Organic Tequila

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I had never even heard of Don Abraham Tequila until I joined Pacific Edge as the director of sales this past December. Since then, I’ve consumed at least six bottles of the blanco expression on my own time and it’s become my go-to label for recommendations. So much so, that I haven’t strayed from the brand since the year started. With fruity aromatics, a soft and supple palate, and a clean finish loaded with baking spices and citrus, it’s pretty much everything I want from my Jalisco hooch. I’ve always advocated for agave spirits like I’ve advocated for wine over the years, letting consumers know that the real work is done in the vineyard/field, not the production facility. If you wanna pay $100 for a chemically-enhanced, manipulated, Frankensteinian bottle of booze, that’s your decision. But like a hand-beaded garment or a hand-rolled cigar, it’s the little details resulting from time-intensive labor that ultimately provide a luxury product with its value.

The faster, easier, and cheaper it is to make something, the cheaper it should be; not the other way around. Personally, if I’m paying $100 for a bottle of Tequila, it had better be made with the ripest, most expressive agave piñas, distilled and bottled with as little intervention as possible. Fortunately for me, the Don Abraham Blanco is exactly that and it only runs about $30-$35. Made with 100% organic blue agave, farmed organically by hand—free of pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals—by Alvaro Montes and his son Marco, those little details make all the difference. “Everyone loves our agave,” Marco told me over the phone this week; “Don Julio offered my father a contract to buy it all, but he said no. We’re going to keep it for ourselves and our own products.”

That’s not surprising. It’s not easy to do what the Montes family does, taking care of over 500,000 organic agaves across Amatitán without the aid of weed killers and other time-saving short cuts, so it’s natural that other producers would want a piece of the action—after all the hard work is done, of course. “If you have a lot of weeds, they soak up nutrients in the soil and take them from the agave, so you have to get rid of them,” Marco explained; “If you use chemicals, one person alone can spray around 3,000 agaves per day. When we do it by hand, we can only get to around 300. It’s basically ten times the work if you do it the way we do.” With a team of sixteen workers in the fields every day (Alvaro and Marco included), tracking down the Montes family for a quick phone conversation is no easy task. Even during our FaceTime session, Marco was walking through rows of agave, grabbing weeds and grunting as he spoke to me about the process.

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Just because someone makes booze the old fashioned way, however, doesn’t necessarily entail quality (as we know from a priori vs. a posteriori reasoning). I can assure you: the proof of Don Abraham’s supreme quality is in the glass, but I still wanted to know more about how organic agave farming led to such clean and pronounced Tequila flavor. Marco was happy to oblige. “The first thing is to be free of chemicals,” he said; “because pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides can affect the flavor when we roast the agaves. They make it spicier. Compost is also important. We use 100 tons of compost per hectare. The cow manure helps the agave get the nutrients from the soil, which leads to healthier piñas. The CRT average right now is 19.5 kilos per agave. Our average is around 60 kilos.” That means Montes family’s organic piñas are three times the standard size, but are they ripe? “Other agaves are often harvested between 3-4 years of age, which is really tender. It doesn’t have enough sugar,” Marco added; “We wait until late in the fifth year to harvest, so ours have plenty. We’re not in a hurry.”

As with winemaking, sugar is necessary to begin fermentation. Unripe grapes from colder vintages tend to create wines with thin, vegetal flavors, and the same goes for Tequila. In order to increase production without having to wait for agave piñas to ripen, some producers have turned to a vile machine called a diffuser, which essentially strips the starch from the agave (in lieu of sugar), converts that starch into sugar with an enzyme, then ferments and distills that flavorless liquid into a spirit, allowing the producer to add flavor artificially on the backend. That loophole allows them to claim 100% blue agave on the label, despite the fact its a complete bastardization of the process. Clearly, that’s not happening with the Montes family. “If you have good agave, you’re going to have good sugar levels,” Marco told me; “Once the yeast does its job, you’re going to have better output with more Tequila per kilo of agave.”

More sugar in the agave equals more Tequila off the still, but what the flavors? “Right away, the nose is clean with our agave,” Marco said; “You don’t get the cooked agave smell or any vegetal notes. It’s more reminiscent of the field. It’s fresher, cleaner, and purer on the nose because it’s made from healthy piñas. In Amatitán, the soil is easier to grow in because of nutrients, as compared to the Highlands. In the valley, you have more herbal Tequilas. In the Highlands, they’re more fruity.”

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Given all the changes that have happened in Jalisco over the last decade, with corporate buyouts of small distilleries and manipulation of production methods to meet to demand, it was heartening to speak with Marco about old school tradition and a commitment to certain standards at his family’s distillery: NOM 1480, Tequilas Las Americas. “It started with my grandfather, then my uncles and father took over,” Marco explained; “I’m third generation, so we’ve spent about fifty years growing agave, even though we started the distillery twenty years ago. If you compare us with other Tequila houses like Sauza, Cuervo, Herradurra, we’re fairly new to this. We try to do our best always, putting quality first and foremost. We stand out in the crowd because of that quality. It’s working, so we must be doing something right.”

Like most serious winemakers I know, Marco is far more interested in farming than the process of creating the alcohol itself. No matter how much I tried to steer him towards production methods, he would always go right back to agricultural details. “Most of the agave growers in the region don’t pay as much attention to their campo,” he said, after I asked him what the biggest difference was between Don Abraham and other Tequilas; “We do a lot of research on organic fertilizing. We have a new one that was made in Spain and is doing well over there, so we’re going to try it over here in a few hectares. We do a lot of testing and experimentation to get better at farming. It’s trial and error.”

What ultimately makes Don Abraham Tequila taste better than others? Better agave.

“Our fields are always cleaner, no weeds, and other plants that take nutrients from the soil,” Marco summarized; “We pull out the weeds by hand, leave them to decay, and turn them into compost for the future. The roots of the agaves get all the nutrients. That’s the difference. As a result, the smell and the smoothness are unparalleled.”

I couldn’t argue with him.

-David Driscoll