said he was going to visit the distillery on Monday, June 17th. I took a few days off and booked myself onto his flight. 

Let's see what happens.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Jun152013

Drinking to Drink - Part IV

When I was in college I studied film. I wanted to be a director. I loved movies and I loved making video projects with friends. Hence, why not turn that hobby into a career?

Like many kids from my generation, however, I thought that getting into a good school with a good film program was all I had to do. Many of my friends thought that getting into Stanford or UC Berkeley was the prize and that a great life with a rewarding career would simply follow. We didn't realize that these fine institutions would not provide us with the answer to life, but merely help us learn how to help ourselves. Therefore, when I began my film training I learned how to use a camera. I learned how to record audio. I learned how to edit digitally. I learned how to make a movie, but it was my job to come up with the idea for one. Oh.....you mean I have to do that on my own? It turns out that being an art major doesn't necessarily make you an artist.

I've never really been the best at anything I've done in my life. I was always good at sports, but never a star. I was always good at making quirky videos, but I lacked the patience and the perseverance to perfect them. Like other kids I knew, I tried to make up for that lack of effort or talent with better equipment. I always had a great aluminum bat and a top-of-the-line catchers mitt. I had the latest Apple computers with the best copies of Final Cut Pro. I had the means to afford the best tools and the finest teachers, but those things can only take you so far. It's never the guys like me who achieve greatness. The best kid on the little league team was always the scrappy kid with the beat-up glove who was good because he lived to play ball. The best movies in my film class were always made by the quiet kid who had to borrow equipment from friends.

Having the best possible equipment doesn't mean you understand how to use it. There I was, nineteen years old, loaded up with a couple grand worth of editing software, when I probably only needed a cheap DV camera and a stripped down version of iMovie to make the films I was making. Whereas some kids knew how to do special effects and computer animation with Adobe Illustrator that took hours, if not days of extra work, I just wanted to point and shoot. Speaking of cameras: how many people out there actually know how to use every function of their Canon T2i Rebel SLR camera? Yet, you see guys everywhere with fancy lenses and heavy equipment bags. How many people are actually out there, scaling a mountain with their Asolo hiking boots and North Face outdoor apparel? While we like to think that the best equipment makes the for the best experience, it's no good to you if you don't know what to do with it.

More so than any of the analogies above, wine may be the absolute best example of a type of "equipment" where people pay in excess for qualities they don't understand, need, or appreciate. I spend most of my time talking people out of bottles rather than into them. You don't want that 1988 Lynch Bages, trust me. But I want to spend $100 on something nice! What do you think nice tastes like? Smooth, rich, and fruity, right? That's not what the 1988 Lynch Bages tastes like. Then why would it be so expensive? We all know that society equates quality with expense, even if it's often undeserved. With wine there's the added caveat that older is also better. This isn't always true, however. Older is simply different. The older a wine gets, the more its flavors change, but not necessarily in a way that's favorable to a large majority of the public. Old wine is an acquired taste. It can be appreciated only after experience. You're not going to drop a hundred bucks on an old Bordeaux and instantly love it. I know this because many people bring back these bottles thinking there's something wrong with the wine.

Although I find that older whiskies tend to be more impressive, even for the beginning drinker, there are plenty of odd, esoteric, and subtlely flavored spirits that don't necessarily speak to the average aficionado. You might think that spending $100 is the only way to drink good whiskey, but you'll only know that if you've already spent $20, $40, $60, and $80 first. You'll only need the Canon T2i if you're finding that the Powershot S90 doesn't do everything you want it to do. Do you really need the manual focus, added depth of field, and the versatility of wide-angle versus portrait lenses, or does it just make you feel like a pro knowing you have them?

In the end, unless you do everything in life completely alone, there's no hiding a lack of experience. At the end of the semester we all had to screen our films at the university theater. It was clear who had talent and who didn't. If the students that made terrible films did so with the finest possible equipment, the irony of that failure made it twice as embarrassing. But that wouldn't be the only time I experienced something like that in my life. If you head out to the golf course with the most expensive clubs available, then double bogey every hole that afternoon, expect a lot of snickering behind your back when you're not looking. If you've got a garage full of the priciest tools, but your kid's treehouse looks like a condemned construction site, don't be surprised if your craftsmanship becomes a practical joke around the office.

On the same page, if your bar is only full of prestige bottles, but you chose the Glenlivet 12 as the best malt in a blind tasting, what does that say about your palate? It doesn't necessarily say that you don't appreciate fine whisky, but it may mean that you're spending far too much.

-David Driscoll