If you’re a fan of tequila, you are undoubtedly familiar with the name “Don Julio.” His name is one that is synonymous with high-end agave spirits — liquids of uncompromising quality. Surprisingly, though, even some of the most ardent connoisseurs of the category are unaware that this brand represents not merely a myth or a legend but an actual man. His journey is as compelling as the tequila that now bears his name.
When Don Julio González-Frausto Estrada began his tequila-making journey in 1942, he was a passionate and dedicated farmer in the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico. Even though he was just starting out, González quickly cultivated a reputation among his peers. Friends and neighbors often said he cared for the agave the way one would their own children, and he owned up to that reputation with great pride. The fastidious stewardship served him well as he moved from field to stillhouse.
Back then tequila wasn’t the lauded sipping spirit it is today. Considered an often unrefined liquor of the working class, it barely made it beyond the community where it was birthed. Don Julio González was determined to lift the spirit’s stature, one small batch at a time. It was a Herculean task that involved a precious reserve of perfectly matured maguey along with a hearty dose of perseverance. The world-class bottlings we enjoy today were honed through decades of devotion to craft.
Yet the man never set out to revolutionize the category on such a global scale. This was merely a byproduct of his devotion. The first drops of liquid were reserved for friends and family. Then word trickled out from his hometown of Atotonilco, spilling out across Jalisco into the neighboring states of Mexico of an elusive tequila — worthy of top-shelf placement.
Up until this point, the ever-humble craftsman had never considered affixing his name to the bottles he filled. But in 1985, Don Julio González’s sons threw a special celebration where close friends and family enjoyed his reserve reposado, which had only been created as a labor of love for personal use. Guests demanded that Don Julio González bottle his tequila for purchase, including one businessman who presented Don Julio with two checks, saying, “You can cash these both tomorrow if you promise in one year you can give me 1,000 cases of your special tequila to sell.” Thus a living legend was enshrined, forever entwined with the superior spirit he had conceived, and ready to be received on a global stage. The rest, as they say, is history.
Don Julio González passed on March 20, 2012, having lived long enough to enjoy the fruits of his labor in the grandest sense of the phrase. What had started out as an earnest attempt to share quality tequila among friends had evolved into one of the most distinguished brands of premium spirits on the planet.
Today his legacy weaves its way through each and every bottle produced in Atotonilco. Don Julio’s hometown remains the site of the distillery, where tequila is produced in the same way that he pioneered here nearly 80 years ago. The packaging itself evokes memories of the man: A signature blue trademark references the pickup truck in which he was frequently spotted traversing the farmlands; his hat-donning silhouette is embossed on the top of the label in a copper hue, alluding to that original 1942 still.
That same auspicious year is forever commemorated by the ultra-premium añejo bottling. When it was released 18 years ago, Don Julio 1942 became the world’s first luxury tequila. Dispensed from a spear-shaped decanter fashioned to resemble an agave penca, it was unlike anything anyone had seen — or tasted —before. The liquid owes its distinctive richness, redolent of warmed toffee and creme brûlée, to two-and-a-half years of aging in reclaimed American white oak barrels.
Holding its own against these sublime top notes is the robust distillate at its core — collected exclusively from the smallest pot still in the entire distillery. What this little still lacks in efficiency it more than makes up for in exceptionalism. The diminutive workhorse was favored by Don Julio himself. No surprise, then, that 1942 was his preferred special-occasion bottling later in life. Indeed, it is a preference shared by no small number of contemporary enthusiasts. The expression is among the top-selling añejos on the market today.
Today, Don Julio Tequila continues to carry the tequila category to lofty new heights, honoring the brand’s 70th anniversary in 2012 by unveiling Don Julio 70 — another industry first. This elegant and aromatic sipping spirit spends 18 months aging in American white oak before undergoing a proprietary filtration process, removing impurities and enhancing floral undertones. Pouring out of the glass clear as crystal, the nascent style has been dubbed “Cristalino.”
In some respects this particular offering is the distilled essence of Don Julio’s enduring philosophy; a man obsessed with obtaining a limpid window into the soul of raw beauty. He arrived there through a careful blend of passion, devotion, and perseverance. For him they were ways of life. For fans of his tequila they are characteristics you can taste, wearing a name you can’t forget.
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This article is sponsored by Don Julio Tequila.