The Distillery: In Pursuit of Perfection

 

Two summers ago, we tasted the smoothest tequila we had ever tasted, a caramel-colored libation so smooth you could hardly tell it was tequila. Fast-forward to 2018 and we’re three hours outside Guadalajara in Jesus y Maria in the distillery of El Pandillo. We’re sitting with Felipe Camarena, the tequila maestro himself.

“I always wanted to make tequila the way my father did,” he says, “and my father’s father.”

He speaks about the tahona out front, the stone disc traditionally used to crush agave piñas. He says it once belonged to his great-grandfather who had built a distillery that was burned down during the Mexican Revolution. His great-grandfather never had the chance to use the tahona but it survived and was passed down to his grandfather who first began the production, then to his father, then to him.


He tells us when he saw his sons Abel and Luis were interested in carrying on the family tradition, he decided to leave his brothers and start a distillery with the boys. He named it G4 (Generation 4). It was time to do things his way, he said. He is not pedantic, but his care for integrity and tradition seep from his eyes.He lights his cigarette and looks to his two sons who have joined us in the room. He says his brothers inherited their father’s distillery, but as is often the case when working with siblings, each had their own ideas. He has nothing bad to say about anyone, but we can tell there’s a story behind his decision.

“I always wanted to make tequila the way my father did,” he says, “and my father’s father.”

 

 

Camarena explains that to make tequila the way his grandfather did, he had to return to the basics, in terms of machinery and tools, in terms of ingredients, and in terms of attitude. He turns to his sons and makes it clear that his goal is “to make the best tequila in the world,” not just to run a business. He speaks to them as much as to us. Making tequila is not just a business, but an art. His boys are listening, watching, learning from his every move. 

Camarena does not insult other distilleries, but it’s clear he believes they have commercialized and have sacrificed quality for scale. He speaks about his method as an art and how what he does differs from the mainstream distilleries.

It begins in the field. The blue agave is cut after five years when perfectly ripe. It’s hauled down the dirt road to El Pandillo, where the fruit is chopped crudely like the old days. The process is deliberately rough to give texture. The heart is removed, and the body is stacked in an oven to be steamed. While many distilleries bypass the cooking phase, Camarena believes its crucial for flavor. To prove his point, he allows us to taste the piña just as it finishes roasting. The sweetness and smokiness are balanced, and our hands drip wet with brown sap.

After roasting, the agave is pulled out and shredded into a wide trough. Camarena acknowledges that while his grandfather’s tahona produces the richest sap, it’s wildly unproductive. The stone can yield only 3 tons of juice a day, compared to 10 tons that his “Frankenstein” can yield. Frankenstein is a steamroller wheel that’s been placed on rails salvaged from an abandoned train station. 

His men switch on the monster and it begins to slowly roll over the piñas, squeezing out the sugary juice. We’re told his invention is not only effective but environmentally friendly, which he admits is a result of trying to improve the efficiency while not changing the method. We learn that big-name distilleries use harsh methods for this phase. Some crush the agave in a way that creates cellulose, which increases levels of methanol, while others use chemicals that force out sugars without pressing them. We learn that the government allows tequila makers to market “100% agave,” and that the distilleries are allowed to use 1% additives to produce a desired color. To demonstrate this, Camarena places his own extra añejo beside a brand-named reposado. The reposado, which is supposed to be months younger and lighter, is noticeably darker than his extra añejo! When it comes to fermentation, El Pandillo uses natural yeast that they cultivate in-house. It takes them five days to ferment the sap and obtain the right levels of alcohol, compared to a mere 24-hours that it takes distilleries using synthetic yeast to do the job, which of course produces nasty byproducts in the process.  When fermentation is finished, the alcohol, which is equivalent to a strong beer at this stage, is passed to copper stills. Though copper is far more expensive than stainless steel and requires frequent maintenance, it naturally removes the sulfurous compounds created in the fermentation process. For the big names that use stainless steel, the sulfur is filtered through activated carbon, which takes away from the complexity of the tequila. 

After a little tasting from a jug, we’re led to the cave where the tequila blanco is aged in American oak barrels. The room is cool and damp and the barrels lining the room slumber in the dark as they change color and flavor. As we stand here, we’re informed that blanco is the real test of quality because it’s the purest. The aging stage, though desired by some, can often mask impurities from the first stages.

When the cigarettes die out and the camera is turned off, we’re led upstairs and outside to the old tahona. Camarena reminds us this is about quality. He tells us he plans to make a small run to honor his grandfather in the old way. He breathes in the air and points to the earth. How he’ll make it must be kept secret.

 

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