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The Freewheel line with a couple of English friends.

It takes a lot of beer to keep the wine business running smoothly. Here in Redwood City, we are very fortunate to have a great English style ale producer right in our backyard: Freewheel Brewing Company. The staff of K&L are fictures at our local pub, and it is a rare moment when one of us isn't there having a pint and a bite of their excellent food. We are also lucky enough to be the first place to offer their bottled beer for sale. If you have never had it, the Freewheel Brewing "FSB" Freewheel Special Bitter, California (500ml) is the benchmark in fresh, balanced, smashable ale. We will do our best to keep some in stock for you, the customer too!

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Entries in Tequila (7)


National Tequila Day at Tres Agaves

I’ve been known to go on and on about the virtues of the Paloma or the Penicilina and about my love of tequila to anyone who willing to talk about cocktails and distilled spirits over the last couple of years. Maybe it’s because I’ve never had Jose Cuervo, maybe it’s because I’m part Spanish or maybe it’s because I enjoy being a contrarian, but drinking this underdog distilled spirit made from the Blue Agave plant has always been a truly pleasurable experience for me. Recently, I befriended a guy who is a BIG tequila fan. Actually, since he has tried almost 300 different tequilas, I think it’s fair to call him an aficionado. So, when I found out that Saturday, July 24th was National Tequila Day, I thought it would be perfect to spend the afternoon tasting tequila with him.

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Gluten Free Drinking

I was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance in 2007, at the start of my formal wine and spirits education.  Gluten is the name given to the composite proteins present in some of the world's most common grass-related grains—mainly wheat, rye and barley—and it's seemingly in everything. You develop it in bread to give it structure and spring, you suppress it in cakes to make them tender. And because of  its elasticity, gluten is an especially pervasive ingredient in many processed foods and beverages. That got me thinking, if I gave up gluten what could I drink?

Whether you have a mild gluten allergy or live with the autoimmune disorder known as Celiac Disease, gluten-intolerance is a condition that can be managed but not cured with a gluten-free lifestyle. And there's a lot to give up when you're living gluten free. Fortunately, it turns out, you don't have to give up everything.

Naturally Gluten-Free Beverages

It was initially easy to identify the naturally gluten-free alcoholic beverages, which are those derived from sources other than grass grains. This group includes wine (made from fermented grape juice), cider (typically fermented apple or pear juice), sake  (rice), rum (cane sugar), tequila (agave), etc.—the list goes on. 


Beer is a different story.  Most beer is produced from the brewing and fermenting of starches derived mainly from wheat and barley grains, and is therefore by definition not gluten-free. There are some exceptions, however. Beer can be produced from alternative grains like sorghum, corn and millet, and although the rise in demand for gluten-free products has resulted in a growing number of these beers, lets just say that on the merits of taste alone, they still have a way to go before making it to the beer section here at K&L. In Europe, there are a handful of brewers experimenting with and perfecting methods for making beer from de-glutenized barley, but these have yet to be imported to the western United States.

Distilled Spirits

I had no idea how much I didn't know about the world of spirits until I began studying it, and moreso when I needed to learn what I could drink.

With some noteworthy outliers mentioned earlier in this article (tequila, rum, absinthe, etc) I was shocked to discover that the most widely produced and consumed spirits in the world are derived in part or entirely from a gluten-grain source (hence the term, "grain alcohol"). Vodka, so very un-glutenesque in its lightness and purity, typically starts out as mixture of gluten grains and other non-gluten starches, with only a handful of exceptions.* The whiskies of the world are distilled from fermented grain mash limited exclusively gluten-grains (barley, wheat, and rye) and corn. I was wrong about gin, too.  It is not made from juniper berries, but rather is traditionally a neutral grain spirit infused with the flavor of juniper berries and other botanicals, depending on style. Like vodka, there are some exceptions, but these are rare and typically not available at the average bar or liquor store.**

Beer I could handle. But spirits? Cocktails 

With vigor fueled by desperation, I turned to the internet. I rembered Shauna James Ahern's award-winning blog, Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, which I had discovered when looking for gluten-free recipes. Maybe Shauna knew something I didn't?

Fortunately, she did.  Just typing the word "alcohol" in her blog search window took me directly to good news: the world's authorities on Celiac disease recently verifed that distillation removes the gluten protein—my elation mimicked hers: sheer celebration.  

Life with booze, as it was, resumed.

Summing It Up: Anything Alcoholic but Beer

In short, that's what you can drink if you're gluten-free: Anything alcoholic but beer. This includes, but is not limited to, wine and all its derivatives (sweet wines, fortified wines, grappa, cognac, and other eau de vie), ciders (made from apple, pear, and other fruits), all-natural fruit-based liqueurs, rice-based spirits like sake and soju, and any distilled spirit, be it from a grass-grain or other source, such as whisk(e)y, vodka, gin, rum, and tequila.  The only big exlusion is beer, followed by generally low-quality caramel or chocolate-infused dessert drinks where gluten may be added as a part of a thickening or sweetening agent.

Cocktail anyone?

Disclaimers, Links and References

While any product labelled as gluten-free must be certified according to strict health standards, not all gluten-free products are certified or labelled as such, especially in the category of alcoholic beverages, where ingredients are not as yet required by law to be listed on packaging.  As with any food or beverage, it is ulitmately your responsibility as a consumer to determine if the product you intend to consume carries any risk to your health.

Safe Gluten-Free Food List on

American Dietetic Association standards for gluten-free foods (as reported on, 12/10/2000)

Gluten Free Girl and the Chef

Celiac Sprue Association

BBC Food - Gluten Free Diets

Gluten Free Gluttons

*Exceptions include Karlsson's Gold Vodka (100% potato), Blue Ice Idaho Potato Vodka (100% potato) and local SF Bay Area's Treasure Island Distillery's China Beach Vodka (100% grape) and Baker Beach Vodka (100% corn)

**Treasure Island Distillery's Ocean Beach Gin is a worthy exception to grain-based gin, made from 100% sugar cane.

Chiara Shannon

Head Sommelier

Personal Sommelier Service | Tastings

K&L Wine Merchants

Questions? Comments? Email me at




Mejor Tequila, Direct Buy #2

The Penilla brothers and their agave fields.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.

Preparing the agave hearts for cooking.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.

The Penillas putting the final touches on their packaging.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