When Carlos Camarena’s great-great-grandfather first started planting Agave tequilana weber azul—the variety of succulent used to distill tequila—people in the nearby town of Arandas thought he was out of his mind. Though native to the lowlands around the town of Tequila, agave wasn’t endemic in this part of the Mexican state of Jalisco. Camarena still doesn’t know why his great-great-grandfather took that particular gamble. But five generations later, it’s paid off—for his family and for tequila lovers everywhere, who can enjoy the fruits of his and his descendants’ labor in the form of El Tesoro de Don Felipe®.
Camarena’s grandfather, Don Felipe, founded La Alteña distillery in 1937, where El Tesoro continues to be distilled today. For years, Don Felipe, the brand’s namesake, had maintained contracts with producers near Tequila to sell them plants grown on his land in the highlands. In 1937, there was a surplus of agave in the lowlands and none of his usual buyers needed his produce. So Don Felipe decided to make tequila the way his grandfather had taught him—cooking the agave hearts, crushing them with a heavy round stone called a tahona to extract their juices, fermenting these with airborne natural wild yeast and distilling them slowly in copper pot stills—as a means of storing his ripe agaves. If he couldn’t sell the product, he figured, he would at least have his own steady supply.
Over 80 years later, El Tesoro de Don Felipe® is one of a tiny handful of tequilas still produced using the traditional methods. Carlos Camarena, an agricultural engineer and the current master distiller, sat down with PUNCH to talk about his family, his brand and the past and future of tequila.
What does it mean to you to be a family distillery?
There are 200 people who work here at La Alteña. Of those, about 150 of them come from families that have worked for us before. We’re not a family distillery because we’re family owned—it’s because we employ the same families for generations. We have people here who are the fourth generation working with us, same as my daughters are fourth generation at this distillery.
What do you look for in a high-quality tequila?
A good tequila should have the essential flavors of the agave itself. They’re difficult to describe but easy to pick out if you have some experience tasting tequila. Our El Tesoro tequila is double distilled to proof, which means we don’t add any water after distillation. Getting the distillate right at 40 to 42 percent alcohol, it’s like eating a fruit at the perfect moment—the sweet notes, the fruit, you won’t find a single defect. When you’re buying, look at the label. If the label says “100 percent agave,” then you’re in the right direction.
What are the essential flavors you associate with a good tequila from the highlands as opposed to the valleys where many of the most famous tequilas are produced?
The essential aromas and flavors of a tequila blanco from Los Altos should be flowers and red fruits, lightly sweet and acidic. It should be mineral and earthy from the iron in the soil and lightly spiced with flavors like pepper and clove. If it was aged, that would add the characteristic flavors of American oak: vanilla, caramel, dried fruits and maple. But even within the same year in the same field, there are so many factors which affect the flavor, so for us consistency means to produce with the highest possible standards, even if batch to batch there will be slight differences.
How has El Tesoro adapted to changes in regulations and norms over the years?
Well, before the norms, tequila could be made from five different but similar varieties of agave. We don’t use those other varieties anymore, but other than that we really haven’t incorporated changes at all. Instead of adapting to new, modern technologies, we keep on producing in a very traditional way, the way we’ve been producing from the beginning.
All of the agaves grown for producing tequila are clones. What kinds of risks does that pose for the industry?
An agave is a succulent and it saves all of its energy for a single event: sexual reproduction. So if it comes to flower, it uses up all the sugars that you need for fermentation. For 120 years, we haven’t let agave come to bloom. That means that if a plague comes it could wipe out the entire industry for lack of genetic natural resistance.
How are you working to combat that problem?
Five years ago, one of the bats that pollinates agave was listed as endangered—the lesser long-nosed bat. I signed on to the Bat Friendly program, with the goal of allowing 5 percent of my agave to flower and seed. Many scientists said it was too late for the agave azul to reproduce sexually, but of the seeds we planted, about 4 to 5 percent have sprouted. The bats can fly up to 80 miles in a night just to feed, but I’ve been planting other varieties of agave to make things a little easier for them in terms of cross pollination. Earlier this year, the long-nosed bat was taken off the endangered species list. We’re not over the cliff yet.
What other steps are you taking to deal with the sustainability issues plaguing the industry?
Different things: All of our organic waste—the pencas that are cut off the agaves, the weeds that grow during the rainy season, the pulp from the cooked agave—goes into compost. The water we use on production gets recycled, and we are about to install solar panels for energy at the distillery. In the agave fields we’re also using all-natural herbicides and fertilizers as well as biologic pest control.
Why do you continue to use the traditional methods of production when more mechanized techniques are so much more efficient?
Well I’d say we’re reluctant to change. The traditional methods give richer, bigger, deeper aromas and flavors to a well-made, 100-percent-agave tequila. These techniques aren’t the most efficient, but they make up for it by giving you a much more complex tequila. We’re not in a hurry to make things efficiently just to save or to make some extra money. Do I really need to be the richest man at the cemetery when I get there?
Have you started to see more producers returning to these older techniques?
Well this year, for the first time since the rules were changed allowing tequila to be produced using another sugar sources, more than 50 percent of tequila is being made with 100 percent agave. Thirty years ago, there were only three producers making tequila that way, and we were one of them. And these days we have people coming here to ask us how to build and use the tahona because that’s a technique that’s been lost. We think slowly we’re expanding the number of people who want to produce high-quality tequila.
What do other people in the industry say about your way of making tequila?
Ten or 12 years ago, people would say “Terroir is for wine, not for distilled spirits,” or “You are too inefficient.” But we always like to have these two faces: one looking into the past, remaining loyal to our roots; the other looking into the future. What if we use French oak instead of American, like we do on our extra-añejo Paradiso®? What if we use corks instead of plastic caps? What if we start thinking about terroir? We’ve always started with that one question, with two words: What if?