Antonio López and his father, Silverio, think about tequila all day long.
As they change tires, fix flats and tend to customers in their busy tire shop in southwest Detroit, their minds are thousands of miles away, on the sweet juice of the agave plants they own and the tequila company they started nearly a decade ago.
Silverio obsesses over the quality of Tequila Cabresto, while Antonio is consumed by how to market the spirit and expand its distribution beyond Michigan.
“Tequila is cooked slowly. Like food, it should be made carefully and with a love of the craft,” Silverio said.
His obsession has paid off. Tequila Cabresto has won some of the most prestigious international spirits awards, beating out globally recognized names such as Don Julio, Tres Generaciones and Herradura.
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“I was intimidated by the big names and the big budgets by some of these tequilas, but I knew we had a good product,” Antonio told Fox News Latino.
While the López family is relatively new to making tequila, it has been growing agave (the plant that makes tequila) for four generations in Jalisco, Mexico.
“My grandfather, my father and my uncles all sold agave,” Silverio said. “My earliest memories are of running around an agave field, the leaves towering over me.”
In the early 2000s, the U.S. experienced a boom in high-end tequilas, so while his sons ran the tire shop, Silverio went back to Jalisco to try to increase the amount of agave they grow.
He bought the property next to his ancestral land and began doubling and then tripling the size of his harvest.
“The market for agave was huge around 2001 and 2002, and I thought I could make a lot of money,” Silverio said with a smile.
Many growers had the same idea, and there was a glut in the market – a turn Silverio didn’t foresee. Distillers began paying pennies on the dollar for agave and he was left with a bumper crop that wasn’t worth much.
Instead of selling his harvest for cheap, he decided to make his own tequila.
He spent months going to every top tequila maker in the Los Altos region of Jalisco, tasting every brand out there.
“They were good, but not excellent,” he said, and he wanted excellent, so he sought out the best distiller in the state, an artisan named Cristobal Morales, who was personally taught by the famed Don Julio of Don Julio tequila.
He talked Morales into working with him, and in 2006, they introduced Tequila Cabresto.
But selling the tequila proved harder than making it.
The appetite for craft spirits hadn’t yet exploded in the U.S., and Detroit was still largely a beer town. The Lopezes were selling a case a month and struggling. Antonio began attending events all over the city and going out several nights a week to promote Tequila Cabresto.
“It was better than working at a tire shop,” he said. “I made [tequila] my dream, too. It was connected to my dad and how hard he had worked at so many jobs through the years to make it.”
Today tequila is big business. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), the U.S. more than doubled sales over the past decade — from $962 million in 2003 to more than $2 billion in 2015, representing about 52 percent of the global tequila sales market.
Part of that growth was brought on by brands such as Patrón, which “introduced distilled spirit drinkers to the idea of connoisseurship, a concept once relegated only to wines,” said Mark Spivak, whose book “Iconic Spirits” chronicles the coming of age of premium tequila.
Gone are the days of Antonio López selling a case a month: Tequila Cabresto is now sold in 280 locations throughout Michigan and growing.
A hip Detroit gastro-pub called St. Cece’s has been carrying the Lopez brand for about six months. Owner Celeste Belanger, a service industry veteran with more than 30 years of experience working in bars and restaurants, says that Antonio’s sales pitch charmed her, but it was the quality of the tequila that made the sale.
“Antonio came in one day with his daughter and introduced me to Cabresto,” Belanger told FNL. “I loved it.”
Belanger says she is pleased that she can support a local, family-owned business, but at the most basic level she has a golden rule, “I wouldn’t sell anything I wouldn’t drink.”
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Martina Guzmán is an awarding-winning journalist covering marginalized communities through the lens of race and poverty and culture. She is a graduate of the School of Journalism at Columbia University.
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