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Secrets of Creating World Class Tequila

I'm headed to my first tequila pairing dinner and am very curious. The only tequila tasting I've done was in Mexico. The most memorable part of that was the dusty hot dune buggy ride to and from the tequila plant.
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Great tequila tells a story like the terroir of California wine. The nuances of a well made tequila can be quite profound and interesting. Improvements in the process and mavericks in the field are garnering a whole new level of appreciation for significant tequila and the finesse that goes into making a truly enviable spirit.

It's early evening just off the square in Healdsburg. I'm hustling to get out of the frigid air on this winter's night. The streets are bleak and foggy, and in an attempt to displace the chill I'm holding my coat and scarf around me as tight as possible while I find my way. I'm headed to my first tequila pairing dinner and am very curious. The only tequila tasting I've done was in Mexico. The most memorable part of that was the dusty hot dune buggy ride to and from the tequila plant. The tasting was very informal and the tequila was ok. It was a completely different and sincerely more casual experience than this. So I beg the question.. How does one pair food with tequila? I understand limes, sweet and sour, garnishes in pairing tequila, but food? This is one big mystery. Another thought that crosses my mind are the aromas of tequila. Usually when you smell tequila there is a reflex. Not a desirable one. Casual tequila drinkers may order a specific tequila because it is smooth, lacks hangovers, and is easy on the stomach. This feels like a whole new experience. It is indeed.

Today I am sharing insights by a remarkable tequila maker who is as passionate & knowledgable about his craft as the best winemakers and grape growers. I asked David Ravandi, the founder of 123 Organic Tequila "Uno Dos Tres", questions about the process, the inspiration and the parallels between tequila and wine to better understand the spirit, his philosophy and his drive to change the landscape of tequila.

KM: How did you get into the business of tequila?

Ravandi: When I started seriously thinking about making premium tequila in the early '90s there weren't a lot of quality tequilas on the market and certainly none that were 100% organic. Most people had never experienced the magical characteristics in sipping fine tequila. This inspired me to want to make and share something I thought was very special. I started taking regular trips to Mexico to educate myself more about the process of making tequila, which is not just about growing and cooking agave but also deeply rooted in history and folklore that I felt made the product so unique and beautiful.

KM: What similarities are there between wine and tequila?

Ravandi: Tequila has the distinct characteristic of the agave and wine when it is varietally correct shows the nature of the grape variety used to make it. They're similar in this regard because grape varieties like the classic Bordeaux varieties can have green or herbal characteristics and wines also spend time in oak so I think the flavors of tequila are very appealing to wine drinkers.

KM: How can wine drinkers draw parallels between tequila and wine?

Ravandi: When thinking about these parallels, my winemaker friends always come to mind. There are so many similarities in the process of making fine wine and premium tequila. Each is based in importance of the terroir, cultivating plants by applying stress to enhance the quality of the initial flavor profiles and of course the aging techniques.

It's the slow, graceful aging process that is so essential to ultra premium tequila and of course in making certain wines. All tequila begins with Blanco, the unaged mother spirit, and goes on to become Reposado, Anejo and Extra Anejo. I've always preferred using new American or French oak barrels over other industry standards. Inspired by winemakers who have long recognized the importance of using quality barrels, I've also used them to enhance the complexity and character of my aged tequilas. When I started making tequila the standard was to use used bourbon barrels, but I never used them. I believe that the quality of each element used in the making tequila is an important contributor to the quality of the end product. For me, which barrel is used is key in the aging process. Of course most importantly, is the consumer's experience. Like fine wine, tequila is always best enjoyed best when paired with good friends and food.

KM: Is there a special process involved in deriving the notes and flavors out of the tequila or enhancing them beyond where they are grown?

Ravandi: I'd say that the distillation process itself is special because it involves far more than just distillation - the processes of roasting and fermenting all contribute aromas and flavors to the finished tequila. But the distiller's art is one that requires patience and a vision for the finished product. Agave plants take years to reach maturity and that's where their complex flavors originate. The distiller's goal is to capture those aromas and flavors during the distillation thus the pure heart of the tequila is captured. The distiller can enhance desirable notes or minimize less appealing aromas and flavors but ultimately is limited by what the agave itself has to offer. Aging, of course, is another matter entirely. As mentioned, we influence the character of aged tequila directly and intentionally by using new American and French oak barrels, with specific amounts of toast, a process where the barrel is charred with fire, prior to aging the tequila. Then the tequila is aged a precise amount of time to arrive at specific flavor profiles. My Reposado is aged for 6 months, Anejo 18 months and the Extra Anejo 40 months.

KM: This is the first I've heard of organic tequila, specifically Blue Agave. How important is this to your craftsmanship and vital to the quality of the tequila?

