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

David Driscoll