Organic tequila – and organic spirits in general – form a very small part of the spirits market. But there is a growing awareness that organic products and organic farming is good thing especially within a business like the tequila business.
There is a good amount of pesticides being used on the agave fields and intensive farming does take its toll on the soil. There is a lot of discussion within the community of tequila and mezcal enthusiasts what roads to take regarding farming, the path regarding mezcal NOM 199, the increasing role of big american spirits companies and a looming environmental threat from moving climate zones.
In light of all this, organic farming is a good thing and Los Angeles based Greenbars IXA Tequila is a piece of good news.
TequilaList has asked for a small interview with Melkon Khosrovian, owner of Greenbar.
Q: When did you start as a company?
A: Greenbar is an accidental company. We were making spirits at home first for ourselves, then our friends and family, and then their friends. After a couple of years, it became too big to do at home, so we started Greenbar in 2004 to bring our very different vision of how spirits should taste — memorable, flavorful and clean — to a wider audience.
Q: The name Greenbar tells something about your products: Stuff for the cocktail bar… Did you have a prior interest in cocktails/bartending before deciding to produce liquors?
A: No. But we always drank for pleasure, including beer and wine, and found spirits to be lacking.
Q: The combined demographic of bartenders and organic producers is usually pretty small. Do you consider yourself organic producers who do “liquor stuff” or liquor producers who do “organic stuff”? Or is the question wrongly phrased to begin with?
A: Good question and it comes up a lot. We’re definitely liquor producers who use organically grown ingredients firstly for their better, cleaner flavor and secondly for their ecological benefit. It’s similar to how our neighbor, Tesla, makes a great car first and saves the planet second.
Q: Organic certification is – at least in Denmark – pretty difficult to obtain because the entire chain from field crop to plate/glass needs to be organic. No pesticides on the fields, but also no pesticides in the processing machinery or bottling machinery. Usually tequila is made in destilleries which do a lot or at least an amount of other brands. How do you ascertain that the distillery keeps organic an standard crops apart in ovens, shredders etc?
A: Lots and lots of cleaning! Conventionally grown ingredients aren’t evil — for us, at least. They just don’t taste as good.
Q: TequilaList.com is fond of organic products and we do believe that organic tequila and liquors will find a steadily growing place in the market. In Scandinavia organic products and standard products different audiences and it will be interesting to see whether IXÁ tequila will find a new audience merely because it will be almost the only organic liquor on the market. Are the markets for organically grown food equally divided from the standard products in the US?
A: They’re similar in most food and clothing items. But we take a very different approach to organic — that it allows us to make more delicious spirits, not just keep the environment clean — and as a result, our spirits seem to appeal to a much larger audience that simply wants quality and innovation above all.
Q: It seems there is next to none discussions regarding residues of pesticides and fungicides in liquors like whisky, vodka, brandy but also beer seems to avoid the discussion pretty much. I wonder why, since it has been a rather important issue with food for at least a decade. Do you have any opinions on that.
A: It starts with the makers. Most alcohol makers enter the family business with a certain degree of tradition to uphold and lots of newcomers, at least in the U.S., are big fans of traditional techniques. Because we entered the business as outsiders, we simply followed our palate to better and better flavors. For us, organic ingredients simply taste better. They have more flavor, more aroma and more antioxidants that keep the flavor and aroma intact long enough after harvesting for us to capture them in spirits.
Q: Mezcal is growing pretty fast in both the international and the danish market. A growing awareness of the ecological costs and communities like the Tequila Interchange Project seems to make path for organic mezcal as well. Do you consider making an organic mezcal?
A: We’re big mezcal fans but since I go to Mexico to make the tequila, it takes me out of our own distillery in Los Angeles for weeks at a time. I just can’t be away even longer to make mezcal, as well.
Q: IXÁ is a tequila from the lowlands. I have often wondered whether the differences in flavour may be more attributed to different soils than to actual temperature differences. Do you have any point of views regarding the lowland vs the highland?
