The Tequila Spirt

Sergio Mendoza, founder of Don Fulano, comes from 4 generations of tequila-producing agave farmers.“Tequila is a mature spirit and most spirits require a maturation process so it is a simple raw material. We can achieve amazing things with ageing,” he explains. 

“Tequila comes from a plant that matures between 6 and 9 years, so that raw material is very important.” Here, he talks about cultivating the agave plant to make the much loved spirit, and the emotional labour involved in preserving an ancient process.

1.Blue Agave fields, Amatitlán.
2.Don Fulano HQ, Tequila.

CI: Let’s start with the basics. Everyone knows tequila, but not everyone knows what mezcal is, and even less people know that tequila is a type of mezcal. The world is slowly being re-educated about tequila, though. The biggest misconception being that it’s a spirit used for shots. What other misconceptions are you eager to put to rest?

SM: Indeed, along with the excitement that tequila and now mezcal are stirring all over, there are still lots of misconceptions and confusion about what is what. This is not surprising when one grasps the cultural, biological and anthropological dimension and complexity of agave spirits in Mexico. Mezcal literally means cooked agave (metl = agave, ixcalli = cooked) and so, by definition, all agave spirits including tequila, are mezcal. However, the regional specificity regarding agave species – physical conditions known as terroir – as well as technical and cultural diversity in different parts of Mexico have for centuries naturally weaved the most complex family of spirits in the world. More recently some of these specific types have organised into protected appellations of origin in the manner of European wines and produce and today they are among the fastest growing and most appreciated spirits in the world.

The common denominator is obviously the agave (metl) from which they are all distilled; a plant that is endemic to Mexico and which has been cultivated and highly appreciated here for tens of thousands of years. Tequila, or as it was originally called Vino Mezcal de Tequila, is the most famous of all mezcal.

    With such complexity, agave spirits can be consumed in a great variety of ways and shots sure can provide an exciting gust of liquid sunshine. However, the best tequila is traditionally sipped and savoured, usually along with food and in the company of friends or family. In these days of cocktail renaissance they can also be the base for outstanding cocktails.

CI: What is it about tequila that excites you?

SM: I am particularly fond of the agricultural dimension of tequila and all agave spirits, whose essence is rooted, more than in any other category, in the right cultivation of its amazing crop. Other areas that excite me a lot are the technical and cultural aspects of production, specially fermentation and maturation.

1.Blue Agave fields in Amatitlaán. 
2.Harvested Agave piñas @ Tequila Fortaleza distillery.
3.Crusher machine @ Don Fulano distillery.
4.Spaces of Don Fulano distillery.

CI: Is it true that tequila is the only spirit that increases endorphins?

SM: The health benefits of alcohol are frequently overestimated. The bottom line is that all alcohol is a depressant and the hard truth is that we consume way more of it than can be beneficial. That being said, any true and uncompromised spirit will express its innermost essence, and for good tequila that means millions of years of evolution of a unique and amazing plant as well as 8 to 25 years of sun energy that it has absorbed together with that of the volcanic, iron-rich soils from where it grows. Compared to most other spirits this can be experienced as a burst of uplifting bright energy.

CI: You speak about agave with great passion. Why is the agave so important to tequila?

SM: It is everything. The single most important element that makes tequila so unique is its raw material. In most other spirit categories producers have mastered the art of external maturation, usually in oak, to achieve up to 80% of the character of their final product, because the raw materials from where they part are relatively simple carbohydrates. In agave spirits that maturation happens in the fields within the plant itself, and once it is fermented and distilled you already have an unparalleled complexity that includes herbal, vegetal, fruit, citrus and spice elements that the agave itself developed.

CI: The huge demand for tequila and mezcal is shifting the industry in two directions. What are the consequences of industrialisation vs sustainability?

SM: There is a significant growth indeed, and Mexico is a massive territory that could very well stand the growth, the problem is when multinational companies replace family-owned ones and start looking for ways to cut cost without real understanding. As this happens with most craft products, we end up having an offer of distant industrialised versions of the real thing which on the surface seem to be the same but are actually something different at their essence.

