Espolón Master Distiller Cirilo Oropeza Talks Tequila
Like Jose Guadalupe Posada, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo before him, Cirilo Oropeza is a true Mexican artist. Except Oropeza doesn’t work in oils, fresco paint, or printer’s ink. His masterpieces are created out of something a little more organic — agave. One hundred percent pure Weber’s Blue agave, to be exact. You see, Oropeza is the master distiller behind the super-premium craft tequila Espolón.
Following a long career that began in 1965 and included gigs at Ingenio Potrero Distillery in Vera Cruz, Oso Negro’s gin distillery in Tlaxcala, and Jose Cuervo’s tequila distillery in Guadalajara, Oropeza was tapped in 1995 to help build Destiladora San Nicolas (DSN) in the Los Altos region of Jalisco. The distillery’s unique production process—agave piñas (hearts) are cooked for 18–20 hours (versus the industry average of 12) and distilled for 5½ (versus 3½)—results in “the best flavors for the final products,” says Oropeza.
Currently, the distillery offers three marques of Espolón: Reposado (gold), which is aged for six months in American oak barrels and was DSN’s first offering, and blanco (silver) are available in the United States. An añejo, “almost like a black one,” notes Oropeza, is available in Mexico.
Since their introduction, the reposado and blanco have won numerous awards, including Gold and Double Gold, respectively, at the 2011 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and Silver and Silver Outstanding, respectively, at the 2012 International Wine & Spirit Competition. And both are packaged with distinctive labels featuring Dia de los Muertos artwork inspired by Posada’s famous 19th-century lithographs and the iconic rooster, a symbol of Mexican national pride.
We had a chance to sit down with Oropeza and sample his tequilas as part of an exclusive tasting event at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
How has tequila changed over the last few decades?
Cirilo Oropeza: Maybe 18 years to the day, tequila is better. All of the tequila producers, all of the tequila factories, are interested in increasing the quality, in increasing the flavor. It is also very important that tequila producers keep the same quality. If we increase the amount but not the quality, it is no good.
Does tequila have a terroir?
First, you much know that to be tequila, it must be made, produced, and bottled in Mexico, because tequila has an appellation of origin, like cognac. And as with whisky in Scotland, in Jalisco we have highlands and lowlands. The highlands are the best zone for agave plantations and agave growing. Tequila from the lowlands has a lower sugar content and is more robust and spicier. Tequila from the highlands is smoother and with citrus. Our facility is in the highlands.
Is tequila best appreciated straight or as a mixer?
Tequila blanco is a tequila that you can drink straight. Smell the citrus, the lemon zest, the spices, and of course, cooked agave. Feel in your throat the velvety sweet complex-but-agreeable flavors and nice aftertaste. However, if you like to mix, it is also an excellent blender. You can put it in whatever drink you like. We make the tequila to fit you, not you fit the tequila.
What are your thoughts on “lick it, slam it, suck it”?
Years ago, it was necessary. But now you can enjoy your tequila without salt, without lemon. You can enjoy it straight. But as you prefer. If you prefer to use lemon and salt, it is no problem. I had it yesterday with pineapple juice, blanco with pineapple juice. However, añejo never must be mixed with the lemon.
What foods pair best with tequila?
You can enjoy Espolón blanco with any type of food—Mexican food, Italian food, French, Japanese, seafood, meats. In Mexico, we marry it with all types of food. When I go out in my city, I try to eat different types of foods and always pair it with tequila.
How do you prefer your tequila?
You know, I didn’t like tequila at first. I did not like the taste, the flavor, how it went down. So I studied it and worked to make it better and more enjoyable. Now I drink it straight. I have a glass with a narrow mouth, and [swirling the invisible glass then bringing it to his nose] I can enjoy the brightness, the color, the silver tones.
What would you say to someone who claims to not like tequila?
I say please try Espolón. Maybe you have in your mind tequila from 30 years ago. It is different because now all tequila producers in Jalisco really are researching and investing for quality.
Espolón label and bottle images courtesy of Campari America
All other images by Dave Pisani