If you’ve seen Mike Morales’ article on the Top 20 Craft Tequilas you’ve overlooked then you’ll understand that picking one (or even 10) from this list is like picking your favorite child. It’s too difficult to do, so your best bet is to vote twice a day for your favorites and spend the rest of your time sipping all of them.
Congratulations to all the nominees. If Mike could pick a top 50 list, it still wouldn’t be enough. Thank you to all the wonderful brands out there who are constantly striving to produce the finest tequilas they can. We love you all!
In order to be called tequila, this spirit distilled from the juices blue agave must be made in specific regions of Mexico, most prominently Jalisco and the town of tequila. While no tequilas are produced in the United States, we want to find the best craft tequila brands available in the country, and to do so, we asked a pair of tequila experts to nominate their favorites. Unlike other spirits, tequila brands often share distilleries – there are about 70 of them producing more than 500 brands – so it’s often the brand rather than the distillery that indicates quality. Many of these 20 nominees for best craft tequila brand use traditional methods. Many of the brand owners grow their own agave and personally oversee the entire tequila-making process. All produce high-quality, distinctive tequilas available in the U.S. market. Vote for your favorite once per day until voting ends on Monday, September 12 at noon ET. Read the official Readers’ Choice rules here.
[In an industry of cookie-cutter airport cantinas, it was refreshing to experience a little bit of the local flavor at Barrio Café during a recent layover at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport’s Terminal 4.]
Frequent flyers are a highly sought after target market. Just ask any company that pays top dollar to advertise in in-flight magazines. They’ll admit that a temporarily sequestered audience with nowhere to go (but up?) is a gold mine.
But, with security protocols being what they are now, bored and isolated travelers awaiting the next leg of their trip desperately seek to pass the time at engaging airport bars/restaurants with strong food and drink selections, and even stronger wifi.
What struck me most about Barrio Café, however, was that it was a tequila oasis in a sea of food court cuisine. Coupled with an informed and educated staff, and my ears perked up.
The Original Comida Chingona of Phoenix
Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, along with her partner, Wendy Gruber, opened the first Barrio Café in the Calle 16 neighborhood of Central Phoenix in 2002, and it quickly shot to culinary stardom.
Inspired by regional dishes from Oaxaca, Ensenada, and the Yucatán, Chef Silvana transforms them with a French twist to create, as it reads on their menu, “some seriously bad ass Mexican cuisine.”
Chef Silvana’s acknowledgements are as long as your arm, too!
Highlighted by an induction into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame in 2004, voted as one of the Top 9 Mexican Chefs by MSNBC Latino in 2010, and four James Beard award nominations in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014.
Employing local graffiti artists and muralists to illustrate and beautify each location, Barrio is notorious for attracting eclectic customers–from low riders to politicians.
Not Your Mother’s House
Beloved and admired by Chef Silvana’s long term café employees, server Brittany Sabo proudly elaborates on this and other locations, its founders, and Barrio’s varied menu.
Help Conserve Water, Drink Tequila
With a tequila selection as assorted as their clientele–from the Usual Suspects to Arizona based smaller brands–their list also includes eye-opening tequila flights.
Here, Brittany reveals Chef Silvana’s future plans for a possible private label tequila.
The idea of catering to short term secluded audiences hasn’t escaped big name tequila companies. But, that warm cozy feeling of being welcomed into a neighborhood bar and restaurant is an unexpected quality not usually found in cookie cutter cantinas.
For years, Jose Cuervo has licensed branded Taberna del Tequila bars in airports around the US. The Blue Mesa Taco & Tequila Bar at Dallas/Ft. Worth International, has long been an Herradura (Brown-Forman) stronghold, as well.
Airline travelers eventually come and go, but a snifter of good tequila and a house taco of cochinita pibil at the Barrio Café in Terminal 4 could very easily make you miss your connecting flight.
Voted a Reader’s Choice award for Best Mexican Restaurant in 2014 by the Wichita Eagle, thefamily owned chain has been in business for nearly 50 years pioneering its style of Mexican cuisine and feeding generations of families in Wichita, Kansas.
On a bustling and muggy Friday night in late August 2014, Tequila Aficionado Media was invited to meet with the proprietors of Felipe’s, the Lujano family, at the northeast Wichita location of their four venues.
