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Tequila and family with Master Distiller Carlos Camarena

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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.

This interview was originally conducted on The Tequila Tester podcast. Listen or watch the the full episode at:

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5 Best Cheap Tequilas For Margaritas

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Do you want to make inexpensive margaritas at home but don’t want to drop over $25 per bottle just on tequila? Your friends are probably extremely nice but you shouldn’t have to take out a loan so they can guzzle down frozen margaritas all night at your house. There are many affordable options that you can choose from and still make delicious margaritas that everyone will enjoy.
Sure you can go cheaper than what we’ve listed but the quality tends to drop off significantly and the likelihood of terrible hangovers increase. For this list we included only tequilas that are 100% blue agave so that means no mixto’s which typically contain around 51% blue agave and the rest is made up of sugars. We wanted to clarify this in case you are asking yourself why we left off your go-to one gallon plastic jug of $10 tequila.

Best cheap tequilas for margaritas

Olmeca Altos Blanco

$23 – 750ml

Olmeca Altos is medium bodied tequila with slight sweetness and spicy finish.

Milagro Silver

$25 – 750ml

Hints of pepper flavor but otherwise neutral. We’ve used Milagro numerous times including for our margarita at the San Antonio Margarita Meltdown.

Toro De Lidia Blanco

$24 – 750ml

Earthy and peppery with agave flavor upfront. Learn more about Toro De Lidia in our interview with their brand representative on The Tequila Tester podcast.

Agavales Blanco

$16 – 750ml

The least expensive tequila on the list. Aroma has fresh cooked agave and finishes with a small bite at the end.

Espolon Blanco Tequila

$23 – 750ml

Subtle citrus flavor with vanilla and agave aroma. We talk more about Espolon and it’s flavor on our blanco tequila show.

What are some of your favorite tequilas for $25 and under? Did we miss one of your favorites? If so, we would enjoy hearing about it in the comments below.

Here is a delicious margarita to start you off with your inexpensive tequila purchase.

Strawberry Margarita

strawberry-margaritaIngredients

  • 1 oz of blanco tequila
  • 1/2 oz orange liqueur
  • 1/2 oz strawberry schnapps
  • 1/2 oz Margarita Texas Mix
  • 1 oz fresh or frozen strawberries
  • 1/2 cup ice

Directions

Rub rim of glass with a rind of lime and dip in salt or sugar. Pour all ingredients into blender, blend until slushy and serve.

We have over 70 margarita recipes to try with these tequilas.

Note: Prices may vary depending on your location. We took average prices from liquor stores in Texas.

 

Starting a brand with Scott Willis of Tequila 512

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We interviewed Scott Willis with Tequila 512 about their lineup, building a brand and challenges faced when launching his tequila line.

Do you want to tell us a little bit about the brand and how it got started?

Scott Willis: Yeah, so I’ve been in Austin about 20 years. Came here to be in the music business actually. Twists and turns led me to a real job, some sales positions, technology companies in town. Then, about 13 years ago, read an article about a guy named Tito, named Tito Beverages, who started a vodka company you might have heard of. For those who don’t drink tequila, he’s a very big vodka brand on the market. 13 years ago, read the article, got inspired and said, “Okay, maybe this is what I need to be doing. Music didn’t pan out. I didn’t come to Austin to do something in technology field. I want to do something fun, interesting, exciting. I’ve really just dove head first in and started learning about the spirits’ industry. I sat down and decided, “Okay, if I’m going to do this, it needs to be something I drink and enjoy.” Tequila was it. It was what I drank the most of. But frankly, at the time, didn’t know a lot about it, other than I liked to enjoy it. I went down that road of learning the industry, federal level, state level, production methods, types of tequilas, really zeroed in on the type that I like from a certain area that I liked. Then, found a guy online that was willing to drive me around Tequila. I flew to Guadalajara 13 years ago, or about 12 now actually, and he drove me around Guadalajara. I had one question for every distillery that I met with in tequila, which was, “Can you make my own flavor profile? I don’t want to put your juice in my bottle.” We found a distillery that was willing to do that at the time, called La Cofradia. Worked with Luis, the master distiller, met the family, got to know the family really well.

