License to (dist)ill

– An interview with Eduardo Orendain – fifth generation tequilero

To the untrained eye it might seem that, compared to the long history of the tequila category, Arette tequila was founded fairly recently, yet the origins of the Orendain family reach back much further than 1986. Their distillery, known affectionately as El Llanito is one of the oldest tequila distilleries still in production, with a story that begins in 1926 with Don Eduardo Orendain, almost a hundred years ago.

Don Eduardo, was considered one of the best distillers of his day. In founding a distillery, he chose a spot right in the centre of Tequila town - the heart of the tequila industry. The town takes its name from a nearby volcano that looms over the town in the near distance, and it’s this volcano that makes it such a great place for the production of this beautiful spirit. The local water is filtered by the volcanic geology, giving it a cleanliness and quality that positively influences the fermentation of the agave.

The Orendain family are today known as one of the ‘Founding Four’ of tequila. If you are ever lucky enough to visit the offices of the Consejo Del Regulador de Tequila – the governing body of Tequila – you’ll find four imposing statues in the courtyard, representing the Cuervos, the Sauzas, the Herraduras, and the Orendains. Of the four it’s only the Ordenains that remain entirely independent, and family owned, and proudly so.

The Orendains were highly regarded for the quality of their tequila, and at the heart of that quality is the fact that they own all of their own agave fields. Considering the constant ebb and flow in the price and availability of agave, having control of that estate-grown agave is paramount is directing the quality of their tequila. They can plan for production in a way those who rely on purchased agave cannot, meaning they can ensure that the agave has reached full maturity when it is harvested, and ensuring the flavour in the piñas is at its peak.

In the 60s the success of the Orendains meant that production began to outgrow little Llanito, and so it was decided to leave the distillery, and transfer production to a bigger site in the countryside. That distillery is today home to several brands, including one that carries the family name, Orendain. Llanito fell silent for many years.

In 1978 the grandson of Don Eduardo another Eduardo (!), and his brother Jaime decided to take over the abandoned distillery and to revive its fortunes. In 1986 they launch their own brand, Arette, named after a one-eyed horse that famously overcame all odds to win two Olympic Gold medals for Mexico!

We were lucky enough to win an hour with the fifth generation of the family, (and yet another Eduardo!) Eduardo Orendain Jr. Over Zoom I quiz him on all things Arette…

I ask him some loose questions about growing up an Orendain, that Eduardo shrugs off. He tells me you’ll find his relatives in just about every tequila distillery in Jalisco, no surprise given the heritage of the Orendain family intertwined with the history of tequila itself.

Moving on to the present health of the category, Eduardo Jr tells me that, “even though you might think, ‘yeah tequila is everywhere, everyone knows tequila’, it’s mostly the mixto that you see. You might see 100% agave tequilas, but the bottles that are really moving are the mixtos. I think maybe just five distilleries are responsible for more than 80% of all the tequila sold in the world! So what we are really looking to do at Arette, is look to grow the 100% agave tequilas, you know, grow the small, independent producers that are making tequila the old, traditional way.”

While ‘mixto’ or regular tequilas are not by definition of poorer quality, the term defines a practice that enables producers to add sugar as well as agave to the fermentation, stretching the yield of the agave but at a potential cost of intensity and texture. In electing to make and champion 100% agave tequila Arette give a deferential nod to the historic practices of their family business.

I ask Eduardo if he ever considered doing anything different while growing up, or if he always knew he’d join the family business.
“Well, it was never mandatory to join the family tequila business! I was always able to choose what I wanted to do. But you know, I studied a subject that enabled me to bring something to the company. I knew that I wanted to take our tequila beyond Mexico, to the rest of the world, and so I went to university to study business before coming back to work in the company to grow it. We now have fifteen international markets, yet since we distill two weeks on, two weeks off, we’re still able to grow another 50% so there’s still more we can do.”