It is the family patriarch, Don Roberto Lujano, who captures all the attention.
Strolling through the clean and brightly decorated restaurant, Don Roberto, brother of the deceased Felipe for whom the restaurants are named, visits every table to shake hands with his regulars. He responds with a wide grin and a kind word as people of every race, creed and color call him Papa.
In the next two clips, Don Roberto’s son, Miguel Lujano, manager of the northeast restaurant on Woodlawn Blvd., recounts Felipe’s vast history as the first establishment to introduce Mexican cuisine to Wichita in 1967.
Think You’ve Tasted It All?
I’ve ingested just about every single style of Mexican food. From glitzy chain restaurants with signature tropical fruit-based tequila drinks, to hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop diners that serve handmade tortillas and guacamole, I truthfully thought I had tasted it all.
Not the usual “gringofied” spicy Mexican food that is served in the corporate-owned eateries, Felipe’s relies heavily on a medley of traditional herbs, spices, and heirloom family recipes. Still, they are not without its own unique cuisine challenges as Miguel Lujano explains…
Mild vs. Hot
With the influx of more Mexican and Mexican Americans into Wichita establishing diners of their own, Felipe’s continues to find ways to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack.
Noting that their customer base is trending toward more spicy hot ingredients, the Lujano family has taken advantage of this turnabout by adding some picante to their signature dishes. Don Roberto Lujano and his wife, Maria Teresa, still cook in the kitchen with most dishes made from scratch.
And in a state whose liquor is controlled (state run), the task of obtaining more authentic tequilas for Felipe’s emblematic cocktails can be even more challenging, especially when competing restaurants plagiarize them for their own menus. The secret, Miguel Lujano insists, is educating their customers.
Miguel admitted that it also helps to be friendly with representatives from Glazer’s and Standard Beverage Corporation, liquor distributors who share his passion for tequila. Through his relationships, Felipe’s has been able to acquire such sought after tequilas as Suerte, Siete Leguas, Demetrio, George Clooney’s Casamigos, and participate in Maestro Dobel’s Special Edition program.
In a city that has seen its Hispanic population boom from a scattering few in 1967 to close to 60,000 strong in 2014, Felipe’s has actively enticed the unpredictable tastes of its community over the decades. But, what keeps the Lujano family passionately pushing the limits of their traditional fare?
It’s in their blood.
Enjoy this Felipe’s signature recipe for homemade sangrita…
All across the country, in carefully selected cities where the beautiful people roam like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami, and San Francisco, the Patrón PR machine (which spent a reported $34.1 million in measured media in 2013), is rolling out its new Roca Patrón line of tequilas.
Here in Tejas, on August 11, 2014, at the famed Brazos Hall in Austin, Tequila Aficionado Media was invited to the head of the line and behind the braided rope to be one of the first to try this new offering from Planet Patrón.
The Brazos Hall was entirely furnished with wooden Roca Patrón branded furniture, fixtures, barrels and props, along with its own stage where a dynamic digital screen replayed a two minute silent video that was programmed to pulsating club music at deafening decibels.
Besides coming with its own publicity campaign that includes a stylized knockoff of their familiar bottle, projecting the Patrón name and iconic bee symbol onto the walls and some snappy slogans on ads and cushy sofa pillows, the entire experience is designed to embed a feeling of Old World rustic tequila-making with a modern twist.
What makes this new addition to the Patrón portfolio any different from its usual ho-hum juice?
Roca Patrón (a Spanish corruption of the English word rock) is made exclusively using a tahona or volcanic stone wheel to macerate agave piñas to extract its juice. Until the invention and adoption of more efficient and less labor intensive shredding machines, this was once how all tequilas were produced.
In this clip, Patrón Quality Director, Mario Chavez, explains why they settled on a 90 proof blanco and reveals some of the details in the pre-planning of the Roca line.
Mario explained that the tahona has always been part of the tequila making process for regular Patrón which they blend after distillation with juice that has been shredded. This method was made famous by Tequila Siete Leguas, Patrón’s original producer, and eventually pilfered by Patrón. For Roca, however, no blending occurs.
In his passion, Mario was sure that there were no other tequilas produced exclusively using a tahona. I reminded him of the sought-after Fortaleza brand which he acknowledged, and Suerte, which he had never heard of. But, why would he? He is so engrossed in his own line that it figures that he would be oblivious to any other ones. An honest, and forgivable, mistake.
