Interview with Porfidio owner Martin Grassl by Alexander Perez, September 2000
TA: You are one of the ones that predicted the export market a few years ago – how did you predict that?
I think that usually fashion changes start out in the United States and if you might remember 10 years ago tequila was a very cheap alcoholic beverage, mostly targeted towards college kids. What I tried to do in the tequila industry is try to upgrade the image of tequila and give it its correct position in the range of alcoholic beverages. What I have to try to do in the liquor business is to produce a high quality tequila which is equivalent to any single malt whiskey and any cognac.
TA: Was it a surprise to you to see the tremendous success that you have had?
It certainly was a surprise to see the timeframe in which the success happened. I never expected that high quality tequila with the acceptance of the market within such a short period of time. We are talking about 5 years approximately.
TA: How are you producing tequila now? I have noticed you have some small production here.
Yes. The major differences in our production standards are that we do not use any water in the fermentation process, we are fermenting juices which are completely undiluted. Fermentation is temperature controlled and in the distillation process we use eau de vie technology from Europe which is used in Germany to make fruit brandies and in France to make fine cognacs.
TA: Are you purchasing now from any other producers or blending?
We are not purchasing any tequila from other producers for the Porfidio brand.
TA: So most all your production is here?
All the production of Porfidio is here?
TA: So it is very small volume?
Very small volume. Are volume is limited to only 150,000 liters per year, which is very small in comparison to other businesses.
TA: How do you keep your consistency?
The consistency you keep by using always the same quality of agave, always having the same sugar level, using agave consistently from the same region, by fermenting consistently with the same bacteria and by distilling according to the same process every time you distill. I think if you use the same, if you follow the same production process all the time you get a consistent quality.
TA: I think your packaging is dynamic – it’s beautiful. How did you come up with the packaging?
Well I think any packaging corresponds to its contents – if you have a product which is good in quality you need the packaging which is good as well. So I tried to come up with a packaging which 1) meets this criteria and 2) fulfills the requirement of attracting the eye of the consumer and I think Porfidio has achieved that with its packaging.
TA: Why the cactus, and not an agave in the bottle?
The reason why I put the cactus inside of the bottle is because the cactus is a national symbol of Mexico. Where ever you go in Mexico, where ever you go in the world to a Mexican restaurant, be it in Japan in Taiwan in Australia, you always find the cactus on the outside for easy identification by the consumer. That’s the reason why I put the cactus inside the bottle because once you see the product on the shelf you immediately identify it as a Mexican product.
TA: How do you feel about the accusations from other producers of you misinforming the public per se, with your cactus instead of the agave?
I think that you always have those kinds of problems whenever you have a successful product selling well and whenever you win all of the quality competitions or other competitions. So its naturally in any kind of business that you will be attacked, no?
TA: Now, many producers dislike you I guess because of that
Many producers dislike me because 1) I am not a Mexican and 2) I am not from the State of Jalisco. You know the tequila industry is a very small town industry mostly concentrated in the countryside and to those kind of people anybody coming from outside the State of Jalisco is a foreigner, if you come from Mexico City you are a foreigner. So you come from a foreign country altogether it’s even worse. And obviously many producers which have been in the business for three generations do not take it with ease that somebody young from Austria comes and teaches them how to make high quality tequila and what tequila should taste like. As you may remember I have completely changed the taste profile of tequila in Mexico.
TA: So you have made change for the industry?
I have made many changes in the industry and everyone in the industry is trying to imitate my production style. Whenever I come out with a new style, with a new aging technique, with a new production technique the competition, as natural tries to imitate its style. That’s why it is so important to always keep developing new products and new techniques because you always to be ahead of the competition.
TA: Well that is a compliment to you. Are you a member of the Camara?
No I am not a member of the Camara.
TA: Do you think they would help you or do you not care to be part of that organization?
Unfortunately I faced a lot of hostility from the Camara over the last decade and I certainly do not want to form part of the organization.
