In 2016, during our very successful Heartland Tour, we led the Revel Avila Spirits Experience. It was a delightful sampling of its three expressions to a packed house of VIPs at 6 Smith restaurant on the shores of Lake Minnetonka.
Revel Spirits is helping to lay the groundwork that will support the farmers’ and jimadores’ livelihoods, preserve Morelos’ unique environment, and safeguard the supply of blue weber agave for generations to come.
This last phase is accomplished by allowing bats to pollinate the blue agave, an ancient technique that is nearly lost in the Tequila Industry.
All this will aid the growth of the economy of the Mexican state of Morelos.
Revel Spirits Avila anejo, aged for 24 months in French oak barrels and bottled at 48% ABV, or 96 proof, is a rare gem.
It can be paired equally as well with a rich dessert, or a fine after dinner cigar. Notes of bitter chocolate or cacao, and coffee beans, along with wood and tobacco undertones, makes it a versatile expression.
So, how does a well-educated, forty-something mother of three get deeply involved in the remote bacanora-distilling communities of rural Sonora?
For this “Bacanora Boss Lady,” it began as a university school project.
We’ll let Adriana tell you her amazing and life-changing journey–in her own words–but first…
Mezcal is all the craze these days.
But, as the legendary Martin Grassl so aptly pointed out, knowledgeable consumers continue to move away from the bland, cookie-cutter flavor profiles of most mass market tequilas.
In their quest to challenge their taste buds even further, more and more are turning to other luscious Mexican agave spirits like sotol, raicilla and bacanora.
A Troubled Past
Made using Sonora’s native Angustifolia Haw plant (Agave Pacifica), the production of Bacanora was banned in 1915 by the powerful, post-revolutionary Governor of Sonora, Plutarco Elias Calles.
According to leading bacanora expert and historian, Dr. Luis Núñez Noriega:
“Bacanora consumption had become so widespread throughout the state, the intolerant government banned the spirit, and severely punished anyone caught drinking or making it – sometimes by imprisonment, sometimes by death!”
This Prohibition-style ban forced vinateros (bacanora distillers) into the hills to continue making the spirit in secret, much like American moonshiners and bootleggers.
Bacanora production was illegal until 1992, and in 2005 was issued a Denomination of Origin, but claims an existence of 300 years, mas o menos.
A Bacanora Boss Lady Tells All
[Editor’s note: For the convenience of our interviewee and our Spanish speaking audience, this article is in both English and Spanish.]
Maria Adriana Torres de la Huerta, 46 years old, mother of 3 children, divorced. Professional career as an Industrial Engineer and Systems Manager, with a Master’s Degree in Agribusiness and a truncated doctorate in Strategic Planning for the Improvement of Human Performance and Development.
Since the age of 24, my professional development is in the agro-industrial segment despite not being raised in the countryside.
The love I have for it and its activities were instilled in me by my father who is a medical veterinary zootechnician and a docent at the Technological Institute of Sonora, Mexico.
My experience began at the Rural Bank in the area of strategic projects like aquaculture, protected agriculture and agro-industries, working in the countryside [in the field], and for the countryside.
In 2006, as destiny would have it, I began my studies at the university school of business at the Technological Institute of Sonora.
One of the principal requirements [by the rector] was to find projects that enabled regional, sustainable development.
The businesses that were created or supported had to provide [aggregated] value to Sonora, as well as to allow for the development of its most vulnerable [overlooked] communities.
It was in that search, at the end of 2007, that I met my founding partner of the brand, Pascola Bacanora.
Alma Lourdes Peña Gomez introduced me to Bacanora, and that was when I knew this was a project worth pursuing.
We began working on formalizing the spirit. It allowed me to become an associate of the business to obtain the commercialization authorizations, production license, and exportation permits.
That’s when I began to understand the real significance of Bacanora production to the state of Sonora.
I began visiting these communities, listening to the stories told by the producers [distillers], the majority of whom were men already advanced in age.
They related how, in the post-revolutionary time, La Acordada (that’s what the authorities were called in those days) destroyed the bacanora vinatas [distilleries] and lynched many of the producers of this alcoholic beverage.
As time passed, and the more we became involved, I understood and observed why so many of the vinatas we located in ravines and in the most remote places of the mountain range.
I concluded that thanks to the fortunate stubbornness of those producers, this activity [of distilling bacanora] that has so much cultural significance and connotation to the citizens of Sonora, didn’t disappear.
Since 2007 until now, the business has undergone many changes, but definitely persistence and commitment have allowed me to keep working with this brand and my own private labels, adding to my team people with the same focus.
I continue working towards positioning bacanora as one of the best distillates in the world. And Bacanora Pascola as one of the pioneer brands that opened the breach between an artisanal bacanora and a 100% quality artisanal bacanora.
I am a bacanora producer.
