by Andrew Chalk
I remember in the World Cup tournament in the late 1980s and 1990s pre-competition debate would center around who would be the African discovery team of the tournament. In 1990 Cameron came out of nowhere, won their group and romped through to the quarter finals. In 1994 the competition was held here in the USA and I went and saw a flamboyent Nigeria thrash much-fancied Bulgaria 3-0 before also winning their group and advancing as far as the round of 16. By 1998 the whole of Africa had been discovered and there were no more unknown African teams.
So the same thing appears to be happening with Tequila in response to a decade-long doubling of sales in the USA since 2010. This growing market has fomented the appearance of new brands that gain favor out of the blue. Few chose a more difficult time to enter the US market than El Tequileño - late 2019 and 2020. The pandemic forced them to pivot and do a total overhaul of their planned strategy. No longer could bars,helmed by influential bartenders, introduce the product to the future customer base. The pandemic meant that there were either no bars, or that those that were open had fewer customers. El Tequileño had to go straight to liquor stores without the on-premise industry’s imprimatur or a US sales record.
The product was solid enough. Made by the same family that started the distillery in Tequila, Jalisco in 1959. A distillery where they made only their own brand of tequila (there are over 2,000 brands of tequila in Mexico but only 1,500 distilleries, hmmm). It also had a slew of medals from global competitions.
El Tequileño’s tequila comes from the company-owned blue agave fields in Los Altos de Jalisco. The harvested agave is cooked in steam pressure autoclaves and the resulting liquid fermented in concrete for seven days. Distillation is in copper pot stills in two stages. Ageing periods depend on the style being made but are always in neutral American oak barrels (purchased from the U.S. whiskey industry, which must use new oak with each batch).
El Tequileño is proud to eschew additives, even the legal ones of caramel color and glycerin, and to use the impurity-removing power of copper in distillation rather than less expensive alternatives. They also put sustainability front and center. For example, the fibres cut from the agave are composted and then used to fertilize the agave fields. Water sources are maintained for sustainability (in fact El Tequileño’s Master Distiller Tony Salles is on the local water board).
Despite the challenges of continuing a launch through the pandemic they pressed on. Now they are in Total Wine in multiple states, Goody Goody in Texas, and lots of independent retailers. This week, part of that effort was El Tequileño’s brand ambassador Steffin Oghene taking the media through a structured tasting of the company’s product line.
El Tequileño produces a wide range of styles (prices are for a 750ml bottle) ...
Blanco ($25): 71% agave. 29% piloncillo and sugar cane. Two weeks in American oak pipins (5,000-30,000 gallon vertical barrels) to soften it;
Reposado ($27): Three months in American oak pipins. Tasting note: Fruity. More powerful than the blanco. Soft. oak, vanilla;
Platinum ($51): Made in a similar manner to the blanco but 100% agave. 14 days in American oak. More powerful and complex than the blanco. Peppery spice in the nose;
Reposadoo Gran Reserva ($55): Big brother to the base reposado. Eight months in American oak pipons. Blended with 18 month old anejo blend;
Anejo gran reserva ($100): Only 10,000 bottles. Two years ageing. Blended with 6 year. old extra anejo; Nose and flavors reflect agave, spice, vanilla, and oak;
Reposado Rare ($225): Only 10,000 bottles. Aged 6 years and 4 months in American oak Pipons. Notes of green apple, oakiness, sweet agave and figs. Soft and long finish;
El Tequileño’s authenticity would seem to be a compelling market call, but nowadays brands that emphasize their history face a new type of competitor: star brands. In the tequila area Casamigos has George Clooney (as an early investor. The brand is now owned by Diageo). Kendall Jenner announced that she has been working on a tequila brand 818 for ‘three and a half years’. Michael Jordan has Cincoro. Nick Jonas has Villa One. Bethenny Frankel had Skinny Girl margarita (before selling it to Fortune Brands. Media at the time said for $120m, SEC filings said $8.1m). Guy Fieri and Sammy Hagar have Santo Fino. Dewayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson has Teremana. Chris Noth has Ambhar. The granddaddy of them all is John Paul DeJoria who co-purchased the rights to Patron in 1989 (and later sold them to Bacardi). None of these celebrities could do anything more complicated than opening the bottle when it comes to tequila but their name recognition gives them an advantage versus artisanal brands if consumers are persuaded to buy the product because of the star association. One would hope that consumers become sophisticated enough to choose on taste.
Tasting provided by El Tequileño.