Friday, September 27, 2013

Tomas Estes and Ron Cooper on Terroir in Tequila & Mezcal

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Nonjatta sat down with Tomas Estes of Ocho single estate tequila and Ron Cooper of Del Maguey single village mezcals when they were over here to launch their product range in Japan.
Ron Cooper (l) and Tomas Estes (r) at Bar Agave, Roppongi, Tokyo
Ron Cooper founded Del Maguey (literally ‘of the plant’) in 1995 to introduce the world to the beauty of real, unadulterated mezcal produced by local farmers in small villages in Oaxaca, Mexico. His products showcase how factors such as the type of agave, soil, altitude, water source, distillation type, time and ‘the hand of the maker’ conspire to create mezcals with a uniquely individual character.

Tequila ambassador Tomas Estes was invited by legendary master distiller Carlos Camarena (whose family is responsible for Tequila Tapatio en El Tesoro de Don Felipe) to produce something special. Together, they decided to explore the concept of terroir in tequila. By definition, all tequila is made from the same variety of agave (the blue agave), but nobody had ever focused on how the unique conditions in which the agave grow might contribute to the specificity of the distillate’s flavour profile.

We started by asking Tomas whether these agaves from different fields are distilled at the ‘ranchos’ they come from or whether they’re turned into tequila at one and the same distillery.

Tomas: It’s so curious that we’re here with Ron because in Ron’s case, he’s got single village mezcals which are gathered from around that village and distilled at a village distillery. With Ocho, it is one distillery. It’s called La Altena, in Arandas, Jalisco and it’s quite artisanal and old-fashioned. It was founded in 1937 and up until 15-20 years ago, they had no electricity, so it’s very rudimentary. Most of the old-fashioned ways are still used there: it’s the same oven, the same water source, the same fermentation tanks, the same yeast, the same stills… The one thing that’s different is that the agaves come from specifically delineated fields.

Nonjatta: Have you been able to discover a certain logic in how individual fields bring out specific flavour characteristics in the tequila produced from their agaves?

Tomas: We have not found specifics but what we have found is a generality and that generality is that the more the agave stresses, the more interesting flavours it’s going to give. It’s going to be more complex. It’s going to show you more. The Tequila Valley is very friendly to agaves: it’s rich soil, it’s hot during the day and hot at night, so it’s easy for the agave and it grows fast. In Los Altos (the highlands), they have to struggle more, and that tends to create more character. We have not been looking at it long enough to know, like the French oenologues, what it is specifically that each field contributes. We don’t understand all the effects of the terroir, the effects of the natural conditions on the resulting spirit.

Nonjatta: In exploring the effects of terroir in an empirical way, have you come across fields that just don’t work at all?

Tomas: We haven’t found that yet. Sometimes, we are harvesting fields that are the first crop of agave. El Vergel (one of the Ocho ‘ranchos’, ed.) is the first crop of agave – before, it was peaches and limes – and the generation before, Carlos Camarena’s father, did not think that agaves would last there. He thought that they would freeze or be damaged by the cold. So this is the first crop. There’s another field that is the first crop, Los Mangos. Before that, there were mango trees and cherry trees growing there. So, a lot of the other fields, they know have been good for other generations of agave but some of them are new. Prior to this single ranch concept, they didn’t really know which would be a good field or which would be a bad field, like they know in Burgundy. They haven’t studied it that much, except that – as a generality – the agaves from the highlands are better than those from the Tequila Valley. Even those who work in the Tequila Valley admit that. And within the highlands, you’ve got this ‘Golden Triangle’ that is supposed to be the best of the best agaves. And that’s where we operate.

Nonjatta: Are the fields rested after harvesting the agave?

Tomas: It depends. They may leave it to regenerate by itself, or they may replant it with other crops – beans, corn, squash, … – to regenerate. Ron: In Oaxaca, they do slash-and-burn and the ash gets plowed into the ground and they plant and it takes 7 or 8 years for the agave to mature. And when it is harvested, they do a second plant – so that’s 15 years – and then they leave the field alone for 15 years, and it goes right back to jungle. And then at a certain point, they feel it’s ready and they can slash-and-burn and plant again.

Stone Oven With Cooked Agaves
Nonjatta: Because the plants take so long to mature, the concept of vintage is very problematic. But the farmers and distillers that you work with have been doing this for ages. Were there periods that were considered special – something like a great vintage but in this case over a more extended period of time?

Tomas: I’ve heard one allusion to that when Carlos Camarena talked about that one harvest that he had that had such a high brix content. Jesse Estes: There are all kinds of unusual things that happen, in many cases, that are very hard to directly attribute, but in this case, one of our fields had snow a few years prior to harvest (2008), which is very unusual. Obviously, that would create different kinds of stress for the plant that would – in turn – concentrate the flavours. The result was a very high sugar content in the plants and pretty much, hands-down my favorite tequila came from that field.

Nonjatta: It seems like, whereas we as humans do everything we can to avoid stress, with the agave that’s exactly what you want and what brings out the best.

Ron: Yes, that’s what I found, and it has to do with many things: soil, altitude, micro-climate… To give you an example. Santo Domingo Albarradas is high and it is next to a valley that’s always cloudy. And the clouds are borne out of this other valley and chill down on Santo Domingo Albarradas several times a day and then the clouds blow out. It’s so high and the UV is intense, so you get this hot-cold-hot-cold and Albarradas (the mezcal, ed.) has a peaty herbaceousness that the other mezcals don’t have. All I can compare it to is coastal wines that have these fogs that chill the vines and concentrate the flavours.

Tomas: Another example… I was at Sete Leguas and I noticed that where a lot of their land is, is very steep. The agaves there are really, really stressed and they’re going to have these strange qualities so I said: “did you ever make tequila only with the agaves growing on these steep slopes?” And they went: “No.” They mix agaves from different fields. And I said: “Will you, please?” And it’s a really beautiful tequila. I would say Sete Leguas is right up there with Ocho in terms of quality.