MAA Adriana Torres de la Huerta, 46 años, madre de 3 hijos, divorciada, profesionista con la carrera de Ingeniero Industrial y de Sistemas, Maestria en Administración de Agronegocios y doctorado trunco en Planeacion Estrategica para la mejora del Desempeño humano.
Mi desarrollo profesional se da en el área agroindustrial desde los 24 años de edad, a pesar de no haber crecido en el campo, el amor por él y sus actividades fueron inculcadas por mi padre que es Medico Veterinario Zootecnista y ademas docente en el Instituto Tecnologico de Sonora.
Mi desarrollo inicio en el Banco Rural en el área de proyectos estratégicos como lo era la acuacultura, agricultura protegida y agroindustrias, trabajando por el campo y para el campo.
Pero es en el año 2006 cuando por azares del destino inicio mi labor en la universidad dentro de la Incubadora de Empresas del ITSON y donde una de las principales encomiendas del Rector fue la de buscar proyectos que permitieran el desarrollo regional sustentable, que las empresas que se crearan o se apoyaran en su desarrollo fueran empresa que dieran valor agregado al Estado y que permitieran el desarrollo de las comunidades mas vulnerables del estado.
En esa búsqueda, a finales de 2007 se acerca a mi la socia fundadora de la marca Bacanora Pascola Alma Lourdes Peña Gomez, la cual me dio a conocer lo que era el Bacanora, y en ese momento supe que este era el proyecto por el cual debería luchar.
Empezamos a trabajar en la formalidad de la bebida, lo que permitío hacerme socia de la empresa al lograr los permisos para la comercialización, la licencia de producción y los permisos de exportación.
Asi comencé a conocer lo que realmente significaba la producción de bacanora para el Estado, empece a realizar visitas a las comunidades, escuchar las historias de los productores, los cuales en su mayoría eran hombres ya entrados en años, nos relataban cómo en los tiempos postrevolucionarios, La Acordada (como le llamaban a la justicia en esa época) destruía las vinatas de bacanora y ahorcaban a muchos de los que producian esta bebida alcohólica.
Con el tiempo y entre mas nos adentrábamos, empece a entender y a observar porque muchas de las vinatas se encuentran en las cañadas y en los lugares mas recónditos de la sierra.
Pude concluir que gracias a la afortunada terquedad de esos productores que permitieron que no desapareciera esta actividad de tanta connotación y pertenencia cultural para los sonorenses.
Desde 2007 a la fecha la empresa ha sufrido muchos cambios pero definitivamente la terquedad y el compromiso han permitido que yo siga trabajando con esta marca y mis marcas propias, sumando a mi equipo personas con el mismo fin.
Y continuo trabajando en pro de que el bacanora se posicione como uno de los mejores destilados del mundo y Bacanora Pascola como una de las marcas pioneras que abrió la brecha entre un bacanora artesanal y un bacanora artesanal 100% de calidad.
Soy Productora de Bacanora.
More on Bacanora
In this short interview, Adriana Torres explains more of the bacanora distilling process to the Spanish speaking audience.
For over the past seven years, I’ve been a huge supporter of the Mexican spirit known as sotol. You can read what I had to say about it in Tom Barry’s excellent article, A Sotol Story.
In case you’re unaware, sotol is made from the Desert Spoon plant (Dasylirion wheeleri) that grows in Northern Mexico, as well as Arizona, New Mexico, West Texas, and what is known as the Texas Hill Country, and all the way south to Oaxaca.
Sotol has its own Denomination of Origin, and can only be produced in the Mexican states of Durango, Chihuahua, and Coahuila.
In the latter part of 2017, there has been a good bit of positive press like this one in Forbes, for three gentlemen from Austin, Texas who have produced their version called Desert Door. They’ve even opened a distillery in Austin and are giving tours of their facility.
Claiming historical evidence that it has always been smuggled across Texas borders as moonshine, the owners of Desert Door have been quoted in the Forbes article as “…We want to make sotol to Texas what bourbon is to Kentucky.”
In other words, they propose that their version of sotol be adopted as Texas’ official spirit.
Caution: Rant Ahead
The above statement prompted the following late night Facebook Live rant on one of our final days of the Wild Wild West 2017 Tour.
It was brought to our attention that the above rant was considered “strained,” “weak,” and “petty” after it aired on Facebook.
While the reader had some valid points for his argument, here’s what we do know–
The Facts on Sotol
–Sotol does have a Denomination of Origin (DO), as mentioned above, since 2001-2002. It is recognized by 27 countries, except the USA.
–Under the original North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1993-94, only Tequila and Mezcal were recognized by both the US and Canada, while Bourbon Whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey, and Canadian Whiskey were all recognized by Mexico.
–However, the 1997 agreement between the European Union and Mexico recognized the intellectual property of Tequila, Mezcal, Sotol and Charanda.
–At this writing, we have solicited samples of Desert Door Texas sotol for our Sipping Off he Cuff(c) series, but have yet to receive any.
Pay close attention to the owner, Mike Groener, as he explained the lengths he took to distill an authentic product by conferring with several sotol producing families in Mexico.
