The BIG Business of Kosher Tequila, Part I

[An urgent text message about Kosher tequilas from an agave beverage manager at a thriving new bar in New York City, and the resulting questions raised from research into this misunderstood market from all points–tequila and mezcal brand owners, consumers, and rabbinical representatives of the Jewish faith–prompted me to finally discuss the positive, often flawed, and vastly under served kosher tequila and mezcal segments of the market.]

A Rant on Kosher Tequila…

For years, anyone who’s ever searched for a current list of kosher tequilas has no doubt been directed to the website of the largest regional Jewish Orthodox organization in North America, the Chicago Rabbinical Council (cRc).

Those same persons were tragically disheartened by the woefully meager list of kosher tequilas–and these days–unmentioned mezcals.  And of the brands that were listed, more often than not, were now, sadly, extinct.

This old, outdated, and unreliable list is not only supposed to be a guide to fully enjoy and appreciate the Jewish holidays and to help “keep kosher” year round, but it also serves Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists, Vegetarians, Vegans and even people who are lactose or glucose intolerant.

So…

What Exactly Is Kosher, Anyway?

kosher_def-filtered

For us gentiles (non-Jews), Kashrut is the set of Jewish religious dietary laws.  Food that may be consumed according to halakha (Jewish law) is deemed kosher meaning fit, and in this case, fit for eating or drinking.

In every case, approved products are given a hechsher, a rabbinical seal of approval, by a trusted and reputable kosher certifying agency that signifies the food or drink conforms to Jewish law.

Here’s a helpful Kosher glossary of terms.

quely-obtains-the-kosher-certificationHistorically, the practice of marking food as kashrut dates back as far as the Byzantine period (6th century CE) where Jews of a particular region in Israel stamped their bread dough with impressions of the Jewish Temple Menorah in order for consumers to verify its kashrut.

In 1911, soap manufacturer, Procter & Gamble became the first company to advertise a new product, Crisco, as kosher.  Over the next twenty years, companies with household names like Lender’s Bagels, Maxwell House, and Manischewitz grew the kosher market.  And who can forget that famous slogan for Hebrew National hotdogs?–“We answer to a Higher Authority.”

Decades later, kosher has come to symbolize both quality and value.  It has also become a very lucrative market according Menachem Lubinsky, founder of the annual two-day Kosherfest trade fair.  As of 2015, he estimates there are as many as 14 million kosher consumers that generate $40 billion in sales of kosher products in the US alone.

Other sources estimate that over $150 billion of kosher-certified products are consumed every year in the US.

Kosher Certifying Agencies

A kosher certification agency is an organization that bestows a hechsher to ingredients, packaged foods, beverages, and certain materials, as well as food-service providers and facilities in which kosher food is prepared or served.  This certification verifies that the ingredients, production methods, and/or food-service processes and utensils complies with the standards of kashrut.

To be certified requires periodic onsite visits, sometimes unannounced, by mashgichim (rabbinic field representatives) in order to verify ongoing compliance.

Today, the largest kosher certification agencies in the United States, known as the “Big Five,” certify more than 80 percent of the kosher food sold domestically.  These five agencies are: the OU, OK, Kof-K, Star-K, and cRc

most_commonK

Other respected kosher certifying agencies around the globe include:

EarthKosher based in Colorado, the logo of both the Johannesburg/Cape Town Beth Din used in South Africa, MK headquartered in Montreal, Canada, and The Kashrut Authority in Sydney, Australia.  Operating across six continents including the United Kingdom, KLBD, based in London, is the Kashrut Division of the London Beth Din.

By far, the greatest number of agencies seems to be in the USA.

Kashrus Magazine publishes a bi-annual guide to almost all kosher certifying agencies worldwide.  As with the tequila NOM lists, the number of agencies, just like the number of tequila brands and distilleries, fluctuates from year to year.  At press time, this number is between 1,151 to 1,253.

When In Mexico…

In Mexico and throughout Latin America, however, KA-Kosher  and Kosher Maguen David (KMD) rule the roost when it comes to certifying products as kosher.

KA Kosher, Kosher

As per KA-Kosher’s Facebook page:

“El sello KA KOSHER es el único en México aprobado por el Tribunal Rabínico de Israel.  Es el logo de la Comunidad Ashkenazí, el único en Latinoamérica aprobado por el Alto Tribunal Rabínico de Israel.  Bajo su sello se encuentran marcas como Nestlé, JUMEX, Del Monte, LALA y casi 500 empresas más.”

(“The KA-KOSHER seal is the only one in Mexico approved by the Rabbinical Tribunal of Israel [Chief Rabbinate Council of Israel].  It is the logo of the Ashkenazi community, the only one in Latin America approved by the High Rabbinical Tribunal of Israel [again, Chief Rabbinate Council of Israel].  Beneath its seal are such brands as Nestlé, JUMEX, Del Monte, LALA and almost 500 more companies.”)

KMD, kosher

KMD’s current website makes even bolder claims such as “Es la empresa líder en certificación kosher en Latinoamérica” (“The leading company in kosher certification in Latin America.”).

