Walk down the tequila aisle of your favorite big-name liquor store and you’ll likely notice the wide variety of bottle shapes, designs and gimmicks that companies use to catch your eye – I’m guessing that by now, pretty much everyone has come across the glass pistol filled with tequila. While often interesting to look at, the bottle design usually has no direct correlation to the tequila inside. Some bottles are beautiful and elegant to command a higher price even though the tequila inside is less-than-stellar. On the other hand, some of the simplest bottles hold the most amazing juices. Then there’s the brands that get everything right.
Republic Tequila is one of those brands. Like so many things, it all started with an idea. A concept based around a bottle design put together in the halls of a well-known Austin-based ad agency. It’s at this point that so many great concepts fail. This easily could have become just another knock-off tequila brand with a gimmick bottle, but instead, the right people were brought to the table to take this “concept” and make it a reality. People that knew what it took to create both a quality tequila as well as a brand around it. Two of those people are Tom Nall and Ken MacKenzie. I had a chance to talk with both recently about the making of this brand and what makes it stand out in a rapidly expanding and highly competitive field.
Meeting in 2008 for the first time at the agency as they listened to the concept, both realized after that initial meeting that there was something special in what they saw, but neither would sign on without a commitment from the other. The CEO and resident cowboy of the company, Tom’s background was in chili and branding and knew the Texas market as well as anyone. Ken spent 10 years in Guadalajara working in the tequila industry and was originally brought in as a consultant. Together, they share a passion for tequila and went to work putting together a brand that they could be proud of, a tequila made specifically for Texas first. This is where Republic Tequila was truly born. Before the first bottles hit the market in July of 2009, this group had to create a tequila that fit the image of the bottle, Texas proud. As Tom noted, “I can get you to buy anything once, but I have to have a quality product for you to buy it again.”
They started with selecting La Quemada (NOM 1457) as their distillery and Sabastian Melendrez as the master distiller. La Quemada is a boutique distillery and, together with Melendrez, is probably best known for the elegant 4 Copas tequilas. Before La Quemada, Melendrez was at Herradura, leaving after the sale to Brown-Forman. With production in place, they created a recipe and taste profile that would become Republic. The lowland-based agaves are sourced from an estate owned by Melendrez and his sister and Republic Tequilas are certified organic by both the USDA and CertAgri, the first such tequila to be imported to Texas and a point of pride with the company. After being slow-cooking in traditional stone ovens, the agaves are run through a mechanical shredder before being naturally fermented and distilled in stainless pot stills. Republic then allows the distillate to rest for 5 days before bottling or barrel-aging. The claim is that this produces a smoother and cleaner finished product. Based on the taste, I can’t really argue against that claim either. The plata’s smooth introduction gives way to a pleasant spicy tingle and lasting finish – with enough sweet agave to please the palate. For my tastes, this is a nicely balanced and enjoyable tequila, both to sip as well as a mixer.
Speaking of mixers, the company has followed up on their tequilas with the release of Republic Spirit Blends, four all-natural, fresh juice mixers. Made without preservatives, the blends are simply water, agave nectar and cane sugar, along with natural flavors that make up each bottle’s flavor. And these are more than just “margarita mixers”, with flavors like Basil-Pineapple, Jalapeño-Lime, Prickly Pear and Classic Lime, they lend themselves to non-tequila based cocktails as well as culinary delights (check out some recipes here at GirlGoneGrits.com)
In addition to the plata ($30-$35), Republic also makes a reposado (8 months – $35-$40) and an añejo (20 months – $40-$50) which are both aged in used Jack Daniel’s American oak barrels. The addition of the oak in the reposado naturally adds some complexity to the tequila. While not overpowering, I found that the the wood removed some of the nicely-balanced sweetness that I enjoyed in the plata and replaces it with some heat. Not harsh or bitter, the barrel aging does give this juice a bit of a punch and it left my mouth tingling longer than I expected on the finish. If you prefer aged tequilas that are not super-sweet or super-peppery, then I suggest you give this a try. I also really like this version in a Paloma because of the extra flavor it adds. For sipping, however, I’ve found that the añejo is my favorite and I continue to return to that bottle again and again. The juice itself has a thicker, chewier mouthfeel and some of the sweetness that I perceived to be missing in the reposado is back in the form of toasty, buttery carmel, bringing back a nice balance between the flavors. The long-lasting finish allows one to take some time between sips and enjoy the residual flavors. Tasting these side-by-side links the two at their core, but it also clearly defines the maturity of the añejo. I’ve found that the more of this añejo I drink, the more I like it! And don’t just take my word for it. While all three of these expressions were award-winners at the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the añejo took home gold. With that in mind, my fingers are crossed that an extra añejo will soon round out the Republic line.
In the time I’ve spent with Tom and Ken, it’s obvious to me that they have a passion for both their product, their community and their company. They run it in a stand-up, old fashioned and community-oriented way and that attitude is displayed in everyone I’ve met over the last year. It’s that passion that has helped create not only a quality product, but a brand that any Texan should be proud of. So the next time you’re walking down the tequila aisle and a little image of Texas catches your eye, stop and take a look – it’s more than just a fancy bottle. It’s also an excellent tequila – what a concept!
Republic Tequilas are now available in Texas, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana. Distribution in California begins in January. For more information on Republic Tequila and their line of Spirit Blends, please visit www.republictequila.com.
Tequilas reviewed in this post were purchased (reposado, añejo) and provided (plata).
REPUBLIC UPDATE – If you’ve purchased a bottle of Republic Tequila lately, you may have noticed that the stopper has been changed. The new ones are now wood and should be much easier on your hands when trying to open the bottle. That’s not the only change to Republic. The brand also quietly changed distilleries and started making new product about 18 months ago, long enough to get juice into barrels to rest for the reposado and añejo lines to be on the market today. The new distillery is Agave Conquista (NOM 1577), which also makes Tequila 1519. An interesting note about this change is that the brand received special permission from the CRT to bottle juice from NOM 1577 in bottles that still read NOM 1457. If you’re interested in getting one of these “mis-marked” bottles, look for the new caps and then check the NOM. The new caps signify the new distillery. As for the juice inside, it’s a bit sweeter, with the aged expressions displaying a touch of cinnamon that I never detected before. The agave source has changed as well and while still lowlands-based, the fields are more coastal now than they were before. Overall, still a worthy brand and if you are a fan, especially of the original version, stock up…
JULY 2013 UPDATE – Republic Tequila has once again changed distilleries, with new juice already hitting the retail shelves. The rumors about the company being sold appear to be true as the once busy Austin-based headquarters is now an empty building. The new juice is coming from Destileria Leyros, S.A. de C.V. (NOM 1489), which is probably best known for producing Casa Dragones. It appears the new ownership has kept the iconic but sometimes troublesome Texas-shaped bottle, however, the brand is no longer certified USDA organic or kosher. It also appears that all three expressions are hitting the market together, as I’ve already seen the new blanco and añejo on retail shelves in the last week.
Correction: The company itself was not sold. A management group has taken an equity share in the business and is now running it. While the corporate office is still in Austin, the new management has offices in Atlanta and Dallas and it’s assumed the day-to-day operations are being run from there.