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Country of Origin: Mexico
Location: Jesús María, Jalisco
People: Felipe Camarena, Owner & Distiller
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Felipe Camarena is a man who has combined his family heritage with his civil engineer background to create a tequila distillery like no other at El Pandillo (Nom 1579). It is perhaps the most forward-thinking, eco-friendly distillery in Mexico. Truly unique, the distillery allows for tequila production to be both innovative and traditional. The goal is to create exquisite tequila. “I’m not in the business of making fancy bottles. I’m in the business of making great tequila.” – Felipe Camarena
Tequila aficionados have taken notice.
Felipe, together with his two sons Luis and Allan, produce Tequila G4 at El Pandillo. The name G4 represents Luis and Allan as the fourth generation of Camarena tequila producers. The name of the distillery, El Pandillo, was the name of Felipe’s grandfather’s favorite bull.
If the last name Camarena sounds familiar, it’s because the Camarena family is legendary within the tequila industry. In the Jalisco Highlands (Los Altos) no name carries more weight. The family started as agave farmers (now 6 generations!). In fact, Felipe’s ancestors were among the first to harvest agave in Los Altos. His great-grandfather, Don Pedro Camarena, watched his distillery burn to the ground in the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The tahona stone located at El Pandillo is the only surviving piece of what would have been his family’s distillery during the Revolution. His grandfather, Don Felipe Camarena, established the fabled La Alteña distillery in 1937 and founded Tapatio. His brother, Carlos Camarena, is the master distiller of El Tesoro, Tapatio, Ocho and Excellia. His cousin founded Camarena.
After working alongside his brother at La Alteña for nearly 20 years, Felipe began construction of El Pandillo in 2007 on a family plot of land in Jesús María, Jalisco located southeast of Arandas. The two hundred and sixty-acre property is home to some of the most coveted terroirs in the region—Rancho Las Pomez, of Tequila Ocho renown, among them. Collectively, the Camarena family has some of the most significant agave holdings in Los Altos. Felipe alone owns around half a million plants, which includes the hills surrounding El Pandillo. Situated at about 6,500 feet above sea level, the unique microclimates, exposures and soil types yield some of the purest and ripest expressions of blue agave.
Felipe and his sons craft quality tequila utilizing traditional methods blended with innovation. Their methods are environmentally conscious and conserve energy while never compromising quality.
100% Estate Agave
Tequila G4 is produced from 100% estate agave. The agave plants are organically farmed; they never see chemicals of any kind. To encourage natural pollination and a healthy ecosystem, Felipe has planted cinnamon trees, strawberry guava trees, fig trees and several citrus trees among the agave fields. The agave is harvested when they are fully ripe, which is after 7+ years in age.
G4 is produced from 50% rainwater and 50% natural spring water. Jalisco is famous for its rainy season, where a tremendous amount of water is available to anyone capable of collecting it. The roof of El Pandillo is one giant rainwater collection system (95% of total roof surface). The property has a 200,000-liter underground storage tank. The collected rainwater is used for tequila production during the wet season. This saves money, but also is environmentally friendly. The spring water is only used during the dry season and contains more mineral components. The rainwater batches (wet season) are blended with the spring water batches (dry season) to create tequila representative of a year’s work.
The concrete floor in front of the stone ovens at El Pandillo is scarred with machete marks. To increase the quality of their agave juice, G4 splits the piñas on the floor with a machete and trims any remaining cogollos by hand before the piñas go into the oven. The cogollo is a small section of the piña that is at the very tip, where the pencas (leaves) sprout. The cogollo is very waxy and can impart a very bitter flavor to the distillate. Then, the piñas cook in two traditional stone ovens (horno) for 22 hours. Felipe built his ovens with steam jets at the bottom and top. The steam is distributed equally creating an even roast and increasing yields. The cooked agave on top crushes the bottom and generates free-run juice, which helps save approximately 10% of the total production time. In contrast, most industry ovens have one steam jet at the bottom and tend to overcook the bottom piñas and undercook the top piñas. The uneven steam can crystallize the free-run juice, which then cannot be used for fermentation.
Igor the Shredder
Igor is the name given to the agave shredder Felipe hand-built. The shredder is constructed from recycled railroad car and tractor-trailer parts. The specially designed steel blades quickly grind up cooked agave using only a 15 horsepower electric motor. Igor is easy to clean and maintain, which translates to lower operating costs.
Felipestein: A One-of-a-kind Tahona
After Igor shreds the piñas, they have a date with Felipestein. Based on the traditional 3-ton, volcanic stone wheel tahona design, Felipe built Felipestein from spare parts found in a junkyard. It is essentially a 9.5-ton mechanical tahona and the only one of its kind to exist! Felipestein is a steamroller with metal knobs welded around a cylindrical body, which spins on an old railroad car axle. It operates with a one horsepower motor. The whole contraption is set above a narrow stone channel, where it rolls over shredded agave fibers, gently crushing them to extract the juice needed for alcohol fermentation. Felipestein is more efficient than a traditional tahona. A traditional tahona can yield about 3 tons a day using 50% more agave. Felipestein can yield around 2.5 tons every two hours (10 tons a day!), which is similar to modern milling techniques. It is easier to clean and requires less energy other mechanical crushers. Once finished, the agave remains are neutralized with calcium carbonate and repurposed as fertilizer.
Following the tradition of Felipe’s grandfather, native yeast are used to naturally ferment the agave juice. The fermentation tanks are wood-lined and insulated. Fermentation lasts 5 days.
G4 Tequila is distilled using traditional copper pot stills for the 1st and 2nd distillation. The Los Altos region can get cold in the winter because of its high altitude. This presents additional challenges for tequila producers who wish to continue production in the coldest months of the year. Felipe has constructed energy efficient warming tanks for his mosto (fermented agave juice that is ready to be distilled) to combat the challenges. The steam created by the stills is captured, condensed and used to heat water that is piped into a series of tubes inside the warming tanks. This operation preheats the mosto prior to distillation, which helps to reduce distillation time, increase yield and save energy.
Felipe ages G4 in used bourbon oak barrels. Blending of the rainwater batches and spring water batches occurs before barrel aging begins. The bourbon barrels are used for about 20 years before they are retired. The more a barrel is used, the less wooden attributes it imparts. Therefore, Felipe blends various aged agaves together to maintain the reposaso, añejo and extra añejo profiles. For example, a 12th use reposado barrel aged 6 months might be blended and bottled with a 5th use añejo barrel aged 2 years to maintain the Tequila G4 Reposado profile.