Our Meet the People series continues with Guillermo Erickson Sauza, fifth-generation family member and producer of family-owned artisan produced Tequila Fortaleza.
In this interview, learn about the rich family history and origins of Tequila Fortaleza, the artisan methods still employed today, new tequila expressions that are soon to be released and what the future holds for the family business.
Can you tell us a little about how your great-great grandfather started in the tequila business?
My Great-Great Grandfather, Cenobio Sauza got to the town of Tequila in 1850’s as a 16 year old boy. He was born in 1843 about 2 days horse back ride from Tequila in a small town located south of Lake Chapala, named, Teocuitatlan. His father was a notary public but had passed away. He did possess a skill that few people had at the time, and that was to read and write. He took various jobs, including managing a large hacienda, where he learned about Tequila production and distribution. In 1873 he started Tequila Sauza. In 1909 Cenobio dies and the company goes to one of his children, Eladio Sauza, my Great Grandfather.
When your grandfather sold the company in 1976, the family stopped making tequila for more than 30 years. How did you get back into the tequila business?
In 1946, my Great Grandfather dies and passes the company to his son, Francisco Javier Sauza. In 1976, mostly due to health reasons and lack of a prodigy to follow him, he decided to sell. I was 20 at the time and attending University. I, as well as the rest of my family, was stunned that he sold. Since I was a small boy, I thought that one day I would be running the company that my Grandfather had inherited. While he had sold the main distillery, La Perseverancia and the secondary distillery, La Constancia, we kept the best property with the smallest distillery, that had been turned into a museum, in 1968, La Fortaleza.
One day in the early 1990’s, a year after my Grandfather had passed away, the Sauza company, now owned by Domecq, refused to buy our agave. We’re still in the business of farming agave. At that moment I decided to put La Fortaleza back to work. Well that was the plan. It took us 9 more years before I got the opportunity to do it. In 1999 we started repairing the 1903 boiler and the 1940’s stills. It took us 3 years to get the plant operational. Money was not growing on the trees! In 2003 we distilled our first litres and in 2005 started selling our first bottles. Today we are in 12 countries and 24 states of the United States.
What are some of the traditional methods of production you use that give Tequila Fortaleza its unique character?
Our tequila is made the old way. We begin with a careful selection of only mature, ripe agave. We use agave from our land and other small farmers. Then the agave is loaded by hand into the 100 year old brick oven, that has over one meter thick walls. The door is bolted with wood so that it can cook with slight pressure. We get steam from our 113 year old boiler, and we steam cook them for over 30 hours. Once cooked the fructans of the plant are thermodynamically converted to dextrose sugars. Now there are modern much faster methods of cooking, using the autoclave and now the diffuser. But different methods of cooking result in different tastes. A good example is the cooking of a baked potato. Slow-cooked oven baked tastes much different from the the fast cooked microwaved version. We do get what is called agave syrup from the oven. We collect this and use it in our fermentation process.
The cooked agave is then milled with a stone wheel with the objective of getting the pulp off the fibre. And again there are much more efficient machinery to do this, but the old way gives the best taste. After milling, we wash the agave to get the pulp, and we call this “mosto.” The fibres are separated and sent to the fields for composting. The mosto is then pumped up to wood fermentation vats. We mix some of the syrup in each fermentation which runs 3 days. The mosto becomes “mosto muerto” or dead must. It now contains around 5% alcohol. We now can double distil in small copper pot stills, technology from the 1500’s. There are of course much more efficient distillation methods and materials but copper gives the best taste.
Everything we make goes into our 2 brand names. Los Abuelos in Mexico and Fortaleza in the rest of the world.
Have any of these methods changed over the years?
The methods that we employ were used by my grandfather’s. The only changes that we have made is to increase the size of the fermentation vats from 3,000 litres to 6,000 litres.
Tequila Fortaleza is 100% tahona stone crushed. What advantages does it have on the end product?
