Campeón (or Why I Went to Mexico)

No product group has frustrated me more lately than tequila. I'm just so disappointed with the category as a whole right now. There has been absolutely zero effort, other than by my friend Jake Lustig with his ArteNOM selections and a handful of other producers, to actually deliver a serious product for a reasonable price to consumers. Moreso than any other spirit, even vodka, most tequila is simply the result of brands contracting product from distilleries that have nothing to do with the brand itself. Everything is about image and flavor with absolutely no focus on how the tequila itself is made or why it's special.

Now and again you'll hear people say: the best tequila (or any spirit, really) is the one that tastes best to you. That's such a load of crap.

The best tequila for you might be the one that tastes best to you, but not all tequilas are created equally. Not all tequilas use the same quality of agave. Not all tequilas use the same type of cooking process. Not all tequilas use the same type of shredding technique. Not all tequilas are distilled on the same type of still. Not all tequilas are kept clean, free of additives or coloring. Many tequilas add glycerol to create texture and weight. Not all tequilas monitor maturation the same way. It's how a tequilera chooses to do all of these important steps in the tequila-making process that decide whether a tequila is worth your money or not. The tastiest tequila may not be the most expensive to make. In my opinion, if it isn't expensive to make, then it shouldn't be expensive to buy.

That's not to say that the inverse is true, either. It's simply to say that one should know what they're paying for and then decide if the extra money makes a difference. Since so little is known about how any particular tequila is made, it seemed fitting to head down and take a closer look. Lou Palatella, the owner of Campeon tequila, isn't a new type of tequila owner. He's another guy who put some money together and bought his own brand, hoping his background in the industry would carry him through the process. Like many owners before him, he learned that moving cases wasn't going to be as easy as it was for Patron.

There are many things, however, that separate Lou Palatella from the rest of his predecessors. There's the fact that he's one of the most dynamic and spellbinding personalities in this world. There's the fact that the man knows how to make a deal and how to make you feel good about it. Yet, neither of these venerable traits make his tequila any tastier or higher in quality. The fact that Lou decided to go with a family distillery that makes quality, vibrant, unadulterated tequila wasn't his idea. It wasn't even on his radar. Lou and El Viejito ended up together because of Lou's relationship with Patron, who El Viejito once distilled for. Yet, were Campeon tequila not such a fine and traditional agave spirit, this trip never would have happened because I wouldn't have been interested in observing the production of coloring agents and mass-produced slop. So call it dumb luck. Or call it fate.

The other thing that separates Lou Palatella from every other tequila brand owner I've met in the past is the fact that Lou doesn't act like he knows everything. He's open to learning more. He wants to learn. Much of the time, the defensiveness that brand owners exhibit about their darling products is enough to halt any future business on the spot. There's a fear of criticism or that there might be room for improvement. Not with Lou, however. He's learning that the new era of liquor sales is based on information and transparency, not glitz and glamour. When I told him that his tequila was one of the cleanest I'd ever tasted, he was overjoyed. However, when I told him that his tequila needed a new image, he was all ears. "Tell me what you think we can do better," he said. You've gotta respect that.

So that's how I ended up on a plane down to Guadalajara this past Monday: to check out the El Viejito distillery and see if there was actually substance behind the brand. As you can tell from the last few days of posts, there are some wonderful things happening with El Viejito and Campeon - so much so, that I think we'll be bringing in our own batch of Campeon blanco quite soon. Juan was more than open to creating a run of Campeon that was more like El Viejito and bottling it just for us under Lou's label. I think our customers will be pleased.

More importantly, Campeon is no longer just a faceless, imageless brand to me. It's a traditional, minimalist tequila made by a family who cares about what they do. They've been making tequila for 75 years, from generation to generation. I'm not telling you that because it's romantic or endearing, I'm telling you that because it's nice to drink tequila from someone who actually knows what they're doing.

While Campeon is another in a long line of American-owned, contracted tequila brands, it's one that actually does that job well, along side a producer that upholds principles and philosophies that are important to me and to K&L. When I think of Campeon now, I don't see a perfume bottle with a green label, I see a country distillery with green agave fields. I see a plate of cheese and potato chips with hot sauce, on a table with a bucket of ice and a few bottles of El Viejito, covered by an umbrella with folding chairs around it. That's where the three of us sat, ate snacks, and made some tequila drinks while taking in the countryside last Tuesday. That's a great image to have in my mind. For that reason, I can happily say that we've got Campeon tequila again at K&L for a very nice price. And I can proudly tell you everything about why it tastes the way it does.

I couldn't be more happy to sell it this time around.

