Your garden variety Mexican-art-collecting, charity-focused California philanthropist might resent being compared to a predatory 15th century Spanish Conquistador, but J. Gary Shansby is anything but boilerplate. The San Francisco private equity investor, a 35-year veteran of consumer brand development for Famous Amos Cookies, Spic and Span, Vitamin Water, Mauna Loa Macadamias (and so on) wanted to get his marketing mitts on some rare treasures from the heart of Mexican antiquity, and headed, Cortés-like, into the country’s rugged interior to search for a Lost City of Gold.
In Shansby’s case, however, El Dorado was sleepy, cobblestoned Amatitán, twenty miles north of Guadalajara, and the gold was ultra-premium añejo tequila.
As a matter of fact, it was the Conquistadors themselves who invented tequila. They were after a bit more authority than pulque—the Aztec’s low-oomph fermented maguey sap could provide, so around 1521 they began distilling it, thus creating North America’s first indigenous liquor. In 1600, the Marquis of Altamira built a large-scale fabrica—tequila factory—in Jalisco and in the late 19th century, Don Cenobio Sauza, President of the Village of Tequila, began to export tequila to the United States. For a long time, gringos considered it more of a curiosity than a serious spirit, and other than the lovely, if somewhat plebian cocktail the Margarita, (origin unknown—one story says it was invented in 1941 in Ensenada, Mexico and named after Margarita Henkel, the daughter of German ambassador, the first person to taste one), everything remained pretty much status quo until the early 1990’s, when premium tequila took the country by storm.
There’s Gold in Them Thar Sierra de las Balcones
And not only gold: Here’s a non sequitur, but one I had to read three or four times just to make sure I wasn’t suffering tequila-induced hallucinations: In 2009, Mexican scientists discovered a method to produce synthetic diamonds from 80-proof (40% alcohol) tequila.
If you want more details, you’ll have to look it up.
Anyway, Shansby—who is not only founded TSG Consumer Partners (one of the oldest consumer product equity firms in the country) but who is also Professor of Marketing Strategy at U of C Berkeley—noted that tequila’s high-end sector has enjoyed double digit growth nearly every year of this decade in an overall business sector worth $3.6 billion. Certainly, more than a few Wall Street eyebrows were raised when, in 2006, Brown-Forman purchased Herradura for $776 million. (Herradura, oddly, was first imported Stateside by Bing Crosby). Michael Mondavi, co-founder of the Robert Mondavi Winery noted it too, which is why he sank bookoo bucks into ‘Partida’, Shansby’s nascent tequila concern. The two of them, brand builders extraordinaire, knew how true tequila connoisseurs drool over any emphasis on tradition and heritage, so naturally, as ultra-premium market-makers, they drone on and on about it:
Mondavi: “Just like a fine wine, producing a great tequila takes passion, commitment and a love of the earth. Like the best wines in the world, premium tequila has a great heritage and a culture.”
Shansby: “We’ve managed every step of the production process for the Partida Tequila Elegante with painstaking care. We selected the very best blue agave – hand harvested when perfectly ripened…”
America’s self-styled ‘leading spirits expert’ (and huge Partida fan) Paul Pacul distills those Mad Men sound bites into layman English: “Partida is the best tequila that money can buy.”
Navin R. Johnson, ‘The Jerk’, sums it up even better: “Ah… it’s a profit deal.”
The Pith of the Partida Parable
Despite his CEOship and chairmanhood, the core of the Partida story is not Shansby, but Sofia Partida, a Newport Beach TV reporter and health club owner who had a hankering to rediscover her Jalisquilla roots—roots that happened to be delving into red volcanic soil from the nethers of a blue agave plant. ‘Tequila’, as is legally defined by the General Declaration of Protection, must be made from blue agave alone—other types of agave, when distilled, make mezcal—and Partida’s uncle Enrique was then farming over 5000 acres in the lowlands of Amatitán, making the family the largest grower of blue agave in Jalisco.
