The Camarena family has a lengthy history in the tequila business that supposedly goes back as far as the 1800s. Unfortunately the family's distillery was destroyed sometime during the Mexican Revolution, Don Felipe Camarena started out with agave farming which he sold to surrounding tequila distilleries. Eventually he started distilling his own tequila, selecting only the ripest plants and using equipment from his family’s original distillery. Then, sometime in 1937, Don Felipe built La Altena in the Arandas Highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, just miles away from the original family distillery. In turn this family business was passed on to his son, Felipe J. Camarena, then subsequently his grandson, the third generation master distiller and fifth generation family member producing tequila, Carlos Camarena. Only a handful of brands have come out of the La Altena as a distillery owned brand, a collaboration or a marca: Tapatio, El Teroso de Don Felipe, Charbay, Ocho (various offerings), Trago, Excellia and Villa Lobos. All of these brands would bear the NOM 1139 or NOM 1474 on the label - as far as I know La Altena is the only Mexican distillery to have two NOMs (Norma Oficial Mexicana). Which can be confusing because that means two different NOM designations are used for the same location - which is probably due to some "grandfathering" in rule. The story goes that originally they were actually two companies at two different distilleries.
Lucky for the consumer, the production methods at La Altena have pretty much remained the same as they were since 1937. Lance Cutler, author of 'The Tequila Lover's Guide to Mexico', said it the best, "if they modernize , they could lose the very essence that makes their tequila special." The La Altena distillery uses ripe estate-grown blue agave from various plots of land in the Highlands area region of Jalisco. Selected agave that has been cut and shaved in the fields by the jimadors' coas arrives at the distillery where workers cut the agave into halves with axes and remove the stalks from the female pinas (a component that could impart bitterness in the tequila) . There the agave is slowly cooked (80-85 degrees Celsius) in traditional brick hornos for 48+ hours then allowed to cool for another 24+ hours. The slow cooking method keeps the agave fibres soft and stops them from caramelizing - which can result in bitter flavours. Note: all the agave is loaded into and removed from the ovens by hand.
Once the the cooking and cooling phase is complete the cooked agave halves are transported to the shredding machinery where the pieces of cooked agave are broken down into smaller pieces to facilitate the milling phase or the Tahona phase (currently only used for El Tesoro de Don Felipe). Either the cooked agave fibres pass through a modified sugar cane mill - the pressing/rolling action is complimented with the injection of water in strategic locations optimizing sugar extraction and the agave is squeezed to separate the juices from the fibers; or a large stone wheel (known as a Tahona) that turns in a pit with the aid of a tractor crushes the cooked agave pieces. Each of these processes results in crushed and soggy brown bagazo (agave fibre) and sweet aguamiel juice that is collected for the fermentation process.
Fermentation takes place in the distillery's large open wooden tanks (3000L capacity) at La Alteña using a proprietary 75+ year-old yeast culture - no enzymes or additives are used. These particular fermentation wooden tanks (pine) have been in use for more than a century, in fact even after a thorough rinsing some of the living yeast may still remain in the wood – quite possibly jumping back to life whenever new agave juice is added. The open tanks allow airborne yeast and bacteria to freely mix with the mosto. Back in the day the distillery's labourers would shovel the agave pulp and juices into buckets and transport to the open-topped wooden tanks. They would climb a ladder and dump the crushed agave pulp into the tanks. The tanks would have water in them, and a person called a batador is in the tank to separate the fibres by hand - no clue how much of this 'rustic' process is still in use. La Altena is one of a handful of distilleries that still uses the agave pulp in the fermentation process - no idea if this is for all La Altena brands. It takes approximately 3 to 5+ days to complete the fermentation process - also factoring in weather conditions that can affect such a process. Note: La Altena uses water from its own on site spring that is rich in iron and minerals. Years ago Carlos Camarena adapted more of a green approach in treating all of the residues produced at the distillery instead of just dumping it in the garbage. Guessing the distillery began to compost all the organic materials it produced eventually making an organic fertilizer and in turn put it back into the agave fields. As well, the distillery started recycling all of the water it used instead of just throwing it away.
Once the fermentation is complete the next step is the double distillation process. La Altena has a stainless steel pot still (3,500L capacity) and small Copper Alembic stills (460L and 300L capacity) with condensation tanks. Unfortunately, I have no clue what combination of stills are used for production of all the brands at La Altena. The first distillation of the mosto (supposedly both juice and fibre was used in the first disillation for El Tesoro) results in a ordenario with an alcohol concentration of 18-20% - the cabeza or head that contains very high alcohol and toxic aldehydes respires off and is discarded from the process. In the second distillation the ordenario is distilled reaching an alcohol concentration of 40 to 42% - a more refined product as the tails (colas) are removed and recycled into the next distillation. The heart, or el corazon, the prime middle portion of the distillate results as the tequila blanco. The distillations are done slowly at temperature controlled conditions - which most likely allow a generous cut of heads and tails to remain in the distillate - seeing how many wonderful flavours reside in the heads and tails. Yes, the tequila at La Altena is distilled to 80 to 82 proof, unlike a lot tequila factories that distill to a higher proof then add water to bring it down to a lower proof.
There is probably a wide variance in the aging process of the various tequila brands at La Altena and what type of barrels used, so I will only discuss the Villa Lobos brand. Sometime in 2010 Camarena had more agave than he could use or process, so he decided to produce more tequila and stored it in steel tanks. After some time, Mr. Camarena noticed the natural oxidation had changed it to a more feminine tequila and he couldn't use it for the Tapatio or El Tesoro de Don Felipe macho brands. Add the Sklar family, friends of the Camarena family, to the mix and eventually by happenstance a new La Altena marca was born in 2011. Prior to oak aging, the tequilas in the Villa Lobos lineup are rested in open steel tanks for at least six months. This includes the Villa Lobos Blanco that rests in open steel tanks for approximately 6 months. Villa Lobos Reposado is the result of tequila blanco rested 6 months in steel tanks then aged 11 months in American oak. Villa Lobos Anejo is the result of tequila blanco rested 6 months in steel tanks then aged 24 months in American oak. Villa Lobos Extra Anejo is the result of tequila blanco rested 6 months in steel tanks then aged 48 months in American oak.
Appearance: Light golden straw colour with golden hues; fast long legs on the sides of my Glencairn glass. Aroma: Mild/light cooked agave, honey-spiciness, faint hints of caramel, vanilla, hibiscus and nuttiness? (almond? yes it's not a nut but a seed), mild fruitiness (prickly pear and citrus rind). Trust me - I grabbed all these items out of our kitchen for a comparison - as there is a lot going on with the aroma. Flavour: Earthy, some mild smokiness, light-sweetness (honey?) with a subtle tinge of Mexican lime peel, and faint spice (black cardamom? how'd that get here). Semi-oily upon entry with some minerality and a slight alcohol burn in the back of the mouth. An enjoyable 'soft' heat in the mouth accompanied with some numbing sensation on the gums and palate. Nicely balanced so far. Finish: Medium finish, lingering mild spice and smokiness with a hint of cooked agave that lingers. After finishing this sample all I could think about was, "Is this available in Mexico?".
For a comparison, I poured a glass of Tapatio Reposado right after this review. It's amazing how two tequilas produced at the same distillery (most likely under the same conditions minus the resting in steel tanks) could be so different but yet equally enjoyable. Well, the Tapatio/La Altena distillery has been on my bucket list for tequila excursions for a while now - it'd be fascinating to witness such a family tradition of producing great tequila that has been passed down from generation to generation. Kudos to the Camarena family. *RECOMMENDED*