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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

I’m in a cave underneath the blue agave fields of the Tequila Fortaleza distillery in the town of Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico. The man talking to me is Guillermo Sauza, a lovable but gruff cowboy type whose family has produced tequila in the appellation for more than 140 years, and who is now the head jefe of Fortaleza—in my opinion, one of the world’s most beautiful spirits.

In the candlelit cave—decorated with skulls and skeletons, marigold garlands and multi-colored picado paper banners for the upcoming Dia de los Muertos celebration—Guillermo is giving his sermon on his family’s history and how he ended up holding Fortaleza’s reins. Meanwhile, the tequila I’ve been tasting the better part of the day is getting to my head.

According to Guillermo, his great-great-grandfather Don Cenobio founded his first distillery—La Perseverancia—in 1873 and was the first person to export tequila to the United States. Guillermo’s granddad, Francisco Javier, later made his family’s tequila one of the most well-known brands in the world and helped establish the Denomination of Origin for tequila.

Don Javier, Guillermo's grandfather, also bought a piece of land in Tequila and built a grand hacienda on the highest point of town overlooking a small distillery, named La Fortaleza. Don Javier produced tequila at La Fortaleza until 1968 before turning it into a museum, and then sold the entire family business in 1976. However, in 1999, Guillermo began the process of turning the museum back into a functional distillery and, after years of hard work, he got Destileria La Fortaleza up and running again, making tequila in the same way it was made more than 100 years ago—with a small brick oven to cook the agave; a tahona (a large stone wheel) to squeeze the juices out of the agave; wooden tanks for fermentation; and the two original small copper pots for distillation.

That’s where I am right now. And the reason I’m here is because I’m a bartender. Twice a year, Fortaleza brings in more than a few lucky barkeeps to learn about tequila firsthand, from a handful of small-brand leaders, in the only place in the world where the spirit can be produced.

On the three-day voyage, I’ll visit the towns of Tlaquepaque, Tequila and Guadalajara; will tour the former Sauza family estate, which is now a museum dedicated to tequila and the family’s history; tour three distilleries—Tequila Fortaleza, Tequila Arette and Tequila Don Fulano; attend a costume party inside the high white and red walls of Fortaleza; visit the glassmaker in Tonala where a large portion of Fortaleza’s bottles are hand blown; taste single-batch tequilas at the home of the proprietor of Tequila Calle 23; catch a lucha libre wrestling match; and drink a ton of tequila (perhaps at times too much).

I could bore you to death with the details of my trip, but who wants that? What this article is about is tequila. However, I must mention that spending time in Jalisco made me appreciate the history of tequila, the labor and love that goes into it, and the essence and nuance that comes out of it. My hope is that you will as well.

The facts: Tequila is a mescal—a distilled alcoholic beverage made from any type of agave plant native to Mexico. However, tequila, specifically, must be made from the blue agave plant and, like champagne or Cognac, it can only be produced in a certain region—the state of Jalisco, and limited areas in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas, where the soil is ideal for agave growth.

Agave, a succulent with more than 400 species, takes between eight and 12 years to reach maturity before it can be harvested. When ready, the agave hearts, or piñas (which can weigh more than 100 pounds), are peeled and then steamed in pressure cookers called autoclaves, or baked in ovens, and then crushed. The sweet agave juice is extracted, fermented and distilled, usually twice. The best tequilas come from baked agave, fermented with proprietary yeasts and distilled in copper-pot stills. Good tequila is made from 100 percent pure agave, but cheaper tequila, called mixto, is made of agave and other sugars. There are four main tequila categories: Blanco (silver) is aged for no more than two months and is clear; reposado (rested) is aged between two and 12 months in oak and is golden-colored; añejo (aged) is aged between one and three years in oak and is a whisky-like brown; and, a new category as of 2006, extra-añejo (extra-aged) is aged more than three years in oak. Typically, tequila is aged in used bourbon barrels.

Like any aged spirit, the longer it rests in oak, the softer and smoother it will likely be. Blancos tend to be a little hotter, while añejos and extra-añejos will be less harsh, and often contain flavors from the barrel’s wood. Blancos and reposados are good for citrusy cocktails like the margarita, while reposado, añejo and extra-añejo tequilas can and should be sipped like fine whiskies, or used to create nice, stirred, spirit-forward cocktails.

There are two unofficial styles of tequila—highland and lowland. Highland style tequila is generally brighter and more acidic with more olive and pepper flavor. Lowland style is usually fruitier and more tropical.

In Mexico, the most traditional way to drink tequila is neat, without lime and salt. (Sorry, spring-breakers.) It is also popular in some regions to drink fine tequila with a side of sangrita—a sweet, sour and spicy drink typically made using tomato juice, citrus and spices.

Tequila gained popularity in the United States during Prohibition, and the margarita helped the tequila boom in America. Margarita is the Spanish word for “daisy.” The “tequila daisy”—a drink made of tequila, citrus, sweetener and/or orange liqueur—was popular in Tijuana and other parts of Mexico in the 1920s and 30s. Another popular tequila cocktail is the paloma, a drink made with tequila and grapefruit soda; variations with fresh grapefruit juice are also delicious.

Other popular classic tequila drinks you can look to enjoy include the Mexican firing squad, made with tequila, grenadine, bitters and lime; the el diablo, featuring crème de cassis, lime and ginger beer; and a riff on the old fashioned called the Oaxaca old fashioned, created by Phil Ward at New York’s Death and Co., containing tequila, mescal, bitters and agave nectar.

Locally, two of the restaurants with the finest tequila selections are the uber-popular Las Casuelas Terraza in the heart of downtown Palm Springs, and El Jefe, the stylish taqueria inside the Saguaro Palm Springs.

