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Get Properly Prepped for the Tequila & Agave Festival with Experts Eli Diamond and Alex Staniloff

Tequila image via Tequila and Agave Festival

In advance of this weekend’s Tequila and Agave Festival at the Italian Cultural Centre, we check in with two tequila experts to find out what we should consider when tasting our way through the festival booths and bottles. Meet Eli Diamond and Alex Staniloff, of national import and sales agency, The Beverage Collective Specialty Spirits & Brands, representing some of the best small-scale tequila producers…

In an era increasingly dominated by large-scale operations, what should we be looking for if we want good artisanal tequila?

Eli: First and foremost, just aim for tequila that you enjoy for the flavour profile that speaks to you. The world of tequila can be so intimidating, and at the end of the day the consumer should make a decision that they are happy with on a personal level, not what they are told to drink. That being said, I, like most Vancouverites, value transparency. To me this is key. I would do my best to push consumers to drink tequila that is made with these three ingredients and nothing else added: agave, water and yeast. Unfortunately, the big tequila houses do a very good job at concealing many things added into their tequilas beyond these core ingredients. Most consumers don’t really know that there are a number of loopholes that allow your tequila to consist of additives, such as glycerin, vanilla flavouring, caramel extract and others.

Another massive topic is whether a brand uses mature agave or uses a machine called a “diffuser”. Essentially a diffuser is an extremely efficient machine that extracts sugar from agave. The only problem with this is that you are extracting the sugar prior to cooking (which leaves you with almost zero agave profile). Once the diffuser is used, the brand will have to use additives to get the “tequila” flavour profile back into their product.

Alex: I agree! Transparency is so important! The more a tequila brand is willing to share, the less they are wanting to hide… If the specs aren’t listed on the bottle, a quick and simple Google search should provide you with some more information on the tequila. Another free resource we use often is Tequila Matchmaker, which is an app dedicated to all things tequila. There you can see which brands are confirmed to have no additives, which distilleries produce those brands, and then rate the tequilas you try and compare those ratings to the panel of selected experts, as well as the general community. It is definitely the app I suggest to those who are looking to get started in this world; but also beware – the rabbit-hole can be deep!

Imagine tasting two types of tequila: one artisanal and one mass-produced. What distinguishes their flavours? How do these differences arise, and how can enthusiasts learn to identify and choose brands with artisanal qualities?

Alex: There is no foolproof way to tell if the tequila in your glass is made with things added, but as consumers sample more expressions from different brands and distilleries, they will definitely start to see some major differences in the flavour profiles. The main thing we look for in a well-made tequila is the flavour of cooked agave, first and foremost. It seems like such a simple concept, that a product made almost entirely from agave should have that as the primary flavour, yet it is unfortunately not the case for so much of the tequila that makes it onto bar and retail shelves. Agave has a beautiful, natural sweetness when it is cooked and the sugars caramelize, and I would almost liken it to a roasted pineapple, with some grassy undertones.

Unfortunately it is up to consumers to do some independent research, and discover which brands they like through a bit of trial and error… but hey, trying more tequila is never a bad thing!

Eli: Adding to Alex’s answer: this takes time and lots of trials – which means you need to go out and drink as many different tequilas as possible. Tough homework, I know.

When looking to identify tequila and production techniques, focus on a Blanco. This is an un-aged tequila, or one that is aged up to two months (by law) in barrels. By comparing Blancos you should be getting those three key ingredients I mentioned before (agave, yeast and water). If you are tasting big vanilla notes, or it is coming off artificially sweet (maybe you get that chalky taste of Stevia on your palate) most likely you are looking at a mass produced tequila.

It is also very important to remember that tequila/agave is a natural product. Another great way to see if you are about to try a mass produced versus artisanal product is by comparing batches. Try to find two different reposados from the same brand. If after visual inspections the colouring is identical from batch to batch (lot to lot) this could be attributed to caramel colouring or some colouring agent to keep consistency in the mass produced brand. This goes for tasting brands as well. If your batches aren’t changing from batch to batch, this is a fairly certain sign that this is a mass produced brand using techniques to remain consistent. The way to combat this, is to celebrate change in agave spirits, like we celebrate and seek out change in vintages in wine.

Artisanal tequila is renowned for its complex flavour profile, heavily influenced by traditional production methods. In your view, which traditional techniques most significantly enrich tequila’s flavour diversity? Additionally, what measures do you believe are essential to preserve these practices amidst growing industrialization?

Alex: If I was to single out one part of the production process that would have the most impact on flavour, and essentially dictate if I want to purchase that particular bottle, I would say it comes down to how the agave was cooked. Essentially, if the agave was cooked with time and care, using either a brick oven or a low pressure autoclave, the sugars in the agave will caramelize properly and develop that level of complexity that we look for in a well-made tequila.

In order to preserve what makes tequila “tequila”, it ultimately comes down to education. Unfortunately, the industry does not have standards of transparency in place, so it is up to consumers to seek out information – from friends, the internet, bartenders, their local retail shops and/or brand owners/ambassadors. People would be blown away when they see just how different real tequila is than the shots they were used to doing at 19 years old!

