Dentonfest II – A Celebration of Tequila and the Couple Who Paved the Way

DentonfestLogo
Every tequila aficionado has their own story about how they came to be fans of this long-misunderstood spirit. Regardless of what that story is, the vast majority of today’s tequila drinkers have two people to thank for the large selection of quality tequilas on liquor store shelves today: Robert Denton and Marilyn Smith.

20_Bob_MarilynIt was Denton and Smith who, in 1983, set out to bring high-quality, 100% agave tequila to the US market. At the time, nearly all tequilas available in the US were low-grade mixtos and responsible for most everyone’s bad tequila story from their college days. The couple changed that when they discovered a small, family-owned distillery in Tamaulipas, Mexico, making 100% agave tequila under the brand names of Chinaco and Caliente. This was what they were looking for and soon after, both brands were being imported to the US, marking the beginning of the “premium” tequila category. By the end of the decade and armed with the tequila knowledge they learned through bringing Chinaco to market, the couple set out to find another brand to import. After visiting numerous distilleries and almost ready to give up, they made a visit to La Alteña, a distillery in Arandas, Jalisco, where a high-quality 100% agave tequila was being made and soon after, the El Tesoro de Don Felipe brand was born and started finding its way north of the border. Their story and the adventure of bringing these brands to market is, of course, far more involved and worthy of its own documentary, but for the purposes of this write-up, the brief overview above should provide all the background necessary.

A group of tequila geeks from around the country gathered in New York the last weekend of June to honor the couple, who left the tequila business over a decade ago, but who’s influence can still be seen today. This celebration, dubbed Dentonfest II, gave everyone in attendance the chance to meet and talk with Robert and Marilyn, hear their stories, and have the opportunity to taste the tequilas that they were responsible for introducing – the tequilas that most experts would say changed the industry. In all, there were 21 differently labeled bottles that they imported, most all extremely rare and valuable. Included in the line-up was bottle #24 from the first shipment of Chinaco that came across the border in 1983, graciously donated from Denton and Smith’s personal collection. What follows is my subjective recap and personal highlights of Dentonfest II.

01_TequilaTableThe weekend started with a welcome dinner hosted at the New Jersey home of Mark Glazier, one of the co-founders of the Agave Idiots tequila group. Together with Eric Bigelsen, the two have built a great following hosting tequila dinners and tastings and raising money for various charities in the process. Mark and Eric took the reigns of this event and created a memorable weekend for everyone that attended. The welcome dinner provided a great opportunity to see old friends and meet new ones for the first time, even though most already knew each other through tequila forums or Facebook. Upon entering, the guests were greeted with a formal dining room table holding well over one-hundred different tequila bottles to sample from. The bottles changed through the night as guests added their own offerings to the table, others became empty, and new treasures would appear from Mark’s collection – among them a Los Abuelos Lot 1 blanco and what was thought to be a 30 year old bottle of Tapatio añejo, a gift to Denton and Smith from Don Felipe Camarena given to them when they first visited the distillery. Between sampling tequilas, taking photos, enjoying a wonderful meal, listening to the Mariachi band and admiring Mark’s tequila collection, we also had the chance to talk to Denton and Smith in a very comfortable and relaxed setting. Along with author Lucinda Hutson, who was a special guest at the event and occasionally traveled with the couple to Mexico at the time, we heard great stories of those early years.

GlassesThe main event followed the next day at the offices of Domaine Select Wine Estates in Midtown Manhattan. Roughly 50 of us gathered to taste each of the 21 bottles that had been assembled – nearly all donated by the attendees in the room and a few by people that could not attend but wanted to show their appreciation. Lucinda opened the afternoon by introducing Denton and Smith and soon after, we all were tasting a Chinaco 4-year añejo as they began to share their experiences and history. The couple are credited with a number of things that today seem commonplace, including being the first to use corks in place of the then industry-standard screw-caps and introducing bottles that were hand-signed.

At the time, Chinaco was filling all of their bottles by hand and not in an especially exact manner. With the liquor laws in the US being very strict, if the fill levels of the bottles were not exact, a shipment could be denied – a potentially devastating blow to a new, cash-strapped operation. To remedy this, Denton had each bottle filled using measured beakers to get exactly 750ml into each and then had the bottler sign the label, providing some sense of quality control and responsibility. Used as a marketing tool today, born out of necessity then.

As you might expect with any new endeavour, there were bumps along the way. Marilyn shared a story of a brand that entered a spirits competition and won best of show. The brand owner, upon seeing her after the victory, proudly admitted that he had filled the bottle he had entered with Chinaco, as he knew it was the best tequila on the market at that time.

Another story told to us was about a wine and spirits trade show, where a well dressed attendee, being trailed by an entourage, walked past Marilyn in the lobby bar where she was talking to the bartender about tequilas. Upon seeing her drinking out of a snifter, the man stopped and asked what she was drinking. When she said tequila, he sat down and said he knew a thing or two about tequila and wanted to hear more, since seeing tequila in a snifter was a first for him. It turned out that he was the USA marketing director for one of the large tequila producers at the time and six months later, that brand’s Christmas holiday marketing showed people toasting with snifters full of their tequila.

