Tequila 512 is making the best tequila on the planet

Tequila 512 ReposadoTequila 512 just pulled off something very few booze companies have ever done. The Austin brand won an impressive double gold medal and was awarded “Best in Show” at the prestigious 15th annual San Francisco World Spirits Competition. That’s pretty amazing for any spirit, but even more so from a tequila company that is less than 3 years old.

Scott Willis, the founder of Tequila 512, has been juggling the tequila business with a full-time job at a tech company since he introduced his first bottles in November 2012. Willis worked on every aspect of starting Tequila 512 for seven years before it came to market: Getting through all of the regulatory hurdles and raising money to get the company started was a job of its own.

After the brand launched, Willis spent nights and weekends driving around Texas self-distributing his tequila and pouring at liquor shops and festivals. The work paid off with 180 percent growth in 2013 and 265 percent growth in 2014. But the demands of running Tequila 512 and working his full-time job were taking a toll on Willis.

“My wife said, ‘We can’t live like this. You have to quit your job,'” says Willis. “We decided to sell a rental house we owned and use the money from the sale to pay my salary for the next year. I quit my job over the phone in the airport while I was getting ready to board a plane to Mexico to bottle my next batch of tequila. They were calling my name to board the plane when I was finalizing the call with my former boss.”

Scott Willis Tequila 512

That was in February. In April, Tequila 512 won the double gold in San Francisco. What a great way to start a new full-time role.

At the competition thousands of liquors were evaluated in blind tastings by a panel of 41 of the most highly qualified spirits judges in the world. The judges sipped various categories of spirits in numbered tasting glasses. Some got dismissed, and some moved on to the medal rounds where bronze, silver and gold were awarded.

“Winning double gold is a really big deal,” says Willis. “Winning a gold medal means your spirit is above and beyond: it’s one of the best and is highly recommend by the judges. Winning a double gold means that it has been unanimously voted gold by all judges and is considered far superior to all the rest.”

There was also a sweepstakes round where judges reevaluated each spirit that had been awarded the double gold medal to select the best in show. That’s when Tequila 512 won the biggest prize of the day.

“It’s almost impossible to get to the final round,” says Willis. “This tiny company was named the best tequila on the planet.”

Willis is hopeful that this impressive win will accelerate his success. He points to the incredible growth of Tito’s Handmade Vodka after its win of the double gold in 2001 and hopes to see similar results.

Tequila 512 has just signed a new distributor who will get the tequila on more store shelves and bar backs all over town. The company is also in the process of seeking investors to help expand production.

To top it off, the brand just launched its second style of tequila. Tequila 512 Reposado is made with the triple distilled Blanco tequila and then aged for nine months in used oak bourbon barrels. The tequila is then stored in stainless vats, filtered and blended before bottling.

The result is a bold lowlands tequila with the vibrant smell of pepper and spice along with vanilla. It packs plenty of zip with rich, powerful flavors that tequila lovers will love. It will be sold for about $34 a bottle in Austin.

The industry’s most prestigious honor, bigger distribution and more products could be the recipe for success that Tequila 512 craves. “I want to be the tequila in Austin,” says Willis. “I want our town to know and love our tequila.”

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

What are you drinking? 

Where to Drink Right Now: Top 5 Places to Celebrate National Tequila Day in Austin

La Condesa tequila shot

Mexico is a land graced with amazing treasures including thousands of miles of stunning coastline, majestic mountains, rich oil reserves and abundant agricultural products. But one of its most prized exports is tequila.  It’s such a national treasure that its worthy of the protection provided by the Appellation of Origin Tequila, which delineates the location of production and sets the standards for how tequila is made.

Tequila’s stature is certainly not ignored in the U.S. That Mexican treasure is honored with National Tequila Day on Thursday, July 24. Several Austin restaurants and bars will celebrate with special cocktails. Enjoy the What Are You Drinking guide to where to drink tequila in Austin — and what to sip.

Benji’s Cantina, 716 W. 6th St.

Benji's Cantina tequilaIt’s only been in business for about a year, but Benji’s is shooting to be a top tequila destination in Austin. The Tex-Mex restaurant and bar serves more than 80 labels of tequila and will run drink specials for National Tequila Day.

“We have a knowledgeable staff that can guide people to try new types of tequila,” said Geoff Freeman, operating partner.  “With this big selection, it’s easy to find a tequila you like. We have the best price on Don Julio 1942 in town, so it sells really well. I’ve tried almost every tequila on the shelf, and usually at least a bottle of each. I fell in love with Casa Noble Tequila.  It’s an especially smooth sipping tequila that is aged in French oak barrels.

What to sip: Try Benji’s tequila twist on a cocktail classic, Benji’s Cantina’s Tequila Old Fashioned.

  • 2 dashes of angostura bitters on lemon
  • 2 dashes of rhubarb bitters on lemon
  • .5 ounces of simple
  • 2 ounces of Herradura Reposado

Rinse a pint glass with mescal, add lemon slice to the bottom of glass, add ice, stir and then strain over fresh ice with julep strainer. Garnish with orange peel.

La Condesa, 400 W 2nd St.

La Condesa tequilaLa Condesa is a cocktail mecca with more than 80 tequilas available in the cozy bar and the street-side patio, which is perfect for a little people watching. This Mexican restaurant draws locals and tourists alike for its ever-changing line-up of distinctive and small batch tequilas.

To celebrate National Tequila Day, La Condesa is hosting a competition between its bartenders to create a specialty Cazadores Tequila cocktail, and the winning drink will be featured on July 24th for $10. All of our tequila flights will be $2 off and they will also pour custom curated flights. If you’re not game for a full flight of four, try a tequila board with a shot of tequila, a shot of sangrita, a dash of salt and lime.

If you can’t wait for July 24 for tequila, La Condesa hosts happy hour every day from 5 – 7 pm, where all drinks are half price — even the ridiculously high-end tequilas like Herradura Seleccion Suprema, which sells for $65 and Gran Patron Burdeos Anejo Tequila, which will set you back $75. For an exclusive tequila without sticker shock, try the Herradura Double Barrel Reserve Reposado that was made just for La Condesa for $14.

What to sip: The Alma Blanca is one of La Condesa’s most unique and popular drinks, packing a punch in a small package with a hint of spice and velvety texture derived from muddled sweet corn

  • 2 ounces habanero-infused Siembra Azul Blanco
  • .5 ounce Domain de Canton ginger liqueur
  • 2 ounces fresh pineapple juice combined with agave nectar and lemon juice
  • Fresh corn muddled and double strained

It is served in a dainty saucer, finished with a spritz of hoja de hierba santa and hibiscus-rose-infused salt on the rim.

Tacos and Tequila, 507 Pressler St.

Tacos and TequilaThis tequila powerhouse has the largest selection of tequila in town with more than 160 kinds of tequila, including four poured cold on tap. In addition to many exotic tequilas, TNT also has a great selection of locally owned brands including Ambhar, Dulce Vida, Man in Black, Republic Tequila, Tequila 512 and Z Tequila.  On National Tequila Day, TNT will feature Happy Hour specials all day.

Mixologist Amanda Castro says, “Dulce Vida tequila is our top seller because people like its 100 proof kick. We have some amazing high-end tequilas like Casa Dragones, Man In Black Extra Añejo and Partida Elegante, but I’m partial to Casamigos.  I really like highland tequilas because they are smoother and sweeter.”

What to sip: If you like your tequila without anything else, try one of the monthly featured distilleries neat in a snifter or one of its flights of three tequilas. If you prefer a cocktail, TNT has several classic and signature margaritas and tequila drinks. The Orange Noir is a fresh taste of summer.

  • 2 ounces Partida Añejo tequila
  • .5 ounce Cointreau Noir
  • muddled oranges
  • fresh squeezed lime juice
  • agave nectar

Takoba, 1411 East 7th St.

Takoba margaritaWith two full bars and a large outdoor seating area, Takoba pours more than 25 kinds of tequila. While it specializes in mezcal (more than 60 available), this is a great place to celebrate National Tequila Day. The unpretentious setting, the authentic Mexican eats and the specialty margaritas are all a big draw. On July 24, Takoba will have happy hour specials in the cantina from 5-9 pm.

The house margarita is always a hit. While you can order a super-premium tequila like Abandonado Extra Añejo Tequila, the folks at Takoba say that many people pick the tried and true basics like Herradura, Patron and Don Julio. Give one of those a toss with a house-made sangrita to follow.

