Alys Beach’s Austin Doiron of NEAT visits the all-female tequila distilling operation, Leyenda de Mexico.
In a rural town about an hour and a half northeast of Guadalajara stands the village of Valle De Guadalupe. There, surrounded by fields of agave, a distillery rests atop a hill overlooking the valley. After a spontaneous invitation from distillery founder Melly Barajas Cardenas, Austin Doiron, Alys Beach’s beverage manager, found himself in the highlands of Jalisco exploring the grounds of Tequila Leyenda de México. He illustrates, “The distillery itself, the land, it’s breathtaking.” The building which houses the distillery is an architectural wonder. Full of intricate brickwork and handcrafted tile, the colorful hacienda is a complement to the muted dry hills of the surrounding highlands or Los Altos de Jalisco.
Founded in 1999, Tequila Leyenda de México uses a slow, natural process to pull out clarity and intensity in its small-batch tequila. Melly employs an all-female staff and acknowledges that the work can be physically demanding, but her embrace of a slower pace, of the method itself, creates a pride that shines through everyone involved. She simply states, “Being a company made up of only women, I also seek to inspire them and show them that anything is possible, they just have to believe in themselves. The sky’s the limit.” Well-respected within the industry, including the other tequila families—her competitors, Melly is a force, and one of the few female master distillers in Mexico.
Melly is steadfast in the mission of her work and of the women who work alongside her. She states, “I want the people who buy my tequila to experience a unique and legendary moment, whether they drink it alone or in the company of their loved ones, I want to give them a magical moment. And that’s why I want to continue making tequila as our grandparents did, in an artisanal way, free of chemicals and additives. It’s a tequila made with the magic and heart of my wonderful warriors.” At Leyenda de México, the artisan method, the method of Melly Barajas’ ancestors, begins with the blue agave plant. Each plant takes approximately nine years to reach the maturity necessary to harvest and Leyenda de México tequila is created from agave exclusively grown in the fields of Los Altos de Jalisco. Austin notes, “The harvesting and labor-intensive parts of the process are all done by hand. There are about 18 women on staff, and they all know how to do each job at the distillery. It’s incredible and they are proud of the work.”
Once the agave’s piña—or pineapple—is removed, the agave leaves are removed, and the piña is cut into four parts to fit into the masonry ovens. At Leyenda de México, the adobe ovens are made of the earth from where the blue agave is planted. These ovens will cook the piña with a mixture of heat and steam for 24 hours, with an additional day of rest. Austin and Melly climbed to the top of the pile of the still-warm agave and gave it a taste. Austin explains, “It’s the texture of steamed artichoke—fibrous—with the taste of sweet tea. The aroma reminded me of times when my mom would cook sweet tea on the stove at home. It would fill the whole house with this sweet smell.”
Next, the cooked agave is taken to the mills to press and the must, or sweet nectar, is collected. The women in the factory unload the agave, which weighs between 10 and 20 pounds, and put it onto the conveyor, where it will go through four or five different mills to press and extract the juice. The mills will press again and again until they’ve extracted all of the sugar and what’s left is a dry fiber.
Once the must has flowed into the fermentation vats, Melly prefers to allow the process to occur naturally, without additives. As Austin states, “In the warmer months, the fermentation process can take two to three days; when it’s cold it usually takes about a week. While it’s in the vats, it’s essentially agave beer. Once all of the sugars are converted to alcohol, it’s ready to be distilled.”
Impressed with the principles of the tequila families and the industry as a whole, Austin says, “If you look at transparency, whether you look at wine or spirits, tequila is one of most highly regulated alcohols in the world. In tequila, every barrel has a government seal on it and a government official must be present to monitor the sampling and replace the seals. Each distillery is assigned a number, and you’ll notice on each bottle there are the letters NOM followed by a number so that you know exactly where that brand is made.”
“There’s a current movement behind non-additive tequila which, upon tasting, feels refreshing and clean,” Austin states. Melly and her team are at the forefront of this transition, and the clientele of Alys Beach’s NEAT Bottle Shop & Tasting Room has a high appreciation for this bright, elevated tequila. NEAT has established itself as the preeminent purveyor of Leyenda de México in Florida and, Austin anticipates, all of the Southeast. This support, and steady interaction, has enabled his relationship with the Leyenda de México team to flourish into a friendship.
“On my most recent January visit to Guadalajara, I met up with Melly, her husband Victor, and Melly’s sales manager Iliana for lunch,” Austin says. “After lunch, Iliana and I went to the Colonia Americana neighborhood. I love staying in the Americana because it reminds me a bit of the Marigny in New Orleans with its amazing diverse cuisine and cocktail culture.” This mutual relationship is also prosperous for Alys Beach. Under Austin’s direction, NEAT has played host to Tequila Leyenda de México for private homeowner tastings as well as cocktail dinners and tastings at 30A Wine Festival.
Austin is confident as he looks to the future of the beverage program at Alys Beach and a continued partnership with Leyenda de México. Melly Barajas also appreciates the community she has found on 30A. “We are very happy working with the wonderful team at Alys Beach. It fills us with joy that the entire team really fell in love with our Leyenda de México tequila and now we consider them part of our family. In addition, they are always innovating and looking for new ways to promote our tequila and that means a lot.” Melly continues, “Working together we have achieved things and I am convinced that there are many more to come. Thank you very much for loving and promoting our brand in a place as prestigious and unique as Alys Beach. We consider it our home.”