david grapshi, tequila’s unofficial u.s. ambassador
Few Americans know more about the tequila industry than David Grapshi. For nearly a quarter of a century, he has helped spearhead the category’s phenomenal growth in the United States — first as the national sales manager for Herradura and El Jimador tequilas, then as the tequila national sales manager with The Sazerac Company and Gemini Spirits and Wine. With apologies to E.F. Hutton, when David Grapshi talks tequila, people listen.
After the New York native spent two years in the U.S. Navy, Grapshi spent decades in various sales management positions on both the distributor and supplier sides of the business. His career took a significant turn when he visited the tequila region for the first time in 1988.
“I knew then and there that my destiny in the industry was to focus all my efforts into the tequila and agave category,” Grapshi says. “Everything about the business fascinated me — the people, the land, the agaves and the resulting spirits. After touring a tequila distillery for the first time, I was hooked.”
Grapshi believes that much of the impetus behind the steady growth of the category is the return to the more traditional style of making tequila, a trend he feels is here to stay. Aficionados and enthusiasts have become exceedingly discerning, and the pervasive understanding of what differentiates great tequilas from those that are merely adequate has raised the quality standards industry wide.
“Tequila is an artisanal spirit and the traditional techniques still produce the best results. Tequila is also greatly affected by terroir. All of the Weber blue agaves cultivated in the designated growing regions grow in different soil compositions and at different altitudes. They are subjected to differing amount of sunshine, rainfall and humidity — all of which greatly affect their sugar levels and the final spirit.”
Grapshi is in charge of charge of a portfolio that includes many of the finest brands imported into the United States — Siete Leguas, Tequilas Corazon, Casa San Matias, Pueblo Viejo, as well as Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol. Each is handcrafted following methods long ago abandoned by many as too costly or labor-intensive.
According to Grapshi, Siete Leguas is a line of tequilas greatly worthy of the critical acclaim it has received. “In 1952, master distiller Don Ignacio González Vargas built Casa Siete Leguas in town of Atotonilco in the Highlands of Los Altos. It is very much a traditionally oriented distillery. After harvesting, the mature blue agaves are slowly baked in masonry ovens and crushed by a mule-driven tahona wheel. The extracted juice is then fermented and double-distilled in a copper pot still. The tequilas are brilliantly aromatic and flavorful.”
The same holds true for Tequila Corazon. The range is crafted at Casa San Matías, an estate distillery situated on the red volcanic soil of the Highlands of Tepatitlán. For more than a century, these 100% agave tequilas have been made from estate-grown agaves using an innovative blend of traditional distilling methods with a few innovative twists.
After harvesting, the agave piñas are slowly baked in stone ovens, slowly fermented and double-distilled in the estate’s stainless-steel stills. A significant point of distinction is that Casa San Matías uses only pure mineral water sourced from nearby springs in its tequila. Near the end of the second distillation oxygen is injected into the tequila, a technique responsible for its soft, velvety textured body.
His latest project is a legitimate game changer, a series of ultra-premium tequilas called Expresiones de Corazon. He started with blue agaves grown by Siete Leguas in Los Altos that had unusually high brix — sugar — levels. After being skillfully double distilled, much of the tequila was placed in used barrels procured from the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky.
“When finished, the series will feature an elegant blanco and a sensational reposado matured for 11 months in Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrels,” Grapshi says. “There will also be three distictive añejos — one aged in Sazerac Rye barrels, one in George T. Stagg barrels, and another in Van Winkle Bourbon barrels. We don’t know yet exactly how long each will stay in the barrel, but they’ll be anywhere from a year and three or four months to two years. Each of the añejos are still in wood. Master distillers Mario Echanove and Miguel Cedeno Cruz and I do frequent tastings to monitor their progress. All three of the añejos taste amazing, but we’re going to give them a little more time to fully mature.”
The limited-release series is scheduled to make its debut in February 2013. “The initial production is estimated to be only 22,000 bottles,” Graphsi adds. “I venture to say there will be about 9,000 bottles of the blanco and the rest divided between the four añejo expressions. They will all make their debut at the same time. I guarantee you they’ll be glorious.”
Grapshi’s highly refined palate also has earned him the honor of judging at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the Spirits of Mexico Competition. When asked what consumers should look for in a world-class tequila, he believes that regardless of whether it’s a blanco, reposado, añejo or extra añejo, the determining factor doesn’t change.
“I think the most important element in any tequila is that the flavor of the agave be upfront and center. There should never be any doubt that you’re drinking tequila,” Grapshi says. “After that, I think the other flavors — be they spicy, fruity, floral or herbal — need to be in balance with each other. That goes for the oak-induced flavors as well. Aging tequila in barrels should add another layer or two of flavor, not dominate the character of the spirit.”
Tequila and the other notable spirits of Mexico will undoubtedly continue their meteoric ascension up the charts, due in no small part to the efforts of craftsmen like David Grapshi. The only thing left to say after that is “salud”!
For more on tequila trends, check out "Tequila Puro" on Nightclub.com.