A: I think that this is mostly a myth. The main difference between highland and lowland tequila is in farming, harvesting and production techniques. For example, highland farms are smaller, with less intensive cultivation, which lead to healthier plants. Highland producers also harvest slightly more mature agave, which leads to sweeter flavors.
Finally, and most importantly, highland producers typically cook their agave in clay ovens, not stainless steel pressure cookers, which yields richer flavor, as well as ferment with fiber, not just juice, which, again, yields richer flavor. Also, very few, if any, highland producers use diffusers to extract juice from raw agave and then cook just the juice, versus the whole plant.
All of these produce the vast majority of the differences that the public attributes to the terroir differences between highland and lowland tequila. IXÁ, for example, is a 100% lowland tequila but it tastes exactly like a highland tequila because we use all of the old techniques that are still practiced in the highlands but not much in the lowlands.
Q: The highland/lowland discussion is all about Jalisco, but there are other regions as well where tequila may be produced, but they seem never or rarely to be included in the discussion regarding terroir. Do you think the discussion regarding terroir should be more articulated or are the differences in flavour made through the distilling process anyway?
A: Tequila making, unlike wine, is much more a reflection of the maker than the soil. There are simply too many steps in the making of spirits where distillers can affect the flavor profile — for better or worse. When picking tequila made with blue weber agave, my advice would be to follow the makers and brands first, regions second.
Outside the confines of tequila, though, there are two very strong other variables to pay attention to — types of agave and cooking techniques. For example, mezcal, sotol and bacanora, which are also Mexican agave spirits, can be made with different varieties of agave and can be roasted or steamed. These differences produce distinct flavors that may appeal to certain palates differently from tequila, just like smokey Scotch whisky appeals to some and bourbon whiskey appeals to others.
Q: It seems to be a disputed thing how much of the agave one should use and how mature it should be before harvesting. Are there any common ground within this? Some appear to think that only the innermost piña is usable and that it should be very mature before being harvested – other take a more “lax” attitude…
A: This debate is mostly about money, not attitude. Younger agave means more crop rotation and income for farmers and less expensive agave for distillers. They taste worse — sour and bitter, as most immature fruit would — but for customers who are after the effect of drinking, not the experience, the compromise may be worthwhile. Similarly, leaving more green plant on the piña will yield more tequila but that tequila will taste bitter. Some customers may not like this, whereas others won’t mind, especially if the price is low enough.
Q: Resting is one of the mysteries in tequila production for many. What is it good for? Is it used to lower the level of spirits as well as for letting the flavours settle?
A: Resting is an important step to let the flavors settle and form a more integrated experience on the palate. It’s as true for tequila as for brandy, rum or even vodka. We take an extra step in this settling process to micro-oxygenate our tequila to soften the final product so our customers can experience the full flavor of IXÁ without the burn normally associated with full-flavor tequilas.
Q: I have often tried to pry out of bartender what it is, that defines a tequila which is good for cocktails. Most often the answers boils do to price. It should not be too expensive. That may be the final word on the matter, but I can’t help wondering whether differences in taste and flavour has no part. So… what defines a good cocktail tequila?
A: A good cocktail tequila must be rich in flavor above all else, otherwise it’ll get lost after the addition of citrus, sugar, other ingredients and dilution from the ice. After that, it’s a matter of cost.
For inexpensive cocktails, bartenders generally compromise on complexity and finish and make up for it by adding extra ingredients and making them sweeter. For really good cocktails, they choose more complex tequila with a softer finish and make simpler drinks to show off the tequila’s flavor.
Q: Do you have a favourite tequila cocktail?
A: I tend to make simple drinks and my go to tequila cocktail is the following:
City of Angels (we are in Los Angeles, after all!)
- 1 oz IXÁ silver tequila
- 1 oz GRAND POPPY California bitter liqueur (or another medium-bitter amaro)
- 1 oz fresh lemon juice
- 1 oz simple syrup (50/50 sugar and water)
- Shake all and serve up in a coupe
Q: IXA Tequila is good… What is your favourite tequila besides IXÁ?…
A: I’m a big fan of Siete Leguas, especially their reposado.