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 – 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 – Part IV: An Interview with Sergio Vivanco

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

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

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

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

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

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

David: So you made the switch to native yeast?

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

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

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

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

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

David: Terroir?

Sergio: Yes!

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

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

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

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

David: What would those be specifically?

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

David: Egg, like huevo?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sergio: You think they can understand my English?

David: Yes! I can understand you just fine!

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

-David Driscoll


Tequila Crash Course – Part III: Tequila and Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-David Driscoll


Tequila Crash Course – Part II: An Interview with Enrique Fonseca

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

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

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

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

Enrique: That's correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David: Wow, that's a big difference.

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

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

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

David: Again these are big differences.

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

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

Enrique: Yes, entirely.

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

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

David: Well that can be arranged!

-David Driscoll