The dry season has just begun in the Tequila Valley and Highlands, the region of Mexico where tequila is made from (and only from) the blue Weber agave plant. Although agave is harvested at other times, during the dry season (October to June), the plants tend to be ripest, with the most sugars.
High season in Tequila also is high season, in a sense, for the Whitton-Summers family of Reno. The family owns El Sativo, a tequila made on an estate in the valley in partnership with a fourth-generation clan of expert distillers. The company is based in Reno.
In an increasingly crowded category — tequila is the new vodka, as the industry saying goes — El Sativo is setting itself apart through certified organic farming, attention to craft, clean flavors and innovative distillation that highlights certain agave terpenes — aromatic compounds with energy enhancing, mood elevating and anti-inflammatory effects.
“There are so many tequilas. A slew of celebrities have developed spirits. The thing that has been in our corner is our process. We’re cultivating a better drinking experience all around,” said Jaime Whitton, a singer, songwriter and co-founder of El Sativo with her brother-in-law, Dr. Bob Summers.
El Sativo also is certified non-GMO and certified kosher, with a recycled glass bottle, an organically soluble label and donations made to ocean conservation.
“Better tequila, better world,” Whitton said.
Meet the terpenes; a big spirits win
The Whitton siblings, all six of them, left their native Reno for Los Angeles to make their way in the entertainment industry. As many aspiring artists do, they sometimes worked in hospitality between gigs. Eventually, the siblings became bar owners themselves, including Prank Bar, the high-profile walk-up bar near the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
For Jaime Whitton, her family’s spirits background, an interest in organics developed while cooking healthy meals for her grandfather and several trips to the Tequila region over the years combined to inspire the creation of El Sativo.
So did due diligence.
Terpenes often are associated with cannabis because cannabis plants are stuffed with terpenes, but the compounds actually occur in many plants and possess a variety of characteristics. Whitton and her brother-in-law had a blue Weber agave plant tested to identify the terpenes responsible for aroma and flavor. They targeted five whose properties the low-heat distilling process would maintain, not burn off.
El Sativo highlights terpenes in its marketing, but Whitton is quick to make a point: “This isn’t a cannabis tequila.”
The pandemic delayed the launch of El Sativo commercially until fall 2020. That same year, El Sativo won a double gold medal and best tequila overall at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition. For critic Jim Vorel of Paste Magazine, beneficial compounds were beside the point.
“What I can say is that this tequila, regardless of terpene content, is absolutely delicious,” he writes. “And that’s a pleasant surprise — no marketing gimmicks are necessary when at its core, a spirit is as good as this one. The quality simply speaks for itself.”
How agave are harvested
You need patience to be in the tequila business. Blue Weber agave, with their signature spiky blades jutting in many directions, take about seven years to ripen, and if they’re not looked after, they can be damaged by pests, bacteria or wildfire.
The tequila trade also requires strong backs and hands. Right now in Tequila, field hands called “jimadores” are using a long machete-like tool to slice the sugar-rich agave hearts from their stalks and the bladed leaves from the hearts, which can weight up to 300 pounds.
Trimmed hearts resemble pineapples, so they’re called “piñas,” the Spanish word for pineapple. Traditionally, jimadores used generations of experience to judge when agave were ripe enough to harvest, but today, the Mexican government sets a minimum sugar content.
Farming without pesticides
El Sativo’s distillery lies in the town of Amatitán, in the lowlands of Tequila. El Sativo uses only blue Weber agave grown on its estate without pesticides or fungicides.
“If there’s an agave shortage or if global warming is burning the agave, some houses have to source agave from elsewhere. We do not source,” Whitton said, a practice that helped El Sativo obtain its organic certification.
At El Sativo, jimadores harvest piñas at seven to 12 years, Whitton said, depending on the plants. “We have a lot of minerality and nutrients in the soil. We pride ourselves on the purity of our agave. You can peel off a piece of the piña — it’s like sweet water.”
The agave hearts are steamed in small batches in stone ovens for 72 hours before being juiced. The extracted juice is fermented into a spirit, then distilled twice to become tequila. Water used in the process is filtered through 135 feet of volcanic rock. “If you have dirty water, you have a dirty hangover,” Whitton said.
It’s all in the tasting
Besides its blanco tequila, El Sativo produces reposado tequila aged nine months and añejo tequila aged 16 months.
When I caught up with Whitton in late summer, the brand was sold in seven states across the country, including Nevada, California, Texas and South Carolina.
Local retailers that carry El Sativo, Whitton said, include Ben’s locations, Craft Wine & Beer, Lee’s Discount Liquor, Whispering Vine locations and Total Wine. The tequila also is found on premise at places like Chuy’s restaurants, 1864 Tavern, Great Basin Brewing Co., Land Ocean and The 395 bar.
Whitton is responsible for El Sativo’s accounts, so she travels frequently. When we spoke, she had finally resumed in-person tastings she couldn’t host earlier in the pandemic. Tasting, she said, was essential to expanding El Sativo sippers beyond those already inclined toward tequila.
“People remember cheap tequila and a bad experience in college. Or they say, ‘Oh no, I’m a bourbon drinker. I’m a wine drinker.’ We want to show them what separates us from other tequilas.”
Johnathan L. Wright is the food and drink editor for Reno News & Review. Follow him on Twitter at @ItsJLW or on Facebook personally or at @FoodNevada. Sign up here for the Reno News & Review free weekly newsletter highlighting our most recent stories.