What to sip: If you like your tequila with an extra kick, try the Mango-Habanero Margarita on for size.

  • 1.5 ounces El Jimador Reposado
  • .5 ounce fresh mango puree
  • 1 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1 ounce of habanero simple syrup

Garnish with lime and salt rim

508 Tequila Bar and Pelons Tex-Mex, 802 Red River St.

Pelons and 508 Tequila BarThis sister restaurant and bar combo situated on Red River Street pours more than 50 types of tequila and several tequila cocktails. The once sleepy cottages wear festive red paint outside and harbor a chill, dimly lit vibe inside — a perfect atmosphere to sip a snifter of añejo. On National Tequila Day, 508 Tequila Bar will have feature la hora feliz (happy hour) specials from 2-7 pm.

What to sip: One of the cocktails that should be high are your list is the Cuernos Largos. It’s a hearty margarita made with Dulce Vida 100 proof tequila. It packs a punch, so customers are only allowed to order two.

For the DIY Crowd

If you don’t want to venture out on National Tequila Day, here are some excellent cocktails to try at home.

Casa Noble MargaritaSignature Margarita from SOL Cocina Kitchen, Phoenix, AZ

Shake and strain over fresh ice.

This is a classic style margarita, incredibly easy to make and ridiculously delicious. Put it in your repertoire. Casa Noble is an excellent tequila and gives it a smooth, vanilla flavor.

If you are a Casa Noble fan, try the Añejo neat in a snifter.

Casa Noble Anejo

 

Republic Pineapple Salsa Margarita

  • 1.5 ounces Republic Plata Tequila
  • 4 ounces Sweet and Sour Mix
  • .5ounce Pineapple Juice
  • ¼ ounce Fresh Lime Juice
  • 1 ounce Organic Agave Nectar
  • 3 Small Pineapple cubes
  • 1 Slice of Jalapeño
  • 1 teaspoon Cilantro
  • 1 teaspoon Chopped White Onion

Muddle pineapple, onion, cilantro, and jalapeño in shaker. Pour all ingredients into a shaker and fill with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a margarita glass over ice. Garnish with a lime wedge and slice of pineapple. May also be served as a martini.

A version of this story was originally published on CultureMap.

Disclosure: Samples of Casa Noble tequila were provided.

What are you drinking?

Mexican Heart and Texas Sold

Mexican Heart Texas Sold

This story originally appeared in the Summer issue of Austin Man Magazine. Pick up a print copy at your local newsstand. 

Tequila headerThe drink world is all about authenticity and sense of place. Champagne can only be from Champagne, France. Cognac can only be from Cognac, France. Wines all list their appellation and speak of the importance of terrior, that special something that only comes from the area, the soil and the climate where the wine was born. The same is true for tequila.

If it’s called tequila, it has to be from Mexico. In 1978, Mexico established the Appellation of Origin Tequila, which delineates the location of production and sets the standards for how tequila is made. The law, which is recognized worldwide, states that tequila can only be made in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas, and must be made with blue agave to be sold with the name tequila.

Like Scotch, tequila’s sense of place is further defined by being from highland or lowland. Agave grown in the higher elevations and red clay soil of the highlands of Jalisco matures slower, producing sweeter tequila with bright floral and citrus notes. Representative highland tequilas are Don Julio, El Tesoro and Milagro. The rich volcanic soil of the lowlands agave makes tequila that is rounder and less sweet with more earthy, herbaceous and woody flavors.

Examples of lowland tequilas include El Jimador, Herradura and Sauza. Mexico is serious about the quality of its tequila. Weber blue agave is controlled by the Mexican Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), a governing body established in 1993 to monitor the industry. The CRT authenticates each brand and tracks every blue agave plant in Mexico with GPS chips to examine output.

That allows the CRT to determine whether producers are augmenting tequila with cheap sugar alcohol rather than 100 percent agave by tracking the yield of the plants on their map. It is clear that many in Mexico consider tequila a national treasure worthy of protection. That quality control during the past few decades has brought tequila a long way from being a shot of fire that peels paint and leaves you crying in the morning.

Texas tequila

Tequila Tejas

We have established that tequila is from Mexico. So how is it that there are several tequilas from Texas? It’s all about the origins of the tequila and not how it is marketed. Consumer demand for high-quality tequila has resulted in dozens of new premium tequila brands hitting the market in recent years. There are now more than 1,300 registered brands, made by only 154 registered Mexican tequila distilleries.

Many of those tequila brands are owned and marketed by U.S. companies, including some boutique companies in Texas. Because the raw material, agave, is only from a small five-state area in Mexico and the production is done by a small number of Mexican distilleries, the difference in each tequila sold by Texas companies all comes down to the specific recipe of how it’s made. Tequila starts its life from the juice of the sugar-rich heart of the blue agave plant, called the piña, which is harvested when the plant is about 8 to 10 years old. The piña is prepared for fermentation by cooking it either in stone ovens or in autoclaves, which are pressure cookers.

The difference between the two methods is like the difference between baking a potato in a convection oven versus a microwave. The liquid from the cooked piña is fermented in big steel tanks. Once fermentation is finished, the tequila is distilled twice. The resulting liquid is called silver, blanco or plata tequila. Silver tequila is then aged between two and 12 months in oak barrels to make reposado, between one and three years to make añejo, or aged for more than three years to make extra añejo.

It’s the differences in where and how the agave is grown and the subtle differences in each step of this production process that create varying flavors in the Texas tequilas on the market, including Ambhar, Dulce Vida, Man in Black, Pura Vida Tequila, SOAH Tequila, Republic Tequila, Tequila 512 and Z Tequila.

Man in Black Tequila

Man in Black TequilaKinky Friedman has always been a fan of tequila. Brian Kanof, who supported Friedman’s run for Texas governor in 2006 and is currently supporting his run for the Texas agriculture commissioner job, started Man in Black tequila in February 2012. Kanof brought on beverage-industry veteran Dianna Offutt and Friedman to help get the new tequila brand off the ground. Kanof and Offutt went to Mexico to work with master distillers to select a recipe. Man in Black Tequila is made with 100 percent blue agave grown in the highlands outside Arandas, Jalisco. The distillery and the production method for this tequila were selected for its true agave nature.

“We wanted to make one [in which you can] smell the agave, taste the agave. The agave plants used in Man in Black have a unique thumbprint that is registered with the CRT,” Offutt says. “The piñas are well ripened and picked during the hottest part of the day to ensure their sweetness. The plata is distilled twice, filtered only once, rested and then bottled. That gives it a nice spiciness, like black pepper, and a smooth finish.”

Man in Black also makes reposado, aged eight months in new American oak, giving it a sweet, smoky flavor. The añejo is aged for 14 months, and the extra añejo is aged for seven years in French oak, and an additional year in a port cask. If you can find one of these special aged tequilas, be prepared to shell out as much as $200 for a bottle. Friedman is a born pitchman for Texas tequila. It combines his love of the state and his love of tequila.

“Tequila is something I’ve liked for a long time, particularly when I’m onstage,” Friedman says. “I call it the Barry Manilow drink because it makes you feel good for a very short period of time.”

True to his character, Friedman doesn’t pull any punches in describing its rustic style.

“We say this is not your father’s tequila. This is your grandfather’s gardener’s tequila. It’s not homogenized crap,” he says. “It’s distinctive and really, really good. Everyone that tries it loves it. The rest of the other stuff is promotional crap. People pump millions of dollars in to marketing to sell crap. One of the problems with our culture is that things are homogenized, sanitized and trivialized.”

Friedman drinks Man in Black with panache too.

“I drink it cowboy-style,” he says. “You snort the line of salt, take the lime and squeeze it into your eye and then you kill the shot. That’s how we do it in Bandera, Texas.”

Man in Black is sold exclusively in Texas, starting at $26, and can be found in stores such as Twin Liquors and Spec’s. A portion of the profit supports Friedman’s Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch.

Tequila 512

Tequila 512Tequila 512 launched in November 2012 after a six-year journey from idea to product. It took President Scott Willis that long to find the right distillery in Mexico and to do the necessary legal work to get licensed.

