This is one of a series of articles highlighting this year's Agave Heritage Festival taking place on April 27-30. Other articles include features about Diana Pinzon of Zinacantán Mezcal, Dr. Ivan Saldaña of Nocheluna, the roots of Origen Raiz Mezcal, and all you need to know about the Agave Heritage Festival.
Carlos Camarena, co-founder of Tequila Ocho, is the type of living legend who has everyone leaning in a little closer to make sure they don’t miss a word. At a time in global history, when small family farmers are increasingly given short shrift, the tradition of agave stewardship and innovation that Camerena and his family have developed in Jalisco, Mexico is worthy of scribing for the annals of history.
His legacy includes the La Alteña Distillery founded by his grandfather, Don Felipe, and the historic brands, Tequila Tapatío and Tequila El Tesoro. He has been recognized by well-known journals such as Forbes and PUNCH as well as interviewed by journals in the wine and travel industries.
“I am a fifth-generation agave farmer and tequila producer,” said Camarena. “Legend goes that it was my great-great-grandfather [who was] the one who introduced the agave into the highlands region of Jalisco, as this plant was not native from this area. When he brought the first truckloads of agave plants from the tequila valley, the people from the surroundings would take the plants home thinking they were pineapples (piñas) and were edibles. To their surprise, they
were not what they expected, but still, nowadays we call the harvested agave plant as ‘piñas.’”
Camarena’s oral history about “piñas” is an example of how a legend can become canon.
According to the Encyclopedia of Mezcal published by Mezcalistas, the piña has “become one of the main motifs in the agave world and suffuses tequila and mezcal culture.” Speaking of tequila culture, most mainstream enthusiasts likely associate this spirit with celebrities and well-known, supermarket brands. Tequila is ubiquitous in everything from “Margarita Monday” specials to doing “shots” in Hollywood movie scenes. We might be hard-pressed to find a spirit that carries with it more social bias than tequila.
So, how do we stay true to the canon of the Tequilero and learn to see through the smoke and mirrors of all the hype? Answering this question is one of the missions of the 2023 Agave Heritage Festival. Francisco Terrazas, Program Director for the festival, is focused on educating about how intentionally made agave spirits make life fun but are also equally appropriate for fine dining and academic study.
These are just some of the many reasons Terrazas is honored to have the participation of Tequila Ocho in the festival.
“He’s one of the preeminent producers in the category,” said Terrazas, referring to Carlos Camerena. “He is thoughtful and deliberate. As an agronomist by education, he has an important perspective honing in on the plants. He combines the academic with the romantic and leaves an impression, an indelible mark on everyone he meets.”
Described by Terrazas as “gregarious yet soft-spoken” and “great at connecting people to the past,” Camerena is an awaited co-host for an Agave Heritage Dinner at The Coronet. Sally Kane, owner of The Coronet, and chef Tanner Fleming are eponymous for their multi-course, fine wine dinners. The menu and service planned for the Tequila Ocho dinner looks appropriately up to the restaurant’s high standards.
According to Camarena, tequila deserves this stage on a daily basis. “I usually say that we are a family with two faces, one of which is always looking into the past to gather the accumulated wisdom and preserve the traditional approach of producing high-quality tequila that my family has had during one and a half centuries. But the other face is looking into the future,” he explained. “What if we produce tequila using agave from a single field or farm to allow these plants to tell us their life story, not with words, but in terms of aromas and flavors? How did they grow, and what influenced them while growing (soil conditions and fertility, rain, vegetation surrounding them, microclimate, unusual weather conditions, fauna, etc.)? Of course, this is to talk about ‘terroir’ which used to be very common in wine culture but not for a distilled spirit as tequila.”
Camarena believes that this type of inquiry was how Tequila Ocho was born. He shared these ideas and concepts with his late friend and partner, Tom Estes. Estes, who founded the Pacifico group in the late 1970s, was eventually appointed the official Tequila Ambassador to Europe by the Mexican National Tequila Chamber. The curious duo combined their multicultural experiences and ancestral knowledge to dream of the tequila of the future.
“Traditional but modern,” said Camarena. “That would define who we are and what we believe in.”
Tequila Ocho’s dedication to “Terroir Único,” which proves that the concept of terroir exists for tequila by producing batches from only single fields, is evidence of their commitment to innovation and tradition. In this case, giving a nod to ideas from the world of wine.
What does traditional but modern mean for the daily life of Camarena and his team at Tequila Ocho? Camarena serves as CEO and President of the Board of Directors for Cia Tequilera Los Alambiques S.A. de C.V. which is the mother company for Ocho and Curado Tequilas. Essentially, the buck stops with Camarena. He oversees all aspects of farming and production like deciding which agave fields to harvest, when to harvest, and how to handle the company’s supply chain process.
As seemingly comfortable at being CEO as he is at being an agave farmer, Camarena explains how important family is to the mission and vision.
“Being a family-oriented company, most of the daily decisions are made by myself, my son-in-law Andres Nuño who is the COO, and my daughter Fany, who is the CCO,” he said. “Our motto at Los Alambiques is ‘Herencia, Tradition e Innovación.’ Therefore, our mission is to produce only 100% agave tequila with the highest standards of quality, offering contemporary products with all the wisdom of our ancestry approach. We care about continuous improvement in matters of innovation, sustainability, and social commitment as a way of living. And our vision is to become the reference inside the tequila industry on those subjects. We are not afraid of doing things differently, expressing our ideas, and proving our commitment and transparency to all interested parties.”
For Camarena, the emerging future is infused with keeping a multigenerational focus, staying curious, and centering the health of the natural environment. His participation in the Agave Heritage Festival is part of passing along these values. It all comes back to the plants.
Like many of the agave experts we’ve spoken to like Diana Pinzon of Zinacantan Mezcal and Dr. Ivan Saldaña of Nocheluna Sotol, Camarena echoes that sustainability in the growing cycle of agave plants is one of the tequila industry’s prominent challenges. His family roots have allowed him to experience through historical knowledge that a centuries-long vacillating cycle of shortage, or overabundance of mature blue agave, has caused uncertainty for the industry. As well, he is concerned by the lack of genetic diversity within the Agave Tequilana Weber species making it susceptible to disease.
“Events like the Agave Heritage Festival help us create consciousness on this matter,” said Camarena. “So, the idea for the future would be to regulate agave production with the farmer always linked to a tequila distillery by contract, so there is always enough raw material for good quality tequila production, but at a price that also makes sense for the agave grower, leading him to a better family economy and therefore with focus on being sustainable to preserve this precious asset: the land.”
Guests of the Agave Heritage Festival who are able to meet Carlos Camarena may have the opportunity to time travel with him through his memories.
“One of the many things I learned from my father, transmitted to him by his father and so on, is to use (not abuse) the land with a sustainable approach, as even if the land property title is on our name we do not really own it,” he said. “We are the keepers or guardians of such land to preserve it in good conditions for the next generations to use. Of course, I am passing down such advice to my daughters so they keep using the same approach for the benefit of their descendants. That is regarding the influence of our multi-generational perspective.”
For the rest of us, we can try to experience his thoughts and dreams in the fruition of his “single-field” tequilas which are meant to keep us curious as we explore Jalisco’s terroir through our own tastebuds.
For more information about the 2023 Agave Heritage Festival, read our article "Education with a Kick: The 15th Agave Heritage Festival goes big." For more information about Tequila Ocho, visit ochotequila.com.
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