We worked our way through the older bottles, tasting each in the order that it was imported and breaking here and there along the way to hear more tidbits and stories before taking time to enjoy lunch, graciously provided by El Vez and simply delicious. After lunch, we continued through the remainder of the original Chinaco and El Tesoro releases and were treated to a video that the couple had made in the early 90’s with Carlos and Don Felipe Camarena walking through the process of El Tesoro’s production. The video itself was an amazing reflection of the time and it was a wonderful treat for everyone in the room.

DentonSmithThe final hour or so gave everyone a chance to mingle, talk, get photos and sample from the remaining bottles. In addition, three very special bottles were put up for auction to benefit a local charity, raising about $2,500. Words can’t describe the list of tequilas that were brought together on this afternoon (the full list is included below). Twenty-one bottles that represent arguably some of the finest tequilas ever made. An historical event to be sure. While nearly every tequila tasted was spectacular, the standouts to me were the Caliente blanco and the original (Artisan) El Tesoro Silver.

The group closed out Saturday with a dinner at Carta Azul, a wonderful Mexican restaurant that welcomed all of us with excellent food and tasty cocktails along with more conversations with friends new and old. At the end of the night, Kristina and I decided to make the 20-block walk up 6th Avenue back to the hotel instead of grabbing a cab – a great choice considering the beautiful weather and wonderfully-lit New York skyline. It also provided us with a chance to reflect back on a magnificent day as we walked.

AgaveNYCWith official Dentonfest II events wrapped up, Sunday was a day to ourselves to explore the city, at the end of which we ended up at Agave NYC, a restaurant in the West Village where our friend Jay Silverman is the beverage director. Coincidentally, a number of other friends had also found their way to Agave that night for dinner, including Robert, Marilyn and Lucinda. More tequila, some mezcal, and a few more stories in this very intimate back room with this very small group – I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to end the weekend.

Monday meant a flight home sooner than we would have liked. It also provided a chance to reflect on what was a historical tequila event. Never before had these tequilas been gathered and tasted together, representing the passionate work of not only Marilyn and Robert, but also of the Camarena and Gonzalez families, without whom this would not have been possible. It was an honor to be included in this relatively small group of friends and tequila experts, celebrating the two people who paved the way for so many others, never taking shortcuts and always striving to safeguard the integrity of tequila.

¡Salud!

The Bottle List
Chinaco 4-Year (1st Release #24)
Caliente Blanco
Chinaco 4-Year (2nd Release)
Chinaco Black Label Muy Añejo
Chinaco “Ribbon Label” 4-year Añejo
Chinaco Green Label Blanco
Chinaco Red Label Reposado
Chinaco Green Label Anejo
Chinaco Tear Drop Blanco
Chinaco Tear Drop Reposado
Chinaco Tear Drop Anejo
El Tesoro Muy Anejo
El Tesoro Artisan Silver
El Tesoro Plata
El Tesoro Artisan Reposado
El Tesoro Artisan Anejo
Paradiso (A Series)
Paradiso (B Series)
El Tesoro “White Label” Silver
El Tesoro “White Label” Reposado
El Tesoro “White Label” Anejo

01_TequilaTable
One side of the tequila table at the Welcome Dinner. So many options!

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Mark pouring Los Abuelos Blanco, Lot 1 for Lucinda Hutson

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In Mark’s tequila library. Amazing collection!

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Caliente 84 proof blanco and Chinaco 4-year añejo, bottle #24. Flanked by Chinaco 4-year “Ribbon-Label” añejos

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El Tesoro “Artisanal” Muy Añejo, Silver, Reposado and Añejo

16_Glasses_Chinaco_Ribbon
4-year Chinaco añejo waiting to be tasted

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El Tesoro “Artisanal” añejo, Chinaco “Paper Labels” and El Tesoro Paradiso, Lots A and B

12_ETWL
El Tesoro “White Labels” – Silver, Reposado and Añejo, with Chinaco “Teardrops” behind

BobBobMarilyn
With Marilyn Smith and Robert Denton

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At Agave NYC


* A mixto is one of the two main categories that define tequila and means that the juice in the bottle must be fermented from no less than 51% sugars from the Blue Weber Agave. The other 49% is most commonly made up of cane sugars. (back to top)

Click here to read a great write-up of Dentonfest I (back to top)

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Is It Here Yet? 2013 & Tequila’s Anticipated Down Cycle

Now that 2014 is officially here, it has been a full year since I embarked on tracking the official tequila brand list published by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT) – the agency that oversees tequila. If you read my post a year ago, you remember that the impetus for this year-long project was the general idea that 2013 might be the year that a number of brands start disappearing due to an expected agave shortage resulting in significantly higher agave prices.

The official brand list, or as it has become known in many tequila circles, the NOM list, is published by the CRT on an irregular basis – usually two or three times a month – and includes all of the brands currently registered and legally able to produce tequila. The list also includes the entity, in this case the distillery, responsible for producing the brand. Every tequila bottle is required to have the NOM number listed on it. In most cases, this means that the bottle was actually produced at the designated facility, but that is not always true. It’s not uncommon for high-production brands to outsource to other distilleries under the “oversight” of the registered producer. There have also been instances where brands have petitioned the CRT to allow bottles to go to market with the wrong NOM listed due to various circumstances.

It’s also good to remember that just because a brand is on the list does not mean that tequila is being made under that label. There are more than a few on the list that have either never been produced or have not been made in years.

