In 2004 in Las Vegas I went to a tequila tasting and met Julio Bermejo. A world of spirit opened up to me – not only did I learn how good tequila can be, I was captivated by Julio’s effusive energy and got to know him at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in SF. In August, Julio and I traveled to Jalisco after I got an assignment to write a feature for American Way, the magazine of American Airlines.
The story appeared December 2013 in American Way. It’s no longer on AW’s site, but you can read it below.
Read to the end for the sidebar on Julio.
Story and photos by Michael Shapiro
“Follow me into the cave,” says Guillermo Sauza, the fifth generation in his family to make Mexico’s sacred spirit. A wide, heavy wooden door creaks open and we go from bright Jalisco sunshine into the near pitch-blackness of a serpentine passageway.
Slowly my eyes adjust to the dim light as we walk gingerly underground. I leap back when I see a skull-topped slumping effigy.
“Watch out for the Cuervo drinker,” Guillermo says. “He’s dead.”
Though the Sauza family sold their brand decades ago – it’s now owned by Jim Beam – the generations-old rivalry between Mexico’s two leading tequila families remains alive.
In 2002, Guillermo got a distillery going on this patch of land in the town of Tequila, about an hour’s drive west of Guadalajara. He now makes an ultra-premium tequila, called Fortaleza, the way his tatarabuelo (great-great-grandfather) did, by crushing agave with a tahona – a wheel-like stone that weighs more than a ton – and distilling it in copper pot stills.
The Fortaleza distillery doesn’t have scheduled tours, but it’s one of many tequila makers in the eminently walkable pueblo of Tequila that welcomes visitors by appointment.
Over the course of two whirlwind days in Tequila and one in the highlands town of Arandas, I visit eight distilleries with Julio Bermejo, beverage manager of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco and a longtime evangelist for fine tequila (see related story).
At Fortaleza, we – Julio, his wife Lily, Guillermo, his golden retriever Sandy, and I – emerge from the dimly lighted corridor into the caves’ largest “room” where bottles of tequila sit atop a pedestal of golden light.
Guillermo, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and wide-brimmed straw hat, tells us he didn’t plan to base his business on tequila made from stone-crushed agave. But he made a batch and everyone said, “Wow, this is so good,” so the company decided to use the tahona.
The process starts with harvesting the football-shaped agave heads – the root of the plant that can be 2 feet long and weigh 50 to 200 pounds. The spiky leaves are hacked off with a long-handled blade called a coa. Then the heads, called piñas because they look like enormous pineapples, are roasted under pressure in brick ovens.
As the agave cooks, steam fills the air. The smell evokes Thanksgiving: molasses, brown sugar and sweet potatoes with a hint of pumpkin pie. The agave fibers are removed, then the liquid, called mosto, is fermented pot-bellied stills. “It’s like going back in time,” says Julio.
Tilting his glass, Guillermo adds: “When you see me at a party with a glass three-quarters full, it’s not Chardonnay.”
We sample three varieties – the blanco (unaged) is clean and crisp, the reposado has a rich caramel flavor, and the ultra-smooth añejo lingers with a full-bodied aftertaste.
Now that he’s achieved success with Fortaleza, I ask if Guillermo if he regrets that his family sold Sauza. “My heart is here in Mexico – I thought I’d be running Sauza,” says Guillermo as he sips.
“Unfortunately my father sold (Sauza) in 1976 – I was 20 … but I’m fortunate to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors,” he says. “It’s a battle: agave shortages, broken bottles, but it’s a labor of love. There’s a lot of competition in this business. But I thank God every day that I get to do what I’m doing.”
* * *
Across the street is the boutique distillery Arette. Eduardo Orendain, the earnest 21-year-old son of the owner and the fifth generation to work in his family’s business, grew up with tequila.
We talk in the concrete patio where the piñas are unloaded and cut open, surrounded by autoclaves (modern pressurized ovens) where they’re roasted, and greased black gears that power the fiber-removing shredders.
“I love tequila,” Eduardo says. “Since I was little I rode horseback in the agave fields, but my family put me to work – I had to clean the bottles.”
Julio notes that Arette’s tequila embodies the region’s terroir: “pungent, herbaceous, green notes with an earthy vegetal flavor,” he says. “Arette is all of that with a nice body and a strong finish.”
We go Arette’s barrel room and absorb the warm welcoming scent of tequila dancing with oak.
“It smells so good in here, but you know who’s reaping the benefit?” Julio says. “The angels!” Liquor that evaporates during aging is called “the angels’ share” and Julio says 8 to 10 percent of tequila is lost during each year – compared to about 2 percent for cognac. “I’m not sure how much the angels like cognac,” he says, “but I’m sure they love tequila!”
