Steffin Oghene talks tequila at El Fortaleza, one of the distilleries visited on a tour of the region
“Keep your friends close and you enemies closer,” jokes the Sauza tour-guide as we enter the tequila brand’s off-site walled garden through a door on the only side not overlooked by Jose Cuervo’s looming production plant. It was, of course, an innocuous remark, by way of explanation for a somewhat curious geographical arrangement.
But for a category such as tequila, mainly made up of distilleries dotted around the agave regions of the Tequila Valley and Highlands (Los Altos) in Jalisco, geographical closeness is not the only necessity. To break past the ‘shot’ and ‘shooter’ reputation and enjoy real success beyond the US frontier – where an estimated 50% of its volume is consumed – is essential. To achieve that end, tequila’s many parts will have to think and act more collectively.
But back to Sauza's garden (below). “We” are a group of international bartenders and journalists on tour in tequila town, hungry for tequila knowledge, and latterly tacos. But this is no Tequila Chamber (CNIT)-sponsored trip, nor is it Beam’s hard-earned coin that brought us – it was in fact the Tahona Society, which, when all is said and done, is run and funded by Pernod Ricard.
The Tahona Society tour takes a break in Sauza's garden
How often does that happen? That one multinational leads a posse of bottle-buyers and pen-slingers into another multinational’s saloon? An act like that deserves a doff of any man’s sombrero.
The society was formed by the late Henry Besant (right) and the now Bali-based Dre Masso to offer an unbranded tequila experience - a society that educates rather than indoctrinates.
In Besant and Masso’s absence, the good work continues, headed up by the newly appointed [Sasha] Alexander Gorokhovsky. But, as the recent Tahona Society Cocktail Competition and week-long trip to Tequila bore witness, it is the alumni of Green and Red [Besant and Masso’s former London tequila bar] that carry with them the society’s soul. The knowledgeable and personable pair of Steffin Oghene (top) and Matthias Lataille (bottom right) - not forgetting part-time side-kick but full-time legend Ramon ‘El Tigre’ Ramos (bottom left) - offer an authentic experience, predicated on independent thought, not brand-driven drivel. They will be crucial to the Society’s ongoing success.
But the organ grinders way up high in the chambers of Pernod Ricard towers must take their share of the black slaps, for presenting a picture of the world that isn’t just Planet Pernod.
The drinks industry is a vibrant, busy place and single brands do not make categories. This indeed, is an open-minded, sophisticated approach that many groups could learn from.
Someone once said there is no true altruism – and they were right - the Tahona Society would be a costly exercise if it was not at all self-serving. Pernod’s tequila brand Olmeca grew 14% in revenue during the 2012/2013 financial year - so it seems to be working. But the tequila category must, and does, come first for the Tahona Society, especially when there is so much work still to be done.
So here’s hoping the Tahona Society continues to grow, but also stays very much the same.