Eli: This is very tough to nail down. Throughout the process you can change so many different aspects, but you are still working with three main ingredients. I think the fermentation process is where a lot of the beauty lies – for example, trying a product like Siempre Vivo, where they stop the fermentation before the fermentation is dead (mosto muerto) and distill with that base – it is something truly wild and unique. Or some raicilla and mezcal producers (La Venenosa Raicilla – Sierra del Tigre: tastes like blue cheese) which need extremely long fermentation periods, which directly translates into lactic notes in your glass.

Also to add to Alex’s point: you are seeing a lot of distillers reverting back to cooking in an underground earth oven; this can change the flavour profile quite dramatically – although I would suggest being careful to avoid overly smoked products, as this is another way to maintain consistency and hide blemishes in your product.

Sustainability is a pressing issue in the spirits industry, especially for tequila, which is deeply tied to specific regional ecosystems. What sustainable practices in agave cultivation, water use and waste management do you prioritize when partnering with tequila producers, to minimize the environmental impact of the brands you represent? Alternatively, which recent innovation or small-scale change in sustainable practices has impressed you, and how did you come to learn about it?

Alex: Brands take a number of steps in order to be as sustainable as possible. These measures can come in the form of allowing a percentage of their agave grow to flower; using recycled glass; ethically sourcing, treating and recycling their water; using alternative energy sources; and many more.

Because spirits by definition are in fact a luxury good and not a commodity, and use vast amounts of water for their production, they will never be truly sustainable. It is important for brands to act as responsibly as possible, but know that we are fortunate to be in a position to enjoy these luxuries.

One of the practices that has recently impressed me most comes from Destilleria Bagazo, a not yet opened tequila distillery by our good friend Esteban Morales of Casa Endemica. At Bagazo, they have found a way to compress the bagazo (typically discarded byproduct of the fermentation process) into briquettes, and are using those as the fuel source when cooking and distilling, thus eliminating the need for wood and other fuel sources in their production.

Eli: Alex is bang-on; the only thing I can add is that we see a lot of contract brands, big brands, etc. renting the land. This sadly usually results in zero care for the actual soil, lack of crop rotation, and essentially just maximizing profit before the land lease is up. We really look for brands that care about this process, and have a focus in curation for family brands that were and are agave farmers first, who are also producing tequila. Don Fulano, our flagship tequila brand, exemplifies everything we look for in a tequila company. Grover Sanschagrin, of Taste Tequila & Tequila Matchmaker, says: “Respect for agave. That’s what I love most about Don Fulano. Rather than take shortcuts, they refuse to use additives, relying on their patience and skill to create products that honor the natural gifts that agave can give.”

Given the extensive growth period required for agave plants, could you discuss how smaller producers sustainably manage their agricultural practices to prevent over-harvesting and ensure the long-term sustainability of agave?

Alex: When farming agave, producers essentially have two choices: they can either plant new agave from the off-shoots of the existing plants (asexual reproduction), or they can let a portion of their agave go to flower, spread their seed, and then plant new agave (sexual reproduction). It is a rather costly endeavour letting agave go past the point of maturity to spread their seed, as it means the agave that has been in the ground for approximately seven years is no longer useable for spirit production. What this does, however, is promote genial diversity in the agave, both reducing the risk of viruses impacting the agave crops, and also promoting a wider range of flavours from different agaves.

Another costly but highly beneficial practice is crop rotation. In order to promote soil health, introducing other crops, such as corn or beans, can replenish the soil, and thus lead to healthier agaves with higher sugar content when they are harvested.

Like wines, artisanal tequilas are often praised for reflecting the unique terroir where their agave plants are grown. Could you provide two examples of small-batch tequilas that demonstrate this in distinct ways and describe how the terroir influences the flavour profiles of each?

Alex: There are three main components that make up the flavour profile of an agave spirit: the varietal of the agave (in the tequila world, this is constant); the production methods (relatively controlled with some tweaks allowed here and there); and lastly, where the agave is grown, known as the terroir. I would argue that the terroir actually plays an even larger role than it does in wine, given how long the harvest cycle is for agaves versus grapes.

The simple and most common answer to the two different terroirs of tequila would be Los Valles (Tequila Valley) and Los Altos (Highlands). Tequilas produced in Los Valles tend to have a much earthier, spicier flavour profile with more minerality, while those from Los Altos have more brightness and citrus notes. Obviously this is just a generality, and not necessarily words consumers should live by, but it is a good starting point. Brands we love from Los Valles include Cascahuin, Arette, and Don Fulano (although they source the vast majority of their agave from Los Altos). For Los Altos, we are big fans of Yeyo, Viva Mexico, Ocho, and Volans. There are so many others to name, and we truly do love the fact that we are still just getting started on our tequila journey.

Look for Eli and Alex at the Tequila and Agave Tequila & Agave Festival at the Italian Cultural Centre on May 25th, 2024.

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