Tequila has long been considered the bottled essence of Mexico, derived from the heart of the blue agave plant and named for the Spanish Colonial-era city where it originates. It remains deeply rooted in Mexican heritage, mystery, legend and lore even as its appeal has gone global, with premium tequilas among the most coveted in the world.
Texas native, and longtime Los Cabos aficionado, Stewart Skloss, embarked on the search for the ultimate tequila, or “El Primero Uno,” many years ago. When he couldn’t find it, he set out to distill it himself. Espiritu’s Christopher Miller sat down with the Founder and Chairman of Pura Vida Tequila (pictured above with business partner Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Top) to talk about his quest for “El Primero Uno,” breaking into the business, making the tequila “dance” and most importantly, how he prefers to sip. (Hint: it’s not with a lick of salt and a wedge of lime).
Tell us about your first foray into the tequila business.
I started my first tequila company when I was 20. It didn’t last very long. I had the attention span of a Mexican jumping bean. I was traveling with friends from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and we stumbled across the town of Tequila. We wound up going in for tastings and tours of the various distilleries. We were going to stay for two hours and ended up staying for two days. We created a tequila called Dos Hermanos. Six weeks later we were already off onto the next thing.
You went on to travel the globe, live in numerous cities and follow various career paths. What inspired your leap back into the tequila business?
Fast forward 20 years to John Paul DeJoria, the owner of Patrón, who was an investor of mine in an environmental company. We were at dinner in 2009, and he had told me he had just sold 28% of Patrón. When he told me for how much, I had to ask him again; I couldn’t believe it. He said, “Didn’t you have a tequila company when you were 20? You should have stuck with it.” My response: “Well dinner is on you. For life.” Anyway, he said I ought to try it again, to which I told him I couldn’t afford it. He said, “If you wait until you can afford it, you’ll never do it.” From that point on, I decided exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
How did you get started?
I went down to Guadalajara and met with the Tequila Regulatory Commission and asked them what are the top 20 distilleries, not by dollar volume but by reputation. Through taste tests, I narrowed it down to ten, then to three and visited them to see which one we could work with the best. The one we liked the most was a small family owned distillery in the Highlands of Jalisco with the most beautiful agave fields. We went into where the tequila was being made, and the guy had these giant speakers blasting down to the open fermentation tanks. The tequila was bubbling, and he said, “Look, the music makes the tequila dance.” His pitch was, “Our tequila has a little bit of dance in every single sip.” I loved it. So we talked about flavor profile. The profile that Americans love is flavor; Mexicans love spice and bite. The flavor profile I was looking for was something everybody would like, whether you’re from Eurasia, Latin America, the U.S. or Africa. We worked for a few months on creating the perfect one and sourced time at that distillery to make Pura Vida.
How did you build on that initial concept?
We launched in 2011 in Texas only, and we were doing very well. Then, I made a mistake. I hired a CEO. Friends of mine warned me not to do it. John Reedman, The President and CEO of Specs, the largest liquor store in the U.S., said it would mess with our mojo; we were doing something different, and it was working well. After a year with the CEO, we decided to part ways and get back to doing it how we started. We went from state to state. We sourced investors who were influencers and thought leaders; we have doctors, lawyers, politicians, athletes, philanthropists, executives and bankers, ranging from ages 28 to 93. Through slow, methodical growth and using six degrees of separation, we built a fanbase, instead of paying for it with millions of dollars in advertising. By the end of this year, we will have distribution in all 50 states. We’re also in Mexico and Japan.
What makes the Pura Vida distillation process unique?
We are based out of a distillery in Lake Chapala, a beautiful location with the best of the best equipment. Consistency is the most important thing. We only use single generation Jack Daniels barrels instead of using a Jim Beam barrel once, Crown Royal another time or Bulleit Bourbon another time. The flavor profile you pull from the wood in those barrels always needs to be consistent. Our agave, which comes from the same fields in Jalisco, is the highest sugar content you can get, 23% or higher. Sometimes when people buy in bulk, they’re buying 17%. You smell that aroma, that tequila profile that many fear, from days gone by in college, when you had to have the salt and the lime. We wanted an aroma that was naturally sweet, but not too sweet. Something you could sip and enjoy, that went down smoothly. We do a triple distillation, twice in copper and once in stainless. Only a couple of tequilas do a triple distillation. We also use champagne yeast. And we still play that music. People play music to their plants to make them grow; we play Mexican Mariachi music while the tequila is fermenting; keeping that little bit of dance in every single sip.
What’s next for Pura Vida?
We’re experimenting with some great stuff. We have our Extra Añejo in Cognac barrels, and we’re getting ready to come out with our Ultra Extra Añejo, aged five years plus, and it is amazing. When we first started, we threw some in Cognac bottles for seven years, so we’re trying to decide what that blend is going to be, whether we’re going to blend the five and the seven or release just the seven. We’re going through that thought process right now.
So did you find your “Primero Uno”?
We made it. We’re there, but of course, there’s always room for improvement in everything you do. As we learn about new distillation and fermentation processes, we’re constantly proving you always have to optimize your process and procedure across the board.
You’ve made Los Cabos one of your home bases throughout the years. How has Cabo inspired or influenced you?
Well, I grew up close to Mexico in South Texas, so Mexico has always been in my heart, and Los Cabos is fantastic. I did an outward bound trip in my 20s where we followed the whale migration in kayaks down the Sea of Cortez to Cabo. The only thing that was there at the time was the Twin Dolphin hotel. For years, I’ve spent ten days a month at Villas Del Mar, enjoying the beaches of Los Cabos. I like to grab a bowl of fruit, orange juice and coffee and walk to clear my head for the day. That’s what life should be like every day for everybody.
Finally, the most important question; how do you take your tequila?
Now, that’s a loaded question. Think of your Silver as your appetizer, your Reposado as your entrée, your Añejo as your dessert and your Extra Añejo as your dessert on those special occasions. Some people like Reposado in their margaritas, I prefer Silver. I like mine with Controy, sold as Naranja in the U.S. If I don’t have it, I make mine with three parts tequila, two parts lime, one part orange juice, agave nectar to taste, well shaken. Reposados I like with Topo Chico (mineral water); one part tequila, three parts Topo Chico, a lime wedge and a lemon wedge. It has about 57 calories on average. We don’t use any additives; we are an organic tequila, so you don’t get any added sugars for those on the low-cal, low-carb diets. After dinner, I like to drink Añejo solo or the Reposado solo with a sangrita on the side.
Read more about Stewart Skloss and Pura Vida at PuraVidaTequila.com.