Skip to main content

These Vintage Tequilas Are the Holy Grail for Collectors

Initially, I thought my latest book, “Dusty Booze: In Search of Vintage Spirits,” would mainly focus on vintage bourbon collectors, and indeed those stories are common throughout, including one dusty hunter’s pursuit of a priceless collection that may have once belonged to an eccentric Hollywood legend. But, as I began to delve into other vintage spirits categories, I found other incredible tales mostly forgotten in modern times. In this excerpt from the book, out on March 5, I tell of the unsung American who may have got the ball rolling in turning tequila into the nearly $10 billion global industry it is now.

Robert Denton is the No. 1 icon to vintage tequila collectors. Born in Greenwich Village, the son of an artist and concert pianist who became a photography prodigy himself, Denton spent his early career photographing in-house fashion in Paris, before returning to the United States as a news journalist covering stories like the student protests in Berkeley. By the 1980s he was in the advertising industry, doing some work with Ketel One vodka, when he was offered a glass of tequila that would change his life.

“I had never tasted anything like it — and few Mexicans had tasted it, either,” says Denton, who was more familiar with quality tequila than most Americans of the era. Denton’s parents had long owned a vacation home in Mexico, and he’d even spent a year of high school in Mexico City, tasting 100 percent agave Herradura along the way.

But nothing was as good as this tequila produced by Guillermo Gonzalez Diaz Lombardo exclusively for a private gentleman’s club.

A Snifter of Chinaco

Denton and Marilyn Smith, his domestic partner, flew down to Tamaulipas, in northeast Mexico, to meet with the González family, heirs of former Mexican president Manuel González, at their Tequilera la Gonzaleña distillery. They quickly struck up a deal, and starting in 1983, Denton and Smith began importing their Chinaco, the first 100 percent agave premium brand brought into a United States still mostly stuck with mixto. The Chinaco 4 Year Añejo was the first tequila with an age statement, and Smith would serve it to curious people in a brandy snifter. (Sauza would almost immediately swipe this concept for an ad campaign featuring the motto: “The tequila that belongs in a glass by itself.”)

Chinaco became a sensation among Americans just discovering quality tequila, coveted by celebrities like Kirk Douglas and Danny DeVito, sold on the black market for $300 a bottle, shipments hijacked by border bandits as trucks crossed into Texas. It even inspired Martin Crowley and shampoo mogul John Paul DeJoria to go down to Mexico and seek out the González family, hoping to filch them for their own luxury brand they were starting, Patrón. They’d end up finding a different, unrelated González family at the Siete Leguas distillery.

“The big thing that we did differently than anybody today is we gave all the credit to our distillers,” says Denton. “We made our distillers the heroes, not ourselves. That’s very different from what they’re doing today.”

Eventually Chinaco wasn’t producing enough for Denton and Smith to continue importing it to America, and they went looking for another tequila. (Denton reintroduced Chinaco to America in 1993.)

El Tesoro and the Birth of a Category

Denton and Smith’s friend Nicholas Faith, a famed British journalist and spirits writer, tipped them off to a distillery in Arandas, in the Los Altos Region of the state of Jalisco, some 7,000 feet above sea level, that was also making tequila the traditional way. This was La Alteña Distillery, long run by the Camarena family.

The Americans and Mexicans quickly hit it off, and by 1988, Denton had teamed with master distiller Carlos Camarena to create El Tesoro de Don Felipe (known by vintage spirits collectors as El Tesoro White Label or simply ETWL). Well-aged tequila, called añejo, wasn’t really focused on by Mexican distilleries at the time, but Denton wanted some. Carlos, with Smith at his side, would sit in the cellar and try to put together a blend. Each batch would get a little better, until it became exceptional. There’s a reason Denton’s two decades’ worth of imports remain highly coveted.

“These were guys that knew their sh*t and got in so early that it wasn’t that hard for them to just walk into stores and find boxes and boxes of stuff.”

