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Tequila: the bad boy or outlaw?

Tomas Estes, restaurateur and ambassador for tequila in Europe, talks to Felicity Murray about vintages, terroir and his passion for all things Mexican

Tomas Estes

estesTomas Estes, restaurateur and ambassador for tequila in Europe, talks to Felicity Murray about vintages, terroir and his passion for all things Mexican

Having just launched his own brand of tequila, Muestra Numero Ocho (recipe number eight) in London and Paris, Estes is upbeat about the future of tequila, a spirit he describes as “the bad boy or outlaw - wild and edgy”.

“My love for tequila started with my love for Mexico. To me, tequila is Mexico and Mexico is tequila – they are so inextricably linked in both their identities and their images. I have loved Mexico for as long as I can remember and have loved tequila since 1960 when, clandestinely at the age of 15, I had my first illicit tequila experience.”

Estes grew up within the Mexican community in East Los Angeles where he learnt to appreciate and understand the Mexican culture and language. Despite having a Latin name, the Estes family are Anglo American and he was given his mother’s Welsh maiden name of Thomas (which he eventually changed to Tomas as his nom de plume). His first son by his first marriage is also named Tom and Tomas is preparing Tom, along with Jessie one of his three sons from his second marriage, to take over the family’s business interests in tequila and Mexican-style restaurants and bars.

So how did Tomas Estes begin this love affair with Mexican food and drink?
“My father took me to Mexico when I was a kid and just learning to read,” explains Estes. “I remember seeing all the signs in Spanish and thinking it was so foreign and so exciting. To me Mexican life seemed so immediate and real compared with life in the US which I find artificial, materialistic and status conscious - like living in the head rather than the heart and soul.”

Come 1965, Estes was a university student and regularly crossing the border to see his friend who owned a liquor store a few doors down from one of the most outrageous and famous bars on the Pacific coast – Hussong’s Cantina. “It’s been there for over a 100 years and its still a very serious drinking place,” says Estes. “I’ve heard that in the days before cars they used to ride their donkeys right up to the bar.”

Drinking tequila at this famous Long Bar in Tijuana and sleeping off the effects on the beach found him in all sorts of trouble. He is not slow to admit to having spent a few nights behind bars: “I’ve been a rascal – nothing serious – usually to do with alcohol and all in my youth – but in the Mexican community you are not totally accepted until you’ve been in jail.”

At university he studied social sciences and liberal arts while training and competing as a wrestler (today he keeps fit by cycling). After graduating he gained his teaching credentials and taught English to 13-14 year olds for seven years.

The turning point in Estes’ life was a trip to Amsterdam in 1970. “I decided I really wanted to live there – I loved the architecture the music the literature and the radical liberality of it.” He says. But he knew he would not get a job teaching in Holland so he had to think up some other way of earning a living. And it was while on a “hippy-style” holiday with his first wife and young son, Tom, travelling through Central America in a VW camper van that inspiration struck. “I realised I could do something that no one else had thought of,” he says, “I could open a Mexican restaurant.”

In 1976 he succeeded in opening his first Mexican restaurant called Café Pacifico, in the red light district of Amsterdam.

“It was a great success right away”, he says. “Nobody had ever seen tequila or experienced that kind of atmosphere before – Mexican restaurants have a special kind of buzz and ambience. And it was then that I came to appreciate how central tequila was to my business and I began to delve into it seriously.”

He read up on the subject, visited the Agave growing regions of Mexico and talked to the tequila producers. Estes reckons over the years he has served more than 8 million Margaritas in his restaurants and bars in Holland, England, France, Germany – where he has franchises  – Italy and now Sydney. “That’s a lot of tequila and maybe a lot of hangovers too,” he quips. “I have became a central figure in this part of the world because of my activities

promoting tequila,” he says. “And for that activity the Mexican government have been really kind to me. In 2003 the CNIT (Mexico’s national chamber of the tequila industry) gave me recognition as their official ambassador to the EU.”

The title certainly helps boost his credibility when it comes to convincing bars they should give space to his tequila. “I’ve had bars for 32 years and I’m a representative for the whole category – so bartenders are willing to listen to me,” he says. 

