What do you get when you combine two British bartenders, generations of experienced jimadores and a meticulous maestro tequilero? In the case of Altos Tequila, the result is an approachable, almost creamy agave spirit, made the old-fashioned way in the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico.
Altos began back in 2009, thanks to two cofounders with a passion for tequila: Henry Besant and Dre Masso, who also paved the path for future agave lovers by starting the Tahona Society. Besant tragically passed away in 2013, but his legacy lives on through Altos, the many bartenders touched by his love for agave spirits, and the hardworking men and women who make Altos today. Below, meet a few of those people who bring Altos from agave field to bottle:
The Co-Creator: Dre Masso
While running a Jaliscan restaurant in London, bartender Dre Masso found himself wondering why the market for tequila was saturated with cheap spirits, a handful of ultra-high-end brands, and very little in-between. Where were all the great mid-level tequilas? So Masso and Besant came to Mexico to try to rectify the situation. There, they wound up teaming with maestro tequilero Jesus Hernandez to craft their own custom spirit. “They wanted to create a tequila that could be mixed into cocktails or sipped neat without feeling astringent,” says Jesus Hernandez, Jr., who’s following in his dad’s footsteps, in a way, as hospitality coordinator for Pernod Ricard Mexico. “They liked the fact that he did things the old-fashioned way.” In 2009, Altos Tequila was born.
The Maestro Tequilero: Jesus Hernandez, Sr.
Born in the Jalisco highlands and raised in California, Jesus Hernandez has been honing his palate for more than three decades, having trained under Canadian master blenders. With a background in statistical process control, Hernandez took a scientific approach to developing Altos’ signature flavor. He spent two years experimenting with different yeasts, cooking times and extraction methods, sending samples to London and meticulously recording the results of each attempt. But when it came to the actual crafting of the tequila, Hernandez went old-school. “The engineers that I work with were very well-versed in computer-controlled manufacturing, but it was a conscious decision not to do our tequila that way,” he says. Everything is controlled by hand, often using centuries-old technology. Hernandez remembers inviting a group of fellow tequileros to visit the distillery, and when they saw the tahona stone, they were shocked. “One guy laughed and said, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding!’ But we’re very serious about making tequila this way,” he says.
The Expert Jimador: Guadalupe Sanchez
A jimador is a vital part of the process of making tequila. Charged with identifying mature agave plants for harvesting, an experienced jimador can tell if a plant is ready from several feet away. Guadalupe Sanchez is one of the longest-serving jimadores around and has been working with Hernandez for 15 years. Equipped with a specialized hoe called a coa, Sanchez and his three brothers, also jimadores, carefully select the finest Highlands Weber blue agave for the Altos blend. “There’s no machine that can do what a jimador can do,” says Hernandez, Jr.
The Guy Who Does Everything: Miguel Villa Macías
One of Altos’ longest-serving employees, Miguel has done basically every job there is, from quartering agaves to distilling. When he started as an oven operator, Miguel was in charge of loading agave hearts (or piñas) into 60-ton steam injection ovens, where they remain for 36 hours before resting for another 16. Later, Miguel oversaw extraction, which is done using two different methods: the roller mill and the traditional tahona stone, a two-ton chunk of volcanic rock from the Tequila valley that only a handful of brands still use. Then it’s off to the fermentation tanks, where a strain of wild local yeast is added and left to do its thing for 36 hours while Miguel monitors the Brix, or sugar content of the solution. The resulting “mosto muerto” is double distilled in copper pot stills, diluted with demineralized water from Altos’ own well and bottled (reposados and añejos are first aged in bourbon barrels made of white American oak for 5 to 18 months). Miguel’s intimate knowledge of each part of the process is essential to keeping Hernandez’ original vision for Altos tequila consistent, bottle after bottle.