Tequila Ocho’s Jesse Estes Explores Terroir: A Journey With the World’s First Single-Field Tequila

Tequila’s long-held reputation as a party spirit has finally started to wane — and rightfully so. The Blue Weber Agave-based spirit is meant to be savored, sipped slowly instead of downed quickly in a shot glass. When consumed the way it’s meant to be, high-quality tequila is as good as any top-shelf liquor, if not better.

As it turns out, tequila can absorb the qualities of the field where it’s grown, much like wine. Tequila Ocho, founded by Tomas Estes and master distiller Carlos Camarena, is a brand that focuses on terroir-driven craftsmanship. Tequila Ocho’s single-estate philosophy results in spirits that carry the distinct imprint of Los Altos de Jalisco, Mexico.

Jesse Estes, global brand ambassador at Tequila Ocho, spoke to VinePair about carrying forward his father’s legacy and how Tequila Ocho’s commitment to tradition and pioneering philosophy are transforming this iconic Mexican spirit.

Can you tell me about Tequila Ocho’s history and the ethos behind the brand? How did you become involved with tequila?

Tequila Ocho was founded by my father, Tomas Estes, and world-renowned master distiller Carlos Camarena. My father was a restaurateur and bar owner. He was also a writer and the official tequila ambassador to the European Union. Camarena is a fifth-generation agave grower and master distiller whose family has deep roots and heritage in the tequila world.

Together, their goal was to create a tequila with the highest possible concentration of agave. To them, the Blue Weber Agave used for tequila production is so unique and special that it deserves to be front and center in the flavor profile. This approach was not a given when they began developing tequila almost 20 years ago. In those days, vodka was the leading spirit category, and many producers were releasing very neutrally flavored tequilas. Tequila Ocho went against the grain by creating a rich, complex, and flavorful tequila.

I was born into the tequila world. In my 20s, I started gaining a deeper understanding of agave spirits and ended up working in cocktail bars before joining the family business. I feel honored to be able to carry my father’s legacy forward.

How does Tequila Ocho’s commitment to tradition translate into the tequila-making process?

Camarena’s family has been growing agave and producing tequila (previously known as vino de mezcal) in Los Altos de Jalisco since the 1880s. His three daughters are all involved in the family business, so they’re carrying forward the six-generation-long legacy of producing some of the world’s finest spirits.

Tequila Ocho is produced the old-fashioned way. The agaves are cooked in traditional stone brick ovens, spending 72 hours in the hornos de mampostería. The agaves are then crushed using a molino (roller mill) to extract the sweet juices, which will then be fermented in open-air, pinewood vats. Fermentation occurs naturally, meaning airborne yeast mixes with our sweet agave juice (agua miel) and creates alcohol. Because we use wild fermentation, this process will take longer than most producers — four to five days on average. Once we have our fermented must, we double pot distill it to create tequila. The second distillation takes place in small copper pot stills, modeled in the exact shape of stills designed by Camarena’s grandfather in the late 1930s.

Where is your tequila made? Can you tell us a bit about the people who make it?

Because of Ocho’s growing success, Carlos Camarena recently built a new home and distillery for the brand; Los Alambiques is just outside the town of Arandas, in Los Altos de Jalisco. This distillery became operational at the end of 2021 and opened fully in February 2023. Ocho’s original home was La Alteña, which has been the Camarena family distillery since 1937.

To date, all the fields used for Tequila Ocho’s production have been located exclusively in the highlands of Jalisco. We have harvested more than 35 different fields for Ocho in Los Altos, and with each harvest, we are always excited about the distinct terroir that a specific field provides for the next vintage of Ocho.

Many of the jimadores who harvest the agave for Tequila Ocho have been working with the Camarena family for two or three generations. The human element of Ocho’s production is extremely important to us, so we ensure that the team and their families are well provided for.

Tequila Ocho has a reputation for its terroir-driven approach. Could you explain how the terroir influences the character of your tequila?