It also cites statistics that Mexico is the fourth largest kosher market behind Israel, the United States, and France, and that sales of kosher products, presumably in these countries, exceeds non-kosher sales by 20 percent.  KMD also states that 80 percent of kosher sales are to non-Jewish consumers.

KMD, stems from the Sephardic community of Jews and is known to follow the strictest codes and standards of kashrut, referred to as Mehadrin.

 Decisions, Decisions…

states, jewish

Similar to organic certifying agencies, having your tequila or mezcal brand approved as kosher requires that you hire one of these kosher certifying agencies.  Like buying a car, you don’t necessarily need to purchase one from a local dealership.

You can go anywhere in the world, but with so many certifying agencies and what seems like varying degrees of inspection, can you feel confident about purchasing their services?

Who Do You Trust?

If you’re a tequila or mezcal brand owner considering certification, we’ll offer some tips and steps you can take in Part 2.

A Sotol By Any Other Name

[On a sweltering August afternoon, Tequila Aficionado Media was invited by Mike Groener, CEO and President of Genius Liquids to sip and savor the latest addition to their Desert Spirit line, Texas Sotol, at their distillery in Austin, TX .]

Here Comes the Rain Again

MonsoonDay

Ask anyone who has spent any significant amount of time living in the Desert Southwest during Monsoon Season, and they will tell you that they can smell rain.  At those times, your part of town may be sunny and bone dry, but a strong breeze will carry the scent of falling raindrops for miles.  Sooner or later, the skies darken, thunder rolls, lightning strikes and the floodgates open.

Similarly, those who have sampled significant amounts of tequila or mezcal wet-cement-signduring their lifetimes will admit to the elusive “wet cement” flavor profile evocative of rain hitting a hot, dry sidewalk.

The latter is so rare these days with tequilas attempting to become smoother and more neutralized, and mezcals being distilled at the more accepting entry level 80 proof (40% ABV) than traditional higher strengths.

But try to describe true sotol such as Don Cuco as I meekly attempted to in Tom Barry’s insightful article, A Sotol Story , and you can fumble to find the words.

“To me, Don Cuco Sotol carries the best of all worlds.  It opens up — blooms — so much that it demands to be treated like a fine wine.  It has the smokiness of some of the best mezcals, but the flavor is simultaneously reminiscent of the best tequilas and then, not at all.”

Tumbando_sotolThe best descriptor that one can come up with is that sotol made in Chihuahua, Mexico smells and tastes like desert rain falling in that region.  It is arguably the truest illustration of the term terroir.

But what does Texas Sotol represent?  That’s what we came to Genius Liquids’ headquarters to find out.

Humble Beginnings

Mike Groener describes Genius Liquids’ humble beginnings and explains the process and challenges in producing Genius Gins and their new Texas Sotol.

The use of champagne yeast was at the suggestion of tequila Siembra Azul’s maker, David Suro, whom Mike met through John Garrett, a friend and spirits supervisor at distributor Victory Wine Group based in Dallas.

Here, Mike discusses more about the inspiration to use champagne yeast in his spirits.

Conscientious Objector to Vodka

Genius Liquids distills three types of gin (standard strength, navy strength, oaked), and Texas sotol, but no vodka.  Distilling something “odorless and tasteless doesn’t represent any piece of art” according to Groener.

Why Sotol?

2015-08-15 13.05.20To learn more about Chihuahua’s native spirit, Groener did his homework.  Through his relationship with Garrett, he has met Judah Kuper, co-founder of Mezcal Vago and spent time at Judah’s family mezcal palenque.

He has also sought advice on his Texas Sotol from Jacob Jacquez, fifth generation distiller of the legendary Don Cuco Sotol, and creator of newcomers, Ocho Cientos and Por Siempre sotol brands.  He has also communicated with representatives of the globally available Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol.

Groener admits that Genius Liquids is a bit egotistical when it comes to deciding what to distill, and prefers a challenge instead of the easy way out.

Sotol By Any Other Name

das_texanum(3)
Dasylirion texanum.

This lovely spirit of Mexico is not without its controversy.

Sotol from Chihuahua, Mexico is distilled using the dasylirion wheeleri plant, more commonly known as desert spoon or sereque in Spanish.

Genius Gin’s Desert Spirit Texas Sotol, however, uses North American sotol or Dasylirion texanum grown, wild harvested, cooked, fermented, and distilled in Texas.  This variety has evolved into a more compacted and hardier plant, designed to survive the harsh Texas summers.

All dasylirions were at one time considered distant relatives of the agave (agavaceae), but it is actually more akin to asparagus.

Mike furthers the debate and recounts the labeling issues concerning the word sotol, and why Genius Liquids prefers to brand it through their Desert Spirit line.

Texas Hill Country in A Bottle

Mike Groener pours a sample of Texas Sotol into my three types of glassware.  Unlike tequila, and to some degree, mezcal, sotol still does not have an official tasting glass.  Lisa Pietsch, Tequila Aficionado Media’s COO, describes it as “Texas Hill Country in a bottle.”

