Monday, December 15, 2014

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: My Mi Casa Tequila Story

I.  Requiem

When I was a little boy I heard a story about my grandparents.  Their love was forbidden, so he stole her in the middle of the night.  I picture in my mind a handsome teen on horseback, tanned by the hot highland sun with his young love clinging to his waist as horse hooves drummed a foreshadowing requiem.

Their names were Ezequiel and Magdalena Rodriguez.

If there's one thing I regret it's that I didn't give them the time of day when they were still alive.  I spent my teenage years in methamphetamine daze and the darkness I harbored caused me to turn my back on my family and those who loved me.  I don’t regret much but typing this as a 32 year old father, it hurts to understand how much they must of loved me and how easily I ignored it.

II.  Change

My grandfather visited his doctor several times about his pain but was brushed off by his doctors.  “You're just getting old,” they told him.

By the time someone actually paid attention, the cancer was too far advanced for any treatment options.  Pancreatic Cancer. His last wish was to die in Mexico.  He begged his sons to take him home but there was just no time to make arrangements.  He died in bed surrounded by his children. Despite all his pain, when death finally took him, a smile reached his lips.  It was as if in his last moment he was let in on a joke.

I was 18 when I flew with my father to Mexico for the first time.  I remember watching the scenery roll by through the passenger window.  Floral reefs scattered along the highways from Guadalajara to Michoacán marked death site of men, women and children killed by cars along the road.  My dad had purchased a considerable amount of Blue Agave to plant on my grandfather’s land.  We could not bring him home to die but we would honor his legacy by making his lands serve the children of his children and their children.

My father taught me how to drive a tractor with a claw and I spent my days pulling big rocks from the ground while my parents cleared trees.  We flew back every 6 weeks. My uncles and aunts got involved and together we started developing our land, making roadways and planting our first lot of agave.  It was a huge undertaking.  My widowed grandmother, my abuelita as we called her, decided to move back to Mexico to over see it.

My father Ezequiel Duarte Rodriguez

My sister Cristina

My dad and my cousin Jackie who was born to Rosa Rodriguez while looking out for our interests in Michoacan.

My mother getting her feet wet.

III.  Darkness

I was living in San Francisco near SF State when I got the call from my mother.  "Your grandma's sick, we have to go to Mexico.  We have a flight at midnight.  If you can come home and give us a ride."

When I got home and felt the sorrow in the air I already knew. 

“Is she dead?” I asked hoping that the tears in my mom’s eyes were from mere concern.  My mother gave me a hug and held me.  The tears didn’t immediately flow but then I thought of my father felt sick to my stomach.

The prospect of identifying the body of your mother, the woman who held you and raised you makes me shutter.  The evidence showed clear signs of foul play.  I’ve never asked my father about the details but after years of paying investigators and lawyers we finally had to let go.  No one was ever arrested or prosecuted.

The years that followed were hard and unkind and death became an all too familiar neighbor.

My house was quiet.  The fight had gone out of my father and the hope had gone out of my mother.  Recovery had made me strong in character and I became a pillar for my family to lean against and vent.  In our darkest hour we were on our knees together and together we helped each other rise.

IV.  Light

Life got better.

In 2006 I spent a year abroad in Italy studying sculpture.  I was an artist and had spent the previous summer working on large scale Burning Man projects for my dad’s employer.  I was able to pay off my debt and go to Italy without much holding me back.  I was one of two Americans admitted into the sculpture program at the Accademia founded by the Michelangelo.  At the end of the year my parents came to visit me and we spent 10 days visiting all my favorite places like Rome, Venice, Ercolano, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast.

My dad had informed me that the agaves would be ready to harvest in a few years and that we had work to do. Not only did we have to produce a product, we had to build the infrastructure that allowed us to showcase ourselves.  This included things like, learning copyright laws, the ins and outs of liquor importation, establishing a bonded warehouse, obtaining a wholesale license, getting the brand approved by Mexico and the TTB, getting our fields CRT certified and finding a distilling partner who was willing to work with someone on a small scale.

