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.

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Mestizo Mezcal–A Perfect Convergence of Cultures

 

When we first met Arturo Palencia, co-founder of the award winning Mestizo Mezcal, we were struck by his boyish charm and seemingly tender age.  We were surprised to discover that this thirty-something was no newcomer to the competitive and often brutal spirits industry.

In this clip, Arturo tells how he became involved with mezcal and the surprising birth of Mestizo.

 

What’s In A Name?

According to Wikipedia, the term mestizo refers to a person of combined heritage, usually European (Spanish) and indigenous peoples of the Americas.  The term was later used as a racial category during the Spanish Empire’s control of its colonies.

During that colonial period, mestizos became the dominant race in many Spanish speaking countries in Latin America, including Mexico.

Today, Hispanic or Latino is the more appropriate term, but for Arturo the meaning of mestizo for his mezcal is much more poetic and thoughtful.

 

 

Jessica Rosman (right), co-founder of Mestizo.
Jessica Rosman (right), co-founder of Mestizo.

A Formal Introduction

Arturo and co-founder, Jessica Rosman, spent countless hours journeying throughout the mezcal producing regions of Mexico in search of the perfect single village, settling on Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca.

In this taped portion, Arturo introduces us to his 4th generation maestro mezcalero and his nearly 300 years of tradition.

With more brands popping up at an alarming rate in the current booming mezcal market, Arturo discusses Mestizo’s process in gauging its target audience that is looking for a more palatable mezcal.

Fat Ass donkey logoDoes This Donkey Make My Ass Look Fat?

 

As a college student in the mid-2000s, Arturo was actively involved in the initial launching of the infamous Fat Ass Tequila.

Produced as an old style tequila in a hand blown bottle, and marketed to the Spring Breakers that invade Cancún and Cabo San Lucas,  it became wildly popular with both connoisseurs and young people, winning numerous awards along the way.

Then, it virtually disappeared from store shelves.

Here, Arturo describes what it was like to be on the ground floor of this provocative brand.

 

Truly Handcrafted

Mestizo Mezcal añejoWords like artisanal or handcrafted are loosely bandied about in the spirits industry these days.  But, whether as a young college student helping friends launch their tequila brand, or today, plotting Mestizo’s success, Arturo Palencia’s focus hasn’t changed–

To bring to market a high quality spirit while preserving its tradition.  In Mestizo’s case, maintaining consistency and promoting sustainability also go hand-in-hand.

In this snippet, Arturo reveals how Mestizo does both by their unique barrel aging process.

 

 

One Thing…

Like the name illustrates, Mestizo Mezcal has centuries of pedigree, and from Arturo Palencia’s point of view, the future promises to hold true to its roots.

Dii’zh bèeyuu!

(cheers and good health in Zapotec)

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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.

 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.

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.”

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.”

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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How to Get Paid to Drink Tequila:

How you can turn your passion into profits and get paid to drink tequila as a blogger, vlogger, podcaster or author

 

Salud!!