Champions of tequila tradition

01 February, 2024

The meteoric rise of tequila is well documented, but not all agave spirits are equal. Eleanor Yates visited El Tequileño in Jalisco to discover the challenges of making the Mexican favourite.

As the popularity of agave spirits increases, you wouldn’t expect its home turf to retain much mystery as consumers become more knowledgeable and aware of the versatility the liquid brings to any drinking occasion. Known as Mexico’s Best Kept Secret, tequila producer El Tequileño hails from the spirit’s namesake town in Jalisco, Mexico, where it proves some secrets are worth sharing.

The company was recently named Agave Producer of the Year by the International Spirits Challenge (ISC) with its Gran Reserva taking the top spot in the tequila category. Founded in 1959 by Don Jorge Salles Cuervo, a great-nephew of Jose Cuervo, the brand has been producing tequila for 64 years, using the original recipe to do so.

Three generations later, the legacy continues with Tony Salles, El Tequileño’s master distiller who told Drinks International on a trip to the brand’s home that they decided to stick to the original recipe because “we like what we do and we were taught to do it that way”.

In the world of tequila and agave spirits word is spreading and there are many new brands wanting to get in on the action. However, the nature of agave isn’t a quick turn around as Salles adds that El Tequileño has seen the difference between nurtured brands and those that aren’t in it for the same reasons. “We like the craft products more,” he says, “even though sometimes it might cost a bit more, the flavour is different and that’s what we prefer.”

Nurture and nature

The production of El Tequileño’s tequila uses Blue Weber agave from the highlands of Jalisco, as the mineral-rich soil produces a naturally higher sugar content within the plant. The only downside, if you’re a glass half empty kind of person, is that these take seven years to reach maturity, which is what is needed to create the flavourful tequila that is known and loved. As a result, the brand, despite having its own agaves, sometimes has to use third party plants that have reached maturity at the time they need.

This slow cycle is appreciated by those who produce because they champion tradition, however Salles adds the costs of agave fluctuate as a result of people producing just to make money, so there’s “going to be a cycle over and over because people are not planning, they just want to make money”.

He continues: “In 2016 the agave price was 10 pesos/kilo, so nobody wanted to plant because they looked at the short term. It was cheaper to burn the agave than to harvest it so there was very little agave – it went to around 30 pesos/kilo in 2020 and then people started planting like crazy.

“The people who grow agave professionally know about it and they can expect it. We’ve got 2,000 brands right now, in a few years there’ll be 3,000 because it’s cheap. When the prices go up these brands will disappear because people can’t afford to keep making tequila,” Salles says.

The number of distilleries that have been on the market for 25 years or longer is only around 20 or 30 according to Salles, and the rest are either “just starting or can’t keep going because they’re not willing to take the risks or the losses”. Salles continues: “Right now agave is cheaper so people are expecting tequila prices to come down, but the past five years we’ve been having losses due to agave prices so we have had to make up what we’ve lost. The costs of the other products we use have not come down either, such as the sugars and fuel for the boilers and so on.”

Increasing demand

Despite uncertainty with the costs of agave, El Tequileño continues to produce its range of tequilas as it sees high demand creeping further and further away from its domestic market as it grows its presence in new markets. Most recently in the Netherlands after agreeing a distribution deal with Charter Brands and the Craft Spirits Company.

“Here in the distillery we only do two expressions, the 100% and the mixto. The first time we did the añejo we only did 2,000 litres and we were expecting it to last six months, but it lasted only two. The second time we went to 4,000 and last time we made 12,000. It’s an expression people are waiting to see and they know it’s only seasonal, every six months,” adds Salles.

Looking ahead, Salles wants to produce more of the El Tequileño Rosé Joven expression and another using Port barrels. The brand currently has three or four barrels that are ageing to do an añejo made with mixto tequila as it continues to experiment with barrels. “We normally use American oak but in the past five or six years we started with American and French oak wine barrels that came from Chardonnay. Last year we did Pinot Noir and next year is going to be the Port and we’ll see what happens. Each one gives you a different flavour and expression that we enjoy,” adds Salles.

The brand didn’t see as much growth as expected last year due to limitations in manpower – working in the Mexico heat is no easy task – but it expects growth this year. Salles says: “We have space to grow and hopefully mixto will become more of a trend”.

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