The Roca Patrón website has plenty of signature cocktails, but for each of the other 40 odd launch cities including Austin, original recipes were created by hired hot mixologists.
As previously pointed out in our reviews of Cabeza, Tapatío 110, and the entire Dulce Vida line, overproof tequilas shine in cocktails and Roca Patrón is no different.
Both myself and Mario agreed, however, that for a purist, a tequila the caliber of Roca
Patrón would be much better served either neat, or simply on the rocks.
The Break Down
For the sake of transparency, we were served Roca Patrón on tap at room temperature in branded champagne glasses. (Don’t be fooled by the lit-from-behind liquid lines viewed through false tequila barrel tops. Patrón invented the art of visual illusion for these events.)
Patrón reps that evening admitted that it was not the best way to taste test tequila, but considering the amount of guests invited to the launch, it proved more cost effective.
Due to the darkness of the Brazos Hall, observing Roca’s color was next to impossible.
Roca Patrón Silver–90 proof
At first sniff, instant piedra (tahona, rock) with barely any hint of alcohol. The nose gives no warning for what’s to come, however. Extreme agave on the entry, so brace yourselves. Light to medium finish that lingers on the palate, not down your throat. On the second intake, more sweetness is evident.
Roca Patrón Reposado–84 proof
Instant butter on the nose to go along with the wood notes, vanilla and caramel. Mario confessed that his wife is even able to pull some pineapple and pear on the entry. Both were slightly noticeable, again with very little to no alcohol. Aged in American oak barrels and guaranteed to coat your palate.
Roca Patrón Añejo–88 proof
Aged 14 months, mas o menos, there is evidence of dried fruit, nuts and some citrus. Again, very little if any alcohol was present in the nose. Very easy finish, but not as memorable as the reposado even though it, too, will coat the palate.
Both at the event and in digital print, Patrón reps and officials have admitted that there has been a gradual decline in demand for its tequila in the United States. Consumers and industry professionals alike have dismissed it as a brand that rests on its colorful past and deft marketing.
Whether this trend has been due to the rise of mixologists and their demands for better and more artisanal ingredients for their cocktail creations, a more sophisticated and educated consumer, or focusing on its ravenous rise to dominance in the overseas Duty Free market, Roca Patrón is their bold statement to these allegations.
Despite Patrón’s attempt to backpedal into the current craft tequila craze with Roca, it is still a mass produced tequila targeted to their own particular customer base–
Those willing to spend anywhere from $69, $79, and $89 for silver, reposado, and añejo expressions.
Don’t expect to see these prices drop, either. Patrón was one of the only tequila producers that refused to roll back prices during the recession even though consumers were trading down to cheaper brands.
In the end, those faithful Patrón followers who enjoy the Gran Patrón line (Platinum, Piedra, or Burdeos), but not the heady price tags, will appreciate Roca Patrón’s assertive flavor profile and less aggressive cost.
As for the Patrón Road Show…
It was an elegant, eventful, and enlightening affair. Like watching Cirque du Soleil but without the embarrassing costumes.
Watch for a future Sipping Off The Cuff(TM) featuring Roca Patrón, coming soon!
“Winning the Platinum SIP award for our Embajador Premium Reposado expression is truly an honor,” beams Andres Garcia, Regional Sales Manager for the family owned brand. “We are super excited to be recognized and to be mentioned in this category alongside some of the most respected brands in the industry.”
The family estate and distillery of Tequila Embajador is nestled in Atotonilco, in the highlands of Jalisco, the same region made famous by such legendary producers as Don Julio and Siete Leguas. Those same values that created these mythic tequilas are the exact ones that drive Embajador to perfection.
“We are a family who is motivated and inspired by the idea of crafting superior quality and distinguished Tequila. Embajador is produced in small batches to focus on the brand’s consistency and quality principles,” states the Embajador website.
“Our family motto has been ‘quality over quantity,'” continues Garcia. “This is about giving this noble spirit the time honored respect it demands and that we do every step of the way–with honor.”
