It should come as little surprise to anyone with an eye on drinks industry trends that the winner of the 2022 Next Wave award for best spirits brand is a tequila producer. Simply put, the agave category is on fire right now.

Yet, Fortaleza is notable not because it accounted for a large chunk of the sizable growth the category has seen in the last year, but for its standing among industry pros and agave aficionados. As founder Guillermo Erickson Sauza told VinePair, Tequila Fortaleza remains around 499 traditional agave-crushing tahona wheels shy of ever becoming a billion dollar brand (it currently owns and operates just one). Rather than cash — or, better put, in addition to — this is a spirits company that deals in cachet.

Beyond industry status, Fortaleza shines in multiple other fields. Sauza holds what you might describe as royal lineage within the tequila industry, his great-great-grandfather having been the “father of tequila,” Don Cenobio Sauza. Regardless of that status, his and Fortaleza’s has been a journey of boots-on-the-ground hand-selling and marketing; of astute industry acumen; and ultimately of delivering upon the values of quality and tradition.

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Growing up, Sauza always assumed he’d enter the tequila industry through the brand that bore his family’s name. That changed unexpectedly when, in 1976, his grandfather sold the business, leaving the family with a relatively modest 80-acre plot of land, a scenic hacienda, and a small, defunct distillery that was being used as a museum to showcase traditional production techniques.

With its archaic equipment, the facility shaped the scale and style of Fortaleza’s distillate. Production proved to be labor-intensive and low-yielding, but Sauza felt the result was superior to what was common on the market at the time. “We tasted it and we said ‘this is going to be a hit,’” he says of the early runs that first came off the still in 2002.

Launched in Mexico in 2005 as Tequila Los Abuelos, the brand debuted in the U.S. the following year with the “Fortaleza” name due to a trademark conflict with Panama’s Ron Los Abuelos. Far from breakout success, it was a slow start hampered by the typical hurdles of gaining not just distribution but a wholesale partner whose employees were invested in the brand and its story.

That soon changed after Sauza was advised to host a sales rep visit to the distillery. Over the course of three days, the distributor team had the chance to witness Fortaleza’s rudimentary production first hand. “When they came and they saw the people working in the distillery and the amount of handwork that goes into the product, they were stunned,” Sauza says.

If the trip inspired those sales reps, it also provided a template for excursions that Fortaleza extended to the bartending community. “We all realized that we needed to have [support] from bartenders,” Sauza says. Over the course of more than 10 years running the trips, Fortaleza’s three annual trade visits have become something of a rite of passage among mixologists, many of whom travel from as far-flung lands as Europe and Australasia. The brand isn’t the only one to provide such experiences, but it has proven to be an effective means of cementing Fortaleza and its tequilas as the real deal.

As tequila’s stock continues to rise, conversations on production techniques, additives, and the sustainability of agave agriculture are growing louder. While still some way off the mainstream drinking public, these topics have become every bit as important to agave spirits lovers as the quality of liquids themselves.

Fortaleza proved to be ahead of the curve (if not the entire pack) by leading with this information from the get-go. Via bartenders and sales reps, the brand has built an army of ambassadors — and it only helps that its products, too, walk the walk.

Since its introduction, Fortaleza has avoided endless non-traditional line extensions and continues to offer just four core releases, as well as a more recently introduced and highly coveted annual “Winter Blend.” With an añejo that pours a lighter shade than most mass-market reposados — one that’s devoid of the vanilla notes prominent in many blancos — even those who haven’t been to the distillery can feel comfortable with Fortaleza’s claims of zero flavor and color additives.

With tequila predicted to overtake vodka as America’s most popular spirit in the coming years, Fortaleza’s template and values may well become even more of an outlier. As the category goes from strength to strength and morphs into… who knows what at this point, now feels like the ideal moment to celebrate a distiller that many would argue is doing things the right way, and that all can agree is leading with tradition.

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