A guest interview with Alejandro Cuevas Romo of Excelencia Tequilera de Jalisco and Tequila Huizache
Tequila stands between two fronts: There is the clichéd rejection of a commercialized product at the expense of quality and then the traditional admiration of a passionate masterpiece that can no longer meet the demand of the world markets in this form. As always, the truth lies somewhere in between. Let us embark on a search. A conversation with Alejandro Cuevas Romo, descendant of one of the oldest tequila families – and pioneer of a new view on things.
Q: Hello Alejandro. Please introduce yourself.
A: My name is Alejandro Cuevas Romo and I’m the operations manager for Excelencia Tequilera de Jalisco and Tequila Huizache. We are a family owned business located in Amatitán Jalisco, Mexico. ETJ is basically composed of two separate companies, one is an agro-industrial company, focused on the cultivation and sale of Blue Agave, and the second company is focused on the distillation and commercialization of 100% Agave Tequila. Our family (Romo de la Peña) has a long tradition in the production of Tequila in this region, I think is probably one of the oldest, with a history dating back to the early 1800´s , although we use 1870 as the oficial date because that’s when Tequila Herradura was founded, but we know it was actually earlier than that.
As you may know Tequila Herradura is one of the most recognizable brands in the world, it was founded and managed by my family until 2007 when it was finally sold to Brown Forman Corporation.
Excelencia Tequilera de Jalisco started before that, because my mother and my aunt actually sold their shares of Herradura in the late 90s. They took the lands they had inherited and started a new company, at first just to cultivate and sale agave, but later they decided to produce tequila and continue with the family tradition.
Q: So your core business is not the production of Tequila Huizache but rather the cultivation and distribution of raw materials to other producers and brands? Can you briefly explain the business of Excelencia Tequilera de Jalisco?
A: That´s correct, our core business is the cultivation of high quality Blue Agave, our agave is used by many prestigious brands to make their tequilas. Our lands are located in the valley of Amatitán near the Tequila Volcano from which the drink takes its name. This region has the ideal climate for agave production. We also sell tequila as a finished product to other brands.
Naturally for us it was very important to have our own brand, something that we could be proud of, something that represented our interpretation of the national drink of Mexico. As a tequila making family we felt the need to continue, and thats how Tequila Huizache started.
Q: Let’s get back to Tequila Huizache. How did you get the idea for the Origen Reposado?
A: Well our goal has always been to keep perfecting our tequilas with a forward thinking mentality. Tequila has become a world wide drink, ove 70% of tequila production is exported to other countries this days. This has changed tequila in a good way, todays consumers that appreciate quality demand more complex and refined products. We knew that through the aging process we could create something interesting, a different reposado with unique characteristics. We import our oak barrels from France, the US and Hungary, the highest quality we can get, and then we hand pick the best for Huizache Origen. They are all oak barres but obviously they come from different forests and each gives a different flavor, by blending them we achieve Origen´s distinctive sweetness and smoothness.
Q: Why does the Origen Reposado have only 35% alcohol vol. In some tests and reports the rather low alcohol content is seen as a point of criticism.
A: Again is all about having choices, we wanted Huizache Origen to be enjoyed neat, without having to mix it into a cocktail , the same way you enjoy a good whisky. We found that 35% Alc. Vol. gave you a very pleasing experience and that it appealed to a wider group that wouldn’t normally drink straight tequila.
I mean if you want something stronger you can always have our blanco or reposado, I think people should always follow their senses and drink what they like, don’t worry about the numbers.
Q: Let us come to the question: Production process at Tequila Huizache.
A: As I mentioned earlier we are a forward thinking company when it comes to production. Is great to have the tradition and knowledge because the accumulated experience tells you what works, what doesn’t and what can be improved. Before deciding which process we where going to use, we ran several test in different facilities, experimenting with both traditional process as well as the latest technologies. In the end we decided to go for the modern approach.
So the most important thing is to start with the best agave posible, and the agave has to be at least 7 years old. Fortunately we grow our own and can hand pick it for our production. Then we use the diffuser for the extraction and autoclaves for the cooking process, fermentation is done using yeast that we specially developed from our own agaves, this also took a lot of trial and error to get it right. Distillation is done using the 2 step distillation process in stainless steel stills, and finally aging in selected oak barrels.
Is a very standard, modern process of producing tequila, but the important thing is to tweak each step of the production and use the best materials available to ensure the highest quality possible using this methods.
Q: So you use the “evil” diffuser? The opinions about this black box machine are (almost) exclusively negative. How does the use of such a modern technology fit to your high demands on quality and taste?
A: Yes I see the diffuser has a bad reputation in forums and with some “experts”, and I can understand why. Honestly many horrible tequilas are done using this machine, but that’s not the fault of the diffuser, you can make good or bad tequila using any method, you just have to be willing to put the extra effort and care. In some 150 years of making tequila, my family has probably used every single method available at one point or another, and we are convinced that today we are making the best tequila we can. We like the diffuser because you get maximum extraction from your agaves, agave is expensive and it takes a long time to grow, so maximizing your efficiency makes sense. This also allows our tequila to be accessible to more people. At the end of the day the proof is in the final product, our tequilas have always been favored in blind testings and have won many awards.
