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

David Driscoll