At the end of the day, the CRT list is not perfect, but it does act as a quick and easy reference to which brands are currently registered and where. Industry news, rumors and speculation often make the rounds in public before showing up on the spreadsheet, in which case it becomes the place to help validate a story.

The idea behind my tracking of this list was two-fold – to see if it would provide any indications of the overall health of the industry based solely upon the number of brands being added to or disappearing from the list – and second, to get an accurate accounting of the changes made throughout the year.

With all of that as a background, let me provide a number of brand statistics from 2013, as well as this disclaimer – by no means am I claiming that my numbers are perfect or 100% accurate, but I believe they are accurate enough for the purposes of this post. To be clear, brands come and go regardless of the market cycle. They get bought. They go out of business or simply no longer want to be in the business. They disappear, only to return weeks, months or sometimes years later. This is nothing new or out of the ordinary.

Based on the list released on January 7, 2013, the year started with 1,293 brands. Of those, 14 were listed twice (11 of which were listed at multiple distilleries). That equates to 1,279 individually registered brand names.

One year later, almost to the day, the January 6, 2014 list shows a total of 1,380 brands, of which there are 30 duplicates (10 listed at multiple distilleries, 3 at distilleries that had duplicate entries and 17 that were listed twice at the same distillery). This gives us an actual total of 1,350 registered brand names.

Simple math would suggest that the industry added 71 brands over the last year. However, that would be incorrect. A large number of brands also were removed from the list, some to return weeks or months later, and others not to return at all. In all, there were over 500 changes made to the official spreadsheet throughout the past year. While the net increase in brands was the aforementioned 71, the actual number of new brands by my count was 155. Some of the new entries had caveats, which I tried to list and footnote with each entry.

Among the other numbers… 222 brands were removed from the list, sometimes the same one multiple times, and 126 brands were returned to it, as previously noted, sometimes a week later, sometimes over a year later. Some 24 brands changed distilleries over the last year.

So what does this all mean? Does this give us any clues or indications about the industry? Is it really in a state of decline? Based upon these numbers, you’d really never know it. The 155 new brands – roughly 3 a week – would suggest that tequila is still in a growth cycle. On the surface, the opening of new markets in Asia and the continued consumer growth of 100% Blue Weber Agave tequilas would suggest the industry itself is as strong as ever, and to a certain degree that would be accurate. The real question is whether the industry can continue to consistently make and deliver quality tequila to meet the current demand, let alone support additional growth.

The primary concern going into 2013 was about a looming agave shortage that would result in a dramatic price increase. Open market agave pricing at the beginning of 2013 was around $2.8 pesos per kilogram delivered at the distillery. By the end of the year, it had reached around $5.5 pesos per kilogram, with the prices going up to $6.0 pesos if the piñas had more sugar concentration. As one can see, the prices have basically doubled over the last year, which would certainly support the idea that the demand is starting to outpace the agave supply.

This recent rise in prices might seem surprising after numerous reports of fields that have been left to rot because the agave prices were so low it was not worth the cost to harvest the fields. Others believe that both the rotting agave as well as a general change in the actual flavor of many tequilas, is due to the years of the agave plant being genetically duplicated instead of allowing it to reproduce naturally, thereby making it much more susceptible to disease and pests. More than likely it is a combination of all of these things and more, including government subsidies to farmers to help try to control the cost of agave.

Ultimately, the brands and distilleries that own their own fields will not see as much of an impact on their products as those brands that must either buy on the open market, or pay the distillery they are contracted with that also owns and uses its own agave fields to source from. The smart brands appear for the moment to be those that have contracted fields two to three years out and are locking in rates at current pricing.

Distilleries also took advantage of the formerly cheap agave to “fill and hold”, cranking out as much blanco tequila as their storage tanks and barrel rooms could hold, partially as a hedge against the potential agave shortage and partially to be able to sell to buyers looking to create a brand. With all of the tequila that has been made in the last 18 months, there should be no shortage of tequila itself, but the prices we are use to paying for some brands will likely be going up and we will continue to see the occasional new brand that prices itself significantly higher than the juice inside the bottle is worth.

Ultimately, 2013 was not the year that sent the agave reaper through the brands to let them know their time was up. That does not mean it’s not going to happen though, as there are enough signs that 2014 – or even 2015 – may be the year of reduction. Keep in mind that already in 2014, Justin Timberlake’s 901 brand has been sold to Sauza; Beam Global has announced its intentions to sell to Japanese-based Suntory; and Diageo has made a couple of acquisitions to fill in the hole that Cuervo left after a failed buyout, partnering with Diddy for premium brand DeLeon and purchasing Peligroso. The split with Diageo means that Cuervo, the largest tequila producer, remains 100% Mexican-owned, but how long that will be the case is unknown. Beam, Brown-Forman, Pernod-Ricard and Bacardi all have significant investments in the category while the smaller family owned independent brands and distilleries continue to gain market share due to the slow but continuous education about quality tequila to the consuming market, combating the age-old negative reputation that the spirit has carried for so long.

Regardless as to what all of this really means, as consumers we will continue to want a fair price for a quality product. Those of us who have a passion for tequila will always look deeper and want to know more. I hope that the posts and updates over the past year have been helpful to those that also share my passion. I plan to continue posting the comings and goings of the brands throughout 2014, which will allow us to start comparing year-over-year results and maybe start to recognize some additional trends. Until then, pour a glass of your favorite brand, sit back and enjoy that fine spirit!

