Tag Archives: Charbay tequila

Craft Tequila: WTF Does THAT Mean? Part 1

What does that mean for tequilas?

What does that mean for tequilas?

An interesting question crossed my desk concerning the term craft as it relates to tequila.

This person asked…

“The one thing I am finding is the definition of ‘craft’ is all over the place. What does craft mean to you?  Do you think it is based on the method, quantity, who makes it or maybe all of these factors?”

This reader went on to ask if I considered a particular big name brand as a craft tequila, and if not, would I consider a certain higher priced line from this same transnational corporation that owns the brand as a craft tequila.

Further, he confessed that two other well-known brands could be considered “craft” tequilas even though one of them had reported sales of over 50,000 cases in 2013.

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 Craft by Definition

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, my favorite definition is–

“…an activity that involves making something in a skillful way by using your hands.”

The word handcraft is defined as…

“…to make (something) by using your hands.”

There are even deeper meanings to craft as it relates to the beer, wine and spirits industries, but before I get to them, let me remind you of some tequila facts and a huge marketing myth.

Fact #1:  Tequila has its own geographic indication (GI).  The blue weber agave from which it is made can only be grown, and tequila can only be produced, in specific states and regions in Mexico.

Fact #2:  According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), despite 13 million 9 liter cases of tequila sold in 2013, it is still–and always will remain–virtually last in sales volume behind whisk(e)y, gin, vodka and rum due to Fact #1.

This brings me to the…

Tequila Marketing Myth–Borrowing Benefits

So, how does a PR or marketing firm with no real knowledge of what good or bad tequila is, convey the message that its client, usually a high powered, non-Mexican owned tequila brand (and all that that implies), is just as cool as the other kids who may or may not be as well funded?

Tequila disguised as...?

Tequila disguised as…?

Simple–

You “borrow” benefits from the guy ahead of you.  You compare your tequila brand’s features and benefits to the leader in the field, thus making your client “worthy by association.”

From the moment that Herradura rested tequila in used Jack Daniels barrels to attract the American whiskey drinker decades ago, marketers have tried to disguise tequila (and mezcal, now, to some extent) as something else.

And because of Facts #1 and #2 above, tequila marketers have for years misled the public by borrowing benefits from wines, beers and all other spirits in a seeming effort to gain tequila’s acceptance into the mainstream drinking public, and to increase sales.

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Craft by Design

Here’s what it means to produce a craft product in each of the following arenas.

The Brewers’ Association defines craft as small (“6 million barrels of beer or less per year”), independent (“less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer”), and traditional (“a brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation”).

The American Craft Distillers Association’s (ACDA) definition of craft gets trickier–

“…those whose annual production of distilled spirits from all sources does not exceed 750,000 proof gallons removed from bond (the amount on which excise taxes are paid.)”

According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a proof gallon needs an entire conversion table to figure out.  We’ll let you do the math, here.

The American Distilling Institute’s (ADI) guidelines are similar but allows certified craft spirits a “maximum annual sales of 52,000 cases where the product is PHYSICALLY distilled and bottled on-site” and “maximum annual sales are less than 100,000 proof gallons.”

Where wine is concerned, the Department of Revenue defines a “small winery” as any winery that produces less than 25,000 gallons of wine in a calendar year.  A “farm winery,” however, can produce up to 50,000 gallons of wine annually.

Some have even arbitrarily issued their own definition of small winery as one producing as little as 10,000 gallons per year, and a nano winery as generating only 500 gallons per year.

A simple Google search shows that each state has its own slightly different definition of what a craft wine or spirit is, and several states with popular wine growing regions like California, are constantly updating their definition to accommodate growing wineries.

The same growing concerns in the craft beer industry have prompted the Brewer’s Association to update their ground rules to allow for larger craft producers.

The Revenge of Brewzilla

According to Impact Databank, a large chunk of the beer industry has surrendered significant market share (some 6.7 million barrels, or 93 million 2.25-gallon cases since 2009!) to the spirits industry.  The only bright spot for the entire category is the resurgence of locally brewed craft or specialty beers increasing in volume by 14% to 20.2 million barrels.

These stats have not been lost on spirits marketers who follow trends in similar markets to practice borrowing benefits.  The big brands like Miller-Coors, Anheuser Busch-Inbev (Budweiser) and others also have jumped onto the craft bandwagon by either investing in small breweries or by inferring in their marketing that they still make their beer by hand.

It's not a craft beer.  Just well-crafted.

It’s not a craft beer. Just well-crafted.