Campeòn Silver Tequila $33.99 - Campeon tequila is made at El Viejito distillery in Atotonilco, Jalisco. For more than 75 years, the Nunez family has been making unadulterated, additive-free tequila with a clean-tasting purity and a trademark note of white pepper and spice. In Mexico, they release an eponymous tequila called El Viejito, but in the U.S. they're brought in by the Bay Area's own Lou Palatella, who contracts the juice under his Campeon label. The blanco is a tequila drinker's blanco. Light, clean, easy to sip, but utterly mixable. With new pricing, this is easily one of the best tequilas at K&L for the price.

Campeòn Reposado Tequila $35.99 - Juan Nunez is a big believer in minimal oak influence and his reposado is one of the lightest and most graceful around. The soft fruit and oak just gently brushes against the spice and pepper of the spirit, making for a mellower experience and flavor. Top notch tequila, especially with the new pricing.

Campeòn Añejo Tequila $39.99 - Juan Nunez is a big believer in minimal oak influence, so the anejo isn't as rich or dark as most tequilas in this category. Nevertheless, this is what true anejo drinkers are searching for - that transformation of pepper into baking spice, and of fruit into vanilla. It's a seamless tequila that never loses itself after a year in the barrel.

-David Driscoll



The more I've written for the K&L website over the past few years, the more I realize the importance of storytelling. I understand the pressure that professional journalists face more than ever, especially when they've got nothing to write about and have to make something out of nothing. Although I try to avoid doing this (mainly because I don't have to write anything), I get why they do it. These people get paid to make sure you read their work, even if it means bending the truth to make the story more compelling.

That doesn't mean it isn't annoying, however. Because of this tendency, you have to make sure you can filter out the news to avoid embarrassing yourself later. What I mean by that is: don't go around telling people about something interesting you've read unless you know it's absolutely true. Otherwise you look like the idiot, not the reporter.

Here's an incredibly embarrassing story about myself that gives a better example: Berlin, June, 2006. I'm studying at the Freie Universität for the summer and after class one day I'm hanging out with a colleague from France and one of her friends. We decide to meet back at the dorms and open a bottle of wine. Naturally, me being an American from California and the two girls being French, we get into the topic of California wine versus French wine. I was one of these new, chip-on-the-shoulder wine guys who thought he knew everything because he attended a few tastings and read the Wine Spectator each month. I was quick to talk and even quicker to keep talking. I'm already cringing just telling you this much.

After talking for a bit, the friend of my colleague says something like, "If you like wine so much, you simply must try more French wines. Let me make you a list of some bottles I think you will like." And what do I say? I say something like, "Didn't California just beat France again in the Judgement of Paris though?" This was right after Stephen Spurrier had organized a rematch of the original California Cabernet vs. Bordeaux blind tasting and the California wines had won in a landslide. "What do you mean?" the friend replied. "I mean a panel of experts just put the best French wines up against the best California wines and, once again, the California wines were considered better," I said, as if I had actually tasted the wines and agreed wholeheartedly with the result. I won't get into any more embarrassing details because this is already painful enough, but let's just say that the only reason I even brought that story up was because I had read it in a magazine. I felt the need to prove not only how much I knew about wine, but also how superior my wine was to theirs. It wasn't even my own opinion! It was some stupid headline that read, "California Once Again Best in the World." Today, I still enjoy drinking some California wines, but under no circumstances whatsoever should they be considered better than French wines. Not necessarily worse, but definitely not better or the best in the world. Anyone who wants to make that type of blanket statement is just looking to pick a fight.

Why am I bringing that story up? Because on the way back from Mexico yesterday Lou bought a copy of Reader's Digest. We were halfway through the flight when Lou tapped me and said, "Hey, what do you think about this?" It was an article called "50 Reasons to Love America." This was number 45:

Guess what America? The world's best single malt whisky is no longer from Scotland! That's right! Because a small panel of British experts, mind you, chose Balcones Single Malt over some unnamed Scotch whiskies in a blind tasting, that means that the BEST single malt whisky in the world is now Balcones!! HOORAY! Even the Brits agree that we're number one! Go suck on that, Scotland! U-S-A! U-S-A!

This is the type of fluff that sends me into the stratosphere because people will now cling to this story like it's God's honest truth. Guys love to pull out little trump cards like this at parties or at dinner. 

Friend #1: Should we order a drink?

Friend #2: Certainly, how about some whiskey?

Friend #1: Let's see if they have Balcones from Texas.

Friend #2: What's that?

Friend #1: Oh, just this little distillery in Waco that just got voted the best whiskey in the world. It beat out all the best Scotch whiskies available.

Friend #2: Really? I didn't hear about that.

Friend #1: Well, it's more the people who really know about whisky that are talking about it. (smirks)

How do I know this type of conversation is going to happen? Because I did the exact same thing when I read something similar back in 2006. It's what insecure guys do when they want to impress other people. I just watched some idiot professor on Real Time with Bill Maher do the same thing last week. They were talking to a guy who had spent five years researching the fracking industry and the possible damages it's doing, but some Harvard hotshot felt the need to contradict him because, get this, he had read an article in the Scientific American last week! I can see not agreeing with someone, but getting into a debate with an bonafide expert on a subject because you've read a magazine article and you feel like you're now qualified to enter into a serious discussion? Seriously? The nerve! The embarassment! The guy ended up getting booed off the program.