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A Year of Change: Tracking the (Potential) Tequila Fallout

It’s been documented and talked about in the tequila circles for close to two years now. This is the year that many of the upstart tequilas that have jumped on the tequila bandwagon are supposed to start disappearing (Here’s a great read with some interesting insights and predictions). Tequila’s rise in popularity over the last few years has followed the same basic path as any other popular and successful trend. The public finds a taste for it, it becomes trendy in bars, brands start to make a lot of money and then everyone and their uncle wants to get on the train to a big payday. For some, it’s truly a passion, dream, or part of their family history. For others, it’s simply an investment opportunity or a fun little side venture. Whatever the case, there are roughly 1,300 brands currently registered with the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (the Tequila Regulatory Council), better known as the “CRT” – the governing agency that oversees all aspects of tequila production. Each month, the CRT publishes an updated list of the registered brands to their website. This list is constantly changing as new brands are registered and added, change distilleries, or cease operations entirely. Brands can be removed from the list for a number of different reasons, including human error, so it’s not uncommon to see a brand disappear and then return a month or two later.

2013, in many respects, is the perfect storm for tequila. There has been an agave glut the past few years, driving down prices to levels not seen since the 1960’s. Agave tends to be a very cyclical market, with peaks and valleys roughly on a ten year cycle – about the time it takes to grow a fully mature blue weber agave. Basically, the cycle works like this – prices go up due to demand for agave. Farmers see the prices and turn their fields from annual crops (or previously unfarmed land) into agave. When all of these new fields start to mature 7-10 years later, the market gets saturated and the prices crash, leaving many farmers to let their fields rot because the cost of harvesting is not worth the payday. That creates a shortage a year or two later, increasing demand and prices, and the cycle repeats.

2013 appears to be the end of the current glut and the first year of price recovery. Agave prices are already on the rise. Couple the pending higher prices with industry consolidation, market saturation, marketing costs, and a consumer base that may already be moving on to the next “in” spirit, and the industry is ripe for a shake-up. With this as a background, I’ve added a new page to this site called “Tracking the Brands”. I’ll be using this page to track the brands that are added and removed each month from the industry based on what the CRT publishes, as well as make note of a few brands that raise eyebrows, generate interest (Casamigos), or simply provide a smile (Sparkle Donkey) as they arrive, or depart, the list. Please keep in mind that this is not a perfect science. As noted earlier, it’s common for brands to be removed and then returned to this official list for a variety of reasons. I believe that my tracking is accurate, however, it is certainly not fool-proof. If there are any oddities or descrepencies that you have questions about, please post a comment and I’ll answer to the best of my ability. It will be interesting to me to see how this list changes over the next 12 months. If the predictions come to pass, this list should be much shorter by the end of the year…

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What’s Your Definition of a “Great” Tequila Bar?


While thinking about how I wanted to write-up my recent trip to Chicago and close out my series of pieces detailing my tequila-filled September, I realized that there really wasn’t much I could pass along about that trip. In reality, I had very little free time and I used it to visit Jason Lerner at his new restaurant, Masa Azul. I met Jason in Albuquerque back in July at the NMIITT event where we were both invited judges. I’ve followed his progress as he and his business partner, Alvaro Chavez, worked to open their restaurant and tequila bar, finally doing so in late August.

At that time, a publication had just named Masa Azul one of the top 25 tequila bars in the country. Lofty praise considering the business had yet to open its doors or serve a single drink. I attributed the recognition to what I assumed to be Jason’s industry reputation garnered during his time as General Manager at Chicago’s Depot Nuevo, also a Top 25 entry. After meeting him, I found his passion, knowledge and pending plans for Masa Azul to be exciting and refreshing. He was happy to share his knowledge and still eager and open to learn more, something I might describe as a humble confidence. He and Alvaro were working to open a place where tequila was the focal point both in the unique cocktails and the not-so-mainstream tequila list (which would also include mezcals and sotols). While certainly not a new concept, these are things that often get looked over in favor of simply trying to open a trendy hot-spot. I was looking forward to getting to see the fruits of his labor and had originally planned to spend my only free evening there so that I could then put together a write-up about Masa Azul and, specifically, about the tequila selection and cocktail menu. Unfortunately, I was only able to spend an all-to-quick hour at the restaurant due to a last minute change to my work obligations, and with that change, so also went my story. Or so I thought.

The idea of the “Top 25″ list intrigued me and got me thinking about what qualities I look for in a tequila bar. So now, instead of giving what probably would have ended up as a simple review of Masa Azul, I am taking this opportunity to examine the “tequila bar” a bit more in-depth and ask you this simple question: What is your definition of a great tequila bar?

Of course, it would be wrong of me to ask such a question on my own site without also giving my own opinions. With that in mind, the specific attributes that I look for are:

A great tequila selection – One might think this is an obvious requirement and that an establishment should stock 150+ different tequilas. I think a better way to look at it is that a bar should have a diverse selection that incorporates the gamut of flavor profiles. To qualify as having a great selection, a bar can certainly have oodles of bottles but it can also carry only 35-40 if those bottles are well thought out, provide a variety of styles and flavors (including mezcals and sotols), and includes some brands that might be hard to find.

