Tequila Ocho is the world’s first single-estate tequila, growing and harvesting only the very ripest agave from their family-owned fields in the Highlands of Jalisco. One field harvested for each of their annual vintages, where some take shortcuts, Ocho is made in the old-fashioned way and takes care to ensure maximum agave flavor in your glass. Every expression is certified 100 percent additive-free, underlining the purity and nobility of this magical tequila.
When most people think about stylistic diversity in tequila, they tend to think about different levels of wood-aging and the differences between blanco, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo. While this concept is already popular in the wine world, it is just now beginning to make its way into tequila. Yet it stands to reason that, because tequila is a reflection of a specific variety of agave, differences in where that agave plant grows would manifest in the finished product. Yet very few tequila producers or drinkers have given the idea much thought.
On this week’s VinePair podcast, Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe are joined by Tequila Ocho Global Brand Ambassador Jesse Estes to discuss how and why Tequila Ocho decided to focus exclusively on single-field tequilas, as well as why being additive-free is so crucial for showcasing those differences.
Or check out the conversation here
Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Zach: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” And we are going to talk a lot about tequila today Zach, but before we do, what are you drinking?
Z: Well, a tequila. But we’ll save that for the interview, because the sample bottles of Tequila Ocho showed up yesterday and I wasted very little time getting into them. But other than that, I think that the thing that I have been most excited about — and this is gonna seem silly to you, I apologize — is Hot Toddies. I know we’ve had conversations about hot drinks before and your general disdain for them, but I will say that I have found that somehow this year with being stuck inside, and then most of the time I go outside is playing with my son at the park, in the afternoon when we get back, it’s a little too late in the day for me to drink coffee. I’m not going to make myself hot chocolate. Sometimes I’ll make him hot chocolate. I want a warm cocktail. And the Hot Toddy has the express benefit of being relatively easy. You know, I don’t f*** with hot buttered rum. My wife does that occasionally. But I just can’t. Drinking butter seems a little much to me, I don’t know why. So I’ve just been making myself Hot Toddies from time to time. You’ll find this to be zero surprise: We are the household that has multiple different kinds of honey around. So I’ve been playing around with whether the chestnut honey is noticeably different than just the standard honey that we have. It isn’t, actually, as it turns out, at least to me. Some honey, some lemons, mostly whiskey, occasionally rum, and hot water. It’s f***ing delicious. And when I’ve been at the playground for two hours with my son in 40-degree weather, it’s actually nice to come in and warm up with that while he has a snack or something. How about you?
A: So basically last weekend was extremely cold. Tim McKirrdy and I had to take one for the team and we spent the entire Sunday in the park, here in Brooklyn, to socially distance-taste 80 bottles of Champagne for the annual Champagne lists that came out today when we’re recording, Thursday the 10th. It’s the Best Champagnes Under $100. And then tomorrow is going to be the baller list, the best Champagnes for every different kind of occasion you would need. So I really did a service to humanity and drank a lot of Champagne. It was very funny, ‘cause there were tons of people walking to the park. First of all, they were wondering what two guys were doing out there for hours in below-freezing weather. And also, why there were all these bottles of Champagne sitting out on this one table that we had, which was pretty funny. So that’s my most recent drinking experience. Then that night, I had a bottle of Krug.
Z: I have to ask, was it moths to the flame with the Champagne and sommeliers? I feel like you might have drawn a crowd.
A: So there was a somm who was in the park who did see that we were tasting Champagne and came over.
Z: Did you give them a glass?
A: We did, yeah. I happened to have an extra glass in the bag and I was “Hey man, we’re drinking all these in plastic stemless wine glasses. Don’t judge us. It’s the park. Do you want to have some Champagne?” And he said “yeah, of course.” He walked over because he recognized a few of the labels as well, as they do. One of those labels being a pretty well known Pierre Peters grower Champagne. And we were also tasting Krug, and he goes “Oh, can I have a glass of that?”
Z: Way to be so predictable.
A: It was really funny.