The unique selling point for Estes Muestra Numero Ocho tequila is not just that it is of the highest quality but that the bottle states the year on it – “just for fun” – as well as the actual field from which the agave was grown.

It is the first brand ever to bear a ‘tequila vintage’. Not unlike the labelling of fine wines, Ocho’s ‘tequila vintage’ signifies the exact year or harvest and location of the Agave plants that the spirit was derived from, underlining the finely balanced relationship between the terroir and quality of raw materials.

The Ocho Blanco can be traced back to Rancho La Rivera, where the soil is similar to that of the tequila valley, while for the Reposado, the agave has been harvested from the typically rich brown soil of the Los Altos region of Jalisco from Rancho El Vergel

Although it’s not like Burgundy wine – another passion of Estes – he is convinced vintage and terroir does make a difference to a tequila’s flavour profile: “We have three examples from three fields and these tequilas are all different yet they were made from agaves of the same maturity and cooked, fermented and distilled in the same way – the terroir does seem to come through.”

This is a new adventure for Estes about which he is really excited. “We started working on the new tequilas three years ago and finally got into the market in February. “And thank goodness,” he enthuses, “the people I respect most – the bartending community - have embraced it wonderfully. We launched in LA on the 08/08/08 now it’s being rolled out in London and Paris.”

The tequila is produced for Tomas Estes by the third generation Camerena Family that have been making 100 per cent agave tequila since 1937 in Arandas, Los Altos, and always used “slow” cooking rather than “fast food” mass production methods. They are also responsible for the Tapatio and Tesoro tequila brands.

Tequila, he admits, has a reputation for “bad experiences” but, he says, “that’s all part of its bad-boy charm”. But real improvements have been made in the
quality of tequila, which he believes began in about 1983 with a brand called Chinaco.

“This brand kick-started the trend for so-called boutique and designer tequilas made in small quantities with greater care and attention. And by early 1990 the market had reacted to the success of this one example. More tequileros started to move away from the making rough stuff that was guaranteed to give you a hangover to launch brands that are premium crafted spirits,” he explains. “So more care is now taken of the plants, the cooking, the fermentation and the distillation – right through to marketing. The Mexican government – the CRT (the tequila regulating council) is imposing stricter standards on the tequileros – they are out there every day inspecting the 120 or so distilleries and plantations. The entire tequila industry is working to raise standards and therefore the image. And it’s working. It’s what everyone wants.”

As with spirits generally, the real growth for tequila is in the top quality 100 per cent agave category because, he adds, “the whole spirits market is in a mode of premiumisation and that’s where producers in the tequila category are also looking to make their mark. The largest volume market for tequila is the Americas, but Mexicans see the European markets as ‘the jewel in their crown’. This is about status, premium product placement and achievement, not just volumes.”

Right now, says Estes, there is a glut of agave plants on the market. At its most scarce point, agave was selling at a market price of between 16 and 20 pesos/kilo – 20 pesos for the top quality. Today it’s below one peso and according to Estes some farmers have abandoned their fields because it would cost them more to harvest it. The Mexican government reports that there are currently about 350 million plants of all different ages – so not all ready for distillation yet – “but plenty for lots of tequila production in the future.”


The Tomas Estes tequilas
The Estes Tomas Muestra Numero Ocho tequila range so-named to represent the eighth, and final, attempt at the ultimate recipe.The producers themselves are in their 8th decade of Tequila production and 8 years is the average age at which Ocho’s Agave is harvested. While the Blanco is un-aged, giving a ripe and citrusy flavour, Ocho’s Reposado has been rested for precisely 8 weeks and 8 days for smoothness and complexity. Distributed by Inspirit Brands in the UK, Lyons Brown in the US and Maison de Whisky in France

1945 – Born in Whittier, California
1967 – BA degree in Social Sciences (Liberal Arts)
1968 – California Teaching Credential for Secondary School
1968-1975 – High school teacher/wrestler and coach
1976 – Opened first Café Pacifico, in Amsterdam
1976 to 2008 – Opens 17 restaurants and/or bars in
Holland, England, France, Germany, Italy and Australia;
talks and writes about tequila in Europe and the US

1 April 2009