Knowledgeable and friendly staff – This should be an obvious and easy one! The staff – or at least the bartenders – should know the basics of most every bottle on their shelf so that they can answer questions and make recommendations as to what you as a consumer might enjoy. In addition, they should be able to suggest the best glassware to drink it in. I don’t want my order of Partida Elegante served to me in a shot glass with a lime wedge and salt on the rim without me specifically requesting it. Bonus points for suggesting a sangrita or including one by default.

Drink/Food program – A tequila menu, and one that can be easily updated, makes life easy for everyone – especially the person taking your order that has to make trips to-and-from the bar to see if they have what you want. Included with that should be a well thought out and original cocktail menu. Having one shows that the business has taken the time to put together drinks that are original and that ideally highlight the key flavors of a specific tequila, mezcal, sotol or other agave spirit. For restaurants, that includes suggested drinks that pair seamlessly with and compliment various plates on the menu. Additionally, having several preset tequila flights can be a great way to introduce someone to the differences that tequilas can have. Hosting tequila dinners and other events that promote tequila appreciation and education is also a plus. Finally, it speaks volumes as to what the bar uses in the “basics” – not only the fresh juices, syrups and sodas but also the tequila. For example, Masa Azul’s “well” tequila is the well respected Siete Leguas blanco.

Cost – Another easy one, fair pricing. I never want to walk out of a bar thinking that I could have just bought the entire bottle for the same price that my two snifters just cost me. I understand that a business has to make money and that the bar usually generates the best margins, but that doesn’t provide a license to gouge the customer. That said, there are many aspects that need to be accounted for in the cost of a drink, from the rent to the state tax rate on the spirits themselves. With this in mind, “fair pricing” should be relative to the location.

Finally, the most important attribute of all. It has to be a place that you want to be. Call it ambience. Call it friendly. Call it home. It really doesn’t matter what you call it because the bottom line is this – if you don’t enjoy being there, it’s not a great bar for you.

Even though my time at Masa Azul was short, there was a very welcoming feeling about the place and I regret not being able to spend more time there. Whether it is worthy of a spot on a national Top 25 list or not really makes no difference to me – those more expert than I, having trekked across the country to visit all of these bars, can make that determiniation. For me, all I can say is that Masa Azul is a place where I know I would enjoy spending time drinking and talking tequila.

So what do you look for in a tequila bar?

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The Spirits of Mexico Festival – A Pilgrimage Worth the Wait

Spirits of Mexico 2011Crotalo Tequila’s line-up, including the Best of Show Extra Añejo

This past September, as they have done for the last eight years, tequila lovers congregated in San Diego’s historic Old Town Park to talk, taste and see how this year’s tequila entries stacked up against each other. This was no ordinary tasting event. This was the annual Spirits of Mexico Festival, arguably the largest and most prestigious public event in the country for agave-based spirits. To many of us passionate tequila fans, it is THE event for all things agave and something that I was finally able to attend this year. Now, two months later, I think back on all of the great memories that I have from that weekend as I finally complete the writing and editing of this post, trying to capture my personal experience without turning it into a novel. Ultimately, this festival is about more than simply tasting tequilas. It’s about the friendships and the camaraderie that exists in the group, something that I was able to experience first-hand.

The 2011 version officially opened on Sunday, September 11, with an opening ceremony that included a state proclamation noting September 17 as Spirits of Mexico Festival Day. During the week that followed, a panel of judges meticulously tasted and rated 120 tequilas, mezcals, sotols and other agave-based spirits with the category winners being anounced during the Festival’s awards dinner. The dinner and subsequent charity auction benefiting the Sky Ranch Foundation took place on Friday evening followed on Saturday night by the main public tasting event where attendees had the opportunity to try samples of the various brands. For the past few years, the Festival has concluded on Sunday with the “Lobster Bus” – a trek into Puerto Nuevo, Mexico, for a lobster lunch and south-of-the-border tequila shopping.

My SOM experience was slated to take in the two main events and due to other commitments, I could not make the Lobster Bus (next year for sure!). I arrived Friday afternoon, checked into my hotel, and was quickly ready to head off to my first event. The hotel was a short walk from the Old Town Historic Park and getting there meant walking through part of Old Town itself, a neighborhood seemingly set into a hillside filled with quaint houses with red-tile roofs and a main street bustling with tourists, souvenir shops and numerous Mexican restaurants.

Milagro AppetizersMilagro Silver infused Sea Bass Mango Ceviche

The first event was aptly titled the “Judge’s Dinner” and was held at Barra Barra Saloon on the grounds of the Old Town Historic Park. The evening started with cocktail hour where Milagro, Tres Agaves, Fortaleza, and Oro Azul poured their tequilas alongside newcomers Montoro tequila and Wahaka mezcal. Appetizers created with these various brands were also being served amongst the crowd as they tasted and talked. It was during this first hour that I met a number of tequila people in person for the first time, having only corresponded with them on the internet up until that point. I also reconnected with a number of others that I had met over the summer in New Mexico. I was invited to join the Don Modesto and Don Cuco sotol table for dinner and ended up sitting next to Mark DeCarlo, the host for the charity auction that was to follow. Mark is currently on Windy City Live in Chicago and was a delight to chat with.

