Tequila Don Pilar – A Modern Artisanal Classic

One of the beautiful things about social media is the direct access that everyday people now have to brands large and small. That works both ways, of course, as brands have the ability to communicate directly with potential consumers at a level that is quick and responsive. I was recently reminded of this relationship when I was invited to meet and visit with Tequila Don Pilar based on a tweet about a trip I was planning to the Northern California area. Naturally, I took them up on the offer and a few weeks later I found myself walking into Amigos Grill in Portola Valley, set in the scenic foothills above the hustle and bustle of Silicon Valley and one of four Bay Area restaurants owned by Jose Pilar Contreras – better known as Don Pilar.

The meeting itself was set-up by Pilar’s son, Juan Carlos, who handles much of the marketing of the brand and with whom I had a chance to speak with sometime later by phone. Since he was unable to not join us that day, Juan gave pretty simple instructions for when I arrived: “Just look for Don Pilar, you’ll recognize him.” Lucky for me I’d seen enough event photos and shots from the website that I felt comfortable with that as my guide. Sure enough, within a moment of sitting down at the bar, Don Pilar appeared from the back and started making one of the establishment’s signature margaritas. After eye contact, I introduced myself and with a pleasant smile he motioned to his creation and we both understood that he’d be back once he had taken care of this order.

Drinks delivered he was again behind the bar and we were quickly talking tequila. He offered and poured me a glass of both his blanco and añejo. I should note here that the pride in his product comes through with the simple act of pouring a glass. He was eager to talk about his tequila and the industry in general, as well as his personal history which starts with being raised on his family ranch in San José de Gracia, located in the Highland region of Jalisco. Like most of their neighbors in the region, the family was hard-working and entrepreneurial and he, along with his 11 siblings, worked the family’s land growing corn and wheat as well as raising livestock. There was also the agaves, grown and cultivated on their estate going back three generations. At age 15, Pilar’s father gave him a small bit of land to tend himself, upon which he planted the first agaves of his own and thus carrying on the family tradition.

At 18 he left the family farm to work the farmland of Central California as part of the guest worker program, but always returned home each year to help with the agave harvest and planting. In doing this he found himself traversing most of California and finally landed for good in Half Moon Bay where he opened his first restaurant in the early 1980’s. It was then that he began to purchase additional land in Jalisco upon which he cultivated agaves to sell to the big tequila producers.

In 1993 he got a taste of the tequila business first hand when he started importing a handful of tequilas to California, including Cazadores and Pueblo Viejo. The growth that these brands experienced was strong and by 1997, had outgrown his company’s small operation and they each moved on to larger distributors.

Importing was a great introduction to the business but Don Pilar had always desired to create his very own tequila. In 2000, he partnered with a group and built La Trasquila, a co-op distillery (NOM 1443) built in the highlands not far from where he was raised. This is where Tequila Don Pilar is created today, using his best highlands-based agaves from his over 1000 acres spread across six ranches.

Juan Carlos calls Tequila Don Pilar a “modern artisanal” tequila noting their small-batch, additive-free, and craftsman-style approach to using some of the more efficient and modern machinery in place at the distillery. This includes the autoclave, where the quartered and pressure-washed agaves are cooked for 24 hours, then cooled for another 24 hours before being shredded and pressed in a mill. Champagne yeast is the choice for fermentation which generally lasts eight days and during which, selections of Baroque music are played. “Studies have proven the music makes the yeast more active,” states Don Pilar, “resulting in a more complete fermentation and a richer mosto.” It is then double distilled in stainless pot stills, overseen by master distillers Leopolda Solis Tinoco and Gabriel Espindola.

Interestingly, Don Pilar did not make the blanco style tequila at the start. Juan Carlos noted that this was due to Pilar’s love of other aged spirits and wanting to create something comparable that he could call his own. Aging for the añejo is done in lightly toasted virgin white oak for a duration of 16-18 months, resulting in a rich, amber-colored final product that can generally be found for under $40. He has recently added a blanco ($30-$33) to compliment the añejo, and expects to be bottling an extra añejo within the next year. Does this mean that there may be a reposado in their future as well? “Possibly, but not anytime soon” remarked Juan Carlos.

That’s fine with me because I’m perfectly content sipping the two styles that are currently being made. The first thing that I noticed with the blanco was the very slow development of the tears after giving the glass a quick swirl. It’s also very approachable with almost no alcohol on the nose and I picked up a slightly sweet, almost tropical fruit aroma. The taste is a nice balance of agave up front wrapped in a warm, coating mouthfeel that develops into a crisp and tangy finish that compliments the sweetness and leaves your mouth tingling. The añejo starts out with equally slow tears in the glass and again the light touch on the alcohol. While not overpowering, the addition of oak is pronounced in both the nose and the taste but it is kept in check nicely by the sweet hints of agave and vanilla which keeps it from going to far over to the Scotch/Bourbon side of the fence. The finish was not as spicy as the blanco but equally long, starting out very soft and rounded and fooling me into thinking it would be over too quickly only to return and linger for an extended time.

Before I knew it, two hours had flown by and it was time for me to be on my way and time for Don Pilar to return to running his restaurant. Our conversation had touched on numerous subjects, all of which provided a glimpse of this man’s character and work ethic, and it’s no surprise to me that the tequila that bears his name is winning awards and accolades throughout the tequila industry. I finished the last remnants of the tasty añejo-based margarita that he had made me – Pilar’s personal favorite – and I was on my way, a new fan of both the tequila and Don Pilar himself.

Tequila Don Pilar is also Kosher-certified and is currently available in California with distribution to additional states expected by the end of 2011. For additional information, visit www.donpilar.com

Samples were provided for this review.

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