FTC Disclaimer: All samples are received free of charge but no payment is accepted by Tequila Aficionado or its agents for reviews. All reviews are the opinions of those participating in the tasting and positive reviews are never guaranteed.
Fuenteseca Cosecha Tequila explores the dynamics of a single-site spirit, embracing terroir as a concept and celebrating the uniqueness of micro-harvested agave.
Fuenteseca Tequila Cosecha 2013 (45.7% ABV) Made entirely from a single orchard of agave grown at 5,250’ elevation, Enrique Fonseca realized upon harvesting in 2013 that these agave were too dynamic to mix with others for a larger production. Instead he separated the El Maguey field plants, slowly baked them at low pressure, and double-distilled the spirit in a copper alembic pot still. He then rested the tequila for three years to achieve a complete rested oxygenation before finally bottling the small quantity in the Fall of 2016.
[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.
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.
“…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?
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.
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”).
“…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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
In this definition, the process is the craft.
Tequila Fortaleza, produced by famed fifth generation distiller, Guillermo Sauza, Zarus illustrates, “[Is] very
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
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.