We created what would become Tequila 512. I had no name, no money, no idea how to start the business back then but ended up coming back with about three liters of samples, tasting everybody that I knew on it. Everybody seemed to love it. I said, “Okay, this could be a real thing.” I spent six and a half years researching the industry, getting permitted, learning how to sell the stuff, learning how to be in the spirits’ business. I had no background in the industry at all. Then, six and a half years ago, my first cases arrived in Austin, and just started really selling out of my truck. I was driving around with a case of tequila at a time, knocking on doors saying, “Hey, I’ve got a tequila company, would you like to try it?” It was one store, two stores, three stores, five, 10, 20. Continued to grow. Got little over a hundred stores and I thought I’d finally made it. Then in 2015, we won the world’s greatest competition for best vodka or tequila.

Can you tell us about your blanco?

Scott Willis: This Blanco is triple distilled.  As you guys are probably aware, it’s a central lowlands tequila. Ours tends to be a bit sweeter than most central lowlands tequilas. I believe a lot of that has to do with the fact that the location of the distillery is in a mango grove, which is very unique to that area. Our water outside is extremely unique to that area. It’s only found right there at the distillery. Volcanic spring water that we harvest right there on site. Triple distilled, 100% agave. We use traditional stone ovens. We use big stone ovens for steaming. They’re 25-ton ovens. Naturally cooled down in the ovens. Open fermentation tanks. Again, kind of ties in to the mango grove. We don’t say the mangoes affect the flavor, but we also say, “Look, it’s open fermentation in a mango grove with four types of mango trees that are flowering and fruiting. It cannot affect the flavor profile of the tequila in some way. Once it cools down, open fermentation tanks and another unique thing for us, we take the yeast that forms in the oven. We have a natural forming yeast that forms in our oven. It’s after they cool down. Natural yeast, ferment them in the fermenters, obviously. We use triple distillation. We use stainless steel pot stills that are copper lined. Then, obviously, the triple distilled. That’s unique to us as well. We use a 24-hour filtration, and we have an oxygenation process. Which, when we were doing the oxygenation process 13 years ago when I found Luis and La Cofradia, there weren’t a lot of brands doing it. There’s a few more doing it now but that creates a fantastic mouth feel and really makes the overall flavor of the tequila a lot smoother.

 I heard interesting story about when you were running the first run of your bottles. The tequila plant had some issues? Maybe an explosion?

Scott Willis: Oh wow, you did your research man. Yeah, my old bottle, my old packaging. Same juice in the bottle, but I had my old packaging. Actually, it was the same shape of the bottle, same glass, but we had different decoration on it. It was an agave plant, a wild maguey, with the Texas capital behind it. We were doing that very first run of decorating, and I get a phone call, and we’ve been waiting for months and finally get it, thinking we’re getting it done. They said, “Yeah, the plant that decorates our bottles has exploded.” We say, “So exploded, like blew up?” They said, “Yeah, and we think somebody blew it up. Also it’s the only plant that can do your decoration.”  Needless to say, it was a bit stressful. We spent about three to four more months working with my bottle manufacturer at the time to retrofit some of their decoration plant in Toluca to be able to do my bottles. Wasn’t as good of quality, but we did get our first batch of a thousand cases down to Austin. I was off and running at that point. Quality wasn’t there. I’ve got a couple bottles here that are … I show people when they come in, and they’re like, “Yeah, put that away.”

When you’re in a situation, lets say you’re at a bar, and there is no Tequila 512 available, what are you deciding to drink?

Scott Willis: My current go to, honestly, is Don Julio. I think Don Julio makes some good stuff. I think it’s a good go to. It’s safe. I don’t want to try much new unless the bartender’s really pushing it. If mine’s not available and I ask what kind of good tequilas you have, if it’s the standard run of the Patrons and the cheaper Espolons and all of those, I’ll say just give me some Don Julio and I’ll drink that.  Yeah, and it’s easy to get. It’s always kind of good. It’s a standard go to. Don Julio 1942, if I want to spend a little bit of money. Clase Azul makes some fantastic stuff on their higher end stuff. There’s some really good high end stuff. I tend to, whether out of design or just because I think it’s good, is I’ll lean people more towards the expensive stuff if they don’t have mine available, because I think a lot of the stuff that’s in my price point’s just really not that good, frankly.

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