In what must have been a bolt of fortune cast down by Tepoztecal, the Aztec god of alcoholic merriment, Partida, who was bemoaning a lack of funds to get the family name on a tequila label, ran into J. Gary Shansby, who was bemoaning a lack of quality agave for his dream of manufacturing a high-end, estate-grown tequila, no matter whose name went on the label. What suitable analogy is there; the day Abbott met Costello? They partnered up, with Shansby as major shareholder and marketing maven and Partida as part-owner and Brand Ambassador and they spent the next four years sniffing around destilerías, sussing out best practices, the newest technologies and the most antiquated traditions (that still made sense), testing terroirs and setting up blind tastings; first with La Academia Mexicana del Tequila, and then with Julio Bermejo, the official ambassador of Tequila in the United States. Among many surprises, Shansby found that tequilas made using the old-school stone or clay ovens in which distillers have, for centuries, roasted the agave cores (called piñas because they look like pineapples) invariably finished behind the new wave of enlightened distilleries who are using stainless steel ovens to pressure-cook, rather than bake the piñas. The reason?
“What I realized was that stone ovens generate smoke in the product and give it a slightly bitter, smoky taste,” says Shansby. “Some people like that, but most Americans don’t.”
Americans, of course, were his target audience—they drink 80% of the tequila that Mexico exports, and if their preference was for a clean drink that tasted of agave instead of smoke, that’s precisely what Shansby would produce. He jotted down the observation on his to-do list: ‘On the way home, stop at Autoclaves ‘Я’ Us’
And score one for modernity.
He also found that in the cask aging required for reposado tequila was approached haphazardly by most of the area’s tequiladores, with ‘resting’ times ranging from two months to a year. Neither produced the sort of nuanced product that Shansby was after, so again, using trial and error, he settled upon a six month oak dormancy for Partida. His choice of barrel wood was equally painstaking, culminating in his decision to go with Canadian white oak—the same stave-stuff that Jack Daniels uses. White oak has a cell structure that resists leaking and also imparts a slight sweetness to whatever it contacts, whiskey, wine or tequila—not to mention the sort of interesting synergy in drawing the North American ‘big three’ together for a project.
Agave, optimistically nicknamed named ‘the century plant’ (they live about fifteen years) looks like a cross between a yucca and an aloe, but is related to neither. Rather, it’s the woolly mammoth of the lily family. Cultivated primarily in the shadow of the Tequila volcano, which last erupted a quarter million years ago, blue agave requires eight to ten years to attain the optimum sugar levels (a minimum of 24%) required to make super-premium tequila. During the growing period, the plants are pruned, weeded, sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, but never irrigated—agave depends on Jalisco’s three month rainy season, roughly July through September, for water.
As the plant reaches maturity, it sends out a large, fibrous stalk called a quiote which is often steamed and eaten or dried and used as fence posts or fishing rods. One cat in British Columbia even uses quiotes to make that emblematic Australian drone-tube, the didgeridoo—holy cross-cultural WTF, Batman. (Speaking of bats, agave is pollinated by genus Leptonycteris, the long-nosed bat). At that point, farm hands called jimadores cut the plant from its roots and remove the long sword-shaped leaves using razor-sharp pikes known as coas.
According to Shansby, “Each jimador makes his coa by hand and can harvest one piña in about 75 seconds. It would take you and me an hour.”
That equates to nearly a ton of piñas per campesino per day; for the curious, a liter of tequila is the product of about fifteen pounds of agave.
Back at the destilería, the piñas are halved or quartered based on size—they range from 25 to about a hundred pounds. Depending on the producer, one of three methods is then employed. The so-called ‘artisanal’ process is pure old-hat, utilizing stone, mule-pulled crushers, wooden fermentation tanks and copper pot stills. As in the Partida process, today’s generation of tequila makers are relying more and more on autoclaves and stainless fermentation tanks and stills. A third, little-used technique uses a diffuser to extract the sugars from the piñas and distill the fermented juice—called mosto—in column stills similar to those used for Armagnac, scotch and bourbon. These days, as a younger generation takes over, number two is becoming the M.O. of choice.
And yet, despite such 21st century applications, a lot of superstition still surrounds tequila making—at a fabrica I visited outside the Jalisco town of Jesus Maria, for example, they were blasting the fermentation tanks with Beethoven symphonies in the belief that this made for a more elegant tequila. The owner told me, “For an experiment, I tried playing rap music for one tank. The tequila was awful.”
Fermentation takes around a week and yields a mosto that’s around 7% alcohol, roughly the same as strong beer. Like Cognac, the product is then double-distilled in pot stills; the first distillation, a two-hour operation, produces a liquor that’s about 20% alcohol. The second, which refines the tequila by removing unwanted aldehydes, results in a solution with an alcohol content of around 55%. A few top-drawer tequilas (and Partida competitors) like Casadores’ Corzo and Cofraidia’s Casa Noble distill a third time, but as the Cognac cognoscente will assure you, a third go-round may produce a smoother, more refined liquor—with much of the character stripped away.
