We visited Jalisco, Mexico and had the pleasure to speak with Guillermo Sauza, founder of Fortaleza Tequila. We discussed the family history and traditional processes that Fortaleza still uses today.
Can you tell us about the history of Fortaleza?
Guillermo Sauza: This land belonged to my grandfather and we used to make the Sauza brand. That was started by my what we call tata abuelo, great-great grandfather. And he started in the 1870’s. But unfortunately, my grandfather decided to sell it in 1976 when I was 20 years old. But we were fortunate enough to keep this property and in the year 2000, we started repairing the old distillery and in 2005, finally we brought out our product, stone-crushed agave, small batch, copper pot stills and we brought it out under the brand name Los Abuelos or the grandfathers we like to use it. Literal translation means the grandparents, but we like to use it as the grandfathers. We did run into some trademark issues so we use Fortaleza, which is fortitude. It’s the name my grandfather gave this distillery. And we use that name in the world and we use Los Abuelos still here in Mexico, but it’s the same tequila. So it’s just both brand names we’re using so that we don’t get locked out of using Los Abuelos someday by this company.
Is the trademark issue related to the United States only?
Guillermo Sauza: Yes. It was related to the United States only. It’s a rum company that has a rum brand called Abuelo. It was too close being in the same category. And we lost in The States, but because we had first sale here … They beat us first sale in the United States, I don’t know maybe six months or something they beat us in a territory called Virgin Islands, U.S. American Virgin Islands. But that counted for a sale. But we beat them to sale here in Mexico, so they couldn’t prevent us from continuing to use it. Trademark battles are not fun.
You have Anejo, Reposado, blanco, and then also a still strength.
Guillermo Sauza: Blanco is the authentic tequila. Typically, a company will make a blanco and they’ll put it to either 40% [ABV] or 80 proof. Sometimes we’ve seen a lot of blancos now 37 here in Mexico. We don’t make anything less than 40 [%]. So everything is either 80 proof or above that. But I always start with the blanco at 40%. When we got started, we were looking at doing it with roller mills, but we had the tahona, so we started with the tauna back in 2002. And when we tasted this, we changed our business plan and said let’s just make all tahona made and let’s be a niche market player, which we’ve become. And you can taste the elements of the agave in there.
Does it always go into a steel tank?
Guillermo Sauza: Yeah. We’re going to always stainless steel. So I’ll tell you a little bit about the process. We bring in our agave and the agave is cooked. A couple ways to cook. You can cook in a brick oven. You can cook in an autoclave, which is a pressure vessel which cooks faster. Or you can run it through a diffuser which strips it raw and then they actually cook the juice in a stainless steel tank that has coils in it. That’s, of course, the fastest way. We use the traditional way, the brick oven.
How long in the brick oven?
Guillermo Sauza: More than 30 hours. And it’s a thermodynamic conversion of the fructans to dextrose sugar. It’s not sucrose sugar. So completely different than rum, completely different than any other sugar molecules. So it’s a dextrose molecule of sugar. And then from there, pardon me, we’re able to crush. We use the tahona to crush and that allows to get the pulp off the fiber. The crushing time is about five hours, six hours. Then we wash to get the pulp off the fiber and then we’re able to pump, what we call must up to wood fermentation vats for fermentation. It’s three and a half days fermentation and then to distillation and then you’re going to get your white tequila. Stays in stainless steel until we’re ready to bottle.
What kind of barrels do you use?
Guillermo Sauza: We use any kind of bourbon barrel or whiskey barrel from The States and we chip them out and re-burn them. We use, I think we have them from Beam Global. We have them from Sazerac. We have them from all of the main whiskey companies. And we can reburn them and then we can use them. And we can use them multiple times and we can burn them multiple times. But after the third burn, after the third time you scrape them down and burn, they start to leak a lot. So that’s kind of the end of the history for that barrel at that point. But the barrel brings in some flavors because you’re toasting the cellulose of the wood. The wood is cellulose and so you’re converting those into sugar. So you’re starting to get some sweetness from that and the coloring comes from that.
Do you ship everywhere, the 50 states?
Guillermo Sauza: No we don’t. We’re too small to do that. We’re in about 35 states and we’re in 20 countries. So we’re in Hong Kong, Australia. It’s not giant sales in those countries, but you know, it’s 500 cases here, 200 cases there. So it’s nice just to be able to go into Italy and you can find our product, in Venice you can find our product. And you won’t find this in the chain hotels, either. You’re going to find this in where you have those authentic bartenders that give a damn. They give a damn what they’ve got on the shelf. We’re in the 35 big states, so we’re covering about 60% of the population in the United States. I think 70%. We might not be in a state, say Ohio yet. It’s what they call a control state where the state decides what they’re going to buy and what the public can buy. It’s still antiquated and so we’re not in a state like that yet. I know we’re not in Michigan, either, because Michigan is a control state, too.