Distillation Manager Marc Antonio holding 3 medals honored to Mi Casa Tequila.

My uncles Eddie and Bro went out on a mission, visiting distillery after distillery getting a feel for the process and the people behind the process.  We ultimately decided to roll with Marc Antonio at Casa Tequilera de Arandas (NOM 1499) because they answered the phone when we called and were able to piggy back our small bottle orders onto his orders with bigger clients. 

My sister and I hit the books and learned everything we could about building an import business.  We called it 1933 Spirits LLC to commemorate the end of prohibition and so that we could dress all fancy at prohibition themed tequila parties.

Out of a list of about a dozen brand names we had come up with my dad flew to Mexico to register our top 3.  After registration they told him he could register one more at no cost, so off the top of his head he say's "Mi Casa!"  They expedited a search and surprisingly enough, out of the thousands of registered names in Mexico and the United States, 'Mi Casa Tequila' was free and available.

My original artwork for Mi Casa
We took it as a sign and rolled with it, the first version of the Mi Casa label looks nothing like the final one.  I had never made a label before and my father wasn't the best at delivering precise feedback.  I'd work 18 hours on something and all he'd say was "You're getting closer."  It was maddening.  But over the course of two months a label started to evolve.

Photo Cred: Salvador Ceja

We had put our tequila to rest in 2008 and in late April of 2011 a large container of Mi Casa Tequila landed on the Port of San Francisco.  I woke up one Sunday feeling over come with gratitude.  I got on my knees and remembered eleven years before when I was a junkie with no more hope.  I remembered how my grandfather used to give me a dollar every time I went to visit and I remember my grandmother teaching me how to count in Spanish.  I remembered my cousin Junior who died from two prescriptions that should never have been given at the same time.  He left behind a daughter he was 23 and he loved my dad and believed in Mi Casa.  I remembered when my dad fell off the ladder just a year before our launch and how I prayed for him in the ICU every night.  I rember the guttural cry my mom let out as he turned blue.  “Ohhh Amor!!” she screamed in Spanish.  “Mi Amor!" On that day, on my knees I remembered these things and I thanked God for my father’s health and how we all overcame those hard years stronger and more of a family than we ever were before.

My Father enjoying the fruits of his labor surrounded by family.

V.  The Tequila

We currently have three tequilas in our portfolio with an extra añejo in the works for next summer.  Mi Casa Tequila is the ONLY tequila in the United States whose agaves are entirely sourced from Michoacan.  After being so intimately involved with growing agave it is hard not to romanticize the nature of distillation. 

A flowering Maguey on our ranch.

Imagine a living vessel that feels nothing but the earth and the heat of the sun.  This blind life feeds off the light and grows towards it. Years go by and the earth and sun have made the agave strong.  The agave gathers nutrients and grows big and at the end of its life it throws a stalk up to the sky with its seed as if offering its offspring to the sun.

It is this mother who is filled with the understanding of reception that is harvested from the Earth.  It is the spirit of the agave mother that is captured in the bottle.
Our fields in the Michoacan Highlands

Mi Casa Blanco, is the spirit of the mother agave twice distilled and left to oxygenate for 48 hours before being put in the bottle like a genie.  She is love, she is the earth and she harbors the light.  When you invite her spirit inside you, the warmth you feel is that of the warm Mexican sun and she tastes like the deep red soil of Michoacan.

Mi Casa Reposado is the spirit of the agave mother rested ten months in used charred bourbon casks made of white oak.  In this cask she speaks to the spirit of the tree.  They tell stories to one another about the Earth and the Sun and bond like lovers.  When she is bottled she has the character of oak infused into her being and when you invite her spirit within you, the warmth of the sun is met with the story of the tree and you feel grounded and pleasant.