True to their word, Embajador uses only their own estate grown 100% blue weber agave that is carefully tended for 8-10 years. Baked in an adobe oven, the piñas are shredded using water from the distillery’s own aquifer, and then fermented from 3-5 days. After double distillation, the luminous Platinum expression is rested 40 days in stainless steel vats to ensure a complete balance of character.
The SIP Platinum award winning Embajador Premium Reposado is rested for a period of eight months in American and French Oak barrels, while Embajador’s Supreme Añejo is aged with devotion for one year and six months in American and French Oak barrels.
The Embajador family is so serious about presenting the soul of Tequila to the rest of the world, and being true ambassadors, that they have partnered with Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlan, one of the hottest mariachi groups in Mexico. As they travel globally, these talented mariachis bestow special bottles of Embajador (ambassador, in Spanish) to foreign dignitaries at each Mexican embassy they visit.
“We are building more than just a brand,” explains Garcia. “We are creating a legacy that is focused on producing quality Tequila.”
Not only is the Platinum SIP award winning Embajador reposado fast becoming a favorite with mixologists, but all of the expressions are cocktail ready. Embajador tequila signature cocktails are featured prominently on the brand’s website and correspond to the level of the consumers’ experience in crafting cocktails at home.
Have fun concocting poppers, lucious margaritas, and even Fluffy’s Chock-lit-D’lite, a whimsical drink inspired and dedicated to popular Latino stand-up comic, Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias, himself a fan of Embajador tequila.
“The Embajador Tequila family, along with everyone involved, felt a high degree of honor, accomplishment and excitement because each person’s hard work and vision in producing a quality juice came to be recognized at the SIP awards,” admits Garcia.
“After all,” he concludes, “Tequila is Mexico and we are proud to be one of its Ambassadors.”
Distributors/Vendors: Contact Andres Garcia, Regional Sales Manager, to discuss the benefits of adding SIP award winning Embajador Tequila to your portfolio at firstname.lastname@example.org. More details on Embajador Tequila on their website here. To learn more about the SIP awards, click here.Spirits Writers: For an in-depth interview with Andres Garcia, dial 469-216-0567. Hurry–slots are filling up fast!
Tequila Aficionado Media on The Set Of Salt, Liquor, Lime
Tequila Aficionado Media first made contact with the co-producers of Salt, Liquor, Lime in the Spring of 2013 via social media. Once production was moved in late August to Southern California during a blistering heat wave, we were invited to join the cast and crew to exclusively record our experiences on the set.
There were only a handful of 100% de agave tequilas back then: Herradura, Chinaco, El Tesoro de Don Felipe, Hornitos and a young upstart brand that would revolutionize the spirits world, Patrón. These were popular with the original tequila snobs–movie stars and artists–but mixto tequila (51% blue agave, 49% “other sugars”) captured the lion’s share of the market.
It was the end of the Reagan era with the election of George H. W. Bush as President while hundreds of savings and loan associations were bailed out by the government for $150 billion. Exxon’s oil tanker, Valdez, spilled 11 million gallons of oilafter running aground in Alaska, but gas was just 97 cents per gallon.Anddue to the greenhouse effect, scientists declared 1989 as the warmest year on record.
Meanwhile, in music, Jon Bon Jovi married his high school sweetheart in Las Vegas while Michael Jackson was named the “King of Pop” at the Soul Train Awards. The Moscow Music Peace Festival took place in the Soviet Union and was headlined by Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, Skid Row, Cinderella, and the Scorpions. Finally, Whitesnake’s David Coverdale married rock n’ roll video vixen (and every adolescent boy’s dream), Tawny Kitaen.
In their hey day, famed West Hollywood night clubs like the Whisky-a-Go-Go, the Roxy and the Troubadour packed patrons in to see such groups as Great White, Warrant, Poison, and Guns N’ Roses. Out in North Hollywood, The Lodge, now known as Skinny’s Lounge, was serving the gay/transsexual communities in droves.
Twenty-five years later, Skinny’s is now the scene of a raucous new indie short film that takes place during the glory days of glam rock, power ballads, big hair and cheap tequila.
Salt, Liquor, Lime
Salt, Liquor, Lime is the story of three forty-something women, Diana (Vené Arcoraci Dixon), Jenn (Connie Marie Chiarelli) and Michelle (Sabrina Stewart) reuniting for their 20th college reunion. Before the big event, they decide to pre-game at their old hangout, the Deja Vu Tavern (Skinny’s), for one drink. It’s there that Marie (Liane Curtis), Deja Vu’s ageless owner and tequila maven, gives them some magical tequila from a mysterious bottle.
