In Search of True Tequila

In an industry rife with artifice, Felipe Camarena is working against the tide to preserve true tequila.

As Far as the Eye Can See

The quintessential Highlands palette: vibrant sage-green agave blades, iron-rich red dirt and piercing blue cloudless skies. Collectively, the Camarena family has some of the most significant holdings of agave in Los Altos; Felipe alone owns around half a million plants. Situated more than 6,500 feet above sea level, the unique microclimates, exposures and soil types of this region yield some of the purest, ripest expressions of blue agave known.

Field to Bottle

An El Pandillo jimador harvesting agave at Rancho Las Pomez. While many producers buy agave on the open market—which unleashes myriad vulnerabilities, from how the plants were farmed to the use of fertilizers and pesticides to whether they were harvested at a complete state of maturity—Felipe Camarena controls every step of the process from field to bottle. At El Pandillo plants are farmed organically and harvested based on the seven-year (minimum) lifecycle of each individual plant.

Force of Nature

When it comes to his quest to protect true tequila, Felipe Camarena often speaks of how much work he has yet to do, and how little time he has left. He barely tolerates conversations that don’t revolve around science or tequila—and even then one can still see the wheels turning in his head, as if imaging new ways to push the envelope.

Fresh from the Oven

After harvest, the piñas (agave hearts) are transported to the ovens, called hornos, where they’re cooked slowly, converting their complex starches into sugars. Felipe, of course, has his own twist—steaming the top and bottom of the batch for an even roast—while most simply cook from the bottom-up.

The Family Stone

This large stone wheel, called a tahona, is traditionally used to mash the piñas in tequila production. It’s the last vestige of Felipe’s great-grandfather’s still, which was crushed during the Mexican Revolution over a century ago. Felipe christened his Destilería El Pandillo with this relic of Don Pedro Camarena, which acts as a very personal reminder of human fragility and impermanence.

First Crush

In a singularly Mexican fashion, Felipe conjured up a reimagined production facility unlike any other: parts were sourced from steamrollers, semi tractor-trailers and railroad cars to fabricate the crusher (Felipenstein) and shredder (Igor).

Tahona Reimagined

When the piñas come out of the oven, they’re turned over to Igor, the shredder, and then onto his partner in crime, Felipenstein, who crushes the agave (slow and low) prior to fermentation. Some purists might argue that the horse-drawn tahona has soul, and that said traditional practices should be preserved. To that, Felipe would say that we humans are evolving, and so is tequila.

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.

Wyatt Peabody is a wine advisor, archivist and journalist. He is a former contributing editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine, where he wrote about spirits, cocktails and food. His work has also appeared in Robb Report, Fortune, The Washington Post and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles.