There has never been a time in the tequila industry wrought with more controversy and subterfuge than today. There are more than 1,300 brands coming out of some 150 distilleries, while the vast majority of production is controlled by a handful of companies—almost all of which are foreign-owned. Then there are the celebrity brands, dubious government regulators, truckloads of un-ripened Oaxacan maguey crossing into Jalisco to quench scarcity and the growing number of faux tequilas being distilled in China.
In the midst of such confusion, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that real tequila is one of the greatest and most important spirits that the world has ever known, and that each agave plant—with its long lifecycle and singular expression—is, in fact, sacred.
Enter the Camarena family. In the Jalisco Highlands no name carries more weight, and in recent years no one has generated more buzz than Felipe Camarena. From a long line of agaveros, his people were among the first to harvest agave in Los Altos. (His great-grandfather, Don Pedro Camarena, watched his virgin distillery burn to the ground in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and his grandfather, Don Felipe Camarena, established the fabled La Alteña distillery, in 1937.) After working alongside his brother, Carlos Camarena—master distiller of El Tesoro, Tapatio, Ocho and Excellia—Felipe decided to blaze some new trails of his own and in 2011 he broke ground on what would become the most forward-thinking distillery in Mexico—Destilería El Pandillo.
Located southeast of Arandas, in Jesús María, Jalisco, the two hundred and sixty-acre property is home to some of the most coveted terroirs in the region—Rancho Las Pomez, of Tequila Ocho renown, among them. Under the guidance of 12th-generation master distiller, Miles Karakasevic—who, along with his son, Marko, are the only foreigners to have ever distilled tequila in Mexico (at La Alteña)—he’s created efficiencies at every step of the way, reusing spent energies that would otherwise be discarded as waste.
From the onset, Felipe has invested in solar and wind power, water harvesting and hydropower, and he recycles his bio-waste—a hot-button issue that has gotten some of the biggest brands in hot water for having dumped toxins into the environment.
In terms of production, Felipe strictly uses his own agave, which never sees chemicals of any kind and is harvested when fully ripe (this is often not the case among large producers, focused on economies of scale). He insulates both fermentation tanks and the stills themselves, both for efficiency and greater control over quality; the boiler is powered by recycled steam and the crusher—affectionately dubbed ‘Felipenstein’ by Marko Karakasevic—is a nineteen thousand-pound reclaimed steamroller, powered by a one-horsepower engine. The spirits world has never known anything like this, and it couldn’t have been born anywhere else than in Mexico, a place that has sought innovation principally through necessity.