After visiting these boutique distilleries, Julio and I go to see how the big boys work. At the expansive Cuervo compound, with lush gardens, fountains and modern art on the grounds, Sonia Espinola tells us that “it’s don Juan’s vision to make Tequila a destination.”
Cuervo is now run by Don Juan’s son, Juan-Domingo Beckmann, the sixth-generation leader of the company. “He sees Tequila as a place with a legend, a story, everything,” Sonia says. And he’s not the only one. Mexico deemed the town a Pueblo Magico in 2003 and Tequila became a World Heritage Site in 2006.
Many visitors arrive on the Jose Cuervo Express, a train that leaves Guadalajara weekend mornings at 11 a.m. It features views of the agave-spiked landscape and the looming Volcan de Tequila, and all the tequila you care to drink.
Passengers have about four hours to tour the distillery and have lunch, then most depart at 5:30 to return to Guadalajara. But with programs such as the Ruta del Tequila, a route of sights in the town and beyond, Cuervo hopes to encourage visitors to stay a night or two.
And why not? With so much to do – tequila tasting, visiting storied bars, horseback riding, and walking the time-worn cobblestone streets to hear impromptu guitar performances – it’s worth lingering.
We start lunch at Cuervo with delicious guacamole and wash it down with a margarita blended with roasted agave (which gives the drink a textured mouthfeel), stirred with an agave stalk. Bartender Hugo Sanchez gyrates from side to side as he shakes the drink. “If he doesn’t dance,” Sonia says, “it doesn’t work.”
The VIP tour culminates with the filling of our own bottle of Cuervo’s finest tequila, its Reserva de la Familia. Sonia hands me a bottle, and I fill it from an old oak barrel. I pop in the cork, invert the bottle and dip it in molten red sealing wax, then stamp it with Cuervo’s insignia.
On the way out, I spot Hugo the bartender. He asks if we want to see something special and leads us down to a cellar with huge, dusty, antique, pear-shaped bottles. In an oak barrel is Cuervo’s Reserva.
He pulls a big cork out of the top, dips in a long narrow ladle called a ladron (thief), and pours me a glass of amber perfection. We’re late for the train back to Guadalajara, but I can’t bear to leave before finishing this work of art in a glass.
* * *
The next morning we start at another tequila giant, Sauza. The three-hour tour includes a visit to the fields, about a 10-minute drive in the Sauza trolley, where you can wield a coa and cut the succulent, thick, blue-green spikes from agave heads. It’s hard work – I can’t imagine how the jimadores cut 200 heads a day.
For the tour of Sauza’s compound, called La Perseverancia, we don hard hats and start with a taste of Casa Sauza X.A., a limited edition five-year-old tequila. Until this moment, I’d thought that Sauza just made cheap tequila. When I taste the X.A., I realize Sauza can make tequila that’s resplendent, an amber symphony of jasmine, hibiscus and almond notes with a coda of chocolate.
It’s still Monday morning. “That’s the way we start the week here at La Perseverancia!” says our tour guide Karina Sanchez.
Covering one wall is a huge mural evoking the history of tequila, starting with lightning striking an agave plant and ending with an image of Venus-like maidens who represent the four states of drinking tequila: happiness, sadness, lust and lack of inhibition.
At Sauza’s bar, mixologist Charly Garcia creates a cocktail with strawberry, kiwi and pomegranate liqueur. As we sip, Victor Martinez of Sauza’s Heritage Center tells me that Sauza has launched a food-pairing initiative. “Here in Mexico we mix culture, food and alcohol, even the wife,” he says. I vow to return for lunch soon.
Driving out of Tequila we pass endless fields of azure agave plants stretching for the heavens as fingers of fog reach down the slopes of the looming Volcan de Tequila.
“Grape fields are all over the world, but agave grows only here,” Julio remarks. “It gives you a sense of place. When you see agave fields, you know where you are – it reminds you everything comes from the land.”
We drive 15 minutes to Amatitán and the storied Herradura hacienda, a family distillery for seven generations until sold to spirits conglomerate Brown-Forman in 2007. Herradura means horseshoe and hitching posts remain in front of the hacienda’s gates.
Our guide, Angel del Gado, tells us fine tequila is made by cutting the spikes completely down to the agave head and by using very ripe agave for high sugar content.
As we tour the hacienda, we’re joined by Pedro, clad in traditional white shirt and pants with a red sash, and a barrel-laden burro called Cuko. One cask has Herradura’s El Jimador brand, which we sip from a handmade clay cup.
Nearby, in the hills above Tequila, is Casa Noble, which has made a name for itself with triple-distilled premium tequila that’s organic and kosher. Aged in French white oak barrels, Casa Noble is made at the Cofradia compound, which includes lavishly decorated hotel rooms and a restaurant called La Taberna serving everything from fishbowl drinks to locally-sourced lunches.