Mi Casa Añejo is the wise one and is aged 30 months with the spirit of the tree.  She has been so long with the spirit of the tree that they are one.  When you invite the aged spirit into your being, you feel the oneness and the wisdom of the earth sits lightly in your heart, patient and warm.  

Our ranch, El Potrero Colorado

VI.  The Hustle

Manuel Castillo reinventing the Margarita. 2oz Mi Casa, 1 oz St. Germain and 3/4oz lime juice

In the Summer of 2010, before Mi Casa imported I did three 2 hour bartending shifts at a Burning Man camp and loved talking to all the strangers.  When I got back my sister and I took bartending classes for fun and I got an evening gig bartending at neighborhood Irish Pub in the Peninsula. Around that time guy who ran our bartending classes would take my sister and I out to meet bartenders around the city and referred me for a job bar backing for a talented bartending super hero named Kevin Diedrich.  I worked there until Mi Casa landed in the States and then for 3 years all I did was Mi Casa.  I wore every hat that needed to be worn and did whatever had to be done.
NYISC Winner Circle Event in Brooklyn.  That's my sister Cristina

My sister and I spent the first year on the road, showcasing Mi Casa and it was on the road that I met my mentors.  Gina Castillo who was the West Coast Ambassador for Don Julio took me under her wing and taught me so much about the way the industry worked.  Eric Giardina aka Meatball taught me about the greater world of agave varietals and today organizes trips to Oaxaca where they visit Mezcal producers and have lots of adventures.  And last but not least my brother from another mother, Ricky Paiva.  I met Ricky while sharing Mi Casa with him and Russel Davis who were working the bar at Rickhouse.  Ricky and I bonded on some 12 year old Playstation shit and a few months later he was my roommate.  Ricky became my official Ambassador and he brought the level of Mi Casa cocktails to a whole ‘notha level.  He is now the Bar Manager for the Four Seasons in Singapore.
Cinco De Mayo at Alamo Square with Ricky and Pappa Smurf

Mi Casa lay backs

My sister and I on the Front Page

Launching a brand has been fun but stressful at times.  With very little money we depend strongly on personal interactions.  In 2013 my sister and I graced the front page of the San Francisco Business Times and we had NO ONE actively selling Mi Casa on San Francisco streets!  I had just had my son and was helping care for him in Santa Rosa.  Luckily though 2014 has been very good for us.  Wine Warehouse was into the brand and once they took it into consideration many other distributors opened their minds to us.  We are now distributed in California by Bock Wine and Spirits, a smaller distributor but owned by a farmer who picks up the phone when it rings.  Sometimes it’s the little things ya know?

One of our coolest ads.  I made the little guy out of clay and it's all my own photography.

VII.  Thank You

I appreciate you taking the time to read this post.  It actually took quite a while to write and I cut it down by half.  It’s hard to convey something so personal without getting too personal.  This is not something I would have ever published on the Mi Casa blog simply for that reason.  It brings up a lot of old pain and for the most part we’re very private people.  With that said I write this as a contributor to the Healthy Spirits Blog and as your trusted Agave Spirits Buyer.

The story of our family is that of perseverance and faith when there is nothing left to hold to.  I sincerely believe that all the pain and suffering took place so that we would become stronger and love harder and truly appreciate the little things.

I don’t know what tomorrow brings but I promise once our brand starts bringing in the fans and money, I will use all my network, power and resources to give back to those who are givers and to add value to this world.

My personal dream is to start a school for children that teach honor, respect, agriculture, dance and unity.  I believe that the life path of many lies in the transition from selfishness to selflessness and I believe wholeheartedly that I can nurture and teach this.  As a father who loves, it is hard to not see the potential in all men and as a leader it is hard to not want to expose it. This is the intention behind our efforts and I hope it’s one you believe in.

My son Sebastian Eli helping dad sort some stuff out.

Arthur 'Eli' Rodriguez

Mi Casa Tequila Blanco: $44.99
Mi Casa Tequila Reposado: $49.99
Mi Casa Tequila Añejo: $54.99


No comments:

Post a Comment