What To Drink Now: Tequila

Dallas had new-generation tequila all stars in town this week, visiting bars, restaurants and retailers to discuss the attributes of their premium tequila brands while tasting a few sips along the way.  The two founders of Milagro, Danny Schneeweiss and Moy Guindi, as well as Tequila Avion President Jenna Fagnan.  I had a chance to sit down with both tequila producers to discuss what sets their brands apart from all others.

Milagro Tequila founders Danny Schneeweiss ( left) and Moy Guindi with their Unico, a hand-crafted tequila launched this year which only 1200 bottles were made.

Tuesday afternoon I met with the charming founders of Milagro Tequila, Danny and Moy.  Two entrepreneurs that met in business school in their hometown of Mexico City.  They had teamed on a few projects in their business classes, continually winning the profits of the internal class contests and proving that they could potentially create a successful partnership, but tequila wasn’t always the first thought. However, as school days flew by, sipping their nation’s signature spirit, they knew they could potentially create a new tequila that wasn’t the same flavor profile those before them had sipped for generations, with somewhat harsh tones and often a tinge of bitterness.

The two friends wanted to create a clean, fresh product filled with the sweet notes of the agave plant.  They wanted to create a contemporary tequila that still embraced the traditions by focusing on quality and flavor.  They wanted to make a modern Mexican spirit that could rival any other premium spirit in the world.

This was the mid-1990’s, a time when tequila was something that you either enjoyed with a heavy dose of triple sec and sweet and sour mix, often poured straight from a pre-packaged bottle, or straight up, drunk as fast as you could, with a lime and salt.  Though some Mexican natives looked at the two men as rebels, straying away from the tradition of tequila, a few saw them as visionaries and came on board to help in their journey, including Master Distiller Pedro Juarez and a 3rd generation agave plantation owner, both agreeing to help the founders create a high quality product from 100% blue agave plants grown in iron-rich, red soil of the Jalisco highlands.

The goal was to keep the freshness of the blue agave plants as the star, slow roasting the 8-12 year old plants for upwards of 36 hours to allow the bitterness in the plant to dissipate, leaving only the sweetness of the agave with mineral, citrus, spice and sometimes herbal notes.  When the first batches were produced and tweaked to the flavors they hoped for a delightful burst of joy rung out, eventually creating the name of the product – Milagro or miracle, their dream was about to be a reality.

They do use oak in aging the Reposado and Anejo, but lightly as their goal is to create a fresh product that tastes like the sweet agave, not like a barrel, noting that if you want the flavor of a barrel, have a scotch or a cognac.  They produce two different tiers of Milagro, and include a Silver, Reposado and Anejo in both of them with the exact same process for producing the actual spirit consistent across both lines, however the start and the finish are slightly different.

Their introductory line, simply labeled Milagro Silver, Reposado or Anejo, uses estate grown agave plants, each hand-harvested by jimadors at their optimal ripeness when they are 8-12 years old, extracting the heart of the plant, or the pina, and then slow roasting it to extract the sugars which will be fermented, triple distilled in small batches to become tequila.  The Reposado and Anejo are then aged in partially used American oak barrels, 6 months for the Reposado and 18 months for the Anejo. Though the products are aged the underlying goal is to maintain the freshness and the sweetness of the product, letting the true flavors of the agave shine.

Milagro also has a second line created in 2001 using French oak instead of American oak for aging.  Their Select Barrel tequilas use hand-selected, eastate grown, hand harvested agave plants, ensuring the tequila made for this line is the best the brand can produce.  Though other elements of the production mimic the introductory line, you can note the difference in the aroma and flavor profile of each.  The Barrel Select Silver is aged 30 days in French oak, and though it is still a very clean and fresh product, it has a mellowed palate enhancing the flavors of the tequila without a harsh alcohol bite.  Barrel Select Reposado is aged 6 months in French oak, giving the tequila lovely aromas of orange blossom and spice.  Easy to sip on its own, simply served neat, keeping the flavor intact and unmuddled.  Their Barrel Select Anejo brings in more nutty, caramel notes with enhanced sweetness, while still maintaining a level of freshness.  Barrel Select Reposado captures a balance of freshness with flavor as the French oak subtly enhancing the spice, herbal and floral notes of the spirit, with the Anejo bringing in an extra layer of toasted vanilla and caramel.  Each bottle of the Milagro Barrel Select is designed with a glass agave plant in the center, highlighting the focus of the brand determined to showcase the sweet flavor of the agave plant.