–It is true that Mexico has been less-than-stellar in protecting and maintaining its DOs, especially lately when it comes to amending the Mezcal normas (regulations) and admitting additional states into the producing and growing regions.
It seems that whenever the transnational corporations that heavily lobby for such changes in order to line their pockets (remember NOM 199 ?), the Tequila or Mezcal Regulatory Councils see fit to do so.
The Denominations of Origin in Mexico have failed small agave spirits producers. The fact that the US has randomly recognized only a few of these DOs, doesn’t help, either.
–Our sources point out that the Sotol Regulatory Council is not as well financed as the other two major councils. Their efforts to police and protect its DO are hindered by disorganization and (shocker, here), corruption.
Those sotol producers with pedigree find this fact a source of frustration and disappointment.
–In Sotol’s defense, the original petition for its Denomination of Origin clearly states the archaeological and historical evidence of its existence south of the border, as well as north of it.
The indigenous people who inhabited what is now considered the Borderlands, have a centuries old cultural tie to the sereque (sotol) plant. Its everyday uses were discovered and exclusively utilized by them.
Ironically, he was a teetotaler. He did, however, partake of sotol for medicinal purposes. After all, he was born in the Mexican state of Durango, part of the Sotol Denomination of Origin.
Sotol Smugglers’ Blues
Lastly, we salute the partners of Desert Door and their well funded efforts. Texas has a long entrepreneurial history of Empresarios.
What it does not have is a history of distilling this particular spirit as part of its culture in order to support whole families and communities. This, in fact, is what Appellations of Origin were designed for.
Failure to do so could result in a reverse effect for Bourbon Whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey, and Canadian Whiskey within its own borders.
Tit for Tat
The obvious question is–
Why doesn’t Mexico just make their own version of Whiskey and call it Bourbon?
As Ricardo Pico of Sotol Clande so eloquently put it in his response to this Facebook thread…
“…out of respect for an existing category and because we don’t have a tradition or heritage…on Bourbon production.”
Showing respect–a true Texas tradition–especially for an existing spirits category, was successfully accomplished by Genuis Liquids.
Perhaps, someday, like the Karakasevic family when they produced their Charbay Tequila at the renowned La Altena distillery with the blessing of Tapatio’s Carlos Camarena, someone on this side of the border will distill a true sotol at a proper vinata (sotol distillery) on the other side?
Jose Cuervo’s Especial and 1800 “mixto” brands (51% agave, 49% other sugars) had been mainstays in clubs and restaurants for decades prior to that, mostly consumed in shots and margaritas. At that time, 100% de agave tequilas like Chinaco, El Tesoro de Don Felipe, and Herradura Blanco Suave, were out of most people’s price ranges, and sipping them was a foreign concept.
I had visited Herradura’s historic San Jose del Refugio distillery earlier in 2006, and was shocked to hear news of its sale to B-F, a transnational corporation.
I knew then that things would never be the same.
NH: How has tequila becoming a mainstream spirit impacted tequila producers? Is it harder than ever for small and independent producers, or is it easier because consumers are more familiar with tequila in general?
As of the current Consejo Regulador del Tequila’s (CRT) NOM list (dated May 31, 2017), there are 1373 brands of tequila being produced by roughly only 130 distilleries. Most are what are called “maquiladoras,” that distill tequila for various brand owners.
Small and independent craft tequila producers, as well as reputable small-to-mid-sized maquiladoras are few and far between, but they do exist.
Most don’t have the funding, marketing budgets and distribution channels that the Big Boys have, so they struggle to compete on a level playing field.
Constant and consistent education of the average consumer by smaller brands of their quality is a key component to their success, and vital for their continued existence in the marketplace.
NH: Mezcal has less restrictions on where, with which types of agave, and how it can be produced than tequila does. Is that an advantage that could make mezcal as popular (or more) than tequila?
MM: Actually, like Tequila, Mezcal has a Denomination of Origin.
It is currently produced in the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, Guerrero, and Tamaulipas. Michoacan has also been recently admitted, and many other states are expected to be added in years to come.
Because several other types of agave can be used to distill mezcal (as well as bacanora and raicilla), unlike the singular blue weber agave from which tequila must be produced by law, that is its main attraction to consumers.
The fact that it is relatively new, unusual, has a story behind every bottle and batch, and is arguably the most artisanal product in the world, makes mezcal particularly attractive to Millennials and connoisseurs alike.
The danger is that these characteristics COULD, indeed, make mezcal even more popular than tequila.
NH: Does the rise of tequila provide a blueprint for mezcal, or is the intended consumer base too different?
MM: The rise of tequila does provide a blueprint for mezcal, but not in the way you think. The Mezcal Industry has shown that it has learned from the mistakes made by the Tequila Industry.
In February 2017, the Mezcal Regulatory Council passed into law an amendment to its normas that would categorize mezcal by its methods of processing (mezcal, mezcal artesanal, and mezcal ancestral).
