In the pearl-sized bustling town of Arandas — just shy of 70 miles east of Guadalajara, the capital of far-famed tequila producing state Jalisco — thorny agave plants are ubiquitous, yet militarily planted along most roads we trafficked through against subtropical air laced with the storied Mexican spirit’s exquisite scents. Here, distillers are reverently dubbed as “chefs.”
José Aceves, a third-generation maestro tequilero of the Aceves family, has all the reasons to justify that title. “Tequila is the passion and love we put in processing the agave plant,” he argued.
The tequila hype has been seeping into the U.S. and rising for years with California being the biggest domestic market that saw annual revenue grow by double digits in 2022, yet high-end craft spirits, which require more meticulous agricultural and fermentation methods, remain a rare find.
Through partnering and manufacturing for newly emerged brands, notably Los Angeles-based El Cristiano, the Aceves family hopes to bring the appreciation of this refined divinity back to its roots, and eradicate it out of dated party alcohol status.
Culinary Approach To Making Craft Tequila
Growing agave is actually as painful as having its leaves fully chopped down so as the core, also known as “piña,” can be roasted in a liquid-based autoclave to break down its long chains of sugar for fermentation. Typically, it takes six to eight years for the plant to mature, which, if harvested too early, could leave a bitter taste in the product. The Aceves exclusively sources from Los Altos, the Highlands of Jalisco, for a combined fruity, floral, and mineral note, and selects a portion of extreme mature agave to achieve greater complexity of flavors.
The subsequent milling process that helps separate sugars from fiber in cooked agave is the key to ensuring a clean tequila profile. Unlike the traditional stone wheel method that could result in more methanol, the Aceves’s milling train gently presses the fiber to extract the maximum amount of sugars, while reducing toxic compounds. These sugars are then sent to feed a proprietary yeast strain during fermentation before being distilled into alcohol.
During the final distillation step, the type of still used also influences the flavors. “The flavors produced by a still pot are more pleasant than those generated in a column still, but a column still yields higher efficiency,” Aceves explained. “We use traditional copper pot stills, and perform tight cuts to eliminate undesirable compounds as much as possible, which reduces the quantity obtained, but significantly increases quality.”
This culinary approach to making superior tequila passes down to El Cristiano. Recently co-founded by serial entrepreneur Karan Khanna and his brother Nitin, the brand claims to blossom from their obsession with Mexico’s “enchanting allure” during their first visit to the country back in the 90’s.
“The vibrant colors, rich flavors, and diverse cultures resonated deeply with us, drawing striking parallels to our beloved homeland of India,” Karan Khanna told me upon just completing his 43rd trip to Mexico. “Our focus was simple yet essential: select perfectly ripe 100% blue weber agave cultivated in the Highlands of Jalisco without additives.”
In a facility full of over two dozens of workers hand labeling El Cristiano’s reposado bottles, I was detailed about how the company uses 4.5kg of agave in each one, above the market average of 2-3kg, while staying committed to small-batch production. Its logo, a slightly tilt-headed cross, was chosen to represent the brand and as a tribute to tequila’s origin, according to Khanna. “We aim to keep our purpose firmly in focus, serving as a guiding light to remind us of our commitment to making a positive impact,” he told me.
Competition Amid Gold Rush For Celebrity Brands
Indisputably, El Cristiano forayed into the U.S. tequila scene during a watershed moment: The $8.3 billion domestic market is growing so fast that it has recently overtaken whisky as the second most popular liquor after vodka as of 2023, IWSR Drinks Market Analysis showed. Meanwhile, there has been a gold rush for a slew of celebrities to launch their own tequila brands from Kendall Jenner’s 818 Tequila to Dwayne The Rock Johnson’s Teremana.
The phenomenon is more of a double-edge sword for Khanna and his team: on one hand, it indeed reflects a soaring interest in the category; on the other, consumers are also trained to become increasingly discerning to scout for what they believe to be better quality options.
“We differentiate ourselves by embodying the genuine spirit of tequila craftsmanship and a dedication to providing a pure, unadulterated product,” concluded Khanna. El Cristiano’s next plan is to become the Bordeaux of tequila with its latest launch of XR — a new category that was invented using the same casks storing the renowned French dry red wine.
Onward to the barrel room to uncover the secrecy behind this new creation. Inside a somewhat muggy and shadowy space in the backend of the distillery sit hundreds of barrels on stairs, in front of which signs indicating specific tequila varieties are carefully planted, including El Cristiano’s XR. The product is essentially an extra aged reposado stored for 11 months in ex-bourbon American and ex-Bordeaux oak barrels. The result is a darker appearance compared to the regular reposado aged around six months, and a more pronounced caramel note.
“This meticulous process enables us to achieve an extraordinary Reposado, designated as ‘extra’,” said Khanna, “while remaining true to our principles of preserving its natural integrity without any additives.” Within a short period since its launch, Reposado XR has gone on to receive multiple industry awards and ascended to the menu of a handful of high-end restaurants: Nobu Malibu, Gordon Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen, before climbing up onto the global stage.
What The Future Holds For Agave Plantation
The growing worldwide appetite for tequila and mezcal is increasingly pushing countries like the U.S., and as far as Australia to produce their own agave spirits. By law, tequila is a registered trademark of the Mexican government with a Denomination of Origin, meaning no other countries can produce tequila.
However, scientists believe the aggravating climate crisis is threatening the yields of the drought-tolerant plant, since the life cycle of agave is “too fragile to endure the major weather whiplash,” CNN previously reported. Particularly, the Mexican long-nose bat, agave’s main pollinator, is also at risk with warming temperatures. So, what does the future hold for agave and tequila production?
“It is essential to take into account that the agave plant has unique characteristics, since it grows in extreme conditions, such as desert places and high temperatures, which is extremely attractive to take to other regions of the world given the current climatic conditions,” Aceves said.
“The future could be more agave production in other regions of the world, as is happening in Australia, and learning from what Mexico has done with Tequila,” Aceves added, “but I think, instead of imitating tequila, they should seek their own identity as an agave drink that can tell its own story, taking advantage of the fact that each place has its own attributes.”