TA: So they have not wanted you as a member?
They have not wanted me as a member and I certainly do not want to be a member.
TA: Any new products in the horizon?
Certainly there are a couple of new products coming out for next year, yes.
TA: I have noticed your big market is Japan and US.
Japan and US are the major markets, approximate an equivalent level, Mexico is a very big market especially Mexico City and all the coastal areas. Ironically enough, our smallest market in Mexico is the State of Jalisco. That’s the smallest market.
TA: Like I mentioned before you have some dynamic marketing. How do you feel when they say that you are selling bottles not selling tequila.
I think that you can only sell bottles for one year, because if you buy the product just for the bottle you buy it once and you are never going to buy it again. Based on our sales results, our sales have been increasing at the range of 100-150% per year. It is obvious that you cannot sustain such growth on packaging only.
TA: Have you been affected by the shortage of agave or apparent shortage?
I think I am the least affected by the shortage of agave because I am in the high quality end of the market. I think the most affected parties to the crisis are the value branded tequila companies. Now, if you look at Cuervo, Sauza, Orendain, Cazadores, those are really affected by the crisis. As far as I am concerned the agave increase is marginal in my case because I have always been buying agaves which are much more expensive than the industry standard in order to maintain a certain quality.
TA: What do you look for in agave, high content of sugar?
What I look for in agave is 1) maturity, 2) high sugar content, and 3) no virus infection. Very important.
TA: Are they actually selling the ones that are infected by the virus?
Yes, certainly. I would say now in days you’re looking at 70% percent of all agave sold is virus infected.
TA: What are your goals for the rest of the year?
My goals for the rest of the year to keep improving my products and bring out better flavor throughout the year.
TA: For the next three years, where do you want to be?
The next three years I would certainly like to move production. As you have seen, I was the first on to introduce the $100 segment in the market. Three years ago I moved into the $500 segment and this year I move to the $2,000 segment. So I think the idea is pretty much move upscale, keep moving.
TA: And there is a market?
There is a market. There is always a segment of the population who has the money and the willingness to buy the best which is available in the market.
TA: What tequilas do you like personally? Some that would be upscale with yours?
I think, añejo tequilas and reposado tequilas, none. Because aging in Mexico is a game. Blanco tequilas, I think 7 Leguas is a good blanco tequila, El Tesoro de Don Felipe is a good Blanco tequila.
TA: Do you see any foods other than Mexican foods you are pairing with tequila?
Yes, always spicy foods, but a mixture between certain influences of Asian cuisine blended with a Mexican cuisine. And Asian cuisine specifically Thai cuisine, so we try to make a certain Asian novelle cuisine mixed with Mexican novelle cuisine.
TA: That is interesting regarding Japan since they are very avid Cognac drinkers, but do they pair with sushi and their foods?
Certainly they do, certainly they do. And the Japanese in particular have the habit of drinking hard liquor with the lunch and with the dinner, as opposed to the Americans or European traditions of drinking wine with their dinner. That’s the major reason why Japan is one of the big hot liquor markets in the world. They like to buy the best and within that philosophy I try to target them towards switching from cognac to Porfidio Tequila. That’s the real objective, if you spend the money for a $2,000 bottle of cognac, why not try on a $2,000 of tequila, no? And I think the market acceptance is there and I think the acceptance is growing, the only question is how is long is it going to take us to get on the equal level to cognac.
TA: And that’s your goal?
That’s my goal ya, that is absolutely my goal, to be up there with finest single malts and the finest cognacs.
TA: So you are actually helping the industry bring up their standards.
That is what I am trying to do, when I came to Mexico and looked at the tequila industry, what I saw is that the industry was 40 years behind and everything was targeted towards making a tequila as cheap as possible. With any tricks you can use, make it as cheap as you can, satisfy the market. And my belief is that there is a market for high-quality expensive tequila.
TA: Hence your success. Thank you for your time.