These new categories will allow for small producers to continue making mezcal their way, and for large, multinational corporations to attempt to mass produce juice that can still be labeled mezcal.
Unlike the Tequila Industry, where consumers who are tired of the same cookie-cutter flavor profiles of the more popular brands, and are desperately seeking authenticity and quality, this type of transparency lets all consumers choose for themselves which type of mezcal best suits their tastes.
NH: Where do you see the mezcal business in 10 years? Will it be mostly owned by multinational corporations, or will smaller companies retain control?
MM: The above mentioned new law will presumably allow both large and small producers to thrive, but mezcal finds itself in a conundrum:
That is, how to simultaneously protect the industry for future survival while meeting the burgeoning global demand.
Aside from the more commercially grown espadin variety, many of the more sought after agave are wild harvested and take years to mature. As I mentioned in question #3, the different types of agave used for mezcal is the attraction, but could also lead to its demise.
Unless sustainability and preservation of all types of agave–and the cultural and economic well being of the communities in which mezcal has been historically distilled for decades–is part of any business plan (especially by transnational corporations), then the Mezcal Industry is doomed and the collateral damage could be devastating.
NH: Is there anything that happened to small tequila producers and small villages where tequila is made that you believe could happen to small mezcal producers small villages where mezcal is made?
MM: Tequila and mezcal don’t share parallel histories.
When Jose Cuervo was granted permission by the Spanish Crown to commercially produce tequila in the mid-18th century, distillation of mezcal (or pulque) was legitimized (taxed) and refined for the aristocracy.
Throughout tequila’s over 250 year history, several other clans emerged as wealthy landowners settling in various regions, growing their own agave and establishing family brands.
The tequila industry charged forward when the Sauza family first exported tequila, then known as vino mezcal, into the United States in the late 19th century.
When the Sauza’s sold the brand in the late 1980s to Spanish brandy maker Pedro Domecq, it signaled that the industry was open to foreign interests, mergers and acquisitions.
Over several decades, some small commercial agaveros (blue agave farmers) made their fortunes during times of severe agave shortages. With their newfound wealth, many started their own brands and constructed distilleries.
Mezcal, on the other hand, had continued to be clandestinely produced all this time by indigenous people in rural areas of Mexico. It had remained largely unchanged.
While tequila struggled to elevate its image throughout the 20th century from a poor man’s drink, to a party shooter, to an elegant sipper, mezcal’s has always been akin to white lightening.
Its booming popularity in the 21st century has only proven how every facet of mezcal production—from commercial farming of espadin and other agave, to mass production and even regulation—is still in its infancy.
Mezcal can no longer be ignored, though.
The recent positioning by multinational companies capturing significant stakes in popular and pioneering brands has now made mezcal a valuable asset to any spirits portfolio.
It remains to be seen, however, whether anybody outside of these transnational corporations gets rich from distilling mezcal.
NH: Is mezcal as scaleable as tequila?
MM: Not at the present time.
Can it be? Sure.
But concessions by the Mezcal Regulatory Council would have to be made, for instance, by allowing for the distillation of “mixto” mezcal.
Tequila’s Denomination of Origin is currently the only one in existence that is allowed to be adulterated by the production of mixto.
A new circus has replaced “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Imagine the spotlighted and off kilter Ringmaster who, in a booming Michael Buffer-eske voice announces–
“Ladies and gentlemen, turn your attention to Ring Number One!”
Unless, you’ve been living under a rock since January 2017 (we wouldn’t blame you if you are!), you’ve no doubt heard of POTUS’ proposed 20% import tax on Mexican goods to fund the building of “The Great Border Wall” with Mexico to prevent illegal immigration.
Further, POTUS has promised that Mexico itself would pay for the wall.
Anyone with an iota of understanding of economics knows that this tariff would simply be passed onto consumers by the manufacturers of these goods.
And that includes tequila producers and mezcaleros.
According to this recent article, the collateral damage to other peripheral industries would be devastating.
Moreover, the archaic Three Tier System that was established in the United States after Prohibition, and on which alcohol distribution is based, demands that each level of the tier also pass along this 20% tax.
“Clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung,” P.T. Barnum
Once POTUS bullied Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in late January 2017 into cancelling his visit to the US if Mexico refused to pay for the 2,000 mile border wall, his strategy backfired.
While POTUS berated the Mexican President and screamed about the lopsidedness of the NAFTA agreement, Peña Nieto vehemently argued that Mexico would never pay for such a wall and managed to rally a divided country to his side.
Meanwhile, under the Big Top, the Center Ring was where everyone clamored to sit near because only the most prestigious routines happened inside.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we direct you to the Center Ring!”
In early February, an interesting thing happened in court. A precedential ruling was handed down in the case Luxco, Inc. v. Consejo Regulador del Tequila, A.C.