“I have invested a lot of energy and emotion in to Tequila 512 to get it started,” Willis says. “I traveled to Mexico to find a distiller that would make tequila to my specifications. I chose Tequila La Cofradía in Jalisco, a family-owned business for 50 years. I then tasted multiple distillation varieties and eventually chose one with the right smooth, round agave flavor that is appealing to the American palate. My process uses a 24-hour filtration to mellow it out and an oxygenation process for silky mouthfeel to make it enjoyable to sip.”

Tequila 512 currently makes one product, blanco tequila, using 100 percent estate-grown Weber blue agave from the Central lowlands. It is USDA-certified organic. It is made using traditional stone ovens to roast the piña, distilled three times in pot stills and given a final filtration. Tequila 512 will introduce a reposado this summer.

Willis is almost a one-man operation, handling distribution on his own, driving his Tequila 512 pick-up throughout Texas. He is focused on growing locally until he identifies the right distributor. He’s inspired by the bootstrap beginnings of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, and aims to emulate the consistency of Tito Beveridge. He also calls on Clayton Christopher, cofounder of Deep Eddy, as a mentor. Their inspiration and his work is paying off.

“My dream was to see it on the shelf of a bar and a liquor store,” Willis says. “A year ago, if you told me I’d be on the menu at all Maudie’s, at the ball park in Arlington and in more than 200 locations, I’d be happy. Now I want to be in more than 1,000 locations. I want people to try it and enjoy it. Until they do, my work is not done.”

Some of Willis’ success can be attributed to making an award-winning quality at a reasonable price. It’s hard to find a bottle of tequila that wins gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and sells for $24. Tequila 512 is readily available at liquor stores, bars and restaurants throughout Austin, including Little Woodrow’s, Uncle Billy’s, Shady Grove, Jack Allen’s Kitchen, Red’s Porch, Ranch 616, 508 Tequila Bar, The Parish and many others.

Republic Tequila

tequila_republicKen McKenzie, tequila importer and co-founder of Republic Tequila, was introduced to Texas businessman Tom Nall and to an idea for creating premium tequila in a distinctive Texas-shaped bottle. The two set out to start Republic Tequila with only that iconic bottle as a simple idea and they quickly built a business around it. McKenzie put 16 years of experience in the tequila business to work to find a distillery that could produce Republic Tequila to its exact specifications.

Throughout the years, it has changed distilleries and is now produced at the Leyros Distillery using 100 percent blue agave grown in the black volcanic soil of the Central lowlands. Despite the recent surge in agave prices, Republic has a steady supply of agave because it invested in the futures market that allows the distillery to ensure consistency of sugar levels from the plants. Republic is made with a few modern methods, including the use of a diffuser to extract more juice from the piña and natural aerobic fermentation.

It is distilled twice and rests in open-air steel tanks to get a taste as pure and smooth as a Texas drawl. While Texas is the second-largest market for tequila in the United States, and the U.S. buys 76 percent of all tequila made, it’s a bit of a stretch to package an authentically Mexican product in a Texas-shaped bottle. McKenzie acknowledges that the Texas tie gave him pause in 2008.

“For me, that didn’t scream traditional tequila. But what I’ve learned over time as I’ve taken the Republic bottle to tequila distillers in Guadalajara is that any vessel that gets attention in a bar or store gets you one step ahead,” he says. “This bottle will never get lost. Our job is to make sure the tequila is exceptional. People will buy it as a novelty first, but they will buy it again if it’s really good.”

While the plata is the bread and butter of Republic sales because of its versatility in margaritas and palomas, the company also sells quite a bit of reposado and añejo, which are aged in Jack Daniels barrels.

“People are sipping tequila a lot more in the past 10 years,” McKenzie says. “Americans understand its complexity. Because blue Weber agave is in the ground for eight to 10 years, it has time to pick up a lot of complexity. Cognac has 300 taste components. Tequila has more than 620 flavor characteristics.”

Republic Tequila has outgrown the state’s borders and is now sold in 15 states. One of those states, Oklahoma, isn’t a huge fan of all things Texas.

“In Oklahoma, bartenders will let the person who bought the last shot of Republic Tequila go outside and shoot the Texas bottle,” McKenzie says with a laugh.

Real Gusto

Real Gusto TequilaIt’s not marketed as Texas tequila, but Real Gusto just started selling its tequila in the United States six months ago, starting in Austin. The company chose Austin for its first U.S. beachhead because of the ambiance, the environmental consciousness and appreciation for organic products.

Real Gusto was started in 1966 by the grandfather of the current CEO, Jaime Gonzalez. In its second generation, Gonzalez’s father endeavored to make the best tequila in the world, and moved the distillery from its original location in Guadalajara to a ranch in the highlands of Jalisco. The current location allows for all operations, from planting through production, to occur on the same property.

“We plant the agave and take care of it for 10 to 12 years before harvesting,” Gonzalez says. “They don’t get very big because we don’t use fertilizer or herbicide. Ours reach only 80 pounds rather than the 200 of typical plants. It’s like an organic tomato in that it’s smaller, but with better flavor.”

Real Gusto steams its piña in stone ovens for 48 hours. The juice is then fermented using natural yeast for five to eight days depending on the weather.

“When it’s warmer, fermentation goes faster,” Gonzalez explains.

Real Gusto goes through a double distillation in the same copper stills from the original distillery. The blanco that comes out of the stills at 110 proof is blended with natural spring water from the mountains on the ranch to reduce it to 80 proof before bottling.

“We take really good care during distillation to remove the heads and tails of the tequila,” Gonzalez says. “We take special care to keep only the heart of the distillation. We get rid of the part that can give you a bad hangover. It’s like the venom of the plant. Our process is the same as the way good tequilas were made 100 years ago. We have recovered that craftsmanship of very fine tequila that gives you the original flavor of the product.”

Real Gusto makes reposado aged for six months in new white oak barrels from Tennessee. The barrels give it a mellow vanilla flavor without imparting a whiskey flavor that comes with using a bourbon barrel. The añejo is aged for 14 months. The quality of Real Gusto has been recognized with a double gold medal for the blanco, and gold medals for both the reposado and añejo single gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

It is available in Austin at retailers like Spec’s, and restaurants such as Benji’s.

Z Tequila

Z TequilaWith more than 35 years experience in the booze industry, Pepe Zevada, founder of Z Tequila, brings extensive knowledge to his young brand. He had previously introduced Jack Daniels whiskey to the Latin American markets, served as the vice president in the Southern Europe region for Hiram Walker, and as the worldwide vice president of Sauza Tequila before settling in to a life of leisure in Austin. Born in Spain, Zevada has lived in the Italian Alps, spent more than 20 years in Mexico City and has traveled to 106 countries.

“The Dos Equis most interesting man in the world guy is an actor. I’m a real guy,” the worldly Zevada says. “I truly am the most interesting man in the world. I speak four languages and have led a very interesting life.”

Faced with interminable boredom after retiring at a young age in 2000, Zevada re-entered the liquor business to launch Espolón Tequila. It was during his frequent commutes between Guadalajara and Austin that he decided to start Z Tequila. It took three years to develop the tequila, which finally hit the market in 2008. Z Tequila is serious about its agave. There are no insecticides or fertilizers used in the field and agave leaves are used as mulch.

“We never use a young agave plant,” Zevada says. “It takes seven to nine years before we harvest. Using young plants to cut corners is like eating a green orange. They give very little juice and it’s bitter. The mature plants might look rotten, but no, that’s when the plant is ready to go.”

The process to make Z Tequila takes up to three weeks to ferment and distill. It is distilled in a short column still with a continuous distillation process that lowers the methanol to a minimum. Zevada has been friends with his distiller in Arandas, Jalisco, for 30 years.

“He is the best master distiller in the industry. He is extremely careful making our tequila. Our tequila has one of the lowest in methanol content in the industry,” Zevada says. “You will never have a hangover drinking Z Tequila. Never.”

The reposado is aged in American oak for nine months while the añejo is aged for two years. Z Tequila has won accolades for its quality, including a double gold medal in 2013 from thefiftybest.com for the blanco, and a double gold medal at the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition for the blanco. Zevada attributes the success to the close-knit team.

“It’s like a band of brothers,” he says. “Work together for the brand. Having my name on the bottle gives the brand a personality.”

Z Tequila is sold at more than 400 retailers, bars, restaurants and hotels in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. It is a sponsor for the Round Rock Express and Houston Astros, with a tequila bar in Minute Made Park.