Z: I’d have probably done the same thing if I was there, but that’s cool.
A: Yeah. It was actually a really funny thing, because I didn’t know who would come over. I was like, I live in a Brooklyn neighborhood. I know there are somms around, but I didn’t know who would see it. And my joke was, it’s going to be someone who just knew Champagne or saw probably one of the bottles, and it was nice. We got to give some of the bottles that had been open to people who were sitting in the park. There was a nice couple that was on a date and we walked over and asked, “Hey, we promise we have not done anything to this. We’ve literally been pouring the glasses and spitting it out, do you want this really nice bottle of Champagne?” And they said, “Thank you so much. This is our third date.” That was really cool.
Z: You and Tim are going to be part of their meet cute. How adorable.
A: Oh, I can’t wait. Tim said “this is the best.” It was funny that we did see a sommelier.
Z: It is funny, but I am zero percent surprised by that. That’s amazing.
A: Yeah. I’m super pumped for today’s conversation, because we’re not going to talk about Champagne, we’re talking about tequila. And we are very lucky to have Jesse Estes on with us. Jesse, what’s up?
J: Hi guys. How are we doing? Thanks for having me on.
A: Good. Good, man. So you are with Tequila Ocho, tell us a little about what you do.
J: I am the global brand ambassador for Tequila Ocho. So primarily in advocacy and education. But I do international marketing. I am on the one-half of the international sales team as well with my colleague, Salvador. And so I do a little bit of everything. It was founded by my father, so it’s a family business. It’s very much a hybrid job role. We all do a little bit of everything in the company.
A: So talk to us a little bit, before we get into tequila in general, about Tequila Ocho. As you said it’s founded by your dad, which is super cool. How did the company come to be? How did the liquid come to be and all that delicious stuff?
J: So the liquid is produced by a gentleman called Carlos Camarena. So Carlos is a fifth-generation master distiller. His great-great-grandfather was producing tequila back in the 1880s in the highlands of Jalisco in Los Altos. So they have a long history within his family of tequila production. Then on my family’s side, our story is that my father is the official tequila ambassador, his name is Thomas Estes, he’s the official tequila ambassador from Mexico to the European Union. And that’s a whole other story about how he became the official ambassador. But he met Carlos in the mid-’90s and they hit it off and became good friends. And then about 15 years ago, Carlos approached my dad and said, “You know, Thomas, I’ve been thinking. I would love to start a tequila brand with you.” Carlos’ family brands are called Tapatio, which has been in production since 1937, and El Tesoro, which has been around since the late ’80s. And those were [my father’s] two favorite brands. Carlos was his favorite producer. La Alteña, where all these brands are produced, was his favorite distillery. So he didn’t think twice. He just said “yes, absolutely. Let’s do this.” And two years later, the result was Tequila Ocho.
A: So, what sets Tequila Ocho apart from a lot of the other tequilas that are coming out of Mexico recently? Newer tequilas, newer brands, et cetera. Obviously, we’re going to talk about additives and tequila. But was there an idea that your father and Carlos had together? Did they say “this is what we’re going to do that’s different?”
J: Yeah. I think there are a few things that really set us apart from other tequilas on the market. There really is one thing that no one else does. A few other brands have since tried to replicate that, but we’re the only tequila brand that does this with every single bottle produced. And you guys were talking about Champagne earlier, and by the way, I really really feel for you, Adam.
A: Yeah, totally. Thank you. I appreciate the sympathy.