The decision allowed the CRT (Tequila’s governing body in Mexico) to register the word TEQUILA as a certification mark and control its use.
Isn’t that the CRT’s job, anyway?
The CRT aggressively protects Tequila like Disney or Levi’s conserve their trademarks.
When you read this article explaining the timeline and judgment of the case, you’re amazed at the depth of Luxco’s arrogance to file the lawsuit in the first place and to completely ignore Tequila’s geographic indication.
Surprising, too, since Luxco imports and distributes El Mayor tequila, and re-bottles Exotico and Juarez tequilas that are certified by the CRT as authentic, all at Destiladora González González (NOM 1143).
Makes you shake your head and wonder what Luxco was thinking.
“Ladies and gentlemen, feast your eyes on Ring Number Two!”
Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Sammy Hagar has found a way around his alleged Cabo Wabo Tequila non-compete clause, and recruited his friend and fellow rock star, Adam Levine of Maroon 5 to develop–
According to its marketing copy, it’s a blend of 100 percent blue agave and espadín agave to “create a smooth and rich tequila flavor with the sweet and smoky taste of mezcal.”
But, what is it?
It’s not completely tequila, even though the 100% blue agave tequila portion is being distilled at Sammy’s original maquiladora, El Viejito (NOM 1107).
It is still unknown, however, at which palenque the mezcal portion is being distilled, and whether it comes from an industrial producer or not.
One thing for sure, the label will NOT have a NOM number on it.
The Shell Game
As an adult, you realize now that the three ring circus was nothing more than an elaborate con. An enormous shell game dressed up in glittering sequined costumes and face paint to keep you guessing where the action would take place next.
The thrills and chills of trapeze artists, lion tamers, high wire stunts, acrobats, jugglers and clowns performing all at once.
Slight of hand and misdirection at its very best.
A View From the Cheap Seats
Unlike today’s stadiums and auditoriums, there was always a bad seat in the house underneath the Big Top, and chances were, you were sitting in it.
There was always a feeling of missing something–a triple somersault, or dancing stallions, or roaring big cats jumping through flaming hoops.
To keep track of the drama from one ring to another, you craned your neck, unless…
You sat in the cheap seats, high above in the nosebleed section.
“Ladies and gentlemen, back to Ring Number One!”
At first, there was some question as to whether tequila and mezcal would fall under the proposed tariff.
Being the largest consumer of tequila in the world, America’s agave lovers were hoping that their favorite spirits would be spared.
Since 100% de agave tequila, and other agave spirits with an appellation of origin, can only be made in Mexico, it seems that the additional tax is almost a certainty.
Due to an unexpected snowstorm in Arandas in March 2016 that damaged agave crops; subsequent substantial contracts with medium sized maquiladoras (distilleries that produce tequila for various other brands) by transnational corporations tying up enormous quantities of tequila to be bottled under their labels; and aggressive competition for ripe agave by los mieleros (pharmaceutical companies), tequila prices were scaling up.
Whether Mexican spirits are affected by a tariff or not, or due to the scarcity of blue agave, look for prices to increase across the board.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s return to Ring Number Two!”
Speaking of the blue agave shortage…
Accusations persist that truckloads of espadin agave, generally used to make mezcal, are still being sent by the truckload from Oaxaca to Jalisco headed for tequila distilleries to fulfill pending orders.
Rather than hide this clandestine fact any longer, Sammy and friends have perhaps decided to take the practice public and spin it into Santo Mezquila.
As a result, long time mezcaleros like Doug French of legacy brand Scorpion, have taken to distilling whiskies from heirloom corn to ride out the storm of the espadin shortage.
Also, to conserve wild agave species, as well as to ensure future supplies for his wildly popular mezcal expressions, Doug has planted small plots of agave instead of trying to compete with deeper celebrity pockets.
“To the Center Ring for the Grand Finale!”
While we still scratch our heads about the Luxco court decision, and if, in fact, POTUS does levy a 20% tax on all Mexican imports, including Mexican beer and spirits, here’s a few possible scenarios to consider.
The Human Cannonball
If the above cited article is correct, beer and tequila companies are using NAFTA only 8% of the time, and tequila comes in free for all World Trade Organization (WTO) members, anyway.
The proposed tariff would, in essence, tear up NAFTA, regardless of whether POTUS decides to renegotiate it or not, and fire a message across to Mexico that he’s not kidding around. But…
Mexican President Peña Nieto has an ace up his sleeve.
POTUS’ blatant disdain for Mexicans could lead to the CRT and Mexico retaliating by requiring that all tequila shipped in bulk to the United States be bottled in Mexico to insure the quality of the juice.
The consequences of this move, as described in the above cited DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council of the United States) press release could be cataclysmic, particularly for those bottling plants in the Southern US.
Surely, this tactic would be fully endorsed by former Mexican President, Vicente Fox, who has no love loss with POTUS, and under whose term the ban was originally proposed.
Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys
Enraged, POTUS might completely disregard Appellations of Origin, in general, and not just Mexico’s.
