Tequila distiller Don Pilar relies on both sides of the border for his success
DRINKS Tequila is not tequila unless it's made in the Jalisco region of Mexico. So strictly speaking, you're not going to find a local tequila in the Bay Area. But the case of Don Pilar is about as close as you're going to get — his story is written by lines drawn directly between San Francisco and the Jalisco of his youth.
Pilar (a.k.a. Jose Pilar Contreras) is a Bay Area entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word, an all-around Mexican American success story. Born and raised in the Jaliscan highlands where his Don Pilar tequila is now distilled near the town of San Jose de Gracia, knowledge of the liquor runs in his blood. "My father is a proud alteño, a highland gentlemen," says Juan Carlos Contreras, Pilar's son and brand ambassador. "During the 40 years he's spent in the U.S., he has always kept his heart in the highlands."
Pilar moved to California in the 1960s to work its orchards and fields. After years of grueling labor, he joined two business partners (now commonly referred to as "the tres amigos") to open the popular Tres Amigos Restaurant in Half Moon Bay in the 1980s, now with three locations. Pilar launched his own Amigos Grill in Portola Valley and in 2002, returned to Mexico to pursue his next venture: making his own añejo tequila.
"We are lucky to have [San Francisco] as our home base," says Contreras. "People [here] are hip to trends and small, up-and-coming brands like us." He cites the "great community" the city has bred of aficionados and tastemakers — like Julio Bermejo of Tommy's Mexican Restaurant and Tequila Bar and Lippy the Tequila Whisperer — as one of the reasons that his family's tequila business has been able to prosper and sell. Plus, "the large Latino community has been supportive of my father's tequila, especially because of his immigrant story of success."
Pilar is that rare figurehead who stays hands-on in his businesses. It's not uncommon to find him buying supplies and produce for the restaurants, or to catch him supervising agave fields in Jalisco.
"In Spanish, you'd say that my father is a jalador," Contreras reflects. "He and my mom work seven days a week. If he's not at a local store signing bottles for customers, you'll find him washing dishes at his restaurant. This is the key to his story of success."
Yet another key would be value — you'd be hard-pressed to find a better añejo at this price (it's often sold locally in the low $30 range).
An aged, golden version of tequila, añejos cost much more than blanco or reposado tequila. Pilar's double-distilled release is aged in virgin American white oak barrels with a medium char. The taste is redolent of butterscotch, chocolate, and toasted agave. With a full, round finish, it has won a number of awards, often surpassing añejos that cost at least twice as much.
Recently the family has added to their tequila family with a blanco, a young, un-aged tequila. Where the añejo bottle features a photo of Pilar the patriarch, the blanco's has a younger Pilar of years past. Clean and bright with pineapple and citrus zest notes, the blanco has a gentle, creamy finish, a standout among its peers.
It's all built on traditional Jaliscan knowledge of the liquor — but Pilar adds a touch of artistic San Francisco spirit. His crew uses the Mozart method of fermentation, coaxing the process along by playing baroque music — Vivaldi's Four Seasons, to be exact. They believe that the musical ambiance optimizes the tequila's conversion from sugars to alcohol.
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