Tequila Cabeza

Cabeza TequilaFamed barman, founder of Employee’s Only in New York and cocktail author Jason Kosmas co-founded the spirits company The 86 Co. with three partners in 2009. The inspiration for the company was to take their knowledge as bartenders and make the kind of spirits they would like to serve. The result is four brands of spirits: Aylesbury Duck Vodka, Caña Brava Rum, Fords Gin and Tequila Cabeza.

“We started The 86 Co. to 86 the bullshit that surrounds the spirits industry,” Kosmas says. “We listen to bartenders to what they want and what they need and that influences the vodka, rum, gin and tequila we make. It even influences the design of our bottles.”

Kosmas moved to Austin last summer after his daughter was born, in order to be close to Grandma. From this home base, he introduced the first bottle of Tequila Cabeza to Texas on Jan. 1, 2013. To create Cabeza, they visited 18 distilleries before deciding to work with the Vivanco family at the El Ranchito Distillery in Arandas, Jalisco. The family has been growing highland agave for more than 80 years and oversees everything from sprout to bottle. Because the agave grown on the property is handpicked, the tequila represents the terroir of the land, letting influences of the iron-rich soil shine through.

“The land around the distillery looks like Mars,” Kosmas says. “It is stark red. It’s located in the mountains, where the plants are challenged more by cool nights and hot days. That produces more flavor.”

The agave is harvested with just a bit of the leaf along with the piña to give the tequila a peppery flavor. The piña is brick-oven roasted, shredded and fermented in open tanks using Champagne yeast for a slower fermentation to bring out more robust, deeper vegetal and fruity flavors. The tequila is distilled twice, filtered once and left to rest for 60 days to let flavors meld. Cabeza is bottled at 86 proof because it is the sweet spot of flavor in classic cocktails like margaritas and polomas. The result is agave-forward tequila that is aromatic with rich viscosity. It starts vegetal with good pepper, eases in to sweet fruit and ends with soft vanilla spiked with pepper.

“Our philosophy for our spirits is that they are made to be used in cocktails,” Kosmas says. “We want them to shine in drinks, want our tequila to be able to express that highland characteristic in a cocktail. The finished product isn’t the tequila. It’s what ends up in the glass.”

It is sold in 18 states and throughout Texas, including shops like Austin Wine Merchant and Spec’s, and bars and restaurants like Bar Congress, Benji’s, drink.well., Half Step, Firehouse, Midnight Cowboy and Whistler’s.

Ten Tequilas to Try

Dispelling Misconceptions

  • Tequila comes with a worm in the bottle. If you see a worm in any bottle of alcohol, run. That’s nasty. It is true that some crappy, low-grade kinds of mezcal have come with a gusano worm or a butterfly caterpillar as a marketing gimmick. This is not the case with tequila.
  • Tequila is made from cactus juice. Nope. Tequila is made from distilled juice of the heart, or piña, of the agave plant, in particular, the blue agave. Agave is a succulent and a relative of the yucca plant and Joshua tree, but not a cactus. It takes eight to 15 years for the long-leafed agave to mature, growing to heights of 5 to 8 feet and 7 to 12 feet around.
  • Tequila and mezcal are the same. Tequila is a type of mezcal, but mezcal is not tequila. The similarity is that both are made from the agave plant. While mezcal can be made from up to 30 different types of agave, most are made with agave espadin. Tequila is made from only blue agave. Mezcal gets its characteristic smoky flavor because the piña is roasted in earthen pits before extracting the juice to distill. Agave piña for tequila is baked or steamed in ovens.
  • Tequila is a hallucinogenic. Excessive consumption of tequila will certainly get you drunk, but that ain’t trippin’. This myth is sometimes attributed to that nasty worm. It likely came about through the confusion of mezcal with mezcaline, an actual hallucinogen, found in the peyote cactus.
  • Tequila is just for shots and margaritas. A shot is a sure road to drunkville, but if you want to enjoy the tequila, pour it into a snifter to release the aromas. Rather than the lime and salt tripe, try chasing it with a dose of sangrita, or “little blood,” a Mexican concoction of orange juice, tomato juice, chili pepper and lime. Margaritas are excellent, but you’re more likely to find a paloma in Mexico.

What Are You Drinking’s Guide to Drinking Tequila in Austin 

508 Tequila Bar508 Tequila Bar and Pelons Tex-Mex 802 Red River St.

They pour more than 50 types of tequila and several tequila cocktails, including the Cuernos Largos, a hearty margarita made with Dulce Vida 100 proof tequila. It packs a punch, so they only allow customers to order two.

Benji’s Cantina 716 W. Sixth St.

Serving more than 80 labels of tequila, this Tex-Mex restaurant and bar is shooting to have more than 100 tequilas in the near future. Try a frozen Tequila Sunrise made with Z Silver Tequila while sitting on the rooftop patio on a hot summer day.

drink.well. 207 E. 53rd St.

Always on the list for excellent cocktails, drink.well.’s award-winning bar staff mixes classic drinks with more than 20 tequilas. Chat up the bartender while enjoying a Jalisco Foxtrot.

Guero’s Taco Bar 1412 S. Congress Ave.

With a respectable list of tequilas, 17 signature margaritas and several tequila specialty drinks, Guero’s fits the bill for a casual watering hole.

Half Step 75 1/2 Rainey St.

Half Step features 20 kinds of tequila and classic cocktails made by notable barman Chris Bostick. This Rainey Street bar is a step ahead with an impressive ice program that includes hand-cut ice cubes from huge blocks of ice made in their icehouse and Sonic-like ice, pellet ice crushed for cold tequila cocktails inside or out on the patio.

Iron Cactus 606 Trinity St.

This Sixth Street mainstay has more than 100 tequilas and fantastic happy-hour specials to get your night started. Try a Z Best margarita on the rooftop patio.

La Condesa 400 W. Second St.

Accomplished bartender Nate Wells oversees an award-winning cocktail program that draws from more than 80 tequilas for a base. Snuggle up with your date in the cozy bar or take your Roble Especiado to the street-side patio for a little people watching.

Tacos and Tequila 507 Pressler St.

Claiming the largest selection of tequila in town, TNT has more than 100 kinds of tequila, including five poured cold on tap. Try one of the monthly featured distilleries neat in a snifter.

Takoba 1411 E. Seventh St.

With two full bars and a large outdoor seating area, Takoba pours more than 20 kinds of tequila. Try a house-made sangrita to follow your tequila.

What are You Drinking’s Favorite Summer Tequila Cocktails

Tequila 512 cocktail512 Cucumber Caliente

Ingredients: 

  • 2 ounces 512 Blanco Tequila
  • 3 slices cucumber, peeled
  • 1 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1 ounce St. Germain

Directions: In a glass, muddle the cucumber and jalapeño slices. Add tequila, lime juice and St. Germain. Shake with ice and strain into a martini glass.

The Maverick

Ingredients:

  • 3 1/4-inch cucumber slices
  • 1.5 ounces Z Tequila
  • 2 orange slices, juiced
  • Club soda
  • 1 tablespoon sugar-salt mixture
  • Sriracha hot sauce to rim glass
  • 1 paper-thin cucumber slice to float on top
  • 1/4 orange wheel

Directions: In a mixing glass, muddle cucumber, sugar and orange juice into thick liquid consistency. Add tequila and set aside to allow it to fuse together. Rim martini glass using Siracha hot sauce then dip it into the salt-sugar mixture. Add ice to the drink mixture and shake thoroughly. Strain into glass. This cocktail was created by Louis Sandoval of Mavericks Country and Rock.

Man’s Paloma

Ingredients:

  • 2 ounces Man in Black Tequila
  • Juice from 1/2 a lime
  • Pinch of salt
  • Grapefruit soda (Jarritos works well)
  • Ice cubes

Directions: Pour tequila into a highball glass and squeeze in lime juice. Add ice and salt, fill with grapefruit soda, stir and garnish with a lime wheel.

Real Gusto Margarita

Ingredients:

  • 2 ounces Real Gusto Tequila
  • 2 ounces fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce light agave nectar

Directions: Shake well and serve over ice.

Cabeza Tequila Old Fashioned

Ingredients:

  • 2 ounces Tequila Cabeza
  • 3/4 ounce honey syrup (1:1)
  • 3 dashes Bitter Truth grapefruit bitters
  • 1/4 ounce Tennyson absinthe

Directions: Stir, serve over a big piece of ice and garnish with a big twist of Rio Star grapefruit rind.