The hangover effect of this “tequila flux capacitor” takes the gals someplace unexpected where they discover their true hearts desire.
Billed as “a short film about time, tequila and the space time continuum,” Salt, Liquor, Lime is written and directed by Cynthia Thompson MacAdam, and co-produced by her and her multi-talented cousin and make up artist, Susan Thompson.
During a break in filming at Skinny’s Lounge, they discuss the project’s long history.
Indie Tequilas Answer The Call
No one knows the blood, sweat and tears that it takes to bring an independent film from conception to fruition better than a tequila brand owner, especially a small, independent tequila brand owner.
Struggling with mounds of paperwork, sometimes for years in both English and Spanish, to locating and acquiring financing and choosing the right distillery to direct the project. Then, devising an effective marketing strategy to advertise the brand on a shoestring budget while fighting for shelf space next to the “Big Boys” with unlimited piles of cash. And even if you win an award here and there for your quality and excellence, that’s still no guarantee that cases will move and bottles will fly off the shelves (or, in the case of movies, put butts in the seats), at least not without high powered distribution in place.
That’s why the following leading independent tequila brands chose to support Salt, Liquor, Lime and were rewarded with some slick product placement.
Karma (NOM 1107)–An award winning blend of double and triple distillation, this Highlands tequila is fronted by partners Ray McBride, Robert Grant and Gary Eisenberger who have carefully and strategically grown the brand from the West Coast to East Coast using pure passion and, of course, good karma.
Embajador (NOM 1509)–Declaring to be “the finest shot in the game,” this Arizona based family owned brand is gaining serious traction in the tequila industry.
Suerte (NOM 1530)–One of the hottest young brands to come along, this tequila has quickly acquired a name and a reputation for quality under the shrewd guidance of its co-founders, Lance Sokol and Laurence Spiewak.
Whether it’s marketing a fledgling tequila brand or shooting an indie film, flexibility while keeping an eye on results is critical for its survival.
In this clip, Cynthia and Susan discuss the changes and challenges of filming Salt, Liquor, Lime, a female-driven comedy, and where they’d like to ultimately end up.
Keeping It Real
Skinny’s Lounge in North Hollywood doubled as the Deja Vu Tavern, the fictional club in the Midwest that is the scene of all of the short film’s interior action. Actress (and one time bartender) Lacy Fisher, also the film’s production designer and whose husband owns Skinny’s, made sure that everything on and behind the bar echoed the trends of 1989 and today. Even the cocktails had their own stunt doubles. No alcohol was poured or harmed during the making of this film.
Ask anyone who’s ever worked on a film set and they’ll tell you, movie making is like the military–“hurry up and wait.” Long lulls between scenes while the crew lines up lighting and camera angles can last hours. Not so on the set of an indie film. Much like bringing a young tequila brand to the market, nimbleness and thinking on your feet are required.
Budget constraints, time crunches and scene continuity are dealt with in real time. Skinny’s opens every night of the week at 8pm, so the cast and crew had early set calls for hair and make up and none of the equipment could be left overnight.
Teamwork and camaraderie are strengthened, and most times, egos are left at the door. What results are more brilliant portrayals, more genuine emotion, and…
…More hilarious laughs.
And the Award Goes To….
Salt, Liquor, Lime, the short film, premiered on January 24, 2014 to a full house at Skinny’s Lounge. Guests were treated to cocktails and laughs and the cast and crew were given a proper send-off.
Like a start-up tequila brand, hopes and dreams are nurtured by hard work and care. Film festivals like South by Southwest (SXSW), the Sundance Film Festival and many others are certainly a possibility for Cynthia and Susan’s project.
Whether a newcomer tequila envisions itself to be the next Cabo Wabo or Peligroso, or Salt, Liquor, Lime promises to be the next Bridesmaids or The Hangover is anyone’s guess. But like any indie film or indie tequila, it’s not just about the buzz behind your brand, but how well your story is told.
Keep it here on TequilaAficionado.com to see how this tale ends.
If you’d like to support the indie film Salt, Liquor, Lime, go here.