Casa Noble uses atmospheric fermentation, which means its tanks are open to wild yeast in the air. The best way to evaluate tequila is straight from the tank, says our guide, David Yan. “You can’t imagine what tequila really tastes like until you’ve tasted it straight from the still.”
Guitarist Carlos Santana, who was born about 50 miles from here, recently became a part owner of Casa Noble and his image now adorns a line of its bottles, with profits going to Santana’s Milagro Foundation.
As we sit down to taste, David notes that taking a shot isn’t the way to enjoy tequila. “It’s like drinking boiling coffee and getting scalded,” he says. The right way is to sip it, slowly. “It’s not one quick bang – how about the cuddling and kissing – that’s what makes it more enjoyable.”
David shows us Casa Noble’s “time machine,” a collection of hand-labeled bottles from various barrels. “This is seven years of history,” David says. Making fine tequila “doesn’t happen by chance, it happens by studying your past.” Gesturing to the wall of bottles, he adds: “This is like a family album of how a barrel looked and smelled and tasted.”
Returning to town, we stop in to see don Javier Delgado, an 89-year-old bartender, at La Capilla, which means “the chapel.” That seems fitting as the room honors Tequila’s spirit, with bottles from local distilleries and soccer trophies adorning the walls.
Wearing a white, button-down shirt, silver-haired don Javier makes his classic drink, the batanga (blanco tequila, Mexican Coke, lime and a stir with his favorite knife, the one he uses to slice chilis for hot sauce). He tells us he’s been pouring tequila for 76 years.
I ask what he’s most proud of in his life. “Pride, no,” he says in Spanish. “What makes me most grateful is everyone who has come and shared hospitality with me. I don’t want you to feel like you are in our house – I want you to feel like you are in your house.”
* * *
The town of Tequila isn’t the only region where Mexico’s national spirit is distilled. Some of the best producers are in the highlands (elevation over 6,000 feet), two hours drive east of Guadalajara, so we travel to Arandas to visit Centinela and Tapatio.
Though Centinela makes more than a million cases a year, the distillery still uses traditional stone ovens to roast agave. As we tour, Julio notices that Centinela’s Classico Blanco, widely available in Mexico for under $15 a bottle, is being fermented with bagazo (agave fibers).
“It doesn’t make sense to make a cheaper tequila with this expensive process, but we do it for the taste,” says our tour guide Jesenia Aracely Davida Jimenez, noting that Centinela means “sentinel.” The company’s chemist Ramiro Morales Galindo adds: “Fermenting with fiber is not new, but few do it and we’re bringing it back.”
After lunch with a side of banda music at Arandas’ best restaurant, Carnitas Jaime’s, we visit Tequila Tapatio. Carlos Camarena, Tapatio’s director, welcomes us and shows us the company’s new bottling line, but he’s most proud of adhering to generations of tradition. A tahona (grinding stone) is used to mash the agave for Tapatio’s premium brand, El Tesoro de Don Felipe.
The process is “old and inefficient,” Carlos says, “but this is the way my father and grandfather did it.”
Also touring that day is Tom Wright, a Los Angeles-based actor who appeared in several Seinfeld episodes in the mid-’90s. We sip divine tequila from the cut tips of bull’s horns, which is how Mexican cowboys once drank it and is the origin of the modern tequila glass.
“When we used to drink tequila,” Tom says, “we asked, ‘where’s the worm?’ It’s amazing how far we’ve come in 25 years.”
We go down to Tapatio’s fragrant barrel room, with rows of casks 20 feet high. Carlos jokes that it would be the ideal bomb shelter: “In case of nuclear war we have our bunker ready, and plenty of tequila. Just bring the appetizers!”
Seagram’s approached the Camarena family and “offered way more than the company was worth,” Carlos says in English, “but you know what, we didn’t accept. One reason is that we don’t want our kids to have plenty of money and nothing to do – it would destroy them.”
Perhaps the most important reason is Carlos’ deep appreciation for the company’s legacy. “To build a reputation takes lots of years – we have 76 years of tradition of making a good quality product. That could be destroyed in a minute,” he says. “We have a decent living. That’s all we need.”
Michael Shapiro, author of A Sense of Place, last wrote for American Way about the narrow-gauge trains of Wales: www.michaelshapiro.net
THE AMBASSADOR OF TEQUILA
Growing up the son of Mexican immigrants in San Francisco, Julio Bermejo worked at his family’s Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant. “I cut tomatoes, shredded lettuce, grated millions of pounds of cheese,” he said. Restaurant work is “the last form of legalized slavery. You better be in love with it if you want to succeed.”
