Agave goes into the making of tequila, mezcal, racilla, bacanora, cocuy and other varieties of agave spirits. Agave is also used as an ingredient in other beverages, such as pulque, but there is little denying that we mainly associate agave with tequila, mezcal and Mexico. As Tequila Aficionado demonstrate in their excellent, book “More than Tequila – Agave Spirits around the World” there is an abundance of experimentation going on with some people reinvigorating and marketing traditional old products and some inventing completely new ones. And Mexico is not the only place where agaves can be grown.
Product development, traditions and new ideas
When doing product development, there’s a difference between evolving something which is already there and creating something which builds on an entirely new idea and a new vision.
Porfidio, which rose to fame with their excellent tequila in the nineties. has taken a bold step into a completely new area with their fortified agave wine, Porfidio Dolce.X.which was released in 2020 but it is only now that we have seen it on the European market. Denmark is the first country to take it in besides Switzerland.
Dolce X is a super-ambitious and interesting project. We might expect that a company that has made its fortune on tequila would stick to the Mexican cultural heritage but Dolce.X is conceptually different, with a European focus on storytelling and a unique and interesting product.
The design concept of Dolce.X is very much based on a storyline about the color pink. It is a color that for many years has been associated with femininity and Porfidio makes a design statement telling people that pink is a color in its own right, with a cultural heritage going back to Madame Pompadour and a more present-day usage by Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo. The design has some interesting features like woven labels. The labels and the small “handkerchief” which covers the cork are made by the company producing Victoria’s Secret lingerie. The bottle is quite heavy and made from true porcelain with the iconic cactus on the front,
We had a quick interview with Martin Grassl, the owner and man behind Porfidio and Porfidio Dolce.X, about the thinking behind the product.
Q: When was the idea of Dolce X conceived?
The idea was originally born ten years ago. After Dolce.X‘s initial conceptualization as the world’s first fortified agave wine, or, legally speaking, vino de agave – because it is made from a vegetable (the agave) and not grapes – it took another decade to transform the concept into a tangible and delectable reality, not least because of the barrel-aging requirement that takes 7 years for Porfidio Dolce.X to reach its peak taste.
Q: How did you create the product design? There must have been some prototyping and material choices to be made? One suspects that pink porcelain bottles with woven labels take some work to put together.
The product design was contingent on two factors: for one, my opinionated aesthetic sense that pink is a timelessly beautiful color that, for whatever reason, has been wrongfully politicized, sexualized, infantilized or moralized over the last centuries. I believe that beauty in general, and colors in particular, ought to be, by definition, apolitical and amoral. Some individuals love or hate Dolce.X “at first sight” because they have a culturally pre-conditioned association of the bottle’s color with femininity, interpreted by some as anti-feminism, or, in some instances, homosexuality or pedophilia or just plain, old “unchristian” frivolity. All of this, I think is utter nonsense, because “pink is just pink,” and it’s a beautiful color in its own right. However, I take the point that, in particular when used in conjunction with an adult beverage, some see pink as “provocative,” and so I concede the argument that Dolce.X willfully tries to be an agent provocateur to trigger a fun discussion!
Secondly, I chose to package Dolce.X in a porcelain bottle, since the material allows for easy handcrafted experimentation, unlike glass bottles that can only be made in full container loads. Porfidio has always been famous for pushing technical boundaries when it comes to glass-making, with, for example, the Porfidio Cactus Bottle and indeed also Porfidio Quercus. So my challenge was to create something “Porfidio-worthy” in porcelain that similarly pushes technical limits. Design always interacts with technology, so the question that any designer confronts is if technology can be subjugated to one’s design whims, or if one’s design aspirations have to be subordinated to the commonly available technology. Hence my challenge was, once again, pushing the technological limits. The technical boundary that Porfidio Dolce.X broke was in implementing a top-to-bottom, continual line pattern, rather than one that would stop at the bottle’s shoulder, as with the old standards. The second technical challenge, although not an industry-first, was to transplant the Porfidio Cactus logo onto the bottle at a different protrusion level to the line pattern, hence creating a haptic and visual 3D effect. All of this was only possible thanks to the application of the innovative technology of clay silicone moulding, the same “stuff” used for breast implants, and so in my own mental association, sentimentally in harmony with the overall design scheme.