J: So we very much took a page from the wine world in expressing ourselves or finding the expression of terroir in tequila. So we are the first single-field tequila on the market. What that means is that every single bottle of Tequila Ocho, I’ve got a bottle in front of me, I know Zach was saying he does as well, you look at the neck label. If you’re at home listening and happen to have some Tequila Ocho around, you’ll actually see the name of the field and the year of harvest and the lower label is the same thing. So on the one in front of me, ‘Gospatos’ is the name of the field, and the year of harvest was 2016. So you can go on our website. You can actually see a map of all the different fields that we’ve harvested to date. We’re harvesting the 25th field right now. And you can click on those fields and see the elevation, the soil composition, the orientation towards the sun, the average sugar content for the harvest. It gets really geeky, right? Maybe it’s too in-depth for some people, but it’s really looking at this idea of single-vineyard wines. And again, you guys were talking about Champagne, there’s been this understanding in the wine world for hundreds of years that if we produce a single-vineyard wine in exactly the same way, using the exact same grape variety, the fields can be adjacent. They can be several yards apart. And those two wines are going to be very different. In tequila, that was less well understood until Tequila Ocho. And we were the first pioneers to champion this concept of terroir in the tequila category. So that’s one of the things that really sets Ocho apart.
Z: Just piggybacking on that notion, one thing that is interesting to me about tequila is that it is the expression of one specific type of agave, Blue Weber. Is it noticeably different in some of the different fields you grow? In other words, when you harvest the agave, can you tell the difference? For someone who is really experienced, do they look physically different, or is it just a difference in flavor?
J: Yeah. We’ve got to take a detour here, and I’ll try not to make this too complicated. It’s exactly what you said. So tequila can only use one specific variety, that’s what we call the blue agave or the agave tequilana Weber azul. The blue agave is actually a monoculture. That means that there’s little to no genetic diversity within that whole variety. So there will be some noticeable differences, especially in terms of size. So even though this is a monoculture, we can have the same exact field, and the agaves can be all the same age, but some are 10, 12, 15 kilos, which is quite small in terms of the size of the agave and the peña, which is the agave heart. And some can be 50, 60, 70, 80 kilos. And it can be right next to each other. So they do develop quite differently. And again, in terms of sugar content, they can be very different. They can fluctuate. So there will be differences in the agaves themselves, even within one field. But I think what we really look for is the difference in flavor. Very importantly, Ocho is produced the same way every batch. So the differences are quite subtle. I wouldn’t expect, if you buy Ocho Plata today and then you buy it again in a year, it’s not going to be crazy different. Right? We’re still going to have this very fresh herbaceous note, this cooked agave honey sweetness, a really crisp minerality, which has a lot to do with our water source, this cracked white pepper and these really lively citrus notes, those are going to be in all tequila Ocho Platas. But then we may find some subtle nuanced differences from batch to batch. Very similar to wine, you’d have a house style, and then for each vintage, you’ll have some differences in flavor profile. So I’m not sure if that makes sense. They’re very much children in a family, sharing the same DNA and every sibling has a different, unique characteristic to him or her.
A: Very cool. So in the U.S., we’ve romanticized añejo and extra añejo. And I know you guys obviously make an añejo. But in your opinion, is blanco the best way to truly appreciate the tequila of a certain house? Or to really see what that tequila actually tastes like and really have the fullness of the agave? Is that what I should be starting with? Or how would you recommend beginning to start tasting tequila and trying to understand a producer like yourselves?
J: Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head there, Adam, in terms of comparing blanco or plata and aged expressions. I used to work for years in cocktail bars before taking on this role. In London where I worked, the understanding around tequila was not where it is in the U.S. There were a lot of people that came and said, “Oh you know, I don’t want any tequila. Don’t give me that.” I would really find the right approach to get them into the category, which very often was through the aged expressions. But as they got comfortable with tequila and started enjoying a well-made, good-quality tequila, I would try and move them towards the blancos. Like you said, I’d have people come to me and say, “I love this brand. I love their añejo, I don’t like their blanco.” In that case, what they’re really enjoying is the wood and the effect of the barrel. Because if you don’t like the blanco from that producer or that brand, that’s the tequila aspect, the raw material or the base. So to me, that’s the true test of any tequila brand or range is the blanco.