As Ashley Routson, a craft beer advocate famously known as The Beer Wench, and whose upcoming book “The Beer Wench’s Guide to Beer” will be an unpretentious, comprehensive approach to beer, puts it…

“In my opinion, the fight over the word craft should be one of semantics, but instead, its become a battle of the egos.”

Routson goes on to say, “The word ‘craft’ is not a synonym for the word ‘good,’ ‘great’ or ‘better.’  Many non-craft breweries and large tequila producers make world class beer and tequila–there is no argument there.  You don’t need to use the word craft to define your beverage as being good.”

[Tweet ” The fight over the word craft should be one of semantics, but instead, is a battle of the egos.”]

Author, Ashley Routson, The Beer Wench.

Author, Ashley Routson, The Beer Wench.

Beer journalist, Mike Cortez, whose pending book will be a part of the Beer Lovers series of books (Beer Lover’s Texas), is also the co-founder of The Texas Margarita Festival, and feels that craft tequila should be held to the same strict standards as craft beer.

 “We need to separate the garbage from the good stuff.  [Like craft] beer that is only made with the basics, grain, water, hops and yeast, the brewers do not use additives or adjuncts to flavor the beer.”

Cortez concludes, “[Tequila] is a product that takes time, care and only the purest agave extraction.  The distillers depend on the time to harvest the agave, baking the pinas and perfectly extracting the juices.  Once it is distilled it is a product that is pure and only flavored by the barrel with no extra additives.”

Tequila Industry consultant, Chris Zarus, innovator of TequilaRack, the world’s first take home tequila tasting kit that deliberately includes samples of some of the finest small batch, micro-distilled reposado tequilas sourced from family run distilleries, takes the craft argument to a higher level.

“The word craft has unfortunately been abducted by the marketing department and now misleads the masses.  We go to classes that advise us on how to make our brands ‘craftier’ with specialty releases with funny names [and] all owned by multinational conglomerates that work relentlessly to reduce costs via cheaper ingredients and mechanization.”

[Tweet “The word craft has been abducted by the marketing dept & now misleads the masses. #tequila”]

Zarus believes that there are two industry definitions of craft which differ from what the consumer understands.  They involve a specific recipe and a specific process.

Specific Recipe

Chicken breast after having been used in clay still to make mezcal de pechuga.

Chicken breast after having been used in clay still to make mezcal de pechuga.

In this craft version, the product is consistent and costs are contained.

“The Jim Koch’s [founder of Samuel Adams beer] view that his recipe makes his beer craft regardless of the fact that MillerCoors brews it for the masses,” explains Zarus.  “In [Koch’s] opinion, its like a chef going to your house to cook his special recipe.”

“If you think about it in broad terms,” reasons Zarus, “all consumer products have a specific recipe.  The difference here may be that the recipe is full flavored and is preferred by fewer due to its heartier taste.”

Specific Process

In this definition, the process is the craft.

Tequila Fortaleza, produced by famed fifth generation distiller, Guillermo Sauza, Zarus illustrates, “[Is] very

Las perlas del mezcal.

Las perlas del mezcal.

specific, old world, but not very mechanized.  In this way the outcome varies by batch and the state of the local ingredients.  The craft is the process.”

The downside, insists Zarus is that, “…the product varies by batch, like some wines.  There is a lack of product consistency.  Some batches have more acclaim than others and the maker is not getting to charge the full price of the best batches.”

This last seeming liability has been turned into a profitable tequila marketing plan by some boutique brands like Ocho and Charbay who source their agave from single estates thus promoting the brand’s terroir and creating buzz for individual vintages.

The Meaning and the Art Form

Marketers rethink the word "craft."

Marketers rethink the word “craft.”

The two essential elements that Routson, Cortez and Zarus all agree upon are, first, that the craft process is the art form, whether in beer, wine or spirits.

The other factor that our panel of professionals agrees on is the battle of maintaining the true definition of the word craft.

We’ll explore these issues and how you can define, select and measure a craft tequila in Part 2 tomorrow.

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Tequila Tapatío And The Source of Life

Welcome Back, Old Friend

Tapatío logo poster

Tapatío logo poster

On two separate occasions, Carlos Camarena, the third generation master distiller of El Tesoro de Don Felipe and the equally famous and classic Tequila Tapatío, stepped outside of Las Perlas mezcal and tequila bar in the heart of downtown Los Angeles to enjoy a cigarette.

