Fortaleza Tequila is a brand with over 140 years of history behind it and a well-deserved cult following within the drinks industry. Whilst it has somehow found its way onto some back bars since production restarted in 2002, it has only been readily available to the UK public since 2016. Here’s why you should know this epic brand, if you don’t already.
It takes a fair amount to get us to venture south of the river during the mad rush of events that is London Cocktail Week, but a Fortaleza Masterclass headed by brand owner, Guillermo Sauza, and ambassador Stefano Francavilla, at Peckham’s Funkidory is something not to be missed!
The room is buzzing with excited chatter and covert glances towards Guillermo and Stefano who are struggling with the technology behind the slide show presentation. Bartenders, drinks distributors and the odd journalist make up the vast majority of the zealous crowd who’ve come to hear from the duo and taste (certainly not for the first time) their dedicated wares.
Projector sorted, Guillermo begins. Poised yet relaxed with a poker face hiding a wonderfully dry and natural humour, he begins by telling us a bit about his family’s history within the world of tequila.
“Fortaleza” means “fortitude” and that’s exactly what this brand has in spades.
Guillermo’s great-great-grandfather, Don Cenobio, founded his first distillery in Jalisco in 1873. A pioneer in the truest sense of the word, he was the first person to export “mezcal de tequila” to the US, shortening its name to “tequila”. He is also credited as the first person to use steam as opposed to earthen pits to cook agave and stated that Blue Agave was the best species for the production of tequila.
The next two generations of Sauza came and went, adding to their predecessor’s achievements – Eladio (Cenobio’s son) produced a number of spirits and helped to establish tequila as the national drink of Mexico, whilst his son, Francisco Javier, made the family’s tequila the most well-known brand in the world at the time and was instrumental in establishing the Denomination of Origin for Tequila. Francisco Javier also bought a piece of land at the highest point of the town Tequila, on which sat a small distillery that he named “La Fortaleza”. This is where the Sauza’s continued producing tequila until 1968.
In 1976, the Sauza tequila business was sold, to the horror of young Guillermo, who had grown up assuming he would take over the brand. The distillery remained under the family’s ownership but lay dormant for 40 years until Guillermo managed to reopen it and started making tequila in the same way it was produced there over 100 years ago.
“We named the company ‘Los Abuelos’ [translates “Our Grandfathers”] but got sued by a rum company”, Guillermo states with jocular candour. “We called it “Fortaleza” instead after the distillery and put my grandfathers’ names on the neck label instead. Each bottle has a sketch of somewhere in the distillery and the Still Strength has my two dogs on it too.”
How Fortaleza is Made?
The distillery is located in the mountainous Sierra Madre at 1,300 metres above sea-level on an inactive volcano. The Blue Weber agave is grown around the site, benefitting from the mineral-rich soil and climate and reaching maturity after around eight years. These large plants are then harvested by the jimador, who uses a sharp coa (hoe) to cut off the sharp leaves and expose the piña that is used in the production of tequila.
Once prepared, the piña are slowly cooked over a 36 hour period in the distillery’s ancient stone steam ovens. As the agave is slow-cooked, the starches inside are converted into sugars and a deep caramelisation occurs. “We take our time with this and do it the traditional way because this produces the best results”, says Guillermo.
Once the agaves are cooked, they are left to cook for a day, after which they can be removed from the oven by hand and moved to a circular pit where they are crushed using the distillery’s original tahona – a two-tonne, round volcanic stone pulled by an electric tractor (which took the place of their mule after he died). The fibres are crushed and sugars separated.Fermentation is then done in open-topped wooden vats and the sugars are turned into alcohol over the next four days.
Fortaleza is twice distilled in traditional copper pot stills that have been in place since the distillery was built more than 100 years ago. The second distillation takes the ABV from 20% up to around 46%. Whilst many other brands distil to higher percentages as it is more cost efficient, Guillermo is proud that they distil “closer to proof”. They do this because they “want to preserve as much of the natural agave flavour as possible.”
The liquid is then brought down to 40% with water for the Blanco and bottled whilst tequila destined for ageing is rerouted to used American oak barrels that have been re-chipped and re-charred.
“The only thing we don’t do at the distillery is blow the bottles” says Guillermo. These are hand-blown in Jalisco, meaning each one is slightly different and made in the same way as they would’ve been 150 years ago.
Tasting Notes: Fortaleza Tequila
Having been expertly guided through Fortaleza’s history and process, Guillermo gestures at the tasting glasses that have just been deposited in front of us: “I usually like to use a six-ounce Chardonnay wine glass because it opens the tequila and also I can fill it right up!” he says, but concedes the cute petri-dish-like vessels we’re given will have to do.
The Blanco is made, as is all Fortaleza, using 100% fully matured Blue Weber Agave. It is unaged and diluted from the still using demineralised water from a nearby natural spring.
Citrus, cooked agave caramel and earthy warmth.
A smooth and buttery Blanco with balanced sweetness, green olive, lime, black pepper and earth. This is a truly exceptional luxury tequila and the perfect introduction to the brand.
The sky is the limit. Try it in one of your favourite cocktails or neat.
Fortaleza Blanco (Still Strength)
The same liquid as the Blanco but without being diluted. This tequila is the exact product that comes out of the two small copper stills that all Fortaleza is produced in.
Hugely aromatic. Tropical fruit, baked agave, green olive, vegetal brightness, cumin and black pepper.
More savoury and robust that the Blanco with an underlying savoury salinity and spice kick that sits atop the buttery mouthfeel.
Again, wonderfully versatile. Definitely worth trying neat to taste the difference between the Still Strength and the Blanco.
The Reposado lies in ex-Bourbon barrels, that have been re-toasted at the Fortaleza distillery, for eight months. “This is still purposefully agave-forward”, says brand ambassador Stefano Francavilla. “The main goal of every producer should be to maintain a balance between agave and wood. We keep using the barrels and keep roasting them until they don’t give us anything anymore.”
Weirdly, the smell of gummie sweets when you first open the packet. Hard to get passed that initial aroma memory but afterwards, caramel, cooked agave, cinnamon and cooked green apple come through.
An incredible vibrant palate of Buddha’s hands, popcorn, cinnamon apples, vanilla, wood, ripe orchard fruit, earth and herbs.
Neat or mixed with a very lightly flavoured tonic water or ginger ale.
Fortaleza Añejo is aged for 23 months in ex-Bourbon barrels that have been re-toasted.
Stroopwafel, caramel, smoked cork, vanilla, butterscotch, nutmeg, plump raisins, floral notes.
Much smokier than expected with chewy caramel, hazelnut, pineapple, orange and cinnamon spice. The agave character is still richly present but the barrel has added further texture, depth and flavour. An absolute beauty.
Neat! Enjoy as you would a Scotch.
The Element of Surprise….
Fortaleza are not a brand to stand still and Stefano reveals that they have been working on a new expression – Fortaleza Winter Blend! He produces a small plastic bottle that doesn’t look something that would usually house cooking oil. In it, however, is the rough and ready Winter Blend for its first ever UK tasting!
Fortaleza Winter Blend 2019
A blend of Reposado, 75% of which has been aged in ex-Bourbon, 25% in French oak barrels.
Richer, fruitier and woodier on the nose than the classic Reposado.
Beautifully agave-forward with caramel, cinnamon and spice. Less vicious on the palate and with a subtle tannic bitterness and dryness, it is a refined and exciting expression that we can’t wait to arrive in UK stores!
The Winter Blend has not yet been released but watch this space as we’ll let you know once it has been!