In the feminine vein, I then came up with the idea of adorning the bottle with silk textile labels, made by the same artisans as Victoria’s Secret‘s accessories. Last but not least, I appropriated the old-style Japanese sake bottle closure concept that incorporates an over-the-cap textile, but expanded the concept by making it the size of a handkerchief, hand-tailored from thick, men’s shirt material, thus giving the design a masculine contrepoint.
Q: Dolce X… what’s the meaning of the name?
Dolce.X draws on the same wine production principle as invented, centuries ago, by Pineau de Charentes, France’s counterpart to Spain’s more famous Port wine, but with mine substituting agave and agave spirit for the grapes and brandy in their formula.
The key inspiration that I took from Pineau de Charentes was their technique of only partially fermenting the juice before fortification. So, technically speaking, for Dolce.X, the agave wine’s Brix does not ferment entirely to alcohol as does the standard procedure for wine, but is halted at “x” Brix. This “x” factor is reflected in the “X” component in the naming of “Dolce.X.”
“Dolce,” on the other hand, is an adoption of the Italian word “dolce” that carries the double entendre of “sweet” and “dessert,” contrary to the Castilian “dulce” with a “u”, as the Spanish word for dessert is “postre.” So my preference for Italian was intended to convey in a single term, that Dolce.X tastes unequivocally sweet, as well as being most appropriately consumed as an after-dinner wine with or as a substitute for dessert. Also, Dolce.X , because it’s sweet and alcoholic, is known to warm the heart & soul, in particular during those cold winter months.
Q: When I look at the bottle and the concept design notes I am very much struck by the willingness to walk into uncharted territory. You would somehow expect an agave wine to use imagery and concepts from Mexico, but Dolce X reaches out to French aristocracy and Japanese fashion design… This feels very deliberate. Do you want to break agave products free of their cultural connection to Mexico?
“Anything Porfidio over the last three decades” mirrors my non-discriminatory globalism in outlook, both in terms of content and design, so uni-global and “un-Mexican” by definition. This is the secret behind both Porfidio’s success; and also behind the occasional detestation that certain traditional Mexican Tequileros display towards Porfidio. Porfidio, even when posing as a “Mexican” agave spirit, owes its existence to the invaluable input of state-of-the-art German distillation technology, century-old French-European cooperage skills, and its adoption of international packaging standards.
Porfidio differs from other Mexican brands in its firm refusal to abuse nationalism for marketing, and its refusal to claim that something pretends to be intrinsically “better,” simply because it claims to be “authentically Mexican.” On the contrary, I postulate that there is almost nothing that is “100% authentically Mexican” today, as in “pre-Conquista Mexican authentic.” In fact, thanks to the so-called Columbian Exchange, most things “Mexican” are in reality the outcome of a fusion process between the Old and the New World, and so are global by definition.
The Americas have indeed made one, yet very valuable, innovation to the world of alcoholic agave beverages, namely their botanically indigenous agave, but all other contributing factors in the equation are unquestionably of Old World origin, starting from the very donkeys (an Old World import) that still turn some of the tahonas, and even to the most basic alembic technology that concentrates the fermented agave alcohol into a delectable distilled spirit.
Hence, politically speaking, the difference between Porfidio and other Mexican brands consists in their diverging political message-in-the-bottle: Porfidio glorifies globalism, both in content and design, whereas certain other brands aim at glorifying, at least in public, nationalism at the expense of quality. Nationalism is always a best seller, whether in politics or in marketing. Occasionally, for example with mezcal, the new marketing script actually goes beyond mere Mexican nationalism by glorifying DNA nativism, i.e., the “romantic” idea that because a certain mezcal brand is made by a native Meso-American-Indian instead of an “ugly-white” immigrant/colonizer, “it must taste better.” However, I believe that fashionable political activism and classic epicureanism are generally irreconcilable. Porfidio foments the latter.
So, to answer the question, Porfidio in general, and in particular Porfidio Dolce.X, aims at harmoniously reconciling in each of its product creations the best the globe has to offer, from wherever that might be, without any geographic discrimination.
In Dolce.X‘s case, my equal-opportunity product formula fuses Mexico’s aromatic agave with French winemaking skills, U.S.-made Quercus Alba barrels and international aesthetics. This is not “uncharted territory,” because Porfidio has navigated through it for three decades, but it politically belittles, deliberately, the fallacy that quality should succumb to nationalism and DNA nativism at the expense of epicureanism for the sake of political activism.