Not to take anything away from Balcones, but this blurb is ridiculous and I truly hope that no one goes out and embarrasses themselves by repeating it in public. Balcones makes a lot of whiskey that people enjoy, but I've yet to try one great American single malt from any distillery that even comes close to what Scottish distilleries have achieved.

But then what do I know? If you've read the most recent issue of Reader's Digest, you already know what the best whisky is.

-David Driscoll


Mexico: Day 2/3 - Drinking (Drinking to Drink - Part V)

I'm back in Redwood City today, but I thought I'd close out the tequila photos and add some more insight. After a fantastic day at the distillery yesterday it was time to head back to the hotel, take a nap, and get some work done before heading back out for dinner. We enjoyed out first meal in Guadalajara so much we decided to return to the same restaurant one last time for an epic meal. Because Lou had been so flabbergasted at the idea of eating grasshopper tacos, the sadist in me decided to really give him a bad time that night. I was going to order the craziest things on the menu and make sure Lou watched me eat them. "You sonova bitch," he grumbled while wearing a devlish smirk. First up – agave larva tacos.

They came in a little bowl, all grilled up and ready to eat. Lou was shaking his head in disbelief, "You're not going to eat that. I know you're not. But if you are then make sure you take a picture," so he slid over his iPhone, making sure I would snap a few photos. The worms that sometimes live in the agave piñas are fat and juicy, but their consistency is more like overly-cooked shrimp in a taco: crispy on the outside, yet soft and chewy in the middle. Yum!

I washed down the agave larva with a healthy pull from my El Viejito blanco tequila. No problems so far. Now it was time for the ant eggs. The restaurant El Tequila actually sends someone out to harvest the eggs of large army ants in the desert. They had a video of the guy doing it on their kitchen iPad, getting stung like crazy while trying to gather these tiny vessels of flavor out of the earth. Lou was beside himself at this point. Into my mouth they went, however, wrapped in a corn tortilla. We were all crying with laughter at this point. I could barely chew. The ant eggs tasted just like an earthy wild rice pilaf with the exact same texture and weight. Nothing odd or off putting when lathered with salsa and guacamole. 

Throughout the night we continued on with the El Viejito bottle service. One bottle of blanco and one bottle of reposado remained constantly within our midst, along side numerous mixers like tonic, soda water, Squirt and Coca-Cola. Some people would pour a glass of straight blanco to start, but then switch to a Paloma. The night was effortless and everyone was enjoying themselves without pretense or pedantry. This situation would be hard to fathom in America where I tend to avoid large booze-related gatherings. Why, you might ask? Because it's almost impossible to enjoy spirits within the United States without some know-it-all chiming in and telling you how to drink it.

There's no issue consuming $15 booze in the Bay Area. No one's going to have a heart attack if you pour some Old Crow into your soda. However, there is an ever-expanding chip-on-the-shoulder club that feels the need to articulate the fact they drink spirits neat. There are times when I'll recommend a product to someone under the pretext of, "It's a great sipper, but it also mixes quite well into cocktails." Every now and again the customer's blood will begin to boil, their eyes flutter, and the retort of, "I NEVER MIX ANYTHING INTO MY WHISKEY!" fills the spirits aisle, shocking and scaring nearby shoppers. How dare one even propose such a thing! The indecency! This specific personality in the booze world feels that any true spirits aficionado would never dilute the purity of fine liquor. Doing so would only expose you as a novice and a fool.

It couldn't be more the opposite, however. I'm fine with drinking spirits neat. I often do so. I'm fine with anyone who only drinks spirits in that manner. That's great. However, why the outrage? Getting upset or showing disdain for those who choose to mix their spirits, ironically enough, only marks you as someone who doesn't understand or appreciate alcohol. These people are so eager to prove they love booze more than the casual drinker that they overcompensate with their strict rules and guidelines. Rules aren't fun, however. If you have to drink something a certain way because that's how the French do it, or that's how the experts do it, then you're missing out on the best parts of drinking. People who genuinely enjoy sipping spirits aren't out to hold that over the heads of others. They're too busy drinking. Only those who are uncertain in their own behavior are out there headhunting, looking to make a point with their faux anger.

And that's what I loved about our two days in Mexico. We had inexpensive tequila. We had really expensive tequila. We had tequila with soda. We had tequila on the rocks. No one cared how you drank it. No one said anything when you did. They simply passed the botella when your glass was empty and smiled when you poured yourself some more.

I can't wait to go back.

-David Driscoll


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


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