Hot Flamingo

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 ounces Dulce Vida Tequila
  • 1/2 ounce agave nectar
  • 2 strawberries
  • Cayenne pepper, seeded, cut into 1-inch strips
  • Soda

Directions: Muddle strawberries, pepper and agave in a shaker. Add tequila and a splash of soda. Shake gently and strain into a highball glass filled with ice. Top with more soda and garnish with a slice of strawberry.

The Republic Classic

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 ounces Republic Plata Tequila
  • 1 ounce Cointreau
  • 3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
  • Salt for garnish

Directions: Combine tequila, Cointreau and lime juice in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Moisten rim of a margarita or other cocktail glass with lime juice or water. Holding glass upside down, dip rim into salt. Shake and strain drink into glass and serve.

What are you drinking? 

Disclosure: Samples were provided by Tequila 512, Cabeza Tequila and Real Gusto Tequila. 

AUSTIN’S COOLEST COCKTAIL: The April 5, 1971 at Bar Congress

Jason Stevens Bar CongressQuench your thirst with Bar Congress’s Jason Stevens as he prepares Austin’s coolest cocktail.

Austin’s status as a big city seems to have been cemented over the past year with the arrival of Formula 1 racing, the burgeoning census data and the advent of 10-digit dialing to accommodate a new area code. The city’s growth might bring more congestion, but it hasn’t dramatically altered its sophisticated and adventurous, yet relaxed, personality. Austin’s best bars embrace that same personality. That’s what makes them cool.

Whether you are closing a deal over happy hour, looking to impress your friend on date night or you just want to relax after work, the swanky cocktail lounge at Bar Congress is your destination. Tucked between its sister establishments—the casual Second Bar + Kitchen and the elegant Congress restaurant—Bar Congress is a refined yet welcoming blend of both. It’s a neighborhood bar where residents nibble on Chef David Bull’s delectable snacks, a celebration destination for a glass of Champagne before a 20th anniversary dinner and a cocktail bar where aficionados congregate for some of today’s best craft cocktails.

The man behind the excellent cocktails, Jason Stevens, has polished his skills over the past 15 years of bar management at hot spots such as the East Side Showroom and The Tigress before coming to Bar Congress. He is an award-winning mixologist, speaker and teacher of the history and art of quality -focused cocktails, and his recipes have been published nationally and locally. Stevens sees a shift toward simplicity in the Austin cocktail scene.

“The era of the 25-minute cocktail is going away,” he says. “There is a focus on simple cocktails with fresh local ingredients and local spirits. Tequila and mescal are popular here. With the onset of summer, people want refreshing drinks. I’m a big fan of all types of rum. I’m also getting into aromatized wines, aperitifs and vermouth.”

AUSTIN’S COOLEST COCKTAIL
April 5, 1971: This lively cocktail is named for the day Gary Busey was arrested for his first DWI. (This historical fact is completely unconfirmed and fully fabricated.)

Bar Congress Austin's Coolest Cocktail The April 5, 1971, combines Steven’s love for Sherry and tiki drinks without using rum. It mingles the light and refreshing elements of a margarita but tastes nothing like one. It’s complex without being difficult, showcasing the flavor of tequila. The light touch of cinnamon and allspice gives it a playful and sophisticated zing. The fresh zip of citrus sings summer wrapped in a whisper-dry Sherry for a nutty almond underlying flavor with a hint of sweetness. “On the surface it’s laidback, but it has lots of depth and complexity once you get past it all,” Stevens says, “just like Austin.”

Ingredients:

  • 1 ounce Siembra Azul Tequila Blanco
  • 1 ounce Amontillado Sherry
  • ½ ounce lemon juice
  • ½ ounce Cong’s Spices #2, a lightly spiced grapefruit cordial made in-house

Directions: Combine all ingredients, shake and serve up with a twist of Rio Star grapefruit peel on top.

This story was originally published in the July, 2013 issue of Austin Woman Magazine.

What are you drinking? 

6 tequila cocktails to try for Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo tequila cocktailsCinco de Mayo is often confused with Mexico’s Independence Day, but the date actually marks the Mexican army’s improbable trouncing of the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Similar to St. Patrick’s Day, most people aren’t concerned with the reason why it’s celebrated, and see it as a great excuse to down alcoholic concoctions inspired by the country. And what’s more appropriate to drink than tequila?

With nearly 1,000 brands of tequila to choose from in the U.S. (not too long ago, not that many could be found), we’ve gathered a few stand-out tequilas and recipes that are bound to tilt your sombrero.

Drinking in the area code

Tequila 512 hit town last November and is quickly gaining notoriety. It picked up a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in March and was recognized as “Best Blanco Tequila in Austin” by the Austin Tequila Society last fall. Not bad for a tequila created by one man, Scott Willis, who has boot-strapped the entire operation on his own.

Willis was inspired by the local distilling trail-blazer, Tito Beverage, and decided to follow his passion for the art of craft tequila. He has spent six years perfecting a specific recipe that has a prominent agave flavor, and is smooth enough to be accessible to the American palate. Tequila 512 is made with 24 hour filtration to mellow it out and an oxygenation process for a silky mouth feel.

While Willis named after Austin’s area code, it is made at the La Cofradia distillery in the town of Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico.

“I traveled to Mexico to find a distiller that would make my tequila. Most distilleries won’t do custom recipes,” said Willins. “I was also interested in finding a distillery that sourced its agave from a specific region. Where the agave is grown matters a lot to the flavor.”

Tequila 512 is starting on a small scale and Willis hopes to sell 1,000 cases in the first year. You can find it at retail shops for under $30 and at restaurants like Shady Grove.

Willis prefers to drink his tequila straight, but when he is in the mood for a cocktail he mixes a classic skinny margarita.

Organic 512 Skinny Margarita

  • 2 ounces Tequila 512 Blanco
  • 1.5 ounces orange juice
  • 1 ounce fresh lime juice
  • .5 ounce agave nectar (light)

Shake well and serve over ice in a brandy snifter.

Keep it in la Famila

The Camarena’s have been making Familia Camarena Tequila in the Los Altos Highlands of Jalisco Mexico for six generations and entered the U.S. market in 2010. The approachable, easy drinking tequila is made from 100 percent blue agave and is one of the better value tequila’s around for $20 or under. This tequila is a solid base for excellent cocktails. The website has a huge list of recipes and they sell a nice “Tipple Toolkit” with everything you need to make them at home. Here is a delicious drink from mixologist Joel Black, of Tinga in Los Angeles, CA.

Camarena Grand Slam

  • 1.5 ounces Camarena Reposado Tequila
  • 1 ounce fresh lime juice
  • .75 ounce  agave nectar
  • 1-2 slices fresh jalapeño
  • 2 cubes fresh pineapple
  • 1 pinch fresh cilantro

Muddle all ingredients, except tequila in a shaker tin. Add tequila and ice, shake nice & easy and strain over fresh ice in a double old fashioned glass. Garnish with a pineapple square, jalapeno slice and fresh cilantro.

See unicorns with Sparkle Donkey  

Legend has it that people have been drinking Sparkle Donkey Tequila in Mexico for more than 100 years, but it just found its way into the U.S. last fall.  Made in the Jalisco region, Sparkle Donkey Silver, which won a Gold Medal at the 2012 BTI International Spirits Competition and  the Reposado tequilas are available around Austin for just north of $20. Try this simple mix with a kick, but don’t have too many or you may be seeing unicorns.

The Mule Driver

  • 1 part Sparkle Donkey Silver
  • 3 parts orange juice

Combine in a shaker over ice, shake well, and strain into a rocks glass.

Spice it up

If you like a little zip in each sip, Tanteo Jalapeño Tequila is worth a try. This 100 percent Blue Weber Agave blanco tequila is infused with locally grown organic jalapeños. It will put a fire in your eye straight up, or you can try it in a tangy twist on the margarita.

Mexican Spiced Apples

  • 1.5 ounce Tanteo  Jalapeño Tequila
  • 2 ounces apple juice
  • .5 ounce fresh lime jice
  • .25 ounce agave nectar

Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice Shake well and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish with an apple slice.