Ravandi: The process of distilling tequila is as much an art as it is a science so there's an incredible amount of craft in every bottle. Quality begins on the planation where organic estate agave is grown. We're only as good as the raw materials from which we produce our tequila. By law tequila can only be produced from Blue Agave the species known as Agave tequilana Weber (the name of the botanist who discovered it). This is the very reason that we've invested so much time and effort in to securing organic certification for our plantations. In conjunction with the Blue Agave, natural fermentation and terroir maintenance play an important role in crafting the finest of tequilas. 123 Organic Tequila, both US and EU certification, meets the highest levels of organic certification which translates in to quality the consumer can taste.

KM: What are some of the most important things people should understand about tequila today?

Ravandi: As ultra premium "sipping" tequilas have come to market and consumption habits of tequila have changed dramatically, tequila is no longer considered just a shooter, the taste of which has to be masked by salt and lime. Fine, aged tequila can be enjoyed with as much leisure as any fine aged spirit. Also, understanding the use of different styles of tequila in cocktails where roasted agave characteristics contribute complexity to classics like the margarita and the freshly-crafted cocktails that are so prominent in the mixology world today. Often I'm asked which of my tequilas is best, I explain that it is really about each individual's palate, whether sipping or in a cocktail, starting with premium tequila is always important. One thing for sure, there is absolutely no reason to drink a gold tequila (Mixto) which is made with a generic Blanco that has been doctored with caramel and additives to emulate a Reposado. Go straight to the authentic 100% Blue Agave style and save yourself the headaches that inevitably result from drinking a low-quality, adulterated spirit.

KM: Where is your tequila grown? What makes this location unique?

Ravandi: Being appellation, it is the only place in the world where tequila can be produced. Our plantations are sited in mountains of Amatitan just 10 minutes south of the town of Tequila. Our agave fields are at an altitude of 4,200-6,000 feet above sea level. Amatitan was first settled by the indigenous Nahuatlacas peoples who worshiped a god named Titan. After the arrival of the Spanish, the place acquired the name of Amatitan which means "Indian loves Titan." With the dormant, forest-covered Tequila Volcano visible in the distance, agave plants grow for ten years in the iron-rich "tierra roja" red vocanic soils to reach maturity.

KM: It seems the process of making tequila is much more time intensive. Why is that?

Ravandi: The long growing cycle of the Blue Agave requires patience, it takes ten years before our plants are ready to be harvested. The harvesting is very labor intensive, you may be familiar with the iconic image of the man using the jima to cut away the stems of the agave to get to the heart or pina. That traditional harvesting technique is still done in the same way today. Once we have the pina, it is then split and roasted in old fashioned-stone ovens (Horno) for 48 hours then we use a mill to distract the juice. The juice or mosto then goes to our fermentation tanks for 96 hours where it undergoes an all natural open fermentation. After the fermentation we run a double distillation to achieve a Blanco. From field to bottle it takes 10 years plus one week to create my Blanco. The Blanco is unaged, our Reposado is aged for 6 months and Anejo for 18 months and Extra Anejo for 40 months.

KM: What was the pivotal moment for you when you knew you had to make tequila? Who influenced you? Who supported you?

Ravandi: The defining moment for me wasn't a thunderbolt, it was the realization over a period of time that I could develop an ultra premium brand far superior too much of what was then available on the market. My influencers were first and foremost the master distillers in Tequila who have decades of experience crafting fine premium tequilas. As well, I credit my partners who collaborated with me in creating my first brand - Casa Noble tequila. Eight years ago, I developed my current brand 123 Organic Tequila which is truly a culmination of my over two decades of experience and long-time relationships with in the tequila community.

KM: When tasting tequila what specific things should a novice be looking for? What specific things do you look for?

Ravandi: All tequila begins with Blanco so tasting and learning to assess quality in the Blanco style is essential. Master distillers pay close attention to the quality of Blanco because aging typically won't hide any flaws it will only magnify them. Regardless of the style, I'm looking for agave character whether it's the pungent notes of fresh agave or the deeply caramelized notes of roasted agave, I want them all and in a very delicious combination. Our Blanco has aromas of fresh agave, white pepper and lime zest, mineral-driven and spicy mid-palate attack with focused flavors, mouth-coating flavors of roasted agave and clean, minty notes on a lengthy finish.

KM: What are you most proud of when it comes to your tequila?

Ravandi: I'm very proud to of my tequila and the team of people who help me produce it. This is an artisanal product something that only exists because people take pride in their craft whether it be farming the agave or hand blowing the bottles. Socially-conscious production and quality are my hallmarks and I'm proud to bring a product to market that demonstrates these priorities. I'm very grateful and still get excited when people enjoy my tequilas.

KM: What are your favorite pairings for your tequila?

Ravandi: The most authentic pairings for tequila are, of course, the cuisine of the region where it is produced followed by the cuisine of Mexico and South America in general. I personally pair tequila with fresh, local and seasonal ingredients both in cocktails and in the kitchen. I've also teamed up with many chefs around the country, like Jose Andres'* team, to create pairing menus, where diners can experience how my tequila pairs well with so many different types of foods.

KM: Name three things that are important to you in your lifestyle.

Ravandi: My family, health and simple things like cooking dinner and sharing fine tequila and wine with friends.

* Jose Andres is a chef, restauranteur and James Beard recipient.