In what proved to be the toughest bracket for the judges to date, Malinalli Tequila swept the Platinum trophy in the hard fought Blanco division, with Ambhar, El Mayor, and Mamalón tequilas close on its heels.
Gold Medal Winner Lisa Elovich, brand owner of Organic Tequila One With Life, was ecstatic, saying, “Thank you so much! It is such an honor to get this award. I know this will help us with marketing and distribution.” She graciously added, “Congratulations to all of the nominees and winners! So happy to be part of it!”
In an equally gracious statement made over their Instagram account, medal recipient Papa Bueno Tequila wrote, “We are honored to have been among this impressive group of nominees! We love tequila and congratulate all the winners and thank Tequila Aficionado for the time, humor and love they bring! Definitely Bueno!”
About the Brands Of Promise Awards
All brands were judged by Founder, Alex Perez and CEO, M.A. “Mike” Morales, as well as by other Tequila Aficionado staff, on how they performed during Tequila Aficionado’s wildly popular Sipping Off The Cuff™ video series seen regularly on TequilaAficionado.com and viewable on its YouTube channel.
Unlike other spirits contests, The Brands Of Promise™ Awards does not require participating agave spirit brands to pay an entry fee. It also does not charge winners additional hefty licensing tariffs for the rights to use the medal award graphics on their labels, neck tags, shelf talkers, brochures, point-of-sales materials and websites.
That’s what we asked several Kosher tequila and mezcal brand owners and ambassadors. Some of their reasons may surprise you.
Richard Sorenson, Founder of Dulce Vida Tequila, the only 100 proof organic tequila to date, comes from an organic foods background having developed the first USDA organic energy drink on the market to gain national distribution.
“Kosher certification is not something we focus heavily on,” admits Sorenson. Yet, in Dulce Vida’s case, it legitimizes and solidifies the company’s pledge to the consumer to be “authentic and pure.”
In fact, Sorenson does not believe that “organic and kosher certification are mutually exclusive” and instead, go hand-in-hand.
Lisa Barlow, co-founder with her husband, John, of Vida Tequila.
“I know it’s trendy now to say you’re Kosher but for us it’s something we have been proud of since launching in 2007. To me it shows we care about the quality of our 100% Agave Azul line of tequila.
“I’m proud our product carries the kosher logo.”
Camille Austin, brand ambassador for Montelobos mezcal–
“To be Kosher is to guarantee, in all aspects of production, that all standards of cleanliness which the Jewish religion requires are met.
“This is an interesting subject I’ve touched with Ivan [Saldaña, developer of Montelobos mezcal] quite a bit, as well. In mezcal production, as you know with its diversity, a number of things can be crucial elements to ensuring all requirements are fulfilled.
“For starters, guaranteeing there are no animal products (meats or insects) that contaminate the process. Therefore, a traditional Pechuga mezcal could not be considered Kosher.
“Another important element would be to ensure that all animals involved in production are treated with dignity and respect as is the case with our beloved mule Rambo, who pulls the Tahona to make the Montelobos mash.
“We thoroughly pick through all our raw material, the espadin [agave], one by one, and make sure there are no worms, beetles or other insects.
“Fermentation is key as not all yeast used to make agave spirits has a Kosher origin. In the case of Montelobos, we ferment naturally in open air, without adding yeast, for a controlled period of no more than 7 days.
“There are many organizations globally that are dedicated specifically to audits and certifications such as this. At Casa Montelobos, we are certified and audited every few months through the OU, or Orthodox Union, based in New York City which is one of the most strict and internationally recognized Kosher organizations in the world.
“On the back label of each bottle you will find a big circled “U” identifiable with this organization.
“You could say that to be certified Kosher is to be disciplined, consistent and organized in your production process. It is a demonstration to those, albeit those who enjoy your product as consumers or those who are your mezcalero piers, that you are an open book with how you make your product.
“At Montelobos, although a quite small production, we are very proud of the final product and are committed to maintaining the cleanest and most natural standards to make our mezcal.”
“As you may know, kosher certification is related to certifying that a product complies with a set of rules stated in the Jewish religion.
“That said, Tequila in its essence and based on the laws that regulate tequila production (NOM) would be with some exceptions I will point out, Kosher.
“That said, in order for a product to be Kosher, it requires an audit to ensure it does not fall into the exceptions that would make it non-Kosher.
“These exceptions, in the case of tequila, would be related in adding additives or flavoring agents that may contain a non-kosher ingredient. Other exceptions would be certain yeasts and the aging in barrels that contained non-kosher products beforehand such as Brandy or Wine.
“The Kosher certification also requires that there are no insects inside the bottles so quality controls to ensure this are required.
“On the commercial side, being Kosher is an enabler for all those consumers being Jewish or not that are looking to buy products that do not contain any non kosher ingredients.”
From CesarBarba, Production Planning and Warehouse Coordinator at Milagro’s distillery:
“As Moisés stated, Kosher is a certification to ensure the Jewish community that the production process is compliant with the Jewish religion.
“That being said, this certification is made annually by a certification house that sends a rabbi to make sure that the agave, the distillery, and the barrels (if used), are all Kosher compliant.
“The rabbi sent by the certification house is like an external auditor, so it varies depending on the auditors’ availability, hence why there is no particular rabbi coming to OPTE. Also, there are some “surprise” visits during the year to make sure we are still Kosher compliant.
“We are certified with KMD, whose logo can be seen in the back label, but there several other certification houses and they are all recognized worldwide.
“The main advantage of being Kosher certified is that you can reach a very specific market niche.
“Given the previous statements, we are Kosher because:
– We are Kosher certified.
– Our third-party distiller partner is Kosher certified.
– We use Kosher certified products from non-animal origin during our production process.
– Our barrels did not hold any non-Kosher products.
– We have annual certification visits and one or two audits during each year, depending on the external auditor’s (rabbi) availability.
“Moy basically shared that one of the most important processes to scrutinize is fermentation, where producers may add non-kosher yeast and other additives i.e.: urea.”
DeLoera concludes, “Finally, a neat story is that Danny and Moy are from different Jewish backgrounds. Danny is from the Ashkenazi heritage, and Moy from the Sephardim heritage.
“Because Jewish weddings demand all products be Kosher, and Danny and Moy wanted Milagro at their weddings (of course!). Initially Milagro was certified by agencies from each and both Jewish traditions. Now it is a bit of good banter, and the one that stands is KMD, which is from the Sephardim tradition, and KMD is known to hold the strictest audits and standards.”
[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.
What Exactly Is Kosher, Anyway?
For us gentiles (non-Jews), Kashrut is the set of Jewish religious dietary laws. Food that may be consumed according tohalakha(Jewish law) is deemedkosher 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.
Historically, 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 & Gamblebecame 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 Nationalhotdogs?–“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 Kosherfesttrade fair. As of 2015, he estimates there are as many as14 millionkosher consumers that generate $40 billionin 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
Akosher certification agencyis an organization that bestows ahechsher 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 ofkashrut.
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: theOU,OK,Kof-K,Star-K, and cRc
Other respected kosher certifying agencies around the globe include:
EarthKosherbased in Colorado, the logo of both theJohannesburg/Cape TownBeth Din used in South Africa, MK headquartered inMontreal, 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.
“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’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.
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.
[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
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 during 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.”
The 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.
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.
To 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.
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
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 orDasylirion texanumgrown, 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 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.
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.
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.
From 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.
Taking a lesson from Frank Sinatra, Iván explains what it was like to compose a mezcal like Montelobos without following any commercial guidelines.
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. The 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.
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.
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.
Not 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.
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.