Beam Me Up, Scotty!

Like Master Distiller,  German González elaborating on how he came to create his opus, Tears of Llorona, Mike expounds on how, through their process, Genius Liquids has composed a transportive spirit in a “non-Auto-Tune way.”

 Tails of The Funk

Much like Montelobo’s Dr. Ivan Saldaña’s love affair with mezcal’s funkiness, Mike demonstrates how he carefully uses the colas (tails) after distillation to enhance Genius Liquids’ Desert Spirit Sotol.

The Magic Ingredient

Careful not to get too technical with his method of distillation, but with the same umph of Carlos Camarena’s (Tequila Tapatío) passion, Groener breaks down the love involved in producing a Genius Liquids spirit.

The Future

The first batch of Desert Spirit Texas Sotol was so well received that it sold out within two weeks of being launched.  The plan is to move Genius Liquids to larger digs due to the oppressive heat that prevents them from fermenting properly.

Groener spells out what the future holds for Genius Liquids and its expansion.

Off camera, Mike divulged that he’d like to wrestle with the challenge of producing a traditionally made Texas mezcal agave spirit, and has already sourced maguey for that project.  There are also plans for a blended agricole rum.

2015-08-15 13.06.27

In whatever direction Groener takes Genius Liquids, one can be sure that it will continue to seek, define and express the true meaning of Texas terroir–one small batch at a time.

The Montelobos Mezcal Project

[After The San Antonio Cocktail Conference held in January, 2015, Tequila Aficionado Media caught up with Dr. Iván Saldaña, producer of the upstart mezcal, Montelobos, a partnership project with the makers of Milagro tequila.  A featured speaker during the conference, here’s our in-depth discussion held at the bar of the lavish Westin Riverwalk Hotel.]

La Anatomia del Mezcal

Iván Saldaña (Photo courtesy of David Suro)
Iván Saldaña (Photo courtesy of David Suro)

In Dr. Iván Saldaña’s nifty little primer, The Anatomy Of Mezcal–which, by the way, belongs in every serious agave students’ reference library–he goes to great lengths to demystify maguey (agave) and mezcal in a concise and easy-to-understand fashion. As an introduction into the fundamentals of mezcal, the book covers it all, from what it is to how it’s processed.  Saldaña also defines the differences of artisanal mezcals distilled in palenques and haciendas from those using industrial methods. The latter is a situation currently being hotly contested inside the Mezcal Industry as it tries to cope with its alarming expansion without repeating the mistakes made by the Tequila Industry while still in its infancy.

A Double PhD.

Montelobos_ABVFrom his research, Saldaña asserts that the maguey plant efficiently evolves when affected by environmental stress.  It is precisely the plant’s adaptability to extreme conditions that makes it not only a versatile prime material for tequila and mezcal production, but also gives it its unique flavors and aromas that set it apart from other spirits. The same could be said about Iván’s versatility as a passionate scientist, researcher, environmentalist and mezcal developer who prefers to be challenged to come up with unique solutions. Here, Dr. Saldaña elaborates on his academic background leading to his PhD. In this segment, Iván recounts how his wine and spirits experience working for global distiller, Pernod Ricard, led to a craving to create something more intrinsically fulfilling.

My Way

Montelobos_derecho

Taking a lesson from Frank Sinatra, Iván explains what it was like to compose a mezcal like Montelobos without following any commercial guidelines.

Montelobos Explained

Iván has been quoted as insisting that “Mezcal is too often dominated by either an excessive smokiness or inopportune proportions.”  In his quest for the perfectly balanced mezcal, he concentrated on bringing forth Montelobos’ sweeter notes, along with citrus and smoke using cultivated espadin. 006The successful result garnered Montelobos a double gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2013. Not wanting to create a single faceted mezcal, or replicating an old family recipe, Dr. Saldaña further breaks down Montelobos’ complexities.

The Value of Innovation

Dr. Saldaña produced his mezcal under the guidance of fifth generation Maestro Mezcalero, Don Abel López Mateos, but still believed in exploration and experimentation when designing its unique flavor profile.  Coupled with innovation, Iván contends that Montelobos is not about science, but about passion.

43.2 ABV

Montelobos_label   Iván explains how he arrived at the perfect 43.2% (86.4 proof) alcohol by volume to achieve the flavors and aromas unique to Montelobos.    

Sustainability

Agave_MontelobosNot only vigilant on creating Montelobos his way, Dr. Saldaña was also concerned about its environmental footprint on Oaxaca where it is distilled. Montelobos uses only organic, commercially grown espadin, certified so by certifying agency, Certimex.  Iván also makes sure that the wood used in roasting the espadin comes from a sustainable source.

The Universe Within the Universe

Dr. Iván Saldaña’s expedition into the anatomy of mezcal is by no means over. He confessed to having an urge to distill other variations of Montelobos that would emphasize additional flavors and aromas often hidden in traditional mezcal flavor profiles. For the time being, he prefers to continue to examine and discover the world within the world of mezcal.