He could allow micro and craft distillers across the country to make American tequila, mezcal, sotol, champagne, Bordeaux, and anything else that is protected by geographic indicators, triggering international incidents.
Pernod Ricard, maker of Avión and Olmeca Altos tequila, has already expressed its concern about this possibility.
51-49% cognac, anyone?
Don’t look now. It’s already happening.
Products like Three Wells from Tucson, Arizona, and the controversial Besado
calling itself “tequila” are already capturing the public’s attention, and commanding shelf space.
Many of the men I interviewed did not perceive me, a young woman and a student at the time, as a threat or even as someone with a lot of knowledge of the industry.
This meant they were often willing to share politically controversial perspectives or details about their companies that I don’t know they would have shared with someone they saw as more of a contemporary.
TA: How have you been able to change things within the Tequila/Mezcal Industries?
SB: In my book and in some of my other writing, I have tried to communicate the important issues facing the tequila and mezcal industries and show how consumers in the U.S. can advocate on behalf of small producers, farmers, and workers.
Consumers in the U.S. and Mexico helped defeat NOM 186 several years ago, and I hope we will be able to defeat NOM 199, the absurd proposal that would force many small mezcal producers to use the word “komil” to sell their spirits.
In a certain sense, I have more hope for the future of mezcal, in particular, than I have [tequila] in the ten years since I started studying these industries.
Consumers are increasingly knowledgeable about issues related to sustainability, quality, and fairness in these industries, and I hope that I might have played some small part in that. But I also realize that it’s an uphill battle.
The rules that define tequila and mezcal have evolved in one direction for the last 60 years, and almost every decision has favored the big companies over small producers and workers. Changing that trajectory is difficult, but I think we’re starting to see some positive changes.
The diversity and amount of mezcal being sold in the U.S. has grown so much in the last few years, and women are an important part of that growth as well.
For example, we see women like Graciela Angeles heading up Real Minero, one of the most interesting mezcal brands, and also being an influential and important voice about many current debates related to mezcal.
I think that these trends are going to continue, and that this is really important for the future of these industries.
TA: What facets of the Tequila/Mezcal Industries would you like to see change?
SB: We need more transparency about how profits are being distributed.
As I said above, savvy American consumers and bartenders are increasingly knowledgeable about the practices used to make their tequila and mezcal, and in the case of mezcal, about the type of agave that goes into it. I think this has had positive effects.
But consumers know very little about how the people who make tequila and mezcal are compensated.
The rules of the DO excludes many people by setting standards that are more appropriate for large, industrial producers. Even more egregiously, the geographical boundaries of the DO exclude people in many regions of Mexico where people have been making mezcal for multiple generations.
And NOM 199 threatens to make this even worse, by now making these people call their products “komil.”
TA: Is there anything you’d like to say to women who may be contemplating entering and working in the Tequila/Mezcal Industries in one form or another?
SB: I hope that they will continue, and I hope that they will support each other.
Diversifying the voices we hear from regarding the future of these industries–in terms of gender, but also in terms of geography, size, and ethnicity—is the best way to preserve the quality of tequila and mezcal and also support all of the people that make them.
[Moises (Moy) Guindi, one of the two dynamic founders of Milagro tequila, and J.P. DeLoera, Milagro’s Texas Brand Ambassador, hung around after The San Antonio Cocktail Conference held in January, 2015.Tequila Aficionado Media chased down these two gentlemen for a rare chat at the bar of the luxurious Westin Riverwalk Hotel.]
Ambassadors For the Modern Mexico
The time was 1997, and Europe had just signed a trade agreement with Mexico. It officially recognized such spirits as scotch and cognac, among others. In turn, Europe acknowledged tequila and mezcal’s denominations of origin. Even though Mexico had issued its Protection of the Appellation of Origin Tequila in the early 70’s, this agreement was the first step in tequila finally gaining the global respect it deserved.
Up until then, it had been heavily marketed as a traditional spirit often depicted in rustic agricultural scenes of burros and roping charros. But, a new millennium was near, and a bustling Mexico City was partying like it was 1999 with art, music, design and architecture.
For two young college buddies, Danny Schneeweiss and Moy Guindi, the Mexico City club scene was where tequila sorely lacked a more modern edge and feel. It was then that they deliberately set out to propel tequila’s image into the 21st Century.
Further emphasizing their respect for old world techniques, both J.P. and Moy describe how their exclusive joven tequila, Milagro Unico, is made.
Sophistication In A Glass
Milagro’s unique bottles have long been sought after by collectors. Moy blames his partner Danny, as the creative mind behind reimagining tequila’s image in clubs and bars around the world.
Milagro was designed to evolve tequila from a red headed step child to a sophisticated gentleman in a classy container. But, the partners also wanted it to educate consumers. They added a stylized agave inside each hand blown bottle of their Select Barrel Reserve expressions to illustrate tequila’s true bloodline.