As a young man Julio was embarrassed by the work – until he discovered pure agave tequila. Tending bar at Tommy’s, he began making margaritas with Herradura 100-percent-agave tequila.
“My father went ballistic,” Julio said. Compared to cheap mixed tequilas, “it was four times as expensive! But people could taste the difference.”
In the late ’80s, Julio tried Patron and El Tesoro. “That blew me away,” he said, and propelled him on a pilgrimage to Jalisco, the Mexican state where most tequila comes from.
“I knew Patron and El Tesoro were different but didn’t know why or how,” he said. El Tesoro’s don Felipe Camarena and his son Carlos welcomed Julio with open arms and showed him how fine tequila is made. Julio didn’t just fall in love with tequila on that trip; he became smitten with Carlos’ sister, Liliana.
“It’s took me 13 years to get a date with Lily,” Julio said. Carlos shot back: “That’s because every time you visited you brought a girlfriend!” Julio and Lily were married in 2006. “I lost every battle,” Julio said, “but I won the war.”
Returning to San Francisco, Julio founded the Blue Agave Club at Tommy’s to encourage customers to try various 100-percent-agave tequilas. The first incentive: taste a number of different tequilas and get a T-shirt; that evolved to a framed diploma.
But people wanted more. So Julio launched a card for graduates. Fill it and score 80 percent or better on a notoriously difficult test about tequila, and you can become a “Demigod” and travel to Mexico on one of Julio’s tasting tours. The club now has more than 8,000 members, not all active, he says.
It’s not just marketing skill that makes Tommy’s a destination for tequila lovers – it’s Julio and his family’s warmth and graciousness. Now beverage manager at Tommy’s, Julio welcomes most returning customers by name, asks about their families and seems to know what kind of tequila they like – and what other tequilas they should try.
Because Julio has shared his passion for fine tequila with so many people and has become so knowledgable about the spirit, the Mexican tequila promotion authority CNIT gave him the title, Ambassador of Tequila to the United States.
Director Mel Lawrence was so taken with Julio and his love for tequila that he’s making a documentary about him. It’s called, of course, The Ambassador of Tequila.
What’s next for Julio and Lily? They’re building their own small distillery in Jesus Maria near Arandas and hope to open and welcome visitors next year.
Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, 5929 Geary Blvd., San Francisco, Calif., (415) 387-4747, www.tommystequila.com.
A TEQUILA PRIMER
A spirit made from blue agave harvested in one of five Mexican states. Most tequila comes from Jalisco, the state that has the namesake town of Tequila.
What are the primary types of tequila?
Blanco is clear, straight from the still and unaged. Reposado is aged in oak from two months to a year, and añejo is aged one to three years. A relatively recent category is extra añejo, which is aged for more than three years.
Is all tequila made just from agave?
No, just the finer ones. The spirit must have at least 51 percent agave to be called tequila, but premium tequilas are 100 percent blue agave.
Does tequila have a worm in the bottle?
No, that’s mezcal.
IF YOU GO
Regular tours are held at Sauza and Cuervo. Smaller producers will show you around by appointment – it’s best to book a week or more in advance.
Tours seven days a week, 10am-5pm, until 6pm on Saturday
Jose Cuervo No. 73, Col Centro
Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico
Jose Cuervo Express tequila train:
Tours M-F, 9:30am to 4pm, Saturday until 12:30pm
Francisco Javier Sauza #80 Col. Centro
866.510.2250 (US toll-free)
Herradura and its Tequila Express train
The train runs on weekends: www.herradura.com
To visit other times, fill out the form at:
TOURS BY APPOINTMENT
Contact the Sauza family’s Museo Los Abuelos
Vicente Albino Rojas, No. 22
On the central plaza in Tequila, Jalisco
Open daily: 10am – 4pm
(Note: Fortaleza asks not to list its address because they don’t want visitors appearing on their doorstep.)
Silverio Nuñez #100, Tequila, Jalisco
Advance notice preferred, visits welcomed between 8am and 4pm
Phone: 011-52 33-3615-0192
Av. Vallarta 6503 Local C-2, Int. 4 Plaza Concentro,
Tours Tuesday, Thursday & Saturday at 10am or noon.
(Directions and address provided when tour booked.)
Tours by appointment
Rancho el Centinela
HOTEL IN GUADALAJARA
Av México 2727, Vallarta Norte,
HOTEL IN TEQUILA
Calle Mexico 138, Zona Centro CP46400
HOTELS IN ARANDAS
Hotel Centinela Grand
Obregon No.48, Arandas, Jalisco
Hotel Santa Barbara
Prolongación Fco. Medina Ascencio #553
011-52 348 78-337-37