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.
After 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!