Once we start paying attention, there’s no stopping the infinite subtlety of everything, so when Ron, Jesse and I were in Santa Catarina Minas, we were sitting with a maguey farmer and mezcal producer and we were talking about the earth, the terroir, and he was telling us they have two wells. They were 50 metres apart and they had absolutely different water. That’s nature. When we really think about it, Mother Nature is so varied, so complex, each square centimeter will be different, I think. It’s really beautiful and I think it’s way out there to think that we could make wine out of one plant, out of one grape plant; and it’s way out there to think that out of one agave, we could make one batch, but somewhere along the line, I’m going to do it. I’ll take one agave and one next to it and produce tequila in exactly the same way but separately.

Nonjatta: The name ‘Ocho’ (eight in Spanish) was chosen for many reasons: it’s the average number of years needed to fully mature the agaves used in Ocho; it takes 8 kilograms of raw agave to produce 1 litre of Ocho tequila; it takes 8 days from when the raw agaves enter the distillery until Ocho’s production is complete; the Camarena family are in their 8th decade of tequila production; and Carlos Camarena has 8 brothers and sisters, all involved in different ways in the family business. Also, when looking for the right production process for Ocho, the 8th production sample was selected as the house recipe. How were the samples different?

Tomas: Distillation. Carlos has got five stills: two that are rather new for him – installed in the last ten years – medium-sized stainless stills with a capacity of about 3,300 litres, and three old, very small copper stills (300 litres). So he played with different stills and leaving in different amounts of heads and tails. He tried different combinations of stills and different lengths of distillation time (faster or slower) and cuts.

Ron: Let me say one thing about stills. I was at Sete Leguas 2 or 3 years ago and I was speaking with Fernando Gonzalez, the distiller there. He had two identical stainless steel stills and I jokingly asked him: “which is your favorite?” And he said: “Oh, that one makes better tequila.” The same maker produced them both and they are identical and the guy who made the equipment doesn’t know either why one is better than the other. Nobody knows. This intangible, dialing stuff in, is real and has to be done.

Nonjatta: Let’s talk a little bit about maturation. For Ocho’s reposado, anejo and extra-anejo you use ex-bourbon barrels (Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey) that have been used 7 or 8 times before to age Tapatio and El Tesoro tequila. In whisky, 70% or more of the final flavour comes from the wood and tired barrels is the last thing you’d want as a whisky maker. Yet, those are precisely the sort of casks that you want?

Tomas: At one point I thought, when I tasted our blanco right out of the still, this is what I want! This is the concept. This is the design. I want agave-led, agave-forward tequila. I want a tequila that expresses all the nuances of the agave. I don’t want to cover that up with ageing. I don’t want to cover it up with new barrels, with lots of vanillins, lots of tannins, with a deep char. I want to leave it ‘as is’. Then I thought: but what if I age it, what would it be like? So I thought: let me do it the minimum amount of time (8 weeks and 8 days for reposado; 18 months and 24 days for anejo), so that that cuts down on the duration of the influence. I also thought: let’s use the most fatigued barrels so that we can eliminate most of the things that other people are looking for, like huge wood, huge tannins, huge vanillins. That’s our philosophy.

Ron has experimented with other types of barrels. We’re just about ready to start experimenting a bit… We have in our bars a product called Casa Cuervo 1800 Coleccion. It costs us 1,500 dollars, if we can get it. We’re selling it in London for 200 dollars for 35ml and we’re selling like crazy. What I’m thinking of doing is, to make a replacement for that. Carlos Camarena’s got a lot of samples around…  Ron: That’s because you have to keep 3 litres of every batch you make. One litre goes to the laboratory, one goes to the regulatory council and you’ve got to keep one litre yourself. You only have to keep it for 5 years. I have shelves full of these samples… Tomas: So Carlos has got all these samples and he’s got this little misshapen barrel that he got from France, Limousin oak, and it would have had cognac in it. Except, it’s had tequila in it a lot now…  He’s had probably 6 or 7 fillings of tequila in this thing. So I said to him: let’s replace Casa Cuervo 1800 Coleccion with our own thing. Let’s take all these crazy samples and put them in this thing and keep them for 6 months or 1 year and see what we come up with. The ‘Coleccion Camarena’. It would probably only yield about a hundred bottles, but that would be enough for our needs.

Carlos Camarena at work.
Nonjatta: Ron, you’ve experimented quite a bit with maturing mezcal in a variety of barrels?

Ron: My very first one was a limited edition for Park Avenue Liquors. It was Chichicapa that was aged for 14 years in glass and then finished for 43 days in a Stags’ Leap Cabernet barrel. And that’s amazing. Then, Hudson Whiskey sent me these baby bourbon and rye barrels for me to put mezcal in for a year, then empty them, and send them back to them so they can age their stuff in ex-mezcal barrels. But what we’ve got now is… our importer is Sazerac  and I’ve got 4 Pappy Van Winkle 20-year-old barrels – great bourbon – and we’ve filled them with mezcal. The San Luis del Rio went in there. It was only in there for 15 days and it was so good, I couldn’t leave it any longer. Now that we’ve done that... these barrels are so beautiful, I hate the idea of them being turned into firewood or smoking barbecue wood, so now we’re sending them over to craft beer makers and they’re filling them with beer – so they have a Del Maguey-influenced beer. Sazerac just sent us eight 10-year-old Rip Van Winkle barrels and one of those huge 600-litre La Gitana Manzanilla casks. We’ve done something with that where we’ve aged it for 30 days, another batch 60 days and another 90 days – then blended everything and it’s just unbelievable.

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