There seems to be an endless amount of new alcohol being fermented, pressed, and distilled every day in this drink-happy world we live in. At K&L we are constantly inundated with samples from new producers who would like us to put their bottles on our shelves. When I received a sample box of tequila a few weeks back, I was interested for the few seconds it took me to pull out the bottle and read the tagline printed on the back label: “modern luxury tequila.” “Oh brother,” I said to myself and I put the bottle back in the box and continued on with my work. To explain my hasty assessment I will give you a brief explanation regarding the current world of designer spirits.
There are bottles of whiskey in our stores that are expensive because they are old and cellaring scotch or bourbon in a warehouse for 20 years isn’t cheap. We have other bottles that are pricy because they are small operations that need to cover the high cost of the quality ingredients they are using in their production. Then you have “lifestyle” products that are expensive because...well, because they are. It’s not that they’re necessarily bad, but they may have done nothing to deserve their high price tag. Maybe R. Kelly sang about it in his latest single, or maybe someone saw Jay Z in the club sipping it on the rocks. Whatever the reason, I refer to them simply as “lifestyle” spirits because their sole appeal is based on trend, status and fashion, not upon quality. When I see the words “modern luxury” printed on a bottle, I immediately infer that I am dealing with another candidate in the endless campaign to make money off of young adults and pop culture without making good liquor—and I am not interested in contributing to this campaign.
What I would soon learn, however, is that the Penilla family put “modern luxury” on their tequila bottles because they believe that we have finally come to a time when quality tequila can be enjoyed for a reasonable price and that, my friends, is the luxury of this modern age. However, because I didn’t have the time to dig into specifics and was convinced that I was dealing with another mass-produced, marketing fad, I quickly drafted an email back to Angel Penilla and told him that K&L was more interested in small-production, hand-crafted tequilas and not in promoting lifestyle brands. This was a big mistake.
Little did I know that Mejor tequila is the product of local strawberry farmer Don Alberto Penilla and his sons, who come from three generations of blue agave farmers in Jalisco, Mexico. Don Alberto migrated to the United States as an orchard hand, worked his way up through the system, established himself as a U.S. Citizen, and saved up his money to send his sons to college and graduate schools. Over the years, during the strawberry off-season, Don Alberto returned to Mexico where he devoted time, effort and much enthusiasm to growing the most majestic blue agave in the Highlands of Jalisco. Eventually, his sons and son-in-law assembled the capital to produce their own brand of tequila, using Don Alberto's own estate-grown agave. Don Alberto pledged full support for the brand, but "only if the tequila was to be better than anything else on the market" and thus the brand philosophy and brand name Mejor (translated: better). The history behind Mejor tequila is one of the great stories I have yet heard in the booze business and here I had just categorized them as all flash, and no substance. It should not surprise you that Angel’s brother, and Don’s other son, Albert Penilla came to see me the next day and straighten me out.
In addition to the tale of Don Penilla, Albert was intent on illuminating me on every detail behind the production of his family’s tequilas—from the harvesting of their agave plants, to the distillation process and the intricate chemical reactions that occur within their ovens, cooking tanks, stills, and oxygen treatment processes. All the agave (which they previously had sold to Patron, among others) comes from their own property that they have been working for close to 50 years. It is rare to find anyone in the spirits world that both grows and distills their own product, but the Penillas are completely involved in every aspect, even the bottling and labeling. However, they are so concerned with making the perfect tequila that, even with their vast understanding and involvement in the production, they brought in master distiller Marco Cedano Nuñez, of Don Julio 1942 fame, to oversee the entire process. The result is ridiculously good tequila that, because they import it and distribute it themselves, sells for far less than some of their inferior colleagues.
Like me, Albert Penilla believes that the truest expression of the agave plant exists in blanco tequila because it sees no barrel aging and the influence of wood can help to mask the flavors of substandard agave. Blanco is the truest representation of the plant and the closest that any spirit comes to representing the terroir associated with great wines. Mejor Blanco ($39.99) is fresh, spicy and bursting with the pure agave flavor I associate with high quality pulques. In the $30-$40 price range it would be difficult for me to recommend anything better. Mejor Reposado ($47.99) is where the brand is going to live up to their luxurious catchphrase. The tequila is so smooth and soft that it truly does seem like a luxury to be drinking it. The Mejor Reposado, distilled by the master behind the ultra-successful Don Julio 1942 ($129.99), comes as close to that level of velvet delicacy as any other reposado we have on the shelf. I am looking forward to later this year when the Penilla family bottles their first añejo to see if they can raise the bar even higher.
As of this week you can find Mejor tequila on K&L shelves. Along with the Don Pilar I wrote about last week, it respresents the second of two tequilas that we buy locally, straight from the producer. Albert himself drives over to drop off the bottles on his lunch and gives us the invoice. They also make Mejor Tequila Pink ($39.99), which we can special order (which is being marketed to the younger, club-going, drinking community, Albert would later admit to me). It pretty much tastes like the blanco, except that it’s pink. Before you say to yourself, “Pink Tequila? Sheesh!” think about the tale I have just told you. Looks don’t always tell the entire story, and in this case, there certainly was an important story to be told. Don Penilla’s Mejor tequilas are top-notch products from a local member of the Bay Area community who is hoping to enrich our lives a bit by bringing the flavors of his native Mexico us. I recommend them highly.
David Driscoll, Spirits Buyer