Guillermo Sauza and Mark DeCarlo

Following the dinner, the groups moved to the adjoining Fiesta de Reyes courtyard for dessert, the awards presentation, and the live auction where Mark took to the stage and worked the crowd like a seasoned pro, occasionally engaging in friendly banter with specific bidders that had the audience reeling with laughter. He began by noting the brands that had earned gold medals and as each was called off, their representative took to the stage culminating in a group photo. From the gold medal winners in each category, a Best of Category award was presented and from those, a Best of Show award was presented to the top agave spirit. Listed here are the overall winners.

Best of Category, Tequila Blanco: Siete Leguas
Best of Category, Tequila Reposado: Corazon
Best of Category, Tequila Añejo: El Jimador
Best of Category, Tequila Extra Añejo: Crotalo
Best of Category, Mezcal Joven: Los Siete Misterios Joven, Tobala

The Best of Show award went to Crotalo for their newly released Extra Añejo, aged three years in French Oak and then an additional two years in a proprietary barrel. The full list of award winners can be found here.

Once the awards were presented, the live auction kicked off. Among the items that were being bid on were:

  • A private dinner for 10 with Guillermo Sauza, founder of Fortaleza/Los Abuelos – (sold for $1,600);
  • A matching bottle set of Los Abuelos Lot 1 – ($950);
  • Two bottles of the Best in Show Crotalo Extra Añejo, 1 printed in 14k platinum – (over $300 each)
  • One bottle of Tapatio specially bottled for the Blue Agave Group and their annual trek to Jalisco, often referred to as the “Cigar Blend” – ($375)
  • Six bottles of T1 Tequila Uno, first barrel – (Two sets at $800 each)

In all, the live auction and a silent auction conducted the following night raised over $16,000 for the Sky Ranch Foundation.

Once the event ended, our small group migrated to a nearby fire pit where a guitar was pulled out and we were entertained for nearly an hour before being told that the facility was closing down for the evening. At this point, the group walked the few blocks between the park and the host hotel where a much larger group had already gathered and were continuing the festivities. Amongst the group were brand owners, importers, distillers, and tequila enthusiasts and numerous bottles were opened and shared. It was interesting to watch everyone taste the different samples and talk about them without a sense of judgement. It was more like friends that got together to try what the others had created and then compare notes and ask questions. These conversations often turned into laughter and then the pouring of more tequila. The night continued like this for some time until people began to peel away, including myself as I had a few blocks to negotiate before I was back at my hotel. So far, the Festival was living up to my high expectations – but what would Saturday bring?

A small sampling of the selection at El Agave

I fully took advantage of being able to sleep in that next morning, especially nice considering the late hour that I had finally made it back to the hotel. The great thing was that there were no residual effects from all of the tequila consumed and I was out the door shortly after noon and headed to El Agave, a restaurant that is as much of a tequila museum as it is a first-rate dining establishment. It sits a few blocks away from the Old Town Historic Park and above another local establishment of note, the Old Town Liquor and Deli. Inside the doors of these two shops sit a tequila lover’s paradise. My initial purpose for being there was to meet Guillermo Sauza, the founder and master distiller of Tequila Fortaleza. He was scheduled to be at the store to sign bottles that afternoon and I had strategically planned to arrive early so that I could enjoy a drink at El Agave’s bar before heading to the liquor store.

It is tough to describe the sheer number of bottles that meet people as they first walk through the doors of El Agave. Shelves upon shelves of bottles new and old. I could have spent hours just looking at them. And I did. Pulling up a barstool, I scanned the vast selection just within the reach of the bartender and spying a “Leather-strap” era 1921 blanco on the shelf, I had him pour a glass along with a house-made sangrita. The second best part of this scenario is that the generously-poured treasure-in-a-glass was only $10. The best part was the taste of that tequila. Absolutely amazing. During my all-to-short stay at the bar, I ran into some friends that had just eaten lunch there and after some small talk, a few quick photos were taken as we all marveled at the bottles throughout the room, each of us pointing to old, rare and unique bottles, most all with a story or two.

From the restaurant, I ended up tagging along with this group back to the Historic Park area where they began setting up their booths for the main event scheduled to take place later that afternoon. It seemed that the Fortaleza signing was running late which gave me the opportunity to lend a helping hand. Once that was completed, I had just enough time to walk back to Old Town Liquor, get a signed bottle and return it to my hotel room before heading back to the main event. As luck would have it, I walked into the liquor store just as Guillermo was walking out. A quick introduction, small talk and a signature on my new bottle and he was off, headed to his booth. I stayed a bit longer looking over the excellent selection of tequilas and opted to purchase a Casa Noble Single Barrel Añejo to go along with my new bottle of Fortaleza blanco. I thought both would be great reminders of the weekend that was unfolding.

I returned to the Historic Park just as the main event was starting. By my rough count, over 35 brands were pouring samples of their different expressions of tequila and assorted agave-derived spirits and the general public was quickly filling up the spaces in front of each table and booth, asking questions and sampling the various options. I was no different, working my way from table-to-table and regularly stopping to chat with the numerous friends I now had that were also making the rounds. The overall sense that I had was that of a big family – the “Tequila Familia”, interested in trying what the others were pouring, offering congratulations for a job well done, and offeringing suggestions of what to taste next. The main event lasted about four hours before giving way to the after-parties that once again filled the hotel patios until the wee hours of the morning as they did the night before.