The generational expertise in the liquid is easy to taste. Arette’s approach is something of a hybrid of the traditional, and more modern. The oldest methods of making tequila, of using brick ovens to cook, tahonas (a huge volcanic stone wheel) to crush the agave, and copper pot stills to distill, add significant cost to the price of a tequila, cost that can exclude a tequila from being a cocktail pour. Arette’s regular label has always been a favourite of bartenders: a fantastic quality tequila, made in the proper way and without shortcuts – all at a highly accessible price point that doesn’t exclude the tequila from being used in a margarita. The production begins with the use of autoclaves - steam cookers that cook their valley-grown, mature agave, before the cooked agave is then crushed to yield its sweet agave juice by roller mill. When it comes to distillation, they are immovable on an important metric that defines a quality tequila, eschewing the column stills that can make for a more lifeless spirit, instead using stainless steel pots to distill. As Eduardo says, “there’s no maximum strength you can distill tequila to. You can make a vodka from agave and still call it tequila, but you know, if that agave has spent 7, 8 years growing and developing its flavours then you want to taste that.”

In a market that is flooded with tequilas that have been pumped up with additives, it’s with pride Eduardo tells me that they have won additive-free certification, awarded by Tequila Matchmaker, and initiative he clearly admires. I ask if he thinks this certification is pushing tequila towards greater quality and he says, “definitely. And we’re already seeing this shift towards 100% agave, and the restoring of traditional practices like tahona wheels, taking tequila back to its roots.”

I ask if he feels their role is to be a custodian of traditional methods, or if they run with technological innovations. Eduardo tells me: “There was definitely a time in the 80s and 90s that the family wanted to keep with the times and modernise. We took out our tahona, and we introduced roller mills, but in recent years we brought in a brick oven and started kind of going back to our roots.”

Reviving some of these historic practices led to them issuing a range of fully artisanal tequilas, the utterly delicious Arette Sauves. For Suave they slow the ferment down by using the cooler concrete tanks instead of stainless steel, and use traditional brick ovens rather than autoclaves, adding complexity and enriching the cooked agave notes.

I’m curious to know about their approach to maturation; the use of oak barrels seems unlikely to have been something done hundred in mezcal production. Eduardo theorises that the practice really sprang up during US Prohibition – the paucity of available spirits created a vacuum that Jaliscan distillers were eager to take advantage of: “At the time Americans were really into their whiskey, and so there was an opportunity. People would sell their tequila as Mexican Whiskey, and since taking it into the States meant a two-month journey, it was typical to do that with casks as bottles would have been so much heavier and more fragile. I guess the rest is history! But the second boom for tequila really came in the 90s with the incredible success of the Margarita. We’re in a third boom now – the celebrity boom.”

As can be expected, Eduardo didn’t seem too excited by celebrity endorsed tequila: “they have focused on the industrial, mass-produced tequila, they’re not really focused on the quality of the juice.”

I ask which other tequilas he respects, and get a glimpse into the treasured friendships among the traditional tequileros. He tells me that there’s a small group of them that regularly get together for barbeques at each others’ places, namechecking Sophie Decobeque (Calle 23), Carlos Camarena (Tapatio), Guillermo Sauza (Fortaleza). These people are royalty to tequila nerds. I quietly wonder to myself if I can ask for an invite and elect to keep my mouth shut. I ask if they all joke about what celebrity they’d have endorse their tequilas - connecting such special tequilas with the razzle-dazzle of American celebrity culture seems uncomfortably incongruous - but just to check: “You aren’t planning on hiring a celebrity right?”. Eduardo laughs, “no, no, no”. He softens his stance a moment to add, “the positive side is that you have a consumer that might be on a night out clubbing who usually drinks vodka, and now they are drinking tequila. While they are choosing these types of tequila now, as they mature their tastes may change and they will stick with tequila, but keep exploring.”

I check the clock – I’ve kept him on the phone for over an hour and I’m pretty sure he’s got a job to do, so just one question more: “I’m sure you will say that you love all of them, but tell me, which of your tequilas do you find yourself pouring most often?”

“I love blanco tequilas, and so while I love them all, I have to say I find myself recently enjoying our Fuerte, a still strength blanco at 50-51%. If I am smoking cigars with my dad we’ll drink aged tequila but on a night out, and you know it’ll be a long night, I like to stick with my blancos.”

We part ways and I’m left with a deep appreciation for the resolute quality throughout their production. And wondering how the heck I’m going to get an invite to their next BBQ.

Photo Credit: Tequila Matchmaker

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