CI: How are additives affecting the final product?

SM: Additives are what seal the spell, the whole essence is altered and only the surface is sugar-coated with glycerin and natural or artificial flavouring and colouring which is diametrically contrary to the philosophical idea of a spirit, which means the essence of something – in this case, the beautiful ancestral agave.

1.Steam ovens to cook agave @Don Fulano distillery.
2.Cooked Agave piñas @ Tequila Fortaleza disitllery.

CI: Agave is 5 times more expensive now than it was 3 years ago. You told us agave is an agricultural product and should not be treated as a commercial product. Would you say your opinion is a minority?

SM: It is also a commercial product and tequila is an industry, however it is rooted in an amazing and delicate cultural and biological heritage which should always be kept in mind. Without question, the good and serious producers are a minority these days, yes. Fortunately, there is always a handful of them that are not willing to sacrifice what they love to do and so there is also the positive side where we have outstanding tequila and mezcal out there.

CI: So you could say the agave is going through a challenging period. How is this affecting the industry and how is the price of agave affecting smaller producers?

SM: We are at a high peak of blue agave price and this is always a big challenge for serious producers because tequila is already one of the most expensive spirits to produce and this makes it so much more.

What are the main points of producing good Tequila?

SM: The most important is the cultivation and selection of mature agaves which must be done plant by plant.     Without this there is no possibility of making good tequila. If this is done right, we are 50% of the way. For the other 50% there are many variables in the way the agave is cooked, milled, fermented, distilled and matured and these constitute the distinct styles of each house. In my opinion however, great tequila, given that one has good mature agave at hand, is made in fermentation.

1.Crushing Agave fibers @ Tequila Fortaleza distillery.
2.Extracting sugar from Agave fibers @ Tequila Fortaleza distillery.
3.Fermentation process in Oak barrel @ Tequila Fortaleza distillery.

CI: What is the importance of farming good agave?

SM: With respect to the final product it is everything. It is the one thing that cannot go wrong. If you mess with this there is no need to mess with anything else to fail in making a good product. However, good agave farming goes beyond making good tequila and it is imperative to preserve the cultural and biological diversity.

CI: So would it be correct to say the older the plant, the better the tequila?

SM: Maturity should not be measured in chronological time. Each plant is an individual and while it may take 7 years for one plant to mature it might well take 14 years for another. As one great producer puts it, “to make great tequila, one needs to walk the fields and select plants.”

CI: You use solar energy at your distillery. What else do you do to practice sustainability?

SM: At the distillery we are trying to be as energy efficient as possible. In the fields we pay a lot of attention to protecting the biodiversity and soil by rotating crops and practicing responsible farming. In the cultural side we have a strong commitment to keeping our products true to their essence by using only 3 ingredients: estate grown agave, proprietary yeast and natural spring water. And in the social aspect we work with a great number of families and try our best to keep fair relationships and create other opportunities for the communities close to us.

CI: Besides Don Fulano you are also one of the founders of mezcal brand Derrumbes. Mezcal is having a moment right now.When you travel, how do you see the perception of it has changed in the past 10 years?

SM: Amazingly, we are just discovering the great depth of this ancestral spirit. Agave is an acquired taste and the elegance of great tequila has opened the senses for more robust and exotic expressions of this most amazing plant.

CI: You both own and produce Don Fulano. Some might be surprised to hear that it is actually quite rare, to be the founder and distiller of a tequila brand. What part of the process do you enjoy the most? From the field to the table..

SM: I love production, the transformation of a plant into a delicious nectar, but I also like the cultural depth that it has and the appreciation of it by people who love but also respect the product in all its dimensions. My biggest challenge in this industry is seeing the completely unmindful, suicidal way we have of both producing and imbibing alcoholic rubbish while destroying our bodies, our ecosystems, and the fine social fabric of our communities.

1.Bleended tests @ Don Fulano distillery.
2.Blending machinery @ Don Fulano distillery.
3.Bottleled Tequila for blending @ Don Fulano distillery.
4.Barreled Tequila for ageing @ Don Fulano distillery.