He wears a white brimmed hat with a black band, his gracious good manners either hereditary or the result of many years promoting his family's Chinaco tequila and then his own super-premium brand, T1. With his likeness on swizzle sticks jutting from cocktails containing his "Selecto" married with cantaloupe and carrot purees, German Gonzalez surveys the crowd at Red Mesa Cantina. A few dozen enthusiasts crowd the first-floor bar area for an evening of "alta cocina and tequila fina."
In recent years, tequila has ditched its Cuervo Gold salt-shot-lime-shudder reputation, emerging as a liquor category with all of the finesse and nuance of cognacs or scotches. There are reasons for that.
Gonzalez, for instance, uses scotch barrels to age his products. But he gives a great deal of credit to his dad.
"My father's was the first premium tequila in the U.S. It was sipping tequila, something you could drink neat," he said.
His family's roots run deep: His great-great-grandfather was the president of Mexico in 1880, president of the national bank of Mexico and the man responsible for bringing electricity and an expanded railroad system to Mexico City. Nonetheless, in 2007 Gonzalez broke away from the family business, moving to San Antonio, Texas, to learn more about the American market and distribution. It didn't go over well.
Even the name of his brand flies in the face of tradition. Herradura, Siete Leguas, Milagro ... and T1?
"It's a brand people can pronounce even in China," Gonzalez says as hogfish ceviche is cleared to make way for Red Mesa chef Chris Fernandez's squash blossom and epazote quesadilla.
There are 200 types of agave in Mexico, tequila legally made from only the blue agave. Historically, though, the spirit wasn't made from 100 percent agave, Gonzalez says, and thus the result was harsh, something best covered up with lime, salt and such.
These days, the United States is the No. 1 market for tequila. When Gonzalez started making T1, 100 percent blue agave tequila accounted for only 2 percent of sales, he says. Now that number is 65 percent.
The crowd samples the T1 reposado, aged six months in oak barrels. It is paired with Fernandez's luscious chiles en nogada — roasted pork picadillo inside a poblano, the whole thing napped with a walnut sauce and dotted with pomegranate seeds. Guests swirl their champagne flutes, the heady smell just reminiscent of scotch. Maybe not the strong peaty smokiness of Islay, Scotland, but more the mellow sweetness of Speyside.
It's more pronounced with the T1 anejo, which is aged for 24 months in scotch barrels, the deep golden liquor juxtaposed at Red Mesa Cantina with a nuanced and sultry mole negro with duck confit.
But when the crowd gets to what is widely called the "Pappy Van Winkle of tequilas," it's something else entirely. Gonzalez's T1 Tears of Llorona is a blend of three anejos, one aged in scotch barrels, another in cognac and a third in sherry casks.
"The scotch barrel is for dryness, the cognac barrels for sweetness and the sherry to get a little fruitiness," the master distiller says as pumpkin flans are marched out of the kitchen.
The first Llorona he made only 1,500 bottles of; the second year he made 2,000. It retails for $250. Stunning.
"Agave is like grapes, terroir is important. And the most important thing about agave is maturity," Gonzalez says as the evening winds down.
But what about the name? Who is Llorona?
"It's a Mexican legend. Parents tell their children, 'If you don't behave, Llorona will come and get you.' It's the bogeyman," Gonzalez explains.
Tipping the last of their Llorona glasses back, it's clear the crowd at Red Mesa Cantina is not afraid of the bogeyman.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.