I would like to encourage your readers to trust their senses more, if it tastes good, smells good, and doesn’t give you a head ache, is probably a good product.
Having said that, is true that using the more traditional method of steam ovens produces a distinctive taste that many find appealing. We also like this method and used it for many years in Herradura. Maybe we will use it in the future for a different line of tequilas, who knows.
Q: I understand. In contrast to the production of Tequila with modern means like Diffuser or Autoclave there are many other producers (also big producers) who advertise with – I call it “Tequila romance” moody pictures and thus convey emotions of craftsmanship and tradition. There I see traditional ovens, load donkeys and stone mills. To what extent can such an idea even be maintained if, for example, you have to produce several hundred thousand or even millions of litres of tequila and keep a constant taste level? How can this work?
A: There are indeed small producers who value the old ways of doing things and use these methods, and there is definitely a consumer that also values this products. But when you are talking about big brands selling millions of liters, is definitely just a marketing strategy to appeal to those consumers. Only a small part of their production is done this way, in order to keep the dream alive and have it certified by the CRT, but the bulk of their production is done the modern way.
Q: This means that if you pack all your knowledge about Tequila together, you can produce a high-quality Tequila that meets the highest demands, is affordable for the end customer and has not been modified with any additives. Can you call this the Mission of Tequila Huizache?
A: Well that pretty much sums up what our brand is about, I would add that we do this because we love it, we would never sell a product that we didn’t drink ourselves. We don’t need to hide our production process and we don’t make up fancy marketing stories.
Q: Let´s now focus on the raw material, the Blue Agave. We are currently reading more and more reports about rising prices for agaves, even a peak for 1 kilo of agave. Beam Suntory Germany, for example, stopped selling Sauza Tequila in Germany at the beginning of this year due to the growing demand for tequila with a limited supply of agaves. Is there another agaves crisis and if so, how do you react at Tequila Huizache?
A: Yes there is a scarcity of agave at the moment but is temporal. A few years ago a large portion of the agave inventory was whipped out due to climate changes. Fortunately our inventory wasn’t affected so we have been able to capitalize on this problem. As a result agave prices have gone trough the roof and that has impacted the entire industry. But this is temporal and prices will stabilize in a year or two.
We often forget how fragile our food supplies are and how vulnerable they are to climate changes.
Q: There is another special Tequila variety that you produce ultra strictly limited. Can you please tell us what kind of brand it is?
A:I guess you are talking about the San José brand… San José del Refugio is the name of the old family hacienda where Herradura was founded and where my family lived for many generations. We use this brand for our most rare tequila. As I mentioned before we are very particular about the barrels we use, they all go through a carefully inspection and grading system, occasionally we find barrels that are truly exceptional, the aromas and characteristics are unique, and I’m talking about maybe 1 barrel in a lot of 250 barrels. These barrels we use for our personal tequilas, traditionally just for family and friends, but everybody was always asking if they could buy that tequila, so we decided to start selling it as a special edition. Its an extra añejo, aged for about four years, and is a single barrel so unfortunately only about 500 – 1000 bottles per year can be sold, depending on the barrels we find. We don’t really advertise it much because of this.
Q: What do you think of Cristalino Tequilas from a tequila experts perspective?
A: From a commercial point view, it has been a huge success. Most cristalinos are añejos, and traditionally añejos where the lowest sales in terms of volume, by turning them into cristalino you have created a new blanco of sorts, and blanco is the highest selling category in terms of volume, plus you add value to the product. Is a brilliant move.
In terms of the taste, aromas and characteristics I don’t think they are very good.
We spent about a year and a half experimenting, trying to find a formula that we liked, but non of the tests we did passed our testing panel. They just don’t fit our view of what makes a great tequila. The problem is that in order to remove the color from the añejo you have to filter the tequila using a carbon or charcoal filter, this removes the color but also removes many of the flavors and aromas you worked so hard to achieve in the aging process. The result is a very neutral and smooth tequila, to compensate for this most brands add natural flavors to sweeten it and make it more palatable. We don’t like that, we don’t use any additives or sweeteners in any of our tequilas. So for the time being we won’t produce cristalino unless we find a way to keep all the flavors of the aging process.
Q: What comes next from Tequila Huizache?
A: Well the most important thing happening is that we started distribution of our products in Germany and hopefully the EU soon. For this propose we are working with our distributor on the redesign of all our presentations and will also introduce our first Huizache Añejo. Germany and Europe in general have the richest tradition in wines and spirits, and people have a very developed palates. We are exited to share our tequila tradition with enthusiast that appreciate the good things in life.
Q: Thank you very much.
A: My pleasure.