Yesterday I had a chance to sit down with Tequila Avion President Jenna Fagnan, just before she grabbed a bite of Tex-Mex and headed to she headed to her bartenders appreciation event, as the New Yorker loves some good Tex-Mex and misses it from her days living in San Antonio attending Trinity College.

Enthusiastic, passionate and lovely, Jenna is quick to note that Avion was a labor of love for her partner, Avion founder and tequila fanatic Ken Austin, but one that the entrepreneur embraced as he was determined to create a spirit that showcased the essence of the roasted agave plant with its creamy, vanilla and caramel flavors, unlike any other product on the market.

It took years for the recipe to come together, with Ken’s palate along with the help of his young Master Distiller, Alejandro Lopez, creating a clean and refined product that enhances everything that he loved about tequila and removed everything he doesn’t, which is often the harsh bitterness and intensely alcoholic palate.  When Jenna, formerly an executive with LVMH, was finally convinced to come on board with the brand it was after months of persuasion that ended with a call from Ken asking her to come in for a blind taste test of several dozen tequilas.  He had just perfected the recipe so blind tasting it against the best in the world would prove how good it was. After tasting several dozen she kept coming back to same one, remarking it was the best, and of course, it was Avion, and with that she knew they had something truly special.

They hit a bit of luck as well when they started working with the Lopez family, owners of his agave plantation.  Ken had traveled to Jalisco many times trying to find an agave plantation that farmed to his specifications and standards.  7000 feet above sea level in the town of Jesus Maria in the Jalisco highlands he found this with the Lopez family with agave plants that are naturally higher in sugar content than any others in the region due to their elevation.  At the time the family was producing small batches of high quality tequila for families and small brands in the area, hearing the vision and the goals of Avion they came on board, and with their help Avion found their Master Distiller, the Lopez’s son.

Their process is simple but slow, they slow roast the hand-picked agave plants in brick ovens for two full days, then turn the ovens off and let the agave plants rest in the oven for another full day prior to removing them to rextract the sweet juice.  This extra day is similar to letting a piece of meat rest after you roast it before cutting it, ensuring the juices stay in the meat and keep it juicy before cutting it.  Giving the agave an extra day to rest ensures the highest level of juice extraction occurs and makes the plants less fiborous when crushed.  As quality and flavor are the focus, Jenna also noted the brand uses 60% more agave than many others to make 1 bottle of Avion tequila.

Avion is a completely natural product, an important element to both Jenna and Ken, who do not add any artificial colors to their Reposado or Anejo, making a product that is noticeably lighter than others on the market, but also 100% natural with only agave in the bottle.

The smooth and refined Avion Silver was made to be sipped on its own or enjoyed in cocktails, the Reposado adds layers of spice and citrus notes, mainly orange and orange blossom to the sweet agave flavors, and the Anejo, aged two years in lightly charred American oak barrels, brings in a well-rounded palate filled with caramel, vanilla and cream notes.

I am not big on super sweet cocktails so enjoying the Avion Reposado with soda and a squeeze of lime was a perfect cocktail for me, but Jenna gave me a recipe for her favorite summer drink – two scoops of fresh watermelon, a touch of agave syrup, squeeze of lime and 2 ounce of Avion Silver.  Add ice, shake, strain and serve.

Avion received a big boost of PR in the last few seasons of the HBO series Entourage as it became the brand character Turtle set out to bring to the US.  It was a stroke of luck that Entourage creator, Doug Ellin, was childhood friends with Avion partner Kenny Dichter.  Ellin made the product a focal point in the show just after it was introduced into the marketplace.  Originally just launched in New York and Los Angeles, some thought it wasn’t a real brand….something the Avion group hadn’t bargained on.  All worries went out the window at the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition where Avion won best in show Unaged White Spirit and Best Silver Tequila, Double Gold for the Avion Silver.

Avion is an ultra-premium tequila, but it is also a tequila for everyone, as everyone deserves to enjoy a bit of luxury.  Avion wants you to make their tequila your own, creating innovative cocktails using your favorite ingredients and mixers, though Jenna does note that keeping ingredients seasonal is always a good idea, as the fresher the product the better a cocktail will taste.

Mainly, as Jenna noted, the spirit of tequila is that it can be enjoyed anytime, and it’s best when shared with family and friends, truly a spirit for generosity, fun and happiness.

Each one of these brands hopes to be the bottle you will celebrate with.


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