Z: I’m really curious since you mentioned your role previously. Now being the global brand ambassador, and then you mentioned working in London and hinted at maybe differing opinions of tequila in the United States or in Mexico versus other parts of the world. Is it easier or harder to get the concept of Tequila Ocho across to people in the U.S., or in other countries. How is that different? Because probably Adam and I could both confidently say that tequila was a part of our alcohol journey, along with lots of other things early on. There’s a lot of tequila in this country, and it certainly is less true in other countries. So what is that experience like?
J: Yeah. So, being based in the U.K., the U.K. leads Europe in terms of the understanding and the premium level of tequila or premium perception of tequila, whereas the rest of Europe is still catching up with that. And the U.K. is still a good 10 years behind the U.S. So, we’ve done a lot of great work. When I say we, I mean, us as a brand and also lots of other high-quality tequila brands that are just really trying to educate consumers about what tequila is, because there’s this negative stigma that’s left over from people drinking very low-end tequilas by getting sick or having a bad hangover, or whatever it is. They swear off tequila, and we’re getting those drinkers back now in the last 10 years. We’ve done a lot of great work. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but it is changing. It is shifting. But the U.S., especially in terms of super-premium and ultra-premium tequilas and just any spirits, actually, is just way ahead of the rest of the world.
A: I just got to ask you a question. So you say additive-free. I’m very curious about additive-free. But I also want to ask you if what someone else told me is bulls*** or not. Obviously, we all care about what is going into the things that we consume. We had someone come into the office, I think a year and a half ago, and they said if you take tequila and you put it in your hand and rub it between your hands and your hands come out clean and smelling like agave, then there’s no additives. But if they’re sticky, they’re added. Is that bulls***?
J: No, no, no. And that’s something I use as well.
A: So that is actually a way to tell.
J: It’s not a conclusive way, but it’s an indicator. If you produce any spirit, whether it’s vodka or gin or whatever, when it comes off the still, there’s going to be no residual sugars in there. So it shouldn’t be sticky to the touch. Sugar, glycerin, caramel, some types of caramel, anyway, will be sticky to the touch. So that will be one indicator. But if your hands are not sticky, it also doesn’t mean that there’s definitely no additives in that spirit.
A: Let’s talk about additives and tequila. Why is it important to be additive-free, and what additives can be in tequila in the first place? What could people add and how much of it could they add if they were adding something?
J: When people are talking about additive-free, they’re really talking about additives that are put into the tequila after distillation. But actually, there are additives that can happen before distillation as well during the process. So when I say that Tequila Ocho is additive-free, we are additive free from the time the agave is planted. And we own all of our own fields, which is very important. And it’s very unique in the tequila world. There’s maybe two or three other producers that can say that. So we know that these fields, the soil, the plants, have not been subject to chemical pesticides, chemical fertilizers, things like that, in some cases for more than a hundred years. Most of these fields have been in the family for at least 50 years. So we know that we have not used any chemicals, going back generations. Now within the process, and I don’t want to get too geeky here, but there are some producers, and especially the bigger tequila houses, who will use sulfuric acid or different accelerants throughout the production process. I also consider those additives, just in the same way, like you said that people are concerned about what they consume. If my vegetables, my broccoli, or whatever has been sprayed with some chemical, I would like to know that. To me, it’s the same with tequila. So that’s one type of additive. The other type is what can be added after distillation and after aging. And those used to be limited to four or five specific additives, and a more recent relaxation of the rules means that anything that’s food safe can be added up to 1 percent of total volume. If we’re talking about a 750 milliliter bottle, that’s 7 and a half milliliters. That doesn’t sound a lot. That’s a quarter of an ounce. It doesn’t sound a lot, but we’re talking about extracts here. We’re talking about concentrates, and a little goes a very long way. It’s like baking with vanilla extract. Anybody who’s used that, you put a few drops in there, and it really flavors that cake or whatever it is that we’re making.
