We met up with fifth-generation tequila maker Guillermo Erikson Sauza for a chat about his world-class, hand-crafted, 100% agave Tequila Fortaleza. Tequila Fortaleza has been in South Africa for just over a year now – thanks to Sauza’s talks with Truman & Orange owner Rowan Leibbrandt about the need to bring the very best tequila to our local market. Rowan explains there is a huge interest in SA for high quality tequila – in the same way as premium cognacs and single malts have become immensely popular locally.
Fortaleza has introduced three variants in SA: Fortaleza Blanco, Fortaleza Reposado and Fortaleza Añejo.
Thank you for chatting with us on this rainy day in Johannesburg. Tell us about your visit to South Africa.
I am enjoying the thunderstorm. We have a lot of thunderstorms where we are (in Tequila, Mexico). When I left we had this kind of weather every night. It’s the months of rain. The rain is good for the agave.
I was invited by Rowan and my friends here at Truman & Orange. Rowan told me that there is a need for good tequila in South Africa.
Please start off by telling us about your family history in the tequila business.
My great-great grandfather got to the town of Tequila in the 1850’s. He learned how to run a hacienda, where he got involved in tequila production and distribution. In 1873, he started Tequila Sauza and we use the same methods as he did back then. He died in 1909 and the business was taken over by my great-grandfather, Eladio.
I understand that the family stopped producing tequila for a couple of decades. How and why did you get back into the business?
Yes, my grandfather, Francisco Javier, took over the business from his father, Eladio, in 1946. He then sold it in 1976 when I was 20 years old. Though he never said it in so many words, I know that he wasn’t happy that he sold the family business. Although he sold the two main distilleries, La Perseverancia and La Constancia, fortunately we kept the smallest one, La Fortaleza, which had been turned into a museum.
I was born in Chicago in the US, but I spent a great part on my youth in Mexico on the farm with my grandfather. And I remember him telling me during one of our walks on the agave fields, that the land on which we stood was the land of the agave, and that it was the land of his father and his father before him. He told me to always take care of it because it was the lifeblood of our family. I always remembered that moment.
Anyway, after some years of working for a defence contractor and in the software industry, I decided to go back and continue the business that had been in my family for four generations. In 2000, I raised some money and created Tequilla Los Abuelos in Mexico and restored the old distillery – Destileria La Fortaleza.
What are some of the main challenges you have faced since re-entering the market?
Well, getting started was a challenge because it required money that we didn’t necessarily have. We only started repairing the boiler and the stills nine years after having decided to get back in business; and a further three years to get operational. It takes eight years for the agave to grow and ripen to a mature state. So it takes a lot of time to get to the end product. We also faced some legal issues with trademark restraints in some countries.
Is the family business continuing into the sixth generation?
Yes. I have a son who is 27, and he sees the same market that I do. He is involved in distribution right now. I think the family business is in good hands. I am also a grandfather now.
Los Abuelos and Fortaleza… are these different products? Why the different names?
No, they are the exactly the same product. We use the name Los Abuelos in Mexico and Fortaleza for the rest of the world. But every bottle is engraved with the words Los Abuelos.
What do the names Fortaleza and Los Abuelos mean?
Fortaleza means ‘Fortitude’ – the name of our distillery. Los Abuelos means ‘The Grandfathers’.
Fortaleza Tequila is made using the same production methods used by your forefathers. What does the process involve?
The distillery is the same way it was 150 years ago. The process begins with selecting ripe mature agave from our farm, and cooking it in a brick oven for 30 hours. We then squeeze the cooked agave using a stone crushing wheel called a tahona. Back in the days, we used mules to pull the wheels. But we have since upgraded that to an electric motor. Once we have crushed it, we have to wash it to get the pulp off the fibres, and we do that manually. From there we take the wash or mosto and pump it up for fermentation in wood fermentation vats. This takes three days. Then we double-distil in copper potstills, and we get our Blanco.
What gives Fortaleza its unique taste?
Well, firstly, we make Fortaleza using 100% agave. Then there’s our cooking process. There are faster ways of cooking agave like those used by mass producers. Like using an autoclave or diffuser. But I like to make the analogy of a baked potato. A baked potato made in a microwave tastes completely different to a potato baked in an oven. The oven potato tastes better.
And finally we crush the fibres the old way. The stone-crushing wheels ensure that you don’t rip open the fibres, which would produce a different taste. We also use copper stills and they produce the best taste.
How popular is tequila globally?
United States is the biggest market. We are in 35 states in the US. And 16 countries in all, including South Africa. Tequila sales worldwide have doubled in the last 5 years. We are a long way behind whiskey, but it’s definitely getting more popular.
How do you keep up with demand for Fortaleza without resorting to modern day production methods?
Well, we are in the upper price range because we are handmade, and in the upper price range there are a lot less sales made. Our Blanco is in the R700 price range. So we manage to keep up with the demand even though our process is so lengthy.
Many people have a shot of tequila with a pinch of salt and lemon – is this the way Mexicans drink their tequila?
I sip my tequila. There is no one way of enjoying tequila. But think about how premium whiskey drinkers have their whiskey. You wouldn’t just shoot up fine whiskey. So it’s the same with our tequila. It’s better to savour the tequila by sipping it.
Would you ever sell the business?
I have no right to sell. I am doing what my great-great grandfather did. Not too many people have the privilege of doing that. I just have to make sure it continues into the next generations of our family.