Garcia’s Cantina has a taste for tequila

Monday, March 18, 2019 - 15:48
  • Garcia’s Cantina co-owner Joel Rivas pours a shot of the Eagle River restaurant’s signature tequila, which was created for the restaurant by Jose Cuervo for selling more tequila than any establishment in Alaska. (Photo for the Star by Rashae Ophus Johnson)
  • Garcia’s Cantina co-owners Joel Rivas, left, and Jason Hemphill pose with the restaurant’s signature tequila, which was created for the restaurant by Jose Cuervo for selling more tequila than any establishment in Alaska. (Photo for the Star by Rashae Ophus Johnson)
  • Garcia’s Cantina co-owner Ronn Laurie harvests agave in Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Ronn Laurie)

Garcia’s Cantina makes muchas margaritas. In fact the Eagle River restaurant moves more Jose Cuervo tequila than any other establishment in Alaska, a distinction that earned its owners the perk of crafting their very own special edition tequila.

“We have an ultra premium tequila you can’t get anywhere else, a signature tequila of Garcia’s Cantina,” co-owner Jason Hemphill said. “So it’s a big deal.”

The producers of Maestro Dobel, the ultra premium brand of the Cuervo portfolio, invited the top seller in each state to its La Rojeña distillery in Tequila, Mexico, to sample tequilas and concoct a custom blend. Hemphill, with a 16-year career in alcoholic beverage sales and distribution prior to Garcia’s ownership, seized the unique opportunity and pitched it to current co-owners Joel Rivas and Ronn Laurin.

“They were all for it. They saw the value in having something that’s a signature of the restaurant,” said Hemphill, who first worked with Rivas and Laurin as youth at Garcia’s, where each started as a dishwasher. “It’s all about having something different and cool. If we have a tequila that no one else has, that’s big — especially in Eagle River, Alaska.”

Rivas and Laurin made Garcia’s inaugural pilgrimage to the quaint town of Tequila, in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Similar to how Champagne is sparkling wine from a distinct region of France, and Scotch is solely whiskey from Scotland, tequila’s exclusive origin is the region around Tequila where specifically blue Weber agave is a native species.

Founded in 1812, La Rojeña is the oldest active distillery in Latin America, and Cuervo tequilas still are crafted there using the same artisanal method over 200 years later. An agave cultivator known as a jimador leads aspiring tequila artisans on foot into agave fields and demonstrates how to use a coa, like a sharpened garden hoe, to harvest the core of the succulent agave plant.

“You’re right there with them the entire process. That’s part of the experience,” Hemphill said. “They give you the coa and you dig up the agave; there is no automated machine.”

Called the piña, which fittingly means pineapple in Spanish, the core resembles a pineapple like a rugby ball resembles a football. Agave plants require about seven years to reach maturity, and the piña can weigh as much as 200 pounds. The piñas are trucked to the distillery, roasted in large adobe ovens and milled into pulp from which the juice is extracted. After it’s fermented, the juice is distilled and processed into tequila. The tequila is then aged in charred wood barrels for varying lengths of time to develop a range of distinctive tastes. The Alaskans observed each step of production before commencing tequila taste testing.

“They give you a chemical beaker and a measuring device,” Hemphill explained. “You just experiment with your blend, measure exact milliliters of whichever ones you like.”

Their ultimate goal was a super smooth blend. Initially they sampled their concoctions in straight shots. But since the bulk of Garcia’s tequila is sold in margaritas, they shifted strategy and started making margaritas to test the blends.

“Our first blend was so smooth, it was too smooth — you couldn’t taste it in a margarita,” noted Hemphill.

After a few rounds of ‘ritas, they settled on the official recipe of Garcia’s signature tequila. Hemphill, who happens to be a wine sommelier, describes the finished product as “a smooth blend of reposado, añejo and blanco tequilas with slight notes of smoke, agave and vanilla, designed to be perfect in a margarita.”

The first batch of Garcia’s Cantina Tequila debuted in 2017. Each spring the owners return to Mexico and procure another batch.

“Because they know our blend, we can order more whenever we want,” Hemphill said. “We don’t ever need to go back, but we like to. We like to be involved on that end.”

The 2019 shipment, their third edition, just arrived. For general margarita orders, bartenders use the bar’s “well” tequila — the 100-percent-agave Jose Cuervo Tradicional that Hemphill says was instrumental in driving Garcia’s tequila sales to the top initially.

To showcase Garcia’s Cantina special edition tequila in all its glory, the signature drink is the Maestro Matador, featuring Garcia’s fresh tequila blend with a twist of Gran Gala orange liqueur. Or, for a more intense taste test, one can opt to take a shot on the aptitude of Alaska’s aspiring tequila artisans.

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