We spoke with Carlos Camarena recently about his distillery, family and processes to make his highly regarded tequila brands.
Carlos Camarena: My name is Carlos Camarena and I’m the third generation master distiller at La Alteña Distillery, who produces tequila at El Tesoro, Tapatio, Tequila Ocho, mainly, little bit of Villa Lobos too. Those are the brands that we produce at La Alteña. If we do my family’s background on growing agave and producing tequila goes back all the way to five generations. I’m fifth-generation tequila producer and agave grower.
Can you touch on the family aspect and how important that is to you?
Carlos Camarena: It’s very important. I mean my family has been carrying on producing tequila again for generations, and if I look at a bit around things in the area, I mean my brother has his own distillery and then I have cousins with their own distillery and I have uncles and I have aunts that also they have their own distillery. So, tequila runs through our veins. When I say that we’re a family company, it’s not only because of the fact that it’s the family the one who owns the company, is the fact that also at La Alteña, we have people that it’s third even fourth generation producing or working together with us. To me what family means in that in a big sense is, we are big family, a big community because again, those families also have been with us for generations and I don’t know why, but they don’t want to leave. They want to stay there, which by the way, it’s very good for us. Besides the fact that we have a very low rotation is the fact that once they come to work with us, they stayed there forever. They will bring their kids or their grand kids or the great grand kids or more. That means to us that they are well treated, they are treated with respect, we respect their job, we pay them good money. We’re one of the companies in my area who pays the highest salaries and it’s a win win situation. Therefore, they don’t want to leave. We don’t want them to leave, we’re a big family in that sense of the word.
Did you know you were going to go into the tequila industry?
Carlos Camarena: I knew I was coming into this direction, but not exactly the tequila industry. I am an agronomist. I studied agriculture. Since I was a kid I used to work in the fields and I got more in love with it, with the field aspect, with the agricultural aspect of the business. My original idea, when I went to college to study agriculture, it was okay, I will leave my father to produce his tequila, he knows how to do it. I will be in charge of the agave, because in my opinion if we can always have first quality agave, then it becomes kind of easy to produce first quality tequila. If your raw material is second or third class, I don’t care how good your process is, you can never produce first quality tequila. Everything begins and ends with the agave, and therefore my vision it was okay, I will grow the agave, I will produce the agave for you to dad …To my surprise, actually when I came back from college, my father told me, “I’m glad that you’re here because somehow I’m sick and tired of being sitting here dealing with paperwork and dealing with the government and rules and regulations and all that. So, you sit in my chair and do what I would do because, I am going to the fields and I said, “wait a minute, there’s something wrong here”. I know nothing about tequila besides the fact that I used to consume a lot when I was in college. That’s all I knew about tequila. I said, “I don’t know how to produce tequila, I know how to drink it, but I don’t know how to produce it and of course I have no idea how to run a company and you want overnight give me that responsibility”?
When you were taking on the company originally into the more of the role that you’re in now, how easy was that transition to jump into?
Carlos Camarena: At the beginning, it wasn’t that easy and actually most of the employees would laugh at me because they knew that I had no idea what I was doing and they were teaching me how to do things and training me. There was a lot of people saying that the company would be a complete failure in my hands because I didn’t know what I was doing. At the beginning everybody was a skeptic because they knew that I was good at throwing parties with my friends. I had free tequila, I was good at drinking tequila, but they didn’t take me very seriously on really working with tequila and learning to do things right from the beginning. And again, is when probably the perfection hit on me, came to my head and I said, okay, if we have to do this, it was not even my choice but if I have to do it, let’s do it right. Let me learn and then everybody has to align up doing things right from the beginning. It was not easy but it was worth it.
How much hands on do you have now in the actual production rather than the business part of it and the travel part of it? Or have you put some of those duties onto other people?
Carlos Camarena: I actually, I have all of those hats and I wear those hats according to the occasion. I like to be on top of it. If you asked even being in Arandas, what is the daily work? Usually it is, first of all in the morning is, go to the fields. Because I know if I get to the office I will be stuck there. First of all is go to the fields, to the agave with the years that are working the agricultural side. After that I will go to the distillery to first be checking everything on the distillery again from the cooking, the fermentation, the distillation of the process, the chemical elements, everything on the distillation. And then finally, and because I have no more choice, then I will go to the office and got stuck with paperwork.
If you go somewhere and none of your tequilas available, is there a tequila that you would drink?
Carlos Camarena: If I don’t find any of my tequilas available? Yeah, there’s no secret. Let’s say if it’s from the Highlands, I would drink Siete Leguas. It’s from the valley, I would drink either Cascahuin or Fortaleza. If I don’t find those either, then I drink scotch whiskey. No other tequilas. No thank you.