Words by: Karen Fick
Separating the man, Don Francisco, from tequila is not an easy process, they are so intertwined and his passion for the spirit is so all-consuming that they are almost one and the same thing, just as tequila is one and the same thing as Mexico.
Don Francisco Hajnal Alfaro is the maestro tequilero, or master blender, at Jose Cuervo. He develops new products and is responsible for the entire production process from Agave plant to bottle. Through the blending of tequilas of different ages he must also ensure that every year the profile of each tequila in the Jose Cuervo range remains the same.
As a young man, Don Francisco studied Precision Mechanics and then progressed to the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México to study Industrial Engineering and Die Casting, practising in this field. In 1975 he made a radical change in his career and became a Brand Manager at the Bodegas Santo Tomas winery which was established in 1888 in the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja, a Mexican region near California known for its good grape growing conditions and well-structured wines.
Francisco stayed at Santo Tomas for six years, and it was here that he learnt the art of tasting. Not only did Francisco have a superb palate, he also had a flair for creating and marketing new products. Working with the technical team at the winery he became involved in every aspect of new wines, from bottle production to marketing. He earned a reputation as a wine expert and taught at the University of Viniculture.
But Francisco is a Mexican and the voice of tequila was calling, so in 1982 he left the winery and joined José Cuervo as Manager for the Development of New Products. At the La Rojeña distillery in Jalisco, workers are involved in every step of the tequila making process and Francisco feels he was lucky to have learnt from these traditional workers. Here he learnt about the distinct aromas created during each step of the production and distillation process.
Though there are similarities between wine and tequila tasting the one fundamental difference is the alcohol strength. Due to tequila’s high alc./vol. it is even more important to develop an understanding of its aromas and this is where the highly tuned olfactory sensitivities of Don Francisco found their natural home and he began to develop his own methodology to ensure a robust analytic method of tequila tasting.
Hungry for knowledge, it was here too that Don Francisco learnt the rich back story of tequila, from its Native Indian origins to the role the Spanish settlers played with their advanced knowledge of fermentation and distillation processes. As his fascination with the tequila production process grew, so too did his awareness of his Mexican heritage.
Just three years after his arrival at Jose Cuervo, Don Francisco was promoted to the role of tequila distillery director. In 1985 he launched his first tequila - Jose Cuervo Traditional which achieved success on the local market before going global.
But there was still a lot of work to do. The global perception of tequila at this time was not great and justifiably so. For years many production processes had been inferior, rum and brandy the preferred drinks of the more discerning. In other parts of the world, an inferior product carrying the tequila name was being produced from non-agave based spirits. Generally there was little awareness of how a good tequila was made and what it should taste like.
However, thanks to the passion of figureheads like Don Francisco, this was all about to change. Throughout the late eighties and early nineties producers took increasing care of their production processes, and boutique tequilas began to appear on the European market. As the drink gained a better reputation in Europe this positive image changed the perception of tequila in Mexico, and by the mid-90s it had become a national drink to be proud of. “Helping change the way that tequila is perceived in Europe is something that I’m proud to have personally played a part in”, comments Don Francisco.
It was at around this time too that Jose Cuervo reached its 200th anniversary. Dating back to 1758 when the King of Spain granted Don Jose Cuervo land to grow agave, Jose Cuervo is the oldest producer of tequila. The company continues to this day under the same family which is now in its 10th generation. For this important anniversary Don Francisco was given the task of creating an ultra-aged blended tequila, using tequilas barrelled for 3 years. It was 1995 and it was as if tequila, Jose Cuervo and Don Francisco had arrived at a watershed together. To this day he remembers the celebrations at La Rojeña as the limited edition tequila was handed out.
Between 1996 and 2006 Francisco acted as Casa Cuervo’s Director of Special Projects and set up a tequila tasting through sensory analysis program at Cuevo. “It takes about two months to get people to the level where they can teach others about tequila but really true expertise only comes after years of experience”.
Don Francisco’s passion for tequila led to the founding of The Academia Mexicana del Tequila in 2000 which became the Mexican Academy of Tequila Tasters in 2006 – he continues as President to this day. “Our role is to educate those working in or with the tequila industry so that they in turn can pass the messages on to the consumer – we want to make sure they’re educated and are informed with the right knowledge when consuming tequila.” The tenets of the academy are to spread the principled culture of agave tequila and “to closely monitor the activities surrounding our national drink, taking care not to suffer humiliation and degrading situations that overshadow the good image that has been achieved over time” and to “defend the traditions and values of Mexico in the name of tequila”.
A highlight of the year for Don Francisco is what he calls the “Oscars of Tequila”, the blind taste tests, held for the academies’ annual awards. He says “many people call him the ’Guru of Tequila’ and say that I can tell where any tequila is from.”
Francisco is keen to emphasise the different ways that tequila can be drunk. If drinking it neat it should be poured in a Riedel Tequila Glass, a glass which has been scientifically developed to better understand the tequila’s organoleptic properties. “The process should be very calm and focused”. He stresses how important it is to engage all five senses when tasting, to see the colour and body, to nose and recognise each one of the distinct aromas and how they harmonise with each other, and to feel the strength of the alcohol in the mouth, which should not hurt, and finally notice the aftertaste and with it the comfort in the body.
A concern of Don Francisco’s is that tequila is treated with respect as an alcohol. He stresses that tequila can be good for you if you don’t drink too much - each member of the Academy takes the oath “I promise to drink all the good tequila I find on my way, but I will never allow the tequila to drink me.”
If drinking with friends socially, then Francisco likes to drink it with lime and soda or in a cocktail. And of course he loves to drink it in one of the many bars there are to choose from in Tequila, Mexico.
Today Don Francisco lives in Mexico City but still spends a good deal of time on the road travelling within the tequila region, and elsewhere in the world, where he gives talks and presentations.
Being a Don of Tequila, a title he has held since 1999, means a lot to Francisco. “It’s a big but rewarding commitment and I feel proud to do this work honestly and ethically. I’m really passionate about discussing the world of tequila – it deserves to be recognised as one of the world’s finest beverages”.
The title of Don is awarded to someone who is “immersed in tequila and tequila culture”. As a natural communicator, it’s a role Francisco has enjoyed enormously. He says the title enables him to talk with people and share his love of tequila.
“I’ve dedicated my work to spreading the culture of recognising quality tequila”. “I’m extremely proud of the recognition my work has received – I’ve been named Maestro Catador (Master Taster) and Maestro Tequilero (Tequila Master). This is in addition to the other acknowledgements I’ve received from the Consejo Regulador del Tequila – CRT (Tequila regulatory board) and the Camara Nacional de la Industria Tequilera – CNIT (National Chamber of the Tequila Industry).”
Don Francisco has had passion throughout his career - this has been much more than just a job to him, it has been his life. His advice to the next generation is to “work hard, have passion and never ever give up”.