Z: So I have a question that is not about additives, but it is in some sense about authenticity, or at least honesty. One thing that we’ve seen as of late, in particular with tequila and tequila brands, is this explosion of celebrity tequilas. I have zero interest in a commentary on the quality of those brands, I think some of them are probably pretty good. But I do wonder if there is a view that the work of building the reputation of tequila has been the work of people in the business who have been doing it for generations. I don’t want to put words in your mouth. When you see someone like LeBron James invest in it or George Clooney before him, or whoever invests in a tequila brand, how do you view that?
J: Yeah, that’s a great question, Zach. Within this industry, it can be quite a controversial topic right now. I view it differently than a lot of my colleagues, not at Ocho, just in the industry. I think it’s a good thing for the category. I really do. Someone as famous as The Rock, they’re set to do 300,000 9-liter cases in a year. That is insane. I think it’s a record for any spirit, at least that’s what this article was saying.
A: Yeah. It’s a record for any celebrity spirit in history. And I think it’s the biggest debut of any spirit in the last five or 10 years. It’s massive.
J: That’s huge. And that kind of attention, to me, is great for the category. Clooney selling Casamigos for almost a billion U.S. dollars to Diageo attracts a lot of attention and people. I think people start to take tequila as a category a bit more seriously. So for me, again no commentary on the product or on the quality of these products, but I think that it’s bringing a lot of attention to the category, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
A: So Jesse, you mentioned your background as a bartender making cocktails. We all know the Margarita and the Paloma. But what are cocktails people should be making with tequila that you don’t think they currently are that would blow their minds?
J: That’s a great question. Zach was mentioning Toddies earlier. My whole thing is that anything that gin, vodka, rum, or whiskey can do, tequila can do better. So let’s be less controversial and say it can do as well. People that would come into the bar and say “I hate tequila, never touching that stuff.” I’d say, “Great, I’ll make you a drink.” (This was pre-Covid days.) “If you don’t like it, I’ll make you whatever else you want. And of course I won’t charge you for it.” And the one I would go to was using Ocho Blanca or Ocho Plata as the base in a Clover Club with raspberry, egg white. Just very easy to drink. And maybe if I’ve done that 300 times, maybe one or two people sent it back and said “no, no, I don’t want this.” So, it’s a crowd pleaser. For Old-Fashioneds, it’s just about finding the right tequila. Manhattan twists, I do one that’s really nice with a rich, sweet vermouth like Carpano Antica formula and a little bit of Chinara, which is an Italian artichoke bitter and Pico, which is a French bitter. And it’s just delicious with Ocho Añejo. So to me, the sky’s the limit when it comes to cocktails and tequila.
Z: You mentioned one of my absolute favorite combos with a reposado or añejo tequila, which is Chinara. For some reason, I don’t know if it’s just in my head that they both have a vegetal character especially with a really good tequila where you’re getting some of that, but it’s a little more muted in the aged expressions. I always love playing around with that. And I think it’s a super-great combination. So I’m glad I’m not alone on that island.
J: And I think with mezcal, too, that artichoke bitter works well.
A: I’m going to be laying here, but I really like a tequila Negroni.
Z: The answer for Adam is always the whatever Negroni.
A: I like Negronis, man. What can I say?
Z: It’s a great cocktail. We’re not arguing.
A: Yeah. Well, Jesse, this has been really awesome. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us about tequila, in general, and Ocho. I mean, I cannot wait to open my bottle tonight and make tequila Negronis.
Z: I can’t believe you waited, I find that hard to believe.
A: It came yesterday, man, calm down.
Z: I didn’t wait.
A: Well this new thing, I think we’ve talked about it. I’m not drinking three nights a week. So it was on one of my nights when I wasn’t drinking. But Jesse, this was awesome. I really appreciate your knowledge and you taking the time to chat with us today. Thank you so much.
J: Adam, Zack, thank you guys so much, and enjoy that tequila this evening.
A: Awesome, will do. Zach, talk to you next week.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits. VinePair is produced by myself and Zach. It is also mixed and edited by him. Yeah, Zach, we know you do a lot. I’d also like to thank the entire VinePair team, including my co-founder, Josh and our associate editor, Cat. Thanks so much for listening. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.