“When you crack one of those Denton bottles,” says Kristopher Peterson, the spirit archivist at Mordecai in Chicago, “you’re tasting the birth of a category which is still gaining market share in the U.S. forty years later.”

Peterson first fell in love with vintage tequila via an El Tesoro Reposado from 2003, dubbed “Olive Oil” by collectors due to its tall, squared-off bottle shape more befitting the kitchen counter. He loves its unusually heavy mouthfeel at 80 proof as well as some incredible watermelon and mint notes, unlike any other tequilas he has ever encountered. It’s the key reason he remains such a fan of the Denton-era El Tesoro.

Rediscovering Tequila’s Recent Past

Just as with bourbon collectors, early dusty hunters, among them Peterson, Los Angeles-area bar owner Pablo Moix, and Michael “Lippy” Lipman, an artist known online as the Tequila Whisperer, were able to scour liquor stores across North America to find these desirable bottles from tequila’s recent past. Particularly savvy collectors, in the days before Facebook, would talk shop on the Blue Agave Forum online.

“These were guys that knew their s*it and got in so early that it wasn’t that hard for them to just walk into stores and find boxes and boxes of stuff,” says Ernesto Hernandez, an Arandas-born, San Francisco-based realtor who is also a top vintage tequila collector.

“I remember when I bought my first [dusty] bottle, it was on clearance,” he recalls. “The store couldn’t sell it. It retailed for $129, and they had dropped the price all the way down to, like, $70.”

Other collectors have similar stories, like Moix, who cleaned out Mexico’s Baja Peninsula of dusty tequila bottles that would eventually appear on shelves at his vintage spirits bar Old Lightning.

Denton and Smith retired from the tequila game in 1999 — health issues arose and, says Smith, “We were worn out and had nothing more to offer” — and as recently as 2000, the New York Times reported that only two other non-Mexican companies were truly involved in the tequila industry, and just as labelers and/or distributors. You had Don Eduardo, which was being distributed outside Mexico by Brown-Forman (more famously, the owners of Jack Daniel’s), and Porfidio, packaged by a fast-and-loose Austrian named Martin Grassl.

Both would be criticized for allegedly ruining tequila in various ways. But the popularity of tequila meant that was bound to happen anyhow.

“Unfortunately, in tequila today, there’s been no change that has been for the better.”

“What got me started [collecting vintage tequila] was my love of Herradura and the fact that they had said that they were purposely changing their recipe,” Julio Bermejo, owner of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco, once told me.

He had learned they were switching their aging vessels from used bourbon barrels to new charred oak — which can radically affect flavor, covering up delicate agave notes and making it far more caramel- and vanilla-laden. This was back in 1992 when Bermejo was still visiting tequila distilleries every few months on his own dime. Surely not trusting that this change would be for the better, Bermejo began snatching up any cases he could find of pre-1992 bottlings.

Herradura’s reputation would decline even further starting in 2001 when it installed a diffuser on-site, a highly modern machine the size of a basketball court that is super efficient at extracting fructans (fructose sugars) from agave via high-pressure water and a bath of hydrochloric acid. (Smith compares diffuser-produced tequila to “canned spaghetti sauce.”) And even more so when Brown-Forman acquired the brand in 2007.

That was just the beginning of a slew of multinational conglomerates taking over labels and, well, completely f*cking up tequila.

Traveling Back in Time in Tequila

“What would piss me off, what still pisses me off today, are distilleries changing their processes and not telling the people that sell their products it’s changing,” says Bermejo. “Unfortunately, in tequila today, there’s been no change that has been for the better.”

El Tesoro, however, is admittedly still pretty damn great today, still produced at La Alteña Distillery in Arandas, still made by the Camarena family. But when it’s placed side by side with the stuff from the past, anyone can tell it’s simply not as good as it used to be.

