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Review: “The Tequila Ambassador” by Tomas Estes

Review: The Tequila Ambassador. Tomas Estes. Sauce Guides (2012).

Tomas Estes has written an instantly classic tequila book that is indispensible to the library of any agave aficionado. Estes, a native of Los Angeles, has spent more than three decades getting to know Mexico and mastering agave spirits. Along the way, he has opened 17 pioneering tequila bars in Europe and Australia, co-founded Tequila Ocho and was named the Tequila Ambassador to Europe by the National Chamber of the Tequila Industry.Tequila Ambassador Tomas Estes

Estes’ distinctive voice comes through lucidly in this work. He’s warm, positive, enthusiastic, inquisitive and humble. If you have been lucky enough to meet him, you’ll feel like he’s right there with you. If not, you’ll wish you had.

Estes’ attitude towards his status as Ambassador is, characteristically, at once ambitious and humble: he sees himself (as well as fellow Ambassador – to the USA – Julio Bermejo) as an “Ambassador Maker,” creating other ambassadors throughout the world through education and advocacy. Indeed, Estes emphasizes the primacy of education (for consumers and industry alike) throughout the book.

Estes shares his platform (which he modestly calls a ‘notebook’ or ‘scrapbook’) with his peers, mentors, teachers and other industry insiders. The book contains 13 interviews, from the owners of Cuervo and Patrón to distillers, scholars and experts such as Jose Sandoval and Miguel Cedeño, who may be as yet unknown to the casual tequila fan. The interviews are distributed throughout the book between chapters on each step in the tequila production process, tequila’s history, notes on the village of Tequila and a bit about Oaxacan mezcal.

Anyone looking for a purist’s diatribe should move along. As befits an ambassador, Estes avoids taking controversial or overly strong stances. He truly wants the tequila category to be broad, diverse and accessible throughout the world. So he doesn’t demonize the mixto category or large-scale industrial production methods. On the contrary, he sees both as providing more points of access to the entire world of tequila. He does, however, state a personal preference for tequila production that is small in scale, natural in technique and slow in pace. He also strongly advocates for a “less is more” approach to filtration, a detail whose importance will escape the novice but excite the advanced tippler.

The book is consistently good and there is little or no fluff here. However, the history of the margarita, the Robert Denton interview, the discussion of terroir and the final section on the future of tequila really stand out.

Terroir is the concept, coming from wine, that the soil and climate in which the raw material (grapes, agave, etc.) is grown will be expressed in the final product. So, just as Pinot Noir grapes from France produce a wine with different characteristics than those grown in Oregon, blue agave from Jalisco’s Highlands produce a tequila profile distinct from that of the lower Valley regions. Estes is one of the people behind Tequila Ocho, which succeeded in putting to rest any doubts about tequila’s claim to exhibit terroir. Each year, a new vintage is produced by Carlos Camarena (the master behind El Tesoro de Don Felipe and Tapatío, among others) utilizing agave from a different Highlands ranch than the previous year. The finished product, while produced on the same equipment with the same yeast strain, is remarkably different each year.

Robert and Marilyn Denton were responsible for ushering in the wave of 100% agave sipping tequila in the US by importing Chinaco and El Tesoro in the 1980s. Estes’ interview with the Dentons is a fascinating look back to the birth at the US tequila boom, from the mouths of those who brought it to light.

While the Dentons were instrumental in bringing premium tequila to discriminating US drinkers, nothing has increased tequila’s popularity with the general public than the margarita. Estes’ bars have served over 8 million of the tart, salty concoction worldwide, and he takes us along for a ride on both sides of the border to research several versions of the drink’s origin. This is easily the most interesting and enjoyable telling of the margarita story we’ve ever read.

Tequila Ambassador BookEach of the chapters on tequila production provide technical precision and nerdy details in abundance, while at the same time providing a thorough and understandable explanation for the novice or spirits generalist.

Readers with a long history or deep involvement in agave spirits may want to turn immediately to the final section: “The Future for Tequila,” as we did. If the lack of bold prognostication disappoints slightly, all the right questions are asked. Fundamental problems in agave production related to price instability, overreliance on chemical pesticides and the monoculture resulting from cloning as the exclusive method of reproduction are succinctly and intelligently introduced. Estes does make strong arguments for some specific policies. He cites successful examples in Europe and California in arguing for price controls and cooperative organization in agave farming. Maintaining his focus on education and category-wide advocacy, he calls for the National Chamber of the Tequila Industry to be beefed up, take on more of a leading educational role and bring in bar owners and experts as non-voting honorary members. In his view, both the state of Jalisco and the Mexican federal government should do more to promote tequila education, tourism and entry into emerging markets in Asia.

This book has moved immediately to the top of the stack and is highly recommended. Experience Tequila will be hosting participatory dialogues and tastings with Tomas Estes in Seattle and Portland in mid-May, 2013.

-Clayton J. Szczech

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