In 2004, Moy and Danny entered into a partnership agreement with family owned super-premium spirits distiller, William Grant & Sons. The UK based company eventually acquired a 100% stake in Milagro in 2006. This allowed Milagro to reach nationwide distribution in the U.S. and in key global tequila markets.
Not ones to rest on their success, both Moy and Danny retained certain rights and still have responsibilities to the brand as Moy clarifies here…
After almost 20 years in existence, J.P. describes his strategies to Milagro’s current challenges in the marketplace.
Having birthed Milagro in the midst of the Agave Crisis of the late 90s that almost bankrupted them, Moy learned the hard lessons of staying ahead of the agave pricing curve.
What About China?
Unlike the major spirits brands who consider exporting into China as the next gold rush, Moy believes that a conservative “wait-and-see” approach is best for Milagro.
La Leyenda del Milagro
Both J.P and Moy share their views on the one thing that you should know about Milagro.
Demonstrating that they haven’t lost their entrepreneurial drive which spearheaded Milagro into tequila’s New Age and made them one of the top three most influential start ups in Mexico, Moy and Danny are currently involved in a partnership with Montelobos mezcal.
On the wall of The Pastry War, a world renowned mezcalería and restaurant in the heart of Houston, TX, this chalkboard message proudly explains why owners, outspoken agave advocates Bobby Heugel and Alba Huerta, staunchly refuse to serve tequilas and mezcals produced with a diffuser.
In their view, it’s a battle between traditional methods of tequila [and mezcal] production which yields “delicious tequila [or mezcal],” versus more cost-conscious methods adopted by distilleries that produce “a shitty version of tequila [or mezcal].”
Let’s look more closely at this cursed contraption.
Using only hot water and sulfuric acid to extract up to 98%-99% of the sugars from raw, uncooked agave, the resultant tequila, as described by noted agave lover, Fortaleza tequila brand ambassador and blogger, Khyrs Maxwell, in his detailed instructional post, There May Be Too Much Agave in Your Tequila or Mezcal tastes like…
“…what I would consider to have a chemical/medicinal taste–sometimes slight, sometimes overbearing flavor profile that always seems to overshadow the beauty of the agave.”
He further states that it “tastes very much like vodka” and has coined the term “AgaVodka.”
“So if you come across a tequila or mezcal made with a difusor, the only way that there can be “notes of cooked agave” is by adding that flavor during the finishing process. They can add “notes of cooked agave?” Why, yes. Yes they can…I’ve seen and smelled the additive. It does exist.”
Maxwell’s statement above excludes the use of authorized additives to blanco (unaged) tequila, of course.
As of December 2012, such practices have been outlawed by the CRT in its normas (rules and regulations governing the production of tequila). It remains to be seen how well it will be enforced, however, so your pricey, Fruit Loop scented blanco may still be safe for a year or two until inventories are depleted.
Spanish diffuser manufacturer, Tomsa Destil, offers a closer look at the mega-masher and its process, which seem to go hand-in-hand with column distillation.
The site mentions that they have installed 12 diffusers for use in agave processing, but makes no mention of their clients, nor if sulfuric acid to extract sugars from agave is also needed.
While controversy swirls around the use of a diffuser, most educated tequila aficionados understand that it is not illegal to do so. In fact, its application was accepted by the CRT some time ago.
As we mentioned in item #5 of our Craft Tequila Gauntlet, diffuser use by a distillery is a closely guarded secret even though it is a fairly large piece of machinery to try to hide. There is a stigma attached to it, with most distilleries that have one completely denying that any of their star brands are processed with it.
While most of the Tequila Industry’s heavy hitters are known to possess diffusers, many also own regular shredders, autoclaves and even stone ovens. Ask any major brand owner whose tequila is produced at these maquiladoras (large production facilities that churn out juice for contracted brands) whether they are a by-product of a diffuser, and they vehemently deny it.
The historic tequila maker initially implemented the super shredder during the last great agave crisis of the late 90s. Years later, it was taken to task by an organized group of key concerned mixologists and tequila supporters who refused to use Herradura in their cocktails or to include it in their bar menus due to a drastic change in its original flavor profile and quality. Herradura finally succumbed and stopped using it for that label.
In the following screen captures of a Twitter chat from May 1, 2014, Ruben Aceves, Casa Herradura’s Director of International Brand Development, admits that the diffuser is now only used for their Antiguo, El Jimador, and Pepe Lopez brands.
Destilería Leyros, producers of their flagship brand, Tequila Don Fermin and many others, bills itself as a model for modern and efficient tequila making.
It was proudly represented that way even in the wildly popular Spanish language telenovelaDestilando Amor, where it stood in for the then fictional Destilería Montalvo.
Enrique Legorreta Carranco, one of the owners of Leyros, agreed to answer some of our questions and to try to help dispel the myths and mysteries surrounding the diffuser.