“It’s night and day,” says Hernandez, who still greatly respects Carlos Camarena, as do most tequila nerds. “Long story short, it definitely does not taste the same.”

So you have to ask why.

Most obvious is that a post-Denton, Beam-Suntory acquisition increased the brand’s distribution footprint. Less obvious is what that means.

Denton sends me a YouTube link to a home-movie-quality video he made in 1992 in which Smith, with the help of Carlos Camarena, walks viewers through La Alteña’s agave fields, distillery, bottling hall, and aging cellars.

“The purpose of the video was to educate distributor salespeople about this groundbreaking artisan tequila,” explains Denton. “It was literally made [to] travel back in time.”

Indeed, it’s a remarkable look into the recent past and an era of rustic, artisan craft that no longer exists.

We see agave field workers harvesting piñas (agave hearts) that are eight to 12 years old.

We see these hearts ground up by a tractor-pulled tahona (an enormous, volcanic stone wheel) while a barefoot worker, essentially in his underwear, shovels the ground-up agave fibers.

We see batador Don Pedro Coronado, shirtless, inside a small fermentation tank, the liquid up to his chest, breaking up the mash so it doesn’t form a cap.

We see a still that’s fueled by an 1870s-era locomotive boiler, loaded with the mash and distilled to exactly 80 proof — Marilyn sips some served to her in a cow’s horn.

We see a facility completely lacking in electricity, no different from how things were when it was founded by Don Felipe Camarena in 1937: everything done by hand, everything hauled around by hand or balanced atop one’s head.

“It’s difficult to explain it culturally to a Mexican proprietor, and not just people we work with, that the old way is the way that the flavor came from. Don’t put in modern equipment. Put in more old equipment!”

“Tell me that El Tesoro production looks similar today under Beam-Suntory,” says Peterson, who also sends me a link, to a Hollywood-quality video currently on El Tesoro’s glossy, modern website, and he jokes, “I sincerely doubt you’ll find Don Pedro Coronado’s successor partially submerged in a small wooden fermentation tank separating the tahona-ground agave fibers by hand.”

Instead, an older, more camera-comfortable Carlos Camarena proudly walks viewers through a drone-shot agave field, past stainless-steel tanks and Cleaver-Brooks boilers, through an orderly warehouse with barrels stacked to the sky.

“There are certain things like using the tahona that impart a very different taste than putting it through a metallic grinder,” says Denton. “But the metallic grinder to a Mexican proprietor was a sign of success.”

And that’s what makes it hard to fully lament the days when tequila tasted better. To that Mexican proprietor, doing backbreaking labor at a distillery without electricity, you’re never going to convince him to keep doing all these things just because it makes a “better” tequila preferred by a small subset of moneyed American tequila dorks.

“It’s difficult to explain it culturally to a Mexican proprietor, and not just people we work with, that the old way is the way that the flavor came from,” says Denton, who begged the Camarenas to build their new, modern distillery while still retaining the old facility as a sort of working museum. “Don’t put in modern equipment. Put in more old equipment!” he claims he told them.

But the multinational conglomerates don’t really give a s*it about flavor. They care about efficiency and consistency, and the fact is that modern equipment — autoclaves and diffusers instead of brick ovens and earthen pits — is better at both, making it far easier to create a product that can be distributed to all fifty states and every continent. Far easier to help turn tequila into the $10 billion global industry it is now.

“It’s impossible to increase volume with a boutique product, a hand-made product,” says Smith, and the best tequila is innately a handmade product.

“What all this has taught us is that if we really like a certain batch of tequila, to buy all of it. Hoard it. And I’ve been doing that since the 1990s.”

Yet the Camarena family is still very serious about tequila, and El Tesoro (along with their Tapatio and Tequila Ocho brand lines) is still high quality, still mostly produced the proper way—certainly no diffusers—and still made using as many artisanal processes as a Beam-Suntory can allow. But being owned by a massive company with C-suite executives in Midtown Manhattan naturally changes things.

