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.
It 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
With 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.
The Bottle List
Chinaco 4-Year (1st Release #24)
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
One side of the tequila table at the Welcome Dinner. So many options!
Mark pouring Los Abuelos Blanco, Lot 1 for Lucinda Hutson
In Mark’s tequila library. Amazing collection!
Caliente 84 proof blanco and Chinaco 4-year añejo, bottle #24. Flanked by Chinaco 4-year “Ribbon-Label” añejos
El Tesoro “Artisanal” Muy Añejo, Silver, Reposado and Añejo
4-year Chinaco añejo waiting to be tasted
El Tesoro “Artisanal” añejo, Chinaco “Paper Labels” and El Tesoro Paradiso, Lots A and B
El Tesoro “White Labels” – Silver, Reposado and Añejo, with Chinaco “Teardrops” behind
With Marilyn Smith and Robert Denton
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)