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 leaves...it'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

David Driscoll