To buy your own tequila, look to Total Wine and Spirits in Palm Desert. The store has roughly 40 shelves full of tequila. If you can’t find what you’re looking for there, I don’t know what to tell you. In the western end of the valley, your best options are BevMo and the family-owned Desert Wine and Spirits inside the Go Deli Market, both on the south end of downtown Palm Springs.

Like any spirit, what goes into tequila is what comes out of it. Appreciate it with every sip.

Patrick Johnson is a journalist and head bartender at Truss and Twine. He can be emailed at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Cocktails

Dead or Alive Brings Fine Wine, Fine Beer and Fine Design to ‘The Curve’ Area

Christine Soto and Anthony Cioffi attended to Palm Springs High School together. After graduation, they went their separate ways, but in 2012, at their 10-year reunion, they reconnected—and started dating.

Today, they’re not only life partners; they’re business partners as well.

Cioffi works as a designer, and several years ago, he worked with Donovan Funkey to create the look of Bar, in downtown Palm Springs.

“That sort of sparked the idea for doing this,” Cioffi said.

The “this” of which Cioffi speaks is Dead or Alive, a charming-as-hell craft-beer and specialty-wine bar that opened in December at 150 E. Palm Canyon Drive, right next to El Mirasol in the midst of “the curve”—where South Palm Canyon Drive becomes East Palm Canyon Drive.

During a recent media tasting, Cioffi and Soto explained how they took more than a year to develop the idea and design for Dead or Alive. Design plays a big part in the bar’s vibe: A large, round, orange fixture at the end of the bar and a matching orb out front slowly change color and fade as the hours pass each evening and night, simulating a sunset. It’s impressive.

“Christine and I are very passionate about beer and wine, and wanted to create a place where people could come, get together, and discover new, great things,” Cioffi said. “The focus is on the product.”

As for that product: Dead or Live features an ever-changing assortment of craft beers—such as Left Hand Brewing’s Milk Stout ($9 for 13 ounces) and Coachella Valley Brewing’s sessionable Goze ($6.50 for 13 ounces)—and specially selected wines, such as Broc Cellars’ Love Red ($12 per glass) and Domaine Brazilier’s Methode Trad Brut ($9).

There’s nothing quite like this special little beer-and-wine bar anywhere else in the Coachella Valley. Check it out from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. every day, including holidays.

Visit deadoralivebar.com for more information.


New: Creamistry Opens in Palm Desert

“We specialize in fresh, made-to-order ice cream using liquid nitrogen. Our rapid freezing process provides the smoothest and creamiest frozen delights.”

So say the folks at Creamistry, a growing Southern California chain currently boasting a dozen or so locations—and one of the newest locations is right here in the Coachella Valley, at 73131 Country Club Drive, No. C1, in Palm Desert. It’s in the same area as Sherman’s and Bristol Farms.

Creamistry’s various locations have been receiving praise on the various online review sites, and some of the pictures being posted on the Palm Desert Creamistry Facebook bring to mind the word yummy. Check out that Facebook page at www.facebook.com/creamistrypalmdesert.


In Brief

The affiliation between Iron Chef Jose Garces and The Saguaro, located at 1800 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, is coming to an end: As of the end of February, his menus will no longer be served at the hotel. Who knows what will come next at Tinto and El Jefe? Stay tuned. … Wanna gorge yourself while watching the Super Bowl? Consider heading to Tacos and Tequila at the Morongo Casino Resort Spa, 49500 Seminole Drive, in Cabazon. For $35 per person (plus tax and service charges), from 3 p.m. until the beginning of the fourth quarter on Sunday, Feb. 7, enjoy crispy chicken tacos, pulled-pork sliders, nachos, chops and salsa, and hot dogs with several topping choices. Also included: two beers or well drinks! Visit www.morongocasinoresort.com for more details. … KESQ News Channel 3’s Bianca Rae, the Best Local TV News Personality according to Independent readers, will be the host of the L’Affaire Chocolat: High Tea at the Classic Club, 75200 Classic Club Blvd., in Palm Desert, from 2 to 4 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 21. Proceeds go toward the Dames D’Escoffier Scholarships for local women in the culinary and hospitality industries. Sparkling wine, tea sandwiches, mini quiches and more are on the menu—and to top it off, there’s a 25-foot chocolate dessert buffet featuring goodies from some of the town’s finest restaurants and bakeries. The cost is $75; call 760-895-9899 for reservations. … Newish to Palm Springs: Frankinbun, located at 540 S. Indian Canyon Drive. It’s a “gourmet sausage grill” that we happened to see as we zoomed by one day. We’ll be investigating this further, because … well, gourmet sausages. Mmmm. More info at www.frankinbun.com.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

Foodies from around Southern California and beyond have descended on Palm Desert this weekend for the 2014 Palm Desert Food and Wine Festival.

At the Saturday, March 22, grand tasting, attendees dealt with sweltering heat inside of the giant white tent on Larkspur Lane, just off of El Paseo. Despite the toasty temps, however, people seemed to have a great time, enjoying bites of food from various local restaurants, as well as sips of wine and cocktails from various vendors.

The Food and Wine Festival also spawned various food-related satellite events, such as the Taste of the Saguaro. Jose Garces—the Iron Chef and head of the Garces Group, which operates Tinto and El Jefe at the Saguaro—came to town for the weekend, and attended a special dinner at the Saguaro on Friday, as well as an event called Taste of the Saguaro on Saturday.

The Independent attended the Palm Desert Food and Wine Festival's grand tasting on Saturday afternoon, and the Taste of the Saguaro on Saturday evening. Scroll down to enjoy some photos from the events.

Published in Snapshot