“I am aware about the controversy of using difusor [Spanish spelling] in the tequila process. Here are some key factors and benefits of the process in order to be firm with the press:
“In fact, there is nothing to hide and we are willing to receive tequila bloggers, media or people from Tequila Aficionado in order to know first hand this innovative and ecological process.”
“The difusor extracts the agave juice first of all, followed by the cooking of the agave juice to extract the agave sugars. This cooked agave juice is called the agua miel. In traditional process they first cooked the agave followed by the agave juice extraction. We obviously need to cook the agave juice in order to get its sugars in order to be able to be fermentated (biological process where sugar turns into alcohol).”
[We’ll note that Sr. Legorreta took issue with the portrayal of the tastes and essences of tequilas produced with a diffuser as described by some bloggers, believing them to be too subjective.]
“This process gives to the taster a more herbal, clean and citric experience. Also this process is more efficient and as a result gives a tequila with better standards in methanol, aldehydes and other compounds not desired because at high levels produces hangovers.”
Traditional Process vs. Modern Technology
“We respect a lot [the] traditional process. The only thing we believe is that the consumer has the last word to choose between one tequila flavor from another.
“There are people that prefer the traditional strong flavor from tequila. Other people are preferring tequilas [that are] more pure, citric with subtle notes of fresh agave like if you are smelling [the] agave and [the] land.”
Reiterating what was demonstrated in the videos above, Sr. Legorreta explains…
“A difusor process uses less than 50% of energy, and less than 60% of water used in traditional processes to produce same quantities of liters. Additional to this [at the] Leyros Distillery we recycle the bagasse that we get in the last phase of the difusor. All this with our completely self-sufficient green boiler is fueled with bagasse from our own mill.”
About That Stigma…
“About why many distilleries denied they have a difusor, I can guess without knowing a reason from first hand–that is because traditional process with ovens sounds more romantic than the technology of a difusor.”
“In fact, a lot of distilleries focus their marketing efforts around traditional processes. I guess this is working. If not, I [suppose] they would be focusing more in the tasting notes of the final product.”
Indeed, Destilería Leyros’ website and videos play on the romance using a smattering of phrases as, “It tastes like countryside, like fire in your blood,” and “Like a passionate kiss, the Taste of Mexico.”
A New Style
In much the same manner as importers, brand owners, and maestro tequileros defend
(and advertise in their marketing materials!) the use of additives in their aged tequilas (“finished and polished”), Sr. Legorreta asserts that juice made with a diffuser is simply another style of tequila.
“The essence of tequila is the agave, and both processes distill agave, just in different ways. There are some people that love traditions [and] there are others that like to innovate and improve things.”
Just as Leyros’ website and videos “invites you to taste and compare, and then let your palate decide which tequila you’d rather raise in a toast,” Sr. Legorreta concludes:
“At the end of the day, or the end of the history, [it] is the consumer [who] chooses their tequila without a bias in the information.”
Some Truths to Consider
The Leyros videos above claim to use machinery as a way to “considerably reduce the risk of injury” to the people on their workforce. Yet, as Maxwell points out…
“Not only is the difusor a way to pump out product, it also uses a very small labor force. As more distilleries use the difusor, there will be less jobs available to those, who for hundreds of years, have built towns and created families by working in the agave distillate industry. So what happens to the unemployed? …do they leave for the US to become illegal immigrants? Or do they work for the narcos?”
At the risk of being redundant, it bears repeating what noted agave ethno-botanist, Ana Valenzuela said about the diffuser here…
“…to prohibit the use of diffusers (in hydrolysis of agave juices) that takes the “soul” (the flavor of baked agave) out of our native distillates, singular in the world for its complexities of aromas and flavors.”
In conclusion, if current figures are correct, exports of tequila rose 16% to US$568 million in the first six months of 2014, compared to the same period last year. It is expected that China will import 10 million liters of tequila in the next 5 years.
Where will Mexico find enough agave to serve their thirsty customers?
These guys know where.
Turning A Blind Eye
On September 4, 2014, dozens of mezcaleros (mezcal producers) dumped 200 liters of mezcal onto the streets of Oaxaca City in protest for their government’s lack of support against tequileros from Jalisco who are allegedly raiding tons of espadín and other maguey (agave), the prime ingredient in mezcal, to produce tequila.
In the process, say Maestros del Mezcal Tradiciónal del Estado de Oaxaca (a trade association) 15 of the 32 varieties of maguey native to Oaxaca are in danger of becoming extinct.
Thanks to these transnational maguey marauders, the burgeoning mezcal industry’s days are numbered, it seems.
If indeed a diffuser strips away the agave’s regional characteristics leaving behind a more citric, vodka-like, cookie cutter flavor profile that easily lends itself to clandestine adulteration, over distillation and multiple barrel blendings, then what’s to keep these pirate tequileros from pilfering agave from outside the requisite growing states and using a diffuser to crank out “tequila?”
These days, filling orders to emerging world markets is more important than the blatant disregard for the Denomination of Origin.