Tequila Ocho is the world’s first single-field tequila. For each batch of Ocho, we harvest agaves from one field at a time. The result is a pioneering approach to tequila production, one that highlights the differences created by varied soil compositions, altitudes, orientation towards the sun, subsoil and drainage, and microclimates — elements that comprise what is known as terroir.

The production process remains the same for every harvest, meaning the only factor that changes is the terroir of the fields in each new release. While every production retains the same “DNA” of Tequila Ocho, there are subtle changes in the flavor profiles of each batch. One harvest may result in a more peppery, vegetal tequila, while another may create a more fruity, floral profile. While all of our tequilas are recognizable as part of the same family, they also have their own unique characteristics.

What distinguishes valley and highland tequila in terms of tequila production and flavor profiles?

This is a complicated topic, mainly because very few tequilas are currently being produced using 100 percent valley agaves. However, looking to the past, when this was still the case for certain brands, we can draw some general distinctions between tequila produced exclusively from agaves grown in the valley compared to agaves grown entirely in the highlands.

As a general rule — there are many exceptions to this — we found highland tequilas to be more fruity, floral, round, and sweet. Valley tequilas were found to be more earthy, herbaceous, and robust. These overarching differences are due to the differences in terroir.

 Can you walk us through the distinct characteristics of the different tequilas you produce?

Our core range is made up of Tequila Ocho Plata, Reposado, Añejo, and Extra Añejo. We also release a range of cask-strength, single-barrel bottlings every year in very limited supply. Tequila Ocho was born from innovation, so every year there’s at least one limited-edition bottling that’s doing something different in the tequila world.

Our Plata delivers a big hit of cooked agave, complemented by a crisp minerality, fresh citric notes, and white pepper. Our Reposado brings those cooked agave notes to the table, this time lifted by notes of vanilla and a sweet spice from the light oak aging. Our Añejo goes deeper into the oak notes, adding layers of cacao and coffee, accentuating the sweet cooked agave. The Extra Añejo develops the creamy mouthfeel from the Añejo, creating an almost custard-like experience on the palate. I always liken Tequila Ocho Extra Añejo to a liquid dessert.

Can you describe what makes a tequila suitable for sipping? How do you recommend readers drink it?

A high-quality, well-made tequila shouldn’t have a harsh burn of alcohol. Instead, the alcohol should carry lots of flavor, creating a concentrated and complex spirit. We tried one of our tequilas at cask strength recently (59 percent or 118 proof) and people couldn’t believe how easy to drink it was. There was no astringency or burn from the alcohol — the high alcohol content was carrying the flavor and providing heaps of cooked agave flavors and aromas.

What we look for in Tequila Ocho is both a high concentration of agave and the flavor notes from the field where the specific agaves were harvested, demonstrating terroir in tequila. The mineral, earthy, herbaceous qualities provided by the soil are a key part of our tequila’s organoleptic profile.

I recommend people taste tequila in a clean, stemmed glass — a flute or sherry glass works well. First, look at the appearance of the liquid: What’s the color? How is the clarity? Next, hold the glass roughly an inch from your nose and inhale slowly, starting with your mouth open. Identify specific smells, like spearmint, grapefruit, or honey. Finally, taste the tequila. Take a small sip and let it coat your whole palate. Wait about 30 seconds before going for a second taste, which often provides a truer impression of the spirit. Try to identify specific flavors and notice aspects like mouthfeel and how long the flavors persist in your palate.

Tequila Ocho is used around the globe as the base in some of the world’s finest cocktails. I have a motto that anything gin, rum, whiskey, or vodka can do, tequila can do better.

Finally, could you share any upcoming developments or special releases from Tequila Ocho?

We have quite a few exciting developments at the moment. Earlier this year, we officially opened the doors to our brand-new distillery, Los Alambiques. The distillery includes a cantina and restaurant, which overlook the town of Arandas. The visitor’s center is set up to receive guests daily, and we encourage anyone interested to visit.

We’re also re-releasing our Tequila Ocho Plata Puntas, the first overproof blanco tequila we have produced. The 2021 release was so popular we decided to bring it back this year, in extremely limited quantities. Bottles should be on shelves now.

This article is sponsored by Tequila Ocho.