Get out of the house

There are several bars in Austin restaurants celebrating Cinco de Mayo, with excellent tequila-based cocktails. The energetic matron of Drink.Well, Jessica Sanders, will convert the bar from Derby Day festivities to Cinco de Mayo overnight. In addition to their creative cocktails, their standard margarita will knock your socks off.

Drink.Well. House Margarita

  • 1.5 ounce Siete Leguas Blanco Tequila
  • .75 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
  • .5 ounce Paula’s Texas Orange

Add all ingredients to a cocktail tin with a scoop of ice. Shake well. Strain into a glass with ice. Garnish with Lime. *For those who like a little extra oomph, Jessica recommends adding four drops of Bittermens Hellfire Shrub, which makes the drink nice and smoky/spicy.

Here is what Jessica suggests for those who want to celebrate in a more “elegant” manner.

Agave Old Fashioned 

2 oz Siembra Azul Anejo Tequila
.5 oz Cacao-Chai Infused Agave Syrup (I use cacao-chai tea from ZHI tea)
2 dashes of orange bitters
2 orange peels

Add the infused agave syrup and bitters with ice to a double old-fashioned glass. Add the tequila and stir until chilled and properly diluted. Express an orange peel over the cocktail and garnish with the expressed peel.

Libationist Joyce Garrison at the W Austin is mixing up a few amazing specialty cocktails for Cinco de Mayo including a classic Paloma.

W Austin Paloma for Cinco de Mayo Paloma from Joyce Garrison at W Austin

  • 1.5 ounces Don Julio Reposado
  • 3 ounces grapefruit soda
  • 1.5 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
  • .5 ounces lime juice

Build in a tall glass and garnish with lime.

Whether you stay in or head out on the town to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, you won’t go wrong with these ideas.

Disclosure: Samples were provided by Tequila 512, Familia Camarena Tequila, Sparkle Donkey and Tanteo Jalapeño Tequila

This story was previously published on CultureMap.

What are you drinking?

Tequila with a purpose: Jack Allen’s Kitchen Tequila Bash benefits Lone Star Paralysis Foundation

LuAnn, Bryce, Molly and Jack Gilmore gathered for the Tequila Bash

What is it about tequila that says party? Is it the earthy aroma and complex taste? Is it the fiery burn in the back of your throat that reminds you that you are teetering on the razors edge that separates euphoria from delirium? Or is it the reputation for its mythical ability to dissolve all worldly worries and forge bonds of brotherhood among those who drink it together?  

Judging by the arms thrown around shoulders, broad grins and belly laughs ricocheting around the patio of Jack Allen’s Kitchen during the Second Annual Tequila Bash, I’d say Jack Allen tapped into tequila’s ability to bend strangers into friends.

“I could have done an event with beer, or with vodka. But I chose tequila to go after the guys who are willing to spend $200 a person to go to a fund raising event,” says Jack Gilmore, chef and proprietor, Jack Allen’s Kitchen.

Gilmore has been an ardent supporter of the Lone Star Paralysis Foundation for eight years. When he opened Jack Allen’s Kitchen, he made it standard operating procedure to give back to community and made the Lone Star Paralysis Foundation the primary beneficiary. This is one of the charities Gilmore knows that really works. He relishes the moments when he sees previously wheel-chair bound people who are able to walk again.   

Gilmore is a regular supporter of the Foundation’s annual gala and raises money throughout the year by donating $1 for every order of Carl Miller’s Layered Chunky Queso sold at the restaurant. In 2011, the restaurant was able to donate more than $9,000 and presented a check for more than $3,600 to foundation executive director, Mike Haynes, and president, Doug English, at the Tequila bash for the past quarter’s sales.

The first Tequila Bash raised more than $15,000 and this year’s event is expected to net around $18,000. Between the queso sales, the gala auction and the Tequila Bash, Jack Allen’s Kitchen raises about $40,000 to $50,000 a year for the Foundation.  

Proceeds will be used to advance the foundations mission of curing “spinal cord paralysis through funding research, advanced recovery and community outreach.” With the funding, the foundation will be able to continue to offer recovery programs that use therapies and equipment for spinal recovery.

Jack Allen’s Kitchen has a serious bent on featuring fresh Texas ingredients straight on its menu. Gilmore gathered like-minded chef’s to pair locally-sourced dishes with locally owned tequila for the Bash. “All of the tequila distillers are locally owned except Don Julio, and they are five of the finest tequilas out there,” he says. Beyond a local focus, there weren’t many rules for the food and tequila pairing: “Make it great is the only directive.”

Featured pairings

It was obvious that the chef’s adopted the same easy-going attitude of the bash, relishing the tail-gate-like atmosphere. The food selections were scrumptious bite-sized nibbles and completely unpretentious.

Albert Benitez, chef at Cover 3, served Black and Blue Crostinis, made with rare beef tenderloin slices, blue cheese and onion marmalade served on toasted bread slices. The substantial, yet bite-sized nibble is a mainstay on the restaurant’s party menu and paired well with the cocktail from Dulce Vida Organic Tequila.

Ben Craven, the beverage manager at Perla’s created a Fleur de Paloma made with Dulce Vida Organic Tequila.

  • 1.5 ounces Dulce Vida Blanco
  • .5 ounces St. Germaine
  • 2 dashes of Lavender Spice Bitters
  • 2 ounces of fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice
  • Topped with club soda

Bryce Gilmore, chef at Barley Swine, prepared farm fresh deviled eggs with eggs from Milagro Farms. He topped them with nutty, crispy kale. The rich, creamy eggs and bitter greens were a good match with the cocktail made with Ambhar Tequila.

Marcelo Nascimento, award winning mixologist from Ambhar Tequila, prepared a classic concoction.

  • 2 ounces of Ambhar Añejo
  • .5 ounces St. Germaine
  • Orange bitters
  • Aromatic bitters
  • Orange peel set ablaze

Chris TenEyck, sous chef at Jack Allen’s Kitchen, prepared grilled and braised pork ribs with Texas orange and sweet chili barbecue sauce and served with coleslaw. Ridiculously good. He selected this to pair well with the citrus flavors in the cocktail from Z Tequila.

Dana Wakley of Pepe Zevada’s Z Tequila mixed the Spaniard for the crowd. This Jack Allen’s Kitchen menu staple was a sweet accompaniment with the ribs.

  • 1.5 ounces Z Tequila Añejo
  • .5 ounces Orange Sherry
  • Splash of fresh-squeezed Texas orange juice
  • Dash of agave nectar
  • Squeeze of lime

The man himself, Jack Gilmore of Jack Allen’s Kitchen, made ancho crusted crispy tacos filled with local lamb braised with garlic and Republic Tequila Anejo.  

Brittany Meador and Chanze Hoover Republic Tequila served a Jack Allen’s staple, the refreshing Agave Cocktail.

  • 2 ounce of Republic Tequila Reposado
  • 2 ounces fresh lime juice
  • 1 ounce Agave nectar
  • Shaken over ice

Don Julio Tequila, the only non-locally owned tequila, brought a twist to the pairings. Roxanne Santos mixed the 70th Anniversary Anejo Blanco with Grand Marnier, orange juice and a squeeze of lime for a distinctive margarita. This Jalisco Highlands tequila is filtered after aging to remove the signature caramel coloring of añejo. The taste is silky smooth and smoky and was served with Beef Street Tacos by John Zamora to pair with the margaritas.

Rebecca Rather, pastry chef and cookbook author, made a variation of her Good Luck chocolate truffles with a ganache made with Patron XO — a heavenly dessert accompaniment.

Stephanie Vasquez prepared a simple dessert drink with Patrón XO shaken with ice. The silver tequila blended with coffee liquor was smooth, sweet and sexy.

Texas grown ingredients, Texas owned tequila and Texas-sized hospitality made for a warm, jovial fundraiser that never lost sight of the cause; Jack Gilmore is certainly onto something in using tequila to open wallets for a good cause. I’ll venture to bet they raise even more money for the Lone Star Paralysis Foundation next year.

This email also appeared CultureMap.

What are you drinking?

Republic Tequila: A new outlook on tequila

Part 2 of my Interview with Republic Tequila COO, Ken MacKenzie

Tequila is a gracious scapegoat.  How many times have you falsely accused it as the culprit for your own indiscretions? Oh I’ve heard it many times, and I’ve done it a few times myself. “Sorry I punched you in the eye. It was the tequila.” “Honey, it wasn’t me kissing your sister. It was the tequila.” “I had no idea I could even drive a fork lift, let alone steal one loaded with Ready-Whip. It had to be the tequila.”