At this point, tequila faces the crossroads of its career: It will either be bottled as blanco or transferred to casks where it will ‘rest’ for a prescribed length of time to be sold as reposado, añejo or extra añejo.
Whatever the pedigree, all authentic, regulated tequilas display a government-issued NOM identifier; it applies to all processes and activities related to the supply of agave, production, bottling, marketing, information and business practices of the distillery.
Currently, Partida produces four distinctive tequilas: Blanco (not aged), Reposado (aged six months), Añejo (aged 18 months) and Elegante Extra Añejo (aged 36 – 40 months). Available in the 27 states that consume 80% of the tequila drunk in U.S., Shansby is compulsive about his product being identified as unadulterated Mexicano: Everything—the tequila, the bottle, the leather wrap, silver spirit-bird the crest–is hecho en México.
So reverential is Shansby toward the sub-border culture that it is rumored he once petitioned the Board of Directors at Spic and Span to change their name to Hispanic American and Span.
And he’s justifiably proud of the unprecedented success that Partida has enjoyed in a market that’s become inundated with tequilas (901 registered brands from 128 producers), each of which endlessly jockies for position:
“We’ve entered spirit competitions, and won them all. We’ve been rated as the best tequila in the world, one of the top five spirits on the planet; we’re the only tequila to have earned 100 points across our entire product line. We’re also one of the very few estate-grown tequilas on the market using no additives, no glycerin, no color except the hues imparted from barrel aging.…”
By combining market savvy, years of R&D, decades of personal expertise along with the venerable art of pavement-pounding, Shansby (and his team) have out-Pizarroed Pizarro—not only have they discovered a genuine Eldorado, a City of Gold, they found out that by maintaining exceptional standards of quality and consistency, that gold winds up being stacked with stars.
Partida Blanco, around $50:
An amazing complexity runs through the bouquet and the body, both subtle and distinct. It’s reminiscent of mint, anise, newly-mown grass with a bit of citrus. Like most lowland blancos, the profile leans toward herbal (mountain grown agave shows more fruit) with flowery notes, a pepper snap and delicate flavors of pineapple and apple, but mostly, fresh agave which resembles cooked yam. This is a tequila that you can feel comfortable to use as a base for a mixed drink, but defer from a Margarita. Try it with freshly squeezed juice—orange, pomegranate or grapefruit.
Partida Reposado, about $55:
Six months on Canadian oak leaves a golden tequila with hints of toast and vanilla, but allows the elusive and often fragile yamminess of agave to filter through. Flavors of almond and brown sugar on the palate, also slightly oily orange peel. A superior sipper, you are now beyond anything you’d dare mix. A silky finish with a bit of walnut, honey and butterscotch.
Partida Añejo, around $60: With three times the oak contact as the Reposado (a rarity even among the super-premiums), Partida Añejo has picked up the tone of burnished copper. It displays the finest characteristics of tequila tradition with a caramel-scented earthiness and a mellow nip of smoke behind the agave. And despite the extended hibernation, the agave remains obvious—as it should—just behind the wood notes. Enticingly rich, ultimately smooth and complex, there are undertones of baked apple, pear and wild flowers that lead into a finish that is as warm and satisfying as any like-priced Cognac.
Partida Elegante Extra Añejo, $350:
This particular gem, the star in Partida’s crown, was not included in the three pack I sampled, so any notes concerning its quality would be purely speculative. Based on the other three, I am speculating awfully, awfully good.
The Tequila Family Tree
Gold—Any tequila labeled ‘gold’ is usually a gussied-up, non-premium mixto with caramel color and additives to make it look like something it ain’t. Partida does NOT produce this breed of tequila.
Plata / Blanco—Premium tequila that sees no oak; it’s usually bottled shortly after distillation. It tends to be clear and pure in flavor with a shivery sort of freshness through which the taste of agave shines.
Reposada—‘Reposada’ means rested, and in this case, the slumber takes place in oak casks for two to twelve months, lending it notes of hazelnut and vanilla. Neither should overpower the agave flavors.
Añejo —Barrel-aged between one to three years, añejo tequilas pick up deep, sweet tannins and become ambery and coppery in color.
Extra Añejo — Only allowed as a classification since 2005, it represents tequilas that have been wood-aged for three years or more. It’s deeply flavored, nearly brown in color.