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Austin Chronicle Liquid Sunshine

Park Kerr Makes Tequila the Old-Fashioned Way, by Agonizing Over It

By Wes Marshall

AUGUST 28, 2000:  Twelve-thirty in the afternoon at Stubb's. He is sitting at a corner table with the owner of Stubb's. Shorts, jogging shoes, Hawaiian shirt, and designer glasses. Forty-ish. He hands me a card. Tequila Nacional. W. Park Kerr -- El Jefe (the chief). We exchange greetings. He looks so peaceful sitting there. Only later am I to discover that Mr. Kerr is actually a cross between an NC-17-rated Drew Carey and the Tasmanian Devil. I sit next to him and he leans up close.

"Have you tried my tequila yet?" he asks.

"Sure," I say. "It's wonderful."

He throws himself back in the chair, leans his head to face the sky and raises his hands to his forehead. "Thank God you understand. You can't imagine how fucking hard I've worked on this stuff." He leans up and hits me on the shoulder, as if to underscore his feelings of simpatico. Almost afraid to ask, I finally speak quietly. "Tell me your story," I say.

For 20 years, Park Kerr has run the El Paso Chile Company, leading it to become one of the most successful privately owned food companies in the country. Then he got tired of it. He leans back in his chair, resigned look on his face, and tells me, "There's only so many ways you can combine fucking chipotle peppers and black beans. After a while, I was depressed and wanted something else to do. I decided to let my midlife crisis take control. I decided to make tequila."

Apparently, that's easier said than done. Kerr started off going to Mexico to get approval from the government. No dice. He tried every legal route possible. Finally, a sympathetic secretary helped move things through. Then he had to learn how to make tequila. He apprenticed himself, for free, to a clandestino (bootlegger) to learn how tequila was made in the old days. The two of them would ride around in Park's pickup looking for big, sweet blue agaves in the mountains of Jalisco. He bolts forward again, grabs both my arms, and starts rubbing them up and down. His voice rises. "You can't imagine how a great agave heart feels in your hands. I love it!" Any second, I'm expecting his eyes to roll back in his head in a moment of ecstasy. This guy is passionate about his work. "I just want to make the best goddamn tequila I can," he sighs.

Perhaps a little background info is appropriate. The Mexican government heavily controls tequila production. Tequila must be made from the piñas (the center or heart of the plant that looks a little like a pineapple) of blue agave, a plant which is a relative of the lilly but resembles a cactus. Tequila must be made from at least 51% blue agave. Better tequilas use 100% blue agave, and note it on the bottle. Lesser tequilas bolster the agave with cane sugar. With a couple of exceptions, the agave must come from Jalisco. Kerr prefers to use mountain agaves from the hills outside of the town of Tepatitlan that are six to eight years old. The modern way to make tequila, championed by Jose Cuervo and Sauza, is to cook the agave's heart in a pressure cooker to bring out the sugars. The process takes six hours. Kerr slow roasts his for 48 hours in a brick oven. I ask him if it is like onions, where caramelizing slowly is superior to rushing it and possibly adding some carbon flavor. He leaps from his seat, whacks me brusquely on the shoulder, and cries "That's it!! You get it!!" He falls back in his chair, head shaking. His left forearm rests on his forehead. "Thank God someone gets it." Then, ruminating, quietly, he says, "I can't believe someone finally fucking gets it."

Turns out Kerr's goal is "culinary restoration." He wants to make tequila the old-fashioned way. "You wouldn't believe how many expensive tequilas are just rebottled cheap shitty tequila, stuff that's made in a pressure cooker with no flavor." I ask him to name some names. He leans forward, starts to say something, but then he thinks better of it. "Look, there's some very good tequilas out there. I like Patrón, for instance. But none of them have what my Tequila Nacional has." He gets the dreamy look again. "It's like bottled liquid sunshine. My whole deal is flavor compression. I want you to open a bottle and taste agave." He gets lost in thought for a moment. Then he leans up. He grabs my left leg. Hard. Direct eye contact about eight inches from my face. "Listen, I take care of this stuff. I love it. I baby it. It is the best thing I've ever done in my life." For the next 30 minutes, he regales me with stories of the careful detail he has gone through. Trivialities like the font on the word Nacional. He was searching through some old, 1930s Socialist posters in Mexico and there was that word, exactly as you see it on the label. He just liked the way it looked. And speaking of labels, each one is hand silk-screened. He lets the agave ferment longer to convert as much sugar as possible into the alcohol that will eventually distill to become tequila. Then he distills it twice. Rather than bottle it immediately, he lets it rest for two weeks in very old oak barrels. The oak imparts a sweetness to the tequila. Tequila Nacional only makes 6,000 cases per year. The largest tequila manufacturers make 6,000 cases several times each day.

Park Kerr is an intense man. At points during the interview, I wonder if I'm in the presence of a consummate salesman or a deeply committed believer. Probably a little of both. His stories are all interesting. After an hour and a half of ardent discussion, he seems convinced that I really do "get it." His job done, my job done, I ask him if he'd like to go across the street to Jaime's and have a margarita. He sighs and says, "No. There's a Twin Liquors manager I need to go see. But here, I want you to try this." He hands me a bottle of La Salsa Loca from the El Paso Chile Company. We say our good-byes.

In Jaime's, I order my margarita. The bartender tells me they don't carry Tequila Nacional. I order the margarita with Herradura Blanco. If they served Tequila Nacional, that's how I would have ordered the margarita. Because I really do get "it." See, what literally counts is how it tastes. In the quiet of my home, before I ever met Park Kerr, my wife and I had some of the Tequila Nacional. First, we tried it straight. It was intense, with just the right amount of burn. More important, it had more agave flavor than any tequila I've ever tried. We made up a margarita using our house recipe. Sublime. Tequila Nacional sells for $40 a bottle. A lot of money, but I'm convinced the quality is there. Ultimately, what's in the bottle is all that counts. No amount of enthusiasm or salesmanship can cover a poor product. But this tequila really is good. I may be a dreamer, but I think passion beats commerce every time. So when I drink Tequila Nacional, I'm going to imagine the part of Kerr that is a deeply committed believer rather than the part that is a salesman.

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