Tequila suffers all of these barbs, insults and abominations without the slightest complaint.

Here’s something to consider; if you wouldn’t treat tequila like the bullet train to Drunkville by slammin shots by the box car, you wouldn’t need it to be your fall guy. Tequila is a complex spirit with distinction and heritage. It deserves your respect and a new outlook on how you drink it.

Over the past decade, dozens of premium tequilas have hit the market. Now there are more than 1,000 registered brands, many of which are high quality sought by aficionados. A relatively new one is Republic Tequila, made in Jalisco, Mexico and marketed in Austin, TX. I wrote about Republic Tequila previously, and think it’s worth reviewing all three of its products.

Ken MacKenzie, COO of Republic Tequila, poured me a few snifters of tequila and gave me a run-down of how it’s made. Republic makes its tequila from 100% organic, estate grown Blue Weber agave at La Quemada distillery, using traditional methods with no funny business. He explained the process for making their Plata, Reposado and Añejo tequila lines.

There are 300 varieties of agave. Republic uses Blue Weber because it is controlled by the Mexican government. Every agave plant has a GPS chip implanted in it to monitor it during the entire decade or more of its maturation. That control means its quality won’t be compromised.

To prepare agave for fermentation you have to cook it either in natural ovens or in autoclaves, which are pressure cooker. The difference between the two methods is like the difference between baking a potato in a convection oven versus a microwave. What takes 36 hours in a natural oven can be done in 4 -6 hours in an autoclave. Like a microwave it’s faster, but it also makes it taste differently.

Sebastian Melendrez, Republic Tequila Master Distiller, takes a natural approach to fermentation too by introducing a natural strain of yeast derived from the agave. Sebastian lets it take its sweet time to ferment for 4 to 6 days and ferment without accelerants.  He then artfully distills it twice, eliminating the heads and tales to get to the core zone of distillate for pure tequila. Double distillation gets to real tequila. The more you distill it, the more you get away from the core ingredients.

Finally, Republic Tequila rests in open air steel tanks for five days. Why? To get a taste as pure and smooth as a Texas drawl. Now it’s ready for bottling as Plata in the distinctive Texas-shaped bottles.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3q4UK0l_S8[/youtube]

Let’s get to the tasting.

Republic Tequila Plata

Look Clear as your thoughts before you drink, with velvet viscosity and slow tears rolling down the snifter.
Smell Ken had me tip the glass to smell the complexity of the tequila in the bottom, middle and top of the glass. Each smelled discernably different. The bottom of the glass smelled of strong alcohol and pepper, the middle was rich with sweet and spiced agave and the top smelled of mild spring grass and lemon zest.
Taste Plata comes on with a rush of alcohol, followed by salty, sweet corn and agave. It has a hot, thick mouthfeel with a mid-length finish.
Price $35

Republic Tequila Reposado

To make the Reposado, the Plata tequila is aged for 8 months in American Oak. These are Jack Daniels barrels, charred medium, to bring the natural sugars to the surface. Jack only ages its whiskey for one cycle in a barrel, so there is plenty of life left in them to age other liquors. The barrels gives off some sweetness, vanilla and caramel flavors. By law, Reposado has to be aged for 2 months to 12 months. Republic Tequila chose 8 months because they find it is the right amount of time to let the agave flavors in the Plata to come through yet with additional complexity and flavor from aging.

Look Golden sun, like an aged Chardonnay, with the tight legs of a distance runner.
Smell When I smelled the bottom of the glass, I thought Ken had swapped the snifter for Cognac, because it was warm with caramel and oak. The middle smelled of sweet cherries and agave and the top smelled of gentle butter and caramelized brown sugar.
Taste The Reposado starts with a burst of pepper and eases into smoky agave, caramel and orange peel. It has a long finish of oak and mint.
Price $45

Republic Tequila Añejo

Republic Tequila lets the añejo see 20 months in American Oak Jack Daniels barrels. They don’t add any additional color with wood chips, so the color is natural and somewhat similar to the Reposado.

Look Late afternoon sun, orange tinged straw, warm and full. The thick viscosity showed in slow tears.
Smell The first whiff of the bottom of the liquor smelled of ripe bananas, cherries and vanilla. Mid glass was delicate and oaky followed by sweet chocolate on the top.
Taste The aging doesn’t mask the initial heat of alcohol, but it’s well balanced with pepper, orange peel and vanilla. It has smooth mouthfeel with a long finish with oak and bakers chocolate.
Price $49

With tequilas this good, it would be a waste to slam back shots surrounded by salt and lime sucking. These tequilas should be savored straight up in a snifter or mixed in a delicious cocktail. Ken is a big fan of sangrita. He enjoys the custom and the flavor of it with tequila. He also recommends simple cocktails like Añejo with Soda, Reposado with tonic and Plata with fruit juices. Republic Tequila makes a line of organic Spirit Blends and has several cocktail recipes on its website.

How do you like to drink your tequila?

Samples of Plata, Reposado and Anejo were provided by Republic Tequila for this review.

What are you drinking?

Mexican Heart, Texan Soul: Republic Tequila

Where you come from leaves an indelible mark on you. It shapes everything from our accent to how we look to the color of our letterman’s jacket. People put a lot of stock in where they are from.  It’s the same for the stuff we drink. Champagne can only be from Champagne, France. Cognac can only be from Cognac, France. Bourbon is from Kentucky. Wines all list their appellation and speak of the importance of terrior, that special something that only comes from the area, the soil and the climate where the wine was born.

The same is true for tequila. Back in 1978 Mexico established the Appellation of Origin Tequila, which delineates the location of production and sets the standards for how tequila is made. According to “Appellation de Origin Controllee” (AOC), tequila can only be made in Mexico. And by law, which is recognized world-wide, only blue agave booze made in Jalisco and a handful of adjacent counties in Mexico can be legally sold with the name tequila. Where you come from matters.

So how is it that there is 100 percent agave premium tequila, Republic Tequila, from Austin, Texas? I sat down with Ken MacKenzie, Partner and Chief Operating Officer of Republic Tequila to get the skinny. It turns out Republic is distilled in Mexico and marketed in the U.S. from its home base in Texas. There is a story behind it and it starts with love. Not love for tequila, but love for a girl.

While living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ken met a student from Mexico. The two hit it off and soon became inseparable. When she finished college, Ken followed that girl back to Guadalajara and decided to stay and marry her. Lucky for Ken, her uncle introduced him to the tequila business.

Do you remember your first experience with tequila, or at least a few of the circumstances surrounding it? Did you smother your hand in salt, slam back the shot and madly suck a lime to mask the fiery burn of rot-gut tequila? After soldiering through a few of those, did you profess your undying love to that pretty girl’s shoes before you puked on them? Yeah, that’s probably similar Ken’s first experience with tequila even though he didn’t say so. Imagine his surprise when he was introduced to the good stuff at the tequila distilleries in and around Jalisco. He fell in love again, but this time with tequila.

Ken immersed himself in the tequila business and soon began importing tequila to the U.S., helping Mexican distilleries navigate the distribution system in the states, and eventually owning his own brand.

Fast-forward several years. Ken was introduced to Texas businessman and marketing whiz, Tom Nall and to an idea for creating premium tequila in a distinctive Texas-shaped bottle. The two set out to start Republic Tequila with only that iconic bottle as a simple idea. They quickly built a business around it.

Ken put his tequila expertise to work and arranged to have Republic Tequila distilled at Cia Tequilera la Quemada, in Guadalajara, Mexico. The independent distillery came with three massively important qualities:

  1. The distillery makes certified organic tequila. This is no simple feat and it takes three years to qualify. The fields have to be certified that there are no herbicides or pesticides that affect the agave. This is extremely important because it that takes 8 to 12 years for an agave plant to reach maturity. The distillery itself has to be certified to prove that there are no foreign cleaning agents, yeasts or accelerants on premise. Because of the stringent criteria, certified organic tequilas are rare and hard to come by. It’s a clear sign that the sauce is made with higher standards which creates a more consistent tequila.
  2. La Quemada is a green distillery that recycles everything. The crushed agave fibers are woven in to rustic amate paper or used as bio fertilizer for feed. The waste alcohols are hazardous materials which go through a reverse osmosis process to reduce it to distilled water over a three week period. This is in contrast to some distilleries that still dump waste alcohol in the fields, leaving scorpions and lizards with horrendous hangovers.
  3. La Quemada is blessed to have Master Distiller Sebastian Melendrez at the helm. In his 22 years as a master distiller, he has worked his magic at Herradura before coming to La Quemada to make 4 Copas and Republic Tequila. He is a fourth generation agave grower and owns agave rich lands outside of Jalisco. This gives Republic a single source for low-land agave to make estate bottled tequila. In addition, the water used in production is sourced from an artesian well on the property.  Having a consistent source of raw materials, not having to buy agave from several states on the open market further adds to the consistency of the tequila.