The stone crushing advantage is that the fibres are not ripped open. When we move our bagazo to composting it still contains two points of brix. In modern facilities they process the agave fibres and remove all of the brix they contain. I could liken this to using the stem, skins and seed when making wine.
In a world of mass-produced tequila, what are the challenges of producing a craft spirit using traditional techniques?
Our biggest challenge was getting distribution. No distributor wants to take a chance on a new product made by a super small company. Probably because so many of them go out of business. But once we got distribution in California we had a success story to tell. Then it made it easier to enter other markets because the decision maker at the distributor could feel that its not a product that will disappear in a year and their sales efforts won’t go to waste.
In Mexico, the product is known as Los Abuelos whereas elsewhere it’s called Tequila Fortaleza. Are there any differences between the two?
There is no difference in the brands other than we had a trademark legal battle over Los Abuelos. We don’t buy our tequila from anyone else and we don’t make tequila for anyone else, even if they are good-looking famous movie stars! The only place our tequila goes is into our Fortaleza and Los Abuelos bottles. If the lot number on the back of the bottle is the same, then they were bottled at the same time. We use Los Abuelos in Mexico and Fortaleza in the rest of the world.
You currently produce three expressions, Blanco, Reposado and Añejo. Do you have plans for an Extra Añejo?
We have an extra añejo, five year, made from a very early production lot. And the label is about 95% complete. But we only have 200 cases. And next week it will be probably 198 cases because we keep tasting our visiting bartenders on it. It’s quite rich, and the wood is leaving a very pronounced taste on it. Frankly, I prefer our añejo, but many have said it rocks. We expect maybe by the end of the year, to release this product very allocated. Then our aficionados will have to wait another five years since we did not have enough barrel room.
Our new barrel house will be done within the next month and we plan on laying down 1,000 six packs a year of this product. The good news is the next product up will be our Blanco Still Strength Forty-Six, which is directly from our copper stills at 46%. We have finished the label and it is at the printer. So we see the first shipments in November. If you have been to our distillery and have tasted Fortaleza from the still, this is what it is. On the label vignette, we have our two stills and my two favourite dogs, Sandy and Chocolate. Sandy is a Labrador-Golden mix that is incredibly talented at fielding the tennis ball hit with an American baseball bat! Chocolate was my favourite chocolate labrador who was my constant companion for many years and also a great ball player.
Are you working on any new projects that you can share with us?
We have a number of projects at our estate at this time. Probably the biggest is a barrel house for 900 barrels. We hope to have that finished by end of year so that we can bring out a barrel strength reposado some time next year. We’re looking at a first burn barrel dark charred and probably 3 months, and will be 45%. Talk about authentic, this is going to be the real deal. I can’t tell you what will be on the label because something has to remain a secret, but rest assured, that just like the rest of our labels it’s an existing place on our property.
Tequila Fortaleza is a testament to a craft product that honours traditions. What would your great-great grandfather say if he were here today?
I think my grandfathers would be very proud of what we have accomplished. I was born in 1956, 10 years after my Great Grandfather passed away, 47 years after my Great-Great Grandfather passed away. I’m not sure what they would say but long ago, when I was a small boy, my Abuelo used to take me to the agave fields to show me the ways of the Tequilero, (tequila maker.) One day, while walking along a majestic row of five year old blue agave, he stopped. He reached down and grabbed a handful of soil. He gently placed the soil in my hand and looking into my eyes he told me, “Esta es la tierra del agave, es la tierra de tu bisabuelo y de tu tatarabuelo, es la tierra del tequila, respetala y siempre cuídala porque esta tierra es la sangre de nuestra vida!” (this is the land of the agave, it is the land of your Great-Grandfather and your Great-Great-Grandfather, it is the land of the Tequila, respect it and always take care of it because this is the lifeblood of our way of life!)
Today my son is following in my footsteps. He is the sixth generation to make tequila. I am sure my Grandfathers, up in the heavens, are extremely proud that we are continuing the family traditions.
Tequila Fortaleza is distributed in Australia by Vanguard Luxury Brands. In partnership with Vanguard Luxury Brands.
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