Q: The storyline seems to have the Asian market in mind. with its notions of French aristocracy and Japanese haute couture, as well as some “kawaii” associations.
“Asia” is too widely defined a term to fit into a singular cultural box. Chinese and Japanese aesthetics and taste buds are totally irreconcilable, for example when it comes to their widely diverging opinion on the color red and the taste of natto. So let’s call it a Japanese influence. Maybe this is so because I have always looked up at Japan’s multi-dimensional and unequalled, superior aesthetics. The kawaii youth culture association, however, is unplanned, although some see it in there. Rather, I would claim that the Japanese fashion icon Rei Kawacubo exerted a strong aesthetic influence over Dolce.X like, from a deeper historical perspective, Madame Pompadour. Once again, it really does not matter that one is Asian and the other European, as Dolce.X simply is honoring their human aesthetic innovations to the world.
Q: Is there a synergy to be had when you produce both tequila/agave spirits and vino de agave?
The synergy is agave, as known as maguey, mescal or penca.”All things Porfidio” are somehow related to the curious little subject of the agave plant, their unifying bond. I love the agave plant because, as a vegetable-cum-inulin plant, it possesses unique botanical features. There is no other raw material for alcohol-production quite like it. I call it the “agave inulin factor.”
Q: Have you been able to benefit from your tequila experience when creating the flavor profile of this product?
Yes, I have, because both products start their journey at the same starting point, agave hydrolysis. As agave is an inulin plant, it requires hydrolysis, or the conversion of inulin into fermentable sugar, unlike grapes that do not; and this is where Porfidio has demonstrated its mastery and point of difference over the years.
Q: Can you use tequila/agave spirits barrels for aging the vino de agave?
Yes, and in fact so we do: Porfidio Dolce.X is aged in quercus alba oak barrels previously used to age Porfidio Anejo Extra. But, conceptually, there is nothing innovative about this idea. However, what is unico – and inimitable for the time being – is when, in a reverse process, our agave spirits are aged in Dolce.X barrels as it creates a very distinctive flavor. This is to be continued since it will be the subject of a future Porfidio product release in a decade or so, which is presently aging in Dolce.X barrels.
Q: When we first tried the Dolce. X, we were surprised about how delicious it was. And with that surprise came the thought… why are there so few products besides tequila/mezcal which are made from agave. Agave beer, agave soda, different variations on agave wine/liqueurs?…
The reason is that, in the alcohol industry, it is always easier to succeed financially by piggybacking onto an existing category rather than inventing a new one from the ground. A “new category” is formalistically defined as a “void” that has no dedicated section on the retailers’ shelves. The first question that comes to every retailer’s mind when receiving their first delivery of Dolce.X is “in which shelf section does this belong? Should the bottle be placed on the tequila or wine shelf?”. So to unravel the knot, and jump the commercial handicap that the question implies, there needs to be an innovator first to set the example; and then a group of second-handers to copy the idea until there are enough products to fill a dedicated retail shelf-space section under the new category’s title so that the question in itself becomes superfluous.
Most strictly commercially-minded individuals are too disinterested to be bothered to engage in this missionary effort. But Porfidio does not mind, it’s who I am and what I like to do for fun, same as when the “100% Agave Tequila” category was born in the 90s in the US raising the same uncomfortable question from retailers with only three brands around in the US and only Porfidio in Asia and Europe.
Q: Agave wine is an interesting product with its low alcohol percentage. There is a quickly growing market for traditional alcoholic beverages – without the alcohol. Alcohol-free beer, alcohol-free wine etc. Do you think you might ever create a non-alcoholic, agave-based beverage?
The nature of this question implies the previously addressed “category uncertainty,” as it compares an ‘agave wine’ to a ‘distilled spirit from agave’ to derive at this “low alcohol” question. However, when comparing grape wine with agave wine, as is meant to be, “low alcohol” is a misnomer. Dolce.X‘s 17% Alc/Vol is above the 12% Alc., customary for most wines, and so Porfidio Dolce.X is actually “high alcohol,” in line with other fortfied [grape] wines.
Now, when it comes to the “no alcohol” question, creating a non-alcoholic beverage with an acceptable shelf life needs a different set of technology and know-how that I do not possess, so I have no intentions to expand into this virgin territory, because, as the popular Mexican saying goes, zapatero, a tus zapato.”
Photos by: Christopher Hesselberg: https://lnkd.in/dh2iQhqM