Clearly, the birthplace matters for estate bottled Republic Tequila. So why the Texas bottle? With apologies to Jim Bowie and Davey Crocket, Texas and Mexico share a rich history and common heritage since the Republic of Texas gained independence from Mexico in 1836. Tequila is a rich part of the TX culture. As Ken explains it in this video, there are some things that Texans just know better than anyone else; steak, salsa and yes, tequila.

Tom is about as Texan as they come, from his hats to his boots. He knows that Texans are proud of their state. He has had his share of tequila all over the state and knew it was time for a new premium tequila with Mexican heart and Texan soul. That Texas shaped bottle full of liquid magic had to come to market.

It took 18 months to go from start-up to shipping the first bottle. What took so long? Believe it or not, they had challenges making that damn bottle. It was very difficult to manufacture the bottle with the distinctive panhandle. The first four companies Tom and Ken approached didn’t want anything to do with that funky bottle. The challenge presented big up front cost because no semi-automatic machine could do it. After a year they finally found a company that would hand-pour glass into Texas molds and the bottle came to life.

Where you are from matters. Tom and Ken know that people buy Republic Tequila for the Texas bottle the first time and for the Mexican tequila the second time.

What does it taste like? You’ll have to wait for me to write part two of this story. I’ll introduce you to the three lines of tequila. Stay tuned.

What are you drinking?

Show Me Your Taco!

I recently went to Tacos and Tequilla with my friend, food and taco critic extrodenaire, Nelson to review the drinks. My review of the drinks at Tacos and Tquila is here. He posted his review of the tacos on his blog Show Me Your Taco. Nelson has incredible expertise in taco reviews and this one gives you the goods on TnT. He also has a couple of videos so you can get a first had view of the scene at TnT. Check out his site and his videos.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgcNdxfdWL4&hl=en_US&fs=1]

Tacos and Tequila

There are a lot of classic flavor combinations; you know two great tastes that go great together like chocolate and peanut butter, coffee and Krispy Kremes and Gin & Tonics. Tonight I’m trying out a true Texas combo, Tacos and Tequilla with my friend @ShowMeYourTaco (Nelson) at a new taco place Tacos and Tequila (TnT) on west 5th street in Austin. You can follow them on Twitter @TnTacosTequila.

Nelson is chronicling our adventure in video and reviewing the food on his blog ShowMeYourTaco.com. Check out his post to hear about the food. I’m going to focus on, you guessed it, the tequila.

This urban taco spot recently opened by the good folks at Blue Mesa Grill in Dallas and it has been in business for nine weeks now. Rumor has it that TnT has the 5th largest tequila list in the country with 95varieties and that list keeps growing. This massive list is organized by tequila types  designated by stlye of aging: Blanco, Reposado and Añejo.

It offers more than variety. TnT has a staff that is steeped in tequila knowledge and a passion to share that knowledge with the likes of you and me. If you want to sample a variety of tequila, they offer four different tequila flights to compare three types of tequila. TnT also has cold tequilas on tap – Milagros Silver, 1800 Silver and Cazadores Silver – have you ever seen tequila on tap? If your tastes skew to the higher end, there are currently seven extra ultra premiums ranging from $30 to $65 a shot.

If you like mixed drinks, this is your place. TnT bartenders have a fabulous bent for making creative, delicious drinks with this venerated liquor. And the drink menu changes on a monthly basis. They mix signature recipes with fresh, hand squeezed juices and organic, locally sourced produce. Bar manager and assistant GM, Shelby Lynne, loves her job and it shows. Her favorite thing about working at TnT is exercising her creative genius and artistry in cocktails, surrounded by like-minded people. She aims to dazzle guests with inventive drinks made up on the fly.  

Our waiter recommended that we start off with a flight of infused tequila shots. Shelby dreams up all the infusions herself and the team makes up all the concoctions fresh daily. Here is what they brought us:

  1. Corzo Reposado infused with Mexican chocolate and guajillo peppers
  2. 1800 infused with peach, apricot and organic green tea
  3. Cazadores Reposado infused with cantaloupe

 [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Qh8BO0trvc&hl=en_US&fs=1]

With the preamble complete, it’s time to start the margaritas.

Watermelon Smash

This refreshing summer of love is made with Milagro silver, fresh smashed up watermelon and lime juice. The watermelon pulp is fleshy in the glass and satisfying.

Look The aftermath of a July picnic. Abused watermelon takes solace in a pint glass.    
Smell Sweet like a watermelon Jolly Rancher on a bender.   
Taste  Well, hello fruit smoothie in dominatrix leather. I wasn’t expecting you, but now that you are here. . . I’m going to have to chew your melons. The lime may make you perky, but that tequila shows you who’s really in charge.
Price $9

 

Dirty Margarita

Dirty is the operative word for this margarita made with Cazadores Reposado, house-made caramelized simple sugar roasted fresh on the stove, tamarind nectar and fresh-squeezed lime juice. While it’s dirty, Shelby tells me it’s nowhere near as dirty as her thoughts. Oh how I’d like to keep talking to her on the subject. This is one of Shelby’s favorites because she likes the duality of sweet and dirty. It’s how she envisions herself. She wants you to tell her how pretty she is while spanking her.

Look Masquerading as a golden brown Hefeweizen with a thin head of creamy mousse.
Smell Understated honey and a lime mist at sunset.
Taste This is the bad kid on the playground that you think is your friend. “Oh come on. It’s only Coke with lime.” Don’t believe him. This drink might be sweet and tangy on the surface, but deep inside, he’s out to pick up your mom.
Price $10

 Cucumber jalapeño margarita

This one is made with 1800 Silver chopped fresh cucumber, jalapeño slivers and lime.

Look Lemon grass green with a salad swimming about.
Smell Agave, cucumber and lime hanging out at the spa.   
Taste Cool as a cucumber right from the start, accompanied by fruity lime tang followed by acidic  heat. The spice is enough to keep me in line, but not too much to spoil the mood. I was a little disappointed by the amount of floating jalapeño seeds. They detracted from the overall experience. I didn’t need to chew this drink beyond the actual pepper and cucumber slices and the seeds added more kick than needed on each chew.
Price $9.50

 

Shelby Lynne’s Special

This one isn’t on a menu. All we had to do was ask and Shelby was extremely happy to show off her creative skills. Watch the video clip to hear what she mixes.

Look Raucous laughter lemon yellow with orange and lime wedges skinny dipping below the salt snow pack rim.
Smell Perky citrus with a wry smile.
Taste A provocative come-on that’s not going to get you slapped in the face. The smoky, oaky tequila runs this show without being domineering or rude. Mellow orange and laid back lime in a ménage a trois with caramel steals the show midway through, but steps out of the way to let the guest of honor close out this party in style. Thank you. Thank you tequila. You are awesome.    
Price $13

 
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p98uMyLlY_E&hl=en_US&fs=1]

Nelson and I had a fantastic experience at TnT. The food was delicious – read about that on ShowMeYourTaco.com – the drinks were tasty and the service was stellar. We acknowledge that we were writing  a review, which in part accounts for the highly attentive service. However, this was actually my second visit and Beautiful Wife and I had an equally enjoyable time with prompt and helpful service. I’ll definitely go back.

To close out this post, the one thing I really want is a good tequila song. There’s that one instrumental that PeeWee Herman dances to, but that doesn’t quite cut it for me. Maybe we could alter the Doors song:

Well, show me the way
To the next tequila bar
Oh, don’t ask why
Oh, don’t ask why

 Nah. A friend on twitter suggests M.I.A. Teqkilla. Here it is.