Espolòn Master Distiller Cirilo Oropeza is not only a master of his craft, he is an innovator in his category. With over 50 years of distilling experience – more than any one else in the tequila industry – he’s been around the block a few times. He remembers the days when tequila wasn’t chic, and nobody spent much time or money on it. Inspired by the desire to create a product that would make his country proud, he set out to revolutionize tequila.
Espolòn is in a “sweet spot” for consumers, and is one of the hottest spirits brands in any category in the US. It offers quality liquid with a rich history, standout packaging and a great value for 100% blue agave tequila. As a result, Espolòn has seen explosive double-digit growth, and is one of the fastest growing super-premium tequilas on the market. The brand hit the 100,000 case mark in less than five years and has won many accolades including a Gold Medal for Espolòn Añejo at this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition and 92 points for Espolòn Reposado at the 2014 Ultimate Spirits Challenge.
We sat down recently with Cirilo to find out what makes him tick and what’s on the horizon for Espolòn, and tequila.
One of the innovations you’ve garnered attention for recently is your use of ex-bourbon barrels to age Espolòn Añejo. How did you come up with that idea?
Our Espolòn Reposado is aged in new American Oak barrels, so I was thinking, what else? What else can we do to give another option to consumers? I was thinking about this for 2-3 months walking around the distillery and one day I thought, what will happen if we add another step in the aging process? So I got some Wild Turkey barrels from Kentucky and started to experiment. I tasted every day, for weeks, observing the change in the color and the nose until I felt we had reached a balance of the intensity and complexity. I really love the taste and smell of Wild Turkey, and it was a delicate balance to marry that with the different odors and flavors of Espolòn.
Are there plans to incorporate other types of barrels in future?
You must be reading my mind! Yes we are thinking about it, but we haven’t made any decisions yet. We want to see how the Añejo is received in the market, then maybe we will experiment with wine or sherry casks – we’ll see!
You use a unique strain of yeast to ferment the agave. Can you tell us more about that yeast – how it came to be, why it’s so special?
This is my top secret. I use the same yeast for all three expressions – Espolòn Blanco, Reposado and Añejo. When we started production back in 1998, I was looking for a yeast that would work well in the warmer temperatures that we have here, while also giving the odor and flavor that we want.
What about the music you play in the distillery during fermentation, what’s that about?
It’s really very fantastic. I saw that when we played music in the fermentation area – and maybe it was my imagination – that the yeast were dancing, and the wort was moving from side to side in the fermenters along with the music. So I thought that the sound, as it moves around the distillery in waves, maybe it was creating heat and helping the yeast to grow. But really, the important thing for me is the health of the yeast. I don’t use pumps, for example, because I don’t want to stress the yeast. I love them, they are my chiquitas, my small babies. It’s crazy, I know!
And the yeast prefer classical music as opposed to rock and roll?
Yes, I prefer to use classical music because it’s not so fast, not so crazy, it’s gentler for the yeast.
You were very involved in the design of the San Nicolas Distillery where Espolòn is made. Tells about some of the things you implemented there?
When I started to work with the owners of the distillery, they didn’t have any experience making tequila, only with drinking it. We agreed that we wanted to create a tequila to sell all over the world, a tequila of very great quality, and of course the distillery facility is central to that goal.
For example, all our fermenters are made of stainless steel because this gives the cleanest agave flavor to the finished product. It is also important to maintain a stable temperature during fermentation, so we designed the fermentation hall to be in a more insulated part of the building for protection.
Lastly, I did not design it, but we are blessed at San Nicolas with a very deep well of excellent quality, and to be located next to many of our agave suppliers. This means the agave has less distance to travel between field and fermentation, so it is fresher when it arrives and we can avoid interruptions in supply in case of bad weather or other issues.
How did your work with vodka, gin and rum inform your work with tequila?
All my life, I have been working in spirits, and I was always very curious about every step of the production process. When I started working with vodka, I had a lot to learn because with grain you have to first convert the starch into sugar before you can ferment – which is the same for agave. What I discovered, was that once you learn all the steps, the technical process for creating each type of alcohol, at the end they are more similar than different.
What holds your attention about tequila more than other types of liquor?
Tequila is our icon in Mexico. Years ago, Mexico was known around the world only for Acapulco, Mariachi and tequila.
But you know, the first time I tasted tequila, it was not very agreeable. When I was a student, we had a party with my friends. And they told me to bring the drinks. So I arrived with a bottle of tequila. And when they saw me, they said, “Oh no Cirilo, why did you bring tequila?” Because in those days, everyone wanted to drink brandy. Someone else brought a bottle of brandy, and at the end of the night, all of the brandy was gone, but the tequila bottle was still almost full. So I tasted it, and it was very aggressive, very alcoholic.
Now these days, distilleries have really improved and tequila is much higher quality. So for me, I love working on this beautiful process of creating tequila, and I am always thinking about innovation and how to make a better experience for the consumer. Maybe I would like to try something else, like Champagne, but really I think Tequila is the best for me.
You’ve said that your favorite part of your job is to educate. Is there a next generation of distillers working with you at Espolòn?
You know, I am not as young as you. So yes, we are training a few people. But you know it is not easy. It’s difficult to find talented people who are willing to start at the bottom. They think, “I am an engineer, I need to be a middle manager.” No, no, really, that is not the way it works. Another thing that is hard, is that many people want to work close to their homes. And here in Arandas we are 100km from Guadalajara, the nearest large city.
But now we have 2-3 younger guys who are working really well and learning every day and I expect them to have enough courage to one day be a master distiller, like me.
What do you think will be the biggest change in the tequila industry in the next fifty years?
I think it will be a combination of everything – production, distribution, quality, management, sales, marketing – working very closely together to have feedback from the consumer about what they want, and also to look at trends in other spirits besides tequila, so that we can make good decisions about what and how much to make.
You know, it takes six years for the agave plant to mature. Many agave fields are owned by small farmers, and it’s difficult for them to forecast supply and demand, so this can lead to imbalances. Right now, there is very high demand, and I think we need experts in planting, agriculture and soil to make sure we are planting the agave we need to ensure a healthy agave supply.
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