El Big Bad restaurant and event space has a reputation for its Texas-sized selection of tequila infusions. One step inside the historic downtown Houston eatery and it’s clear why the venue is known for tequila. A full bar loaded with top-shelf spirits stretches the entire length of the upstairs dining room.
“We have around 45 flavors of infused tequilas made with all-natural ingredients,” says Ben Baxter, resident event coordinator at El Big Bad. “Any fruit, vegetable, spices you can imagine. We have 50 different infusion jars that you can see by the elevator.”
The restaurant is known for innovative tequila flavors, pairings and flights of different types of tequilas. Because it’s located in the heart of downtown, it has also become a hot spot for visitors and culinary tours.
“Tequila is kind of a new thing, comparable to wine with aromas ... you have to develop your palate,” Baxter says. The restaurant’s proximity to hotels, and its second-floor balcony and event space, has led to an increase in requests for tequila tastings and pairings.
“We’re one of the world’s largest tequila bars in the sixth oldest building in Houston,” Baxter says. “We do multiple kinds of tastings and pairings with mezcals and tequilas.”
THE CRAFT MOVEMENT
Craft spirit consumption is on the rise in Texas, and that includes tequila and hand-crafted agave spirits.
“Texas has become an epicenter for craft foods—craft everything— including craft spirits,” says Scott Stewart, executive director of the Texas Distilled Spirits Association. “Tito’s Vodka was the first distillery in Texas in 1997. By 1998, there were only eight distilleries. Now there are 67.”
Despite the rise in Texas distilleries producing everything from vodka to whiskey to rum, true tequila still has to be distilled in one of five designated states in Mexico. Just like Champaign has to be made from grapes in the Champaign region of France, tequila has to be made from Blue Weber Agave grown in and around the state of Jalisco.
The Tequila Regulatory Council of Mexico (Consejo Regulador del Tequila or CRT) certifies all tequilas according to the Mexican Official Standard of Tequila. That’s the “NOM” number code found on all bottles of tequila. Without that certification number, it can’t really be called tequila. But that hasn’t stopped Texans from creating their own craft tequilas.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Certified tequila comes in two forms: tequila 100 percent and tequila without the 100 percent designation. To produce tequila 100 percent, the entire process—from roasting the agave pina to bottling the spirits —must take place at a certified Jalisco distillery. It also has to be made from 100 percent distilled agave juice.
Producing tequila (not 100 percent) isn’t as stringent. Texas companies can import tequila in bulk and bottle it in the U.S. It’s also only required to have 51 percent or more agave juice. Other types of sugar can be added to complete the fermentation process. This makes for a less expensive tequila.
So, how can there be so many Texas-branded tequilas when tequila has to be made by one of a few hundred certified distilleries in Jalisco? Texas companies either partner with a certified distillery to create tequila 100 and import it, or create tequila in Jalisco that can be bottled in the U.S.
Scott Willis founded Austin-based Tequila 512 and travels to Jalisco regularly to monitor the distilling process. “The first question everybody asks is, ‘Did you make this in Texas?’ A lot of it is education—how it has to be made in Mexico to be called tequila,” Willis says.
“I began this tequila journey seven years ago, coming up with the recipe and flavor profile,” Willis says of his brand. “We launched in 2012.” Within a year, Tequila 512 won a gold medal at the 2013 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Willis started the company and developed a close relationship with a distillery in Mexico while still working a fulltime job in Austin and raising a family with wife, Lauren.
“We took the long road. A lot of that was doing it on our own out of love and passion,” Willis says. “We do tons of on-site events. We’re based in Austin, but we are in the process of expanding our offerings statewide.”
Another Austin-based tequila company, Dulce Vida, produces 100 proof, 100 percent organic tequila in the village of San Ignacio Cerro Gordo at Campanario. Since 2010, the company has won dozens of awards from spirits competitions. The company works directly with farmers to grow and harvest Blue Weber Agave, in addition to controlling the distillery process from agave roasting all the way through to bottling.
A passion for creating quality spirits also brought Kelly Railean into the distillery business. After more than a decade working in wine and spirits distribution, Railean struck out on her own as founder and master distiller of Railean Distillery. Her first product was a line of Texas-made rum.
“I was going around [to retailers] saying, ‘You don’t have a Texas product’ ... and everyone kept talking about ‘Texas tequila’,” Railean says. “It makes sense, margaritas are one of our biggest drinks.” Railean imports Blue Weber Agave from Mexico and distills her spirits near Galveston.
“I follow the rules and techniques as far as double distilled and aging requirements for tequila,” Railean says. “A lot of people don’t realize there are agave spirits made in other parts of the world, too. South Africa, for example.”
Railean doesn’t produce tequila, but she does produce Texas agave spirits. She also hosts tours, private events and tastings at her coastal distillery. “People have heard of agave spirits, but they haven’t tried the good stuff. There’s good tequila being produced. Not to do a slammer, but to sip,” Railean said.
Railean’s distillery has become a destination for tours and events. “We do a lot of private parties for clubs and corporations, team-building exercises like team bottling or Jeopardy-type quizzes, whatever people want to do,” Railean says. “I’ll be a guest bartender at events and do mixology lessons, drink contests. It can be educational or we’ll just have fun.”
Many Texas tequila companies work with local charities and businesses to provide tastings and education.
TEQUILA MYTHS AND LEGENDS
The average person may think of body shots and college parties and waking up with a hangover “to kill ya” when they think of tequila, but the industry has matured.
“Think about tequila the way you think about scotch. You should expect flavor,” Willis says. “Some tequilas don’t have much of a flavor, but it should taste like agave. Peppery or sweet ... different areas taste differently. It’s like wine, where grapes taste different in different regions. Agave is the same.”
Mezcal is also getting a second look from Texas distillers and tequila aficionados. Mezcal is made from a different type of agave, and usually distilled in regions outside Jalisco. It’s also the product that sometimes used to contain an agave larva—which gave rise to the myth that tequila has a worm in it.
“With mezcal, people think it’s cheap tequila, but they’re entirely different plants, it’s a completely separate product,” Railean says. It also doesn’t come with larvae anymore.
Ferenc Hajnal is the director of the Mexican Academy of Tequila Tasters, the group designated to certify tequila masters and experts by the Mexican Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT). The Academy is the only organization licensed to certify tequila masters and tequila experts according to CRT standards.
“The Tequila Master is equivalent to Winemaker for wines,” Hajnal says. “The person must be skilled in the process of making tequila, and responsible for designing the flavor profile, and making sure that both the profile characteristics and quality are constant in each production.”
There is a difference between a Tequila Master and a Tequila Expert. Master status is most useful for distillers, while expert status is more appropriate for sommelier-type knowledge.
“The Tequila Expert demonstrates understanding of all topics related to tequila, such as its history, feedstock, process development, standards, classes and zone designation of origin, as well as tequila tasting,” Hajnal says. “To become a Tequila Expert, you must be certified by the Mexican Academy of Tequila Tasters through the Expert Seminar on Tequila, which is given by the academy, or through the online course taught jointly by the Mexican Academy of Tequila Tasters and La Salle University.”
Even without CRT certification, Texas tequila owners find themselves educating the public on the nuances of tequila taste. “We do different types of tastings, charitable events and tequila education,” Willis says. He takes his Tequila 512 to venues around Austin, Dallas and Houston. “With tequila, it’s fairly unknown to most people—how it’s produced, the history, production.”
“If you taste a tequila and you don’t like it, maybe you don’t like a tequila from a certain region,” he says. “Try one from another region.”