When Sunday morning rolled around I was disappointed that I would not be staying to join many of my friends, new and old, on the Lobster Bus. But as I packed up my belongings to head to the airport, I couldn’t help but reflect back on the past couple of days and the fun that I had. New brands such as El Decreto, Wahaka Mezcal and Montoro are now on my “Must Have” list, along with others I’d finally had a chance to taste, like Crotalo and Tres Agaves. Finally, the chance to again share time with friends from T1 Tequila Uno, Don Modesto, Nobleza, Fortaleza, Don Cuco and TequilaRack was what also made the weekend memorable. Indeed, the Spirits of Mexico had lived up to the hype and lofty expectation that I had placed upon it and as my plane raced down the runway and lifted off over the Pacific, I had already started planning my return trip for 2012.

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Tequila Tapatio To Make US Debut in Early 2012

Tequila TapatioThis past weekend I was lucky enough to confirm that Tequila Tapatio will be hitting store shelves here in the US as early as January of 2012. It has been rumored that this iconic Camarena brand has been looking for an importer for close to a year and it now appears that they have one. In a weekend interview on KGO radio in San Francisco and without mentioning the brand itself, Marko Karakasevic from Charbay mentioned that Charbay would be importing a tequila brand that has been commercially produced in Mexico for over 70 years. Following up with Charbay through their Facebook page, I was able to confirm that Tapatio is indeed the brand and that Charbay will be the importer for the US market. The company will begin by only importing the blanco and their goal is to have it on shelves in California, Texas, Colorado and New York in early 2012.

Tequila Tapatio has been commercially produced by the Camarena family at La Alteña, the distillery built by Don Felipe Camarena in 1937. La Alteña also produces El Tesoro, a tequila that is widely available here in the States. In fact, these two brands have been figuratively joined at the piña throughout most of El Tesoro’s existence, the only real difference in the two bottlings being the time that each was rested or aged. Today, the difference is more significant in that Tapatio is made using a mechanical mill to extract the juice from the cooked agaves whereas the El Tesoro brand continues to use the tahona. While this may seem like a small difference, it actually is significant in that the fermentation and distillation processes also change. With the tahona process, the El Tesoro brand adds the cooked and now crushed agave fibers in the fermenting tanks as well as in the stills during the first distillation. This extended contact of the fibers with the juice tends to give the resulting tequila a stronger agave character. With Tapatio now using mills, only the juice goes into the fermentation and distillation processes and the resulting tequila has what has been described as a “greener”, smoother, and more vegetal flavor.

It should come as no surprise that the group getting ready to import Tapatio already has a relationship with the Camarena family. After taking a tour of La Alteña, the Karakasevic’s had questions about the distillation process of tequila, a spirit that had never been produced by any of its 13 generations of master distillers. This ultimately led to a friendship between the two families and a project that resulted in Charbay’s own tequila, the first tequila to be personally hand-distilled by an American in Mexico and an amazing blanco tequila in its own right. It now looks like the mutual respect and friendship that was built throughout that original project has opened the door to this exciting new opportunity for the Camarena’s and Karakasevic’s to share Tapatio with those of us north of the border. I’m guessing that I’m not the only one looking forward to being able to buy it locally!

For more information on Charbay, please visit their website at http://www.charbay.com

Watch and listen to Felipe Camarena explain the differences between El Tesoro and Tequila Tapatio to the Tequila Whisperer: http://www.tequilawhisperer.com/?p=1249

Tequila TapatioUPDATE – JUNE 27, 2012: The first shipment of Tapatio cleared customs in the Port of Oakland two weeks ago and is now available in California. Distribution to additional states is planned. The blanco comes in a 1-liter bottle and should retail in the $30-40 range, depending on the retailer. If you can find it, do yourself a favor and get a bottle – you won’t regret it!

UPDATE – FEBRUARY 2013: In addition to the blanco, Charbay has also brought in the Tapatio reposado and añejo, which showed up here in Texas just before Christmas. And look for something new in the late spring/early summer – a Tapatio 110 proof blanco!

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Dinner with Carlos Camarena

Camarena Tequila
Traveling for business is more often than not an unglamorous chore – fighting airport crowds, dealing with lost luggage and being away from family. That said, every now and then a business trip will coincide with an event in the destination city that makes me forget the hassles of travel. Such was the case during my recent trip to Northern California which took place a few days after my visit to Houston for the Casa Noble tasting detailed in my previous post. While I was in town, as luck would have it, another tequila tasting and dinner was taking place at La Piñata, a restaurant and tequila bar in Downtown San Jose. Included with the meal were tastings of two of Beam Global Spirits’ brands: the now 100%-owned El Tesoro de Don Felipe and Sauza’s Tres Generaciones. What made this tasting special was that the guest of honor was Carlos Camarena, third generation master distiller and producer of the El Tesoro brand (as well as Tapatio, another benchmark brand and rumored to soon be available in the United States). The tasting included a glass of blanco, reposado and añejo of both brands, done side-by-side. However, before we got a chance to jump into those blancos, those of us in attendance were treated to blood orange margaritas prepared with Thatcher’s organic drink mixers as we gathered and waited for the tasting to begin.

Once we finished our cocktails, Armando Zapata, a Beam Global tequila and cognac ambassador, took the floor and walked us through the Tres Generaciones blanco, noting its production (lowlands agaves, triple distillation) and various aromas and flavors. I picked up sweet and slightly yeast-like notes in both the aroma and the taste that reminded me of bread dough. There was also a strong presence of banana to me. My taste went down smooth with a slightly peppery finish that was nice, but not altogether interesting.

