"I'm not in the business of fancy bottles, I'm in the business of making tequila."
I'm standing inside Destileria El Pandillo in Arandas, Jalisco. It is located approximately 80 miles from Guadalajara, deep in the highlands of the western Mexican state. The mad scientist moonlighting as a third-generation master tequilero, Felipe Camarena, is about to give me an extremely detailed tour of his laboratory responsible for making tequila G4—a tequila that might just set the bar for the future of tequila production.
Camarena proudly points to a 19,000-pound tahona used to juice the cooked, shredded blue agave for his tequila. It was jimmied together from a reclaimed steamroller and somehow operates off a one-horsepower engine.
He then gestures to an agave shredder constructed from a semi tractor-trailer and railroad car parts. "This is Igor."
Camarena continues to show me the two-story-tall clay steam ovens that he uses to cook his agaves, and explains how he modified them by adding an extra steamer to get evenly cooked agaves. "Everyone else only has one steamer on the bottom or the top, and you will end up [with] unevenly cooked agave. Who wants a tequila made from uncooked agave?" As I get closer to investigate the ovens, a powerfully sweet aroma of vanilla—similar to the smell of adding a few dashes of vanilla extract to cookie batter—stops me in my tracks.
I had just picked up Camarena at a coffee shop in downtown Arandas. It was the day before New Year's Eve, which is a time when almost every single distillery closes so that workers can spend time with family—except Camarena's.
If his last name sounds familiar, it is because you've probably sipped on some of his family's legacy before. For starters, his cousin founded Camarena tequila, and his brother is the master tequilero behind bartender favorite, Ocho. Tequila Tapatio was founded by his grandfather.
During the 15-minute drive from Arandas to his distillery, Camarena manages to smoke three cigarettes in between taking big gulps of his oversized coffee and elaborating on his obsession with tequilas and agave. (To say that he's an intense person would be an understatement.) He tells me that out of the thousand visitors he's had this year, only a handful were Mexican nationals. He also claims that, thanks to narco culture, most Mexicans now prefer Scottish whiskies like Buchanan's over tequila.
Reinforcing that claim, we spot a billboard advertising said whisky in this tequila town through a sea of blue agave.
When we arrive at the front of his distillery, we are greeted by a water fountain that I initially assume is just there for glamour—but everything at Destileria El Pandillo serves an Earth-friendly purpose. "That water in that fountain is what I catch whenever it rains here. I keep it consistently running to keep it fresh. I never use my well water supply, to save it for the future."
Agave experts have suggested that blue agave could soon go extinct due to a lack of biodiversity, thanks to selective re-planting of the same agaves by farmers. To combat this, Camarena has planted cinnamon trees, strawberry guava trees, fig trees, and several citrus trees on the property in order to attract birds and other natural pollinators to do their thing in the surrounding agave fields. "I'm seeing bugs and birds around here that I haven't seen here in years," he tells me as he breaks off a branch from his young cinnamon tree and snaps it in half for me to smell the fruity, fresh bark.
From there, we pass by an exposed underground vat filled with with the tar-like tequila vinazas, a byproduct of tequila production. This rust-colored, toxic substance has been the criticism of the tequila industry in the past, not unlike the environmentally harmful whey that is often dumped in the course of industrial Greek yogurt production.
G4's vinazas, however, don't have the farty aroma typically associated with them. "Most other distilleries see this as waste and toss it in their soil, but this reduces the usable lifespan of the soil due to the sulfuric acid. I add calcium carbonate—among other ways of treating it—to bring it back down to a normal alkaline level and use it as fertilizer."
A sustainable operation allows Camarena to save money on operation costs, and put those savings toward the production of a heavenly tasting tequila unlike any other that I've ever had before.
As our tour-cum-crash course in sustainable tequila comes to an end, Camarena offers me a taste and places a plastic cup under the still to catch a thin, crystal-clear stream of freshly made tequila. At that point, the spirit is what many would consider firewater, since it is at its absolute highest proof (114 proof) and hasn't been watered down for bottling.
Even so, my palate detects an underlying degree of alkaline softness that I've never experienced before. Imagine taking a sip of Fiji water after drinking nothing but LA tap for your whole life, and that might come close to describing the sensation.
"Right now I am using a mixture of captured rainwater and spring water to distill G4," Camarena says, "but eventually I want to have two tequilas to showcase the unique flavor profiles that each water—and its minerals—gives to tequila."
As the tour concludes, we casually sip on more of his tequila—blanco, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo—like it's water. He then brings out a few other premium tequila bottles that I have sworn by since I could legally drink, tequilas that I—and many bartenders that I know—thought tasted as clean, and as smooth as possible. But side by side with G4, my old standbys tasted like shit.
I was speechless.
"A lot of people [ask] me why I don't patent any of my machinery or practices, but do you really think anybody out there will be as obsessive and crazy to work this hard and build everything out like I did?" Camarena says.
This affirms my belief that Camarena is not doing this because he cares about the money. This master tequilero is just genuinely obsessed with creating a near-perfect, sustainable tequila.
Editor's note: Tequila G4 plans to be available in the United States by the end of 2016.