Taking in the scenery of a chilly and overcast Sunday afternoon in early June, he witnessed the pursuit of a purse snatcher by LAPD, and then an attempted carjacking by another perpetrator while the police were arresting the purse snatcher!

Carlos smiled and shook his head.  Surrounded by movie cameras and flood lights outside the front entrance to Las Perlas, his only thought was…

Another average day in LA.

La Perla Tapatía

Once inside the rustic and darkly lit Las Perlas, one of the more complete tequila and mezcal bars in Los Angeles, one realized that the movie cameras weren’t there to record street crimes or another TV reality show.  They were there to film an historic event–

The triumphant entrance of  the iconic Tequila Tapatío into California and the rest of the United States.

The press wall.

The press wall.

Jeff Couch and Vaughn Halyard, the co-partners of Congenial Spirits, a nimble distributor focused on boutique, handcrafted spirits, and the chosen distributor for Tapatío, had the foresight to sense the importance of documenting its US premier, even adding a professional photographer and a press wall for that red carpet feeling.

The invitees, comprised of LA spirits industry professionals and mixologists, settled in and Raul Yrastorza, the general manager and curator of Las Perlas, began the introductions for this question and answer segment with the guests of honor.

The Charbay Connection

Producing wines, ports, liqueurs, aperitifs, vodkas, rums, and whiskies at the famed Charbay Winery & Distillery in St. Helena, CA, Marko Karakasevic is also the importer of Tapatío under his Marko K Spirits of California banner.

Marko, a bear of a man who looks more like a right tackle for the Oakland Raiders instead of a barely 40 year old 13th generation master distiller, jokingly explains:

“In a family of distillers, no fruit, no root, is safe.”

Here, Marko recounts his first meeting with Carlos Camarena that lead to his family being invited to distill its own brand of Charbay Tequila at La Alteña distillery.

Heads, Hearts & Tails

So what do master distillers talk about in the wee hours of the morning over endless tequila?  Distillation, of course!

Carlos Camarena and Marko Karakasevic tell the story of their awkward first encounter that turned into what can only be an enduring relationship based on mutual respect and admiration.

The Upside Down World of Agave Spirits

Carlos chuckled that Miles Karakasevic, Marko’s father, the retired 12th generation master distiller of Charbay, and he did not get along that evening.

Whenever Carlos tried to explain the physics and biochemistry of tequila distillation versus the distillation of other spirits, it was in complete contrast to Miles’ years of education. 

Bullshit was uttered more than once.

“It’s not right!” exclaimed Marko.

Carlos discusses the upside down world of agave spirits distillation in depth…

Why Did It Take So Long To Get Here?

On my first visit to La Alteña in 2006, I asked Carlos what would happen if there was a sudden demand in El Tesoro de Don Felipe.  Would he be able to fill orders, or be forced to cut corners?

He declared that at any given time, he had approximately one million liters of tequila in storage to handle any spike in demand.  There would never be any need to cut corners and suffer a loss in quality.  No doubt, his policy also carried over to the Tapatío brand.

Here, Carlos demystifies his reasons for taking almost 76 years to bring Tapatío into the US market, and gives a bit of family history, as well.

During the course of the question and answer session, Congenial Spirits’ Vaughn and Jeff made sure that each of the Tapatío expressions were being served to the crowd in specially branded Tapatío shot glasses, starting with the 80 proof blanco and ending with the stellar Tapatío 110 proof.

Sipping it immediately brought back fond memories of my first trip to La Alteña and tasting this tequila directly from the still.

It hadn’t changed a bit.

Cocktail Hour

Drinks menu

Drinks menu

Once the Q & A ended, it was time to unleash the infinite possibilities that Tapatío 110 could provide.  Amanda Gunderson, Tapatío’s brand ambassador and designer of the evening’s drinks menu, wowed the crowd with her signature cocktails.

Names like Lolita Swizzle and La Alteña guaranteed that everyone in attendance would get a feel of what it would be like to visit Tapatío’s legendary distillery.  To say that these cocktails were lethally delicious would be an understatement.

La Alteña signature cocktail.

La Alteña signature cocktail.

Be aware that Tapatío 110 proof will not only shine in your cocktail and take you back to the Highlands of Jalisco, but it will sing to you for the rest of the evening.  Definitely, sip wisely.

The Source Of Life

Since many in attendance weren’t as well versed in the science of distillation as Carlos and Marko were, I asked Camarena how he would define distillation to a lay person.

Here’s what he had to say…

When Tequila Tapatío can be considered the source of life on this planet, there can be no such thing as just an average day in LA–or anywhere else, for that matter.

***

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