Armando was followed by Carlos Camarena who also walked us through the tasting of his blanco (El Tesoro Platinum). El Tesoro’s agaves are highlands-based, cooked in traditional ovens and double-distilled. Interestingly, the El Tesoro brand is distilled straight to proof meaning that no water is added before bottling. I found that the flavors came across as spicier but with a strong agave backbone mixed with citrus and even a hint of olives. On my palate, this was much more interesting overall.

Both gentleman then spoke to the reposados as we tasted them next. Many of the same characteristics were present in each brand but now showing the influence of oak. Rested 8-11 months, the El Tesoro had a pleasing balance and almost honey-like finish and the 3-month-aged Tres Generaciones was now much more interesting, with the banana still present but toned way down. Once the reposados were finished, we took a break from tasting to enjoy an excellent dinner before moving on to the añejos. It was at this point that the night really became special. Carlos started to talk about the history of what we were now drinking.

When El Tesoro was first introduced in the 1980’s, it was only available as a blanco or an añejo, the latter being marketed with the title “Muy Añejo” (“Very Aged” or “Very Mature”). The company chose this title because they had actually aged this expression for more than three years, longer than the standard añejos available at that time. The “Extra Añejo” category that we know today had not yet been established and the Camarenas wanted a way to describe that this bottling was more than just any standard añejo. After about a year on the market, the government forced them to stop using this title because it did not fall in line with the tequila labeling laws. El Tesoro continued to produce their añejo the same way and simply removed the “Muy” from the label. They also started petitioning for another category of tequila, which 20 years later would be approved and adopted by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT) as “Extra Añejo” (aged over three years). By that time the public had already associated the bottle and taste as El Tesoro’s añejo product so changing the name to the newly created Extra Añejo category and then “backfilling” with another traditionally aged añejo was not an option as people would likely confuse the two. The decision was made to continue making the añejo as they had always done and voluntarily downgrade the bottle labeling to simply “Añejo”.

Once the añejo samples were complete, the pride of El Tesoro’s line was poured – the 70th Aniversario – considered by many to be among the best tequilas ever produced. Of course, there was also a story to this bottle and as Don Camarena recited it, you could see both the pride and emotion that was tied to this bottle. As he tells it, it all started with a specific agave field in 2000, where the sugar content of the plants in this field averaged 37%, an incredible number considering that most sugar levels are in the mid-to-upper 20% range and rarely ever hit even 30%. Not believing this number, he asked his chemist to rerun the tests at which time he was told the tests had already been run multiple times because the chemist also could not believe the results.

With the field harvested, cooking completed, and knowing they might have something very special before them, Felipe Camarena, Carlos’ father, had the batch fermented, distilled, barreled and put into storage on June 30, 2000, noting that someday this might be something really unique. In June 2007, with the 70th anniversary of “La Alteña” – the family distillery – quickly approaching, Carlos remembered that he had this now-seven-year-old batch of tequila aging . . . somewhere. He reviewed his books to find the notes on this batch and to literally find where it had been stored. After locating it and tasting a sample he realized he indeed had something special and wanted to bottle it for the upcoming celebration at the distillery. The problem was that the event was only seven days away (note, that tequila was also exactly seven years old, to the day). Amazingly, the barrels were unsealed, tested and approved by the CRT, filtered, and bottled in time for the party. Interestingly, the juice from those barrels filled exactly 2007 6-bottle cases. The tequila also ended up registering 39.75%, or 79.5 proof, straight from the barrel – something fairly remarkable unto itself considering evaporation and the time spent in storage. This was important because it meant that no water was needed to dilute it to attain the required 40% ABV and it was also high enough to be legally considered tequila.

Carlos noted the consistent numerical coincidences throughout the entire process; that in a single field, seven years before the distillery’s 70th anniversary (opening in 1937), those plants’ average sugar content was 37%; the upcoming anniversary party was naturally scheduled for 7-7-2007, a date selected long before anyone remembered that this juice was even still around; the tequila produced exactly 2007 cases; and as Carlos threw in, naturally, he also had seven sisters! Unfortunately, Felipe Camarena passed in 2002 and never got to see the final results of what he put in storage years earlier but Carlos believes that it was no coincidence that the 70th Aniversario came together the way that it did. In a single bottle, the culmination of 70 years of passion, dedication, and hard work by three generations of Camarenas can be tasted and it’s simply amazing. Old barrels were used for storage which allowed the juice to rest for 7 years without the barrel destroying the agave flavor. It’s soft, sweet, and incredibly balanced with vanilla, oak, agave and a light spiciness all recognizable and distinct but none overpowering.

Carlos CamarenaAfter savoring the glass of Aniversario in my hand, the group enjoyed dessert and then slowly broke up, migrating to each of the ambassadors to ask questions and thank them for their time and efforts. I was no different, getting a photo with Carlos and making some small talk before heading back to my hotel.

Having the unique opportunity to sit in the same small room along with 20 others listening and watching Carlos tell these stories first-hand was a unique experience. Being able to taste his tequilas and talk to him face-to-face about them made this even more memorable. It’s nights like this that make business travel well worth the hassles!

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