“Mostly not for the better,” says Denton, who would sell the bulk of his remaining El Tesoro dusties to tequila collector Mark Glazier, who has hosted “Dentonfests” at his New Jersey home. “There’s your real villain—the big companies.”

(For what it’s worth, today Chinaco is produced via roller mill, high-pressure autoclave, and stainless-steel distillation and imported by Hotaling & Co.; it is not very well regarded anymore. On the other hand, Guillermo Gonzalez Diaz Lombardo’s son Germán González makes the cult extra añejo Tears of Llorona.)

Another villain, you’d have to say, unfortunately, is the modern American’s insatiable love affair with tequila — the category on pace to overtake vodka as the best-selling spirit in the country any day now. That has forced even the most serious producers, especially those controlled by the conglomerates of the world, to harvest the agave a little earlier than perhaps they should, no different from bourbon manufacturers today no longer having the luxury of aging their liquid as long as they might have in the past.

Less mature agave is less flavorful, so this has likewise led to some brands dosing their tequilas with additives — syrups to add sweetness, caramel coloring and oak extract to create the false appearance and flavors of age, glycerin to bolster mouthfeel — all to cover up bland or flawed tequila. Any additives under 1 percent by total weight don’t even need to be reported on the bottle.

Feel free to blame climate change while we’re at it, with droughts and the disruption of bat populations affecting agave pollination and cultivation. Whoever you blame, it all brings us back to the yearning, the need, perhaps more than any other single spirits category, to find dusty tequilas from the past.

The ‘It’ Dusty

“What all this has taught us is that if we really like a certain batch of tequila, to buy all of it,” says Bermejo. “Hoard it. And I’ve been doing that since the 1990s.”

Today Bermejo defines vintage tequila as coming before a change in ownership or production. He continues to acquire old, tasty stocks when he stumbles upon them, like he did when he found a fifty-five-case pallet of 2006 El Jimador Añejo in a Brown-Forman warehouse in Kentucky.

It’s also why many collectors think vintage tequila could soon be the “it” vintage category.

“I think dusty tequila will be a growing category in the next five years,” says Seth Weinberg, a vintage buyer and seller who got his first vintage tequila client in 2022 and is opening a vintage spirits retail store in Nashville this year.

No doubt, for people just getting into tequila today, it’s hard not to think we’ve already missed the glory days. More than any other spirit, tequilas from the past can open one’s eyes to how great a category it used to be.

As Moix says: “You’ll try [vintage] tequila and think, ‘This is the first time I’ve had tequila.’ It just nullifies everything you’ve ever tasted.”

Key Denton Bottlings to Look For

Starting in 1983, Denton and partner Marilyn Smith began importing some of the first 100 percent agave tequilas into the United States. His key brands were Chinaco (1983 to 1999) and El Tesoro de Don Felipe (1988 to 1999). The earliest Chinaco releases can be identified by paper label packaging; the next iteration evolved to a teardrop-shaped bottle, which was phased out a few years ago; by then, other distributors like Fielding & Jones and Preiss were handling the brand. El Tesoro de Don Felipe (initial bottles are known by collectors as El Tesoro White Label or simply ETWL) would last under Denton’s aegis until 1999, when the company that would eventually become Beam-Suntory took over. Also highly sought-after is El Tesoro’s excellent “Cognac-style” extra añejo called Paradiso, first released circa 1994, and aged in five different barrels including Old Boone bourbon barrels supplied by Julian Van Winkle III. (A second release, Paradiso Lot B, is said to be aged in Louis Treize [XIII] Cognac casks. By the time of Lot C, quality had drastically changed.) Specifically look for anything labeled “Imported By Robert Denton & Company LTD.”

Dusty Booze: In Search of Vintage Spirits” is available now.

The article These Vintage Tequilas Are the Holy Grail for Collectors appeared first on VinePair.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.