Porfidio Tequila - Q&A With Martin Grassl
As one of the most sought after collectible Tequila brands, Porfidio bottles demand some of the highest prices, and many aficionados still claim that the juice from the 90's was the best Tequila to ever hit their lips. As the brand that started my love for Tequila and began my crazed addiction and collection, I've always wanted to share what makes Porfidio so unique, not only for creating outstanding Tequila, but for introducing new technologies and trends to the industry.
Over twenty years later, Martin Grassl, the man behind Porfidio Tequila continues to produce his products. Battle after battle in Mexico and in the US, Martin has retained his unique trademark and is able to continue with the production of Porfidio.
I jumped at the chance to coordinate a time-line and talk one on one with Martin Grassl, hoping to answer many of the questions asked by aficionados and collectors through my web site, TEQUILA.net. Experience the Q&A, the brand history, the accolades, and the product history of Porfidio over the last two decades as provided by Martin Grassl:
Martin, what was your experience in the spirit industry before starting Porfidio?
My aunt owned an apple cider and apple brandy business for many years in Austria, which constituted my source of "vacation" income during school years. My father, a dentist by profession, is also involved in the grape growing business in Austria, which exposed me indirectly at an early stage to the wine industry. After completing a marketing degree from a university in Switzerland and finishing my thesis on the Central European fruit brandy industry, I worked in New York with a spirits trading company which specialized in the Asian export markets.
How did you end up in Mexico, and what compelled you to start a new Tequila brand?
I moved to Mexico not motivated by some high intellectual reasoning, but motivated by my affection towards Mexican girls: Fair enough for a 24 year old boy! As a business choice, the alcohol industry was a natural due to my background, and I quickly detected a window of opportunity after realizing that the Mexican Tequila industry patterns remained unchanged for 40 years. I saw an opportunity to progress by using European production standards in terms of fermentation, distillation and aging technology, and this allowed Porfidio the unique chance to make a difference in the tequila category in an otherwise foreign country.
How difficult was it to kick off a new Tequila company in a foreign country and how did it begin?
I did not have sufficient capital to open my own distillery at age 24. In addition to investment limitations, I was faced by the legal problem in 1991 that foreigners were not allowed to own more than 49% of the shares of a Mexican corporation, in addition to legal restrictions on real estate acquisitions in Mexico for foreign citizens and entities. The obvious solution was to use existing alcohol licenses and real estate properties (distilleries) to produce Porfidio with my own yeast strains, equipment and key production team, mostly from Germany. The implicit risk in this modus operandi - same problem faced by Nike shoes or Apple products and countless other firms in third world countries - consists in the involuntary dissemination of production knowledge. In order to avoid the outright copying of production formulas, certain production processes have always been strategically subdivided between various entities. The NOM numbers shown on the bottles correspond not to the actual, de-facto producer - a common consumer misconception - but to the licensed distillery exporter, that is the de-jure "producer". Exporting from Mexico is a specialized and complicated task.
What was your source for Agave? Highland or Lowland plants?
Blue Agave has always been sourced from an array of fields depending on chemical and analytical characteristics, not philosophical consistency in terroir. To meet these desired objectives, only Agave plants with a lower fiber content, which translates into a lower methanol content, have been used which customarily translates into Lowland Agaves, but not always, depending on the harvest year. Analytical sugar content, level of maturity and absence of bitter components are the key elements in selecting Agave plants, not region. My approach towards spirits production defined as "new world school" rather than "old French school": Stated otherwise, objective analytical quality takes precedent for me over subjective terroir based on theoretical and philosophical criteria. In internal contraction to the previous, I always insist on sourcing the highest quality blue Agave within the State of Jalisco, rather than other authorized Blue Agave growing regions outside Jalisco.
How did you differentiate Porfidio from other brands, and how did you establish success so quickly?
Aging is key and one of the most difficult components of the production process. Selecting the perfect wood type from a myriad of options and determining the perfect wood finish in relation to a certain distillate is an empirical exercise, not plainly analytical. Over the years, Porfidio has consistently fine-tuned its aging process through many years of company internal and external research. Porfidio has always differentiated itself from other producers by selecting barrels based on "best quality" expectations, regardless of cost.
In general, product consistency is a function of using the same formula in terms of Blue Agave selection, fermentation process, distillation process and aging techniques consistently throughout the years, and in some instances we would incorporate improvements based on new analytical and empirical research.
Was the Puerto Vallarta distillery an actual production site or was it mainly just for show?
The Puerto Vallarta facility was designed to serve as a research & development center, secondly as a visitor center, not an actual large-scale commercial distillery. Despite all of this, small experimental lots of products were produced in Vallarta, such as "Meritage de Paloma Porfidio". The production formulas developed and fine-tuned in Puerto Vallarta were subsequently replicated in larger scale production lots in commercial distilleries.
2012: Where is your distillery now and where are new Porfidio products found?
All production facilities are located in Jalisco. Porfidio is sold in 67 countries and is the leading premium 100% Blue Agave brand in various export markets. Porfidio Tequilas are available in Mexico, and Porfidio Agave Spirits are exported throughout the world. For further geographical details were Porfidio can be purchased online in Europe, Asia, the US, Australia and India please see Porfidio.ch.
Porfidio Tequila Company / Brand History (provided by Martin Grassl):
Company was established by 24 year old Austrian Martin Grassl in Guadalajara, Mexico, with a clear focus on creating a sophisticated luxury spirit made from 100% Blue Agave for export markets, as opposed to low-quality, blended tequilas (prevalent in 1991): Porfidio initially marketed between 1991 and 1994 as an agave spirit and not tequila in Europe
First in the world to develop the glass technology of putting a solid glass object inside a glass bottle (as opposed to hollow Pyrex glass objects)
First in the world to develop the glass technology of putting a colored glass object inside a glass bottle (as opposed to transparent glass objects)
First in Mexico to apply the "Single-Barrel" production method to tequila, now widely imitated: Porfidio Añejo Single-Barrel
First in Mexico to apply the concept of "letters only" labeling to tequila bottles, now widely imitated
First outside Europe to use the generic "Futura" glass bottle shape - today's Grey Goose and Belvedere bottle - for the bottling of a spirit in North America: Porfidio Anejo (old version)
First in Mexico to apply the concept of "Triple-Distillation" to tequila and first to commercially use this term for a tequila label, now widely imitated: Porfidio Plata Triple-Distilled
First in the world to apply the design concept of bi-color-coated glass to spirits bottles: Porfidio "Bicolor" Plata
First in Mexico to apply modern quality aging techniques to the tequila industry through the use of specific types of virgin barrels (as opposed to used whiskey barrels)
First in the world to label tequila aged beyond three years as "Añejo Extra" and obtaining an ATF label approval for such label: Porfidio "Blue" Añejo Extra (Term later copied in Mexican legislation)
First in the tequila industry to build a one-brand based wholesale structure outside the traditional wholesale network in Mexico
First in the tequila industry to target the $500.00 retail price category: Porfidio Barrique
First in Mexico to introduce modern alembic distillation from Europe and to apply this technology to tequila production
First in Mexico to produce tequila from hydraulically pressed, undiluted agave juice (as opposed to traditional water injection sugar cane pressing technology)
First in Mexico to apply fully temperature controlled fermentation technology and advanced European low temperature yeast cultures to tequila production
First in Mexico to launch a highly successful cruise-ship-tourism-oriented distillery entertainment park in Mexico (Puerto Vallarta), now widely imitated as part of the UNESCO Tequila tourism Initiative: the Destileria Ponciano Porfidio e Hijos brand
Company is involuntarily engaged – three months after the first democratic elections in Mexico -in a prolonged six year "political and legal pissing match" with the Ministry of Economics (PROFECO, IMPI, DGN) over the political control and direction of the tequila mark: Company successfully defends itself and wins all lawsuits and ultimately retains the right to the use of the tequila mark, but fails to be reimbursed for the legal expenses due to the nature of the Mexican legal system.
The intent to kidnap one of Grassl's children is successfully aborted. Grassl temporarily obtains the protection of the Mexican military.
Company moves its administrative offices from Mexico to Panama
Company expands into sugar cane juice based rums (Porfidio Single-Cane Rum)
First in the world to use "Caribbean blue" glass (not coated) for a spirits bottle, later copied by Sauza TG
Plata: Porfidio Single-Cane Plata Rum
Porfidio Tequila receives Kosher certification at Puerta Vallarta distillery.
U.S. importer attempts to coerce the company to sell out, and company is consequently forced to temporarily refocus its strategic sales efforts away from the United States to 67 countries worldwide.
This in turns leads to a higher international brand awareness and sales volume for the Porfidio brand, but creates a vacuum in the U.S. market.
The CRT, under the direction of Javier Arroyo, procures to establish a platform for a negative advertising campaign against Porfidio in order to bully the company. Operationally implemented by the Milenio Newspaper Group, the campaign ends with the resignation of Javier Arroyo.
The platform causes Grassl to be arrested in Panama as "a precautionary measure" and put in prison for "alleged" crimes of document forgery against the CRT upon intense political pressure from Mexico's Secretary of State, Ernesto Derbez, on the Panamanian presidency as part of the Puebla-Panama Economic Plan. Grassl is released after two weeks upon political counter-pressure on the Panamanian government by the Secretary of State of the Austria and European Union officials and declared innocent of all alleged crimes.
Company is attacked in the U.S. by a major U.S. equity fund to coerce it to sell its trademark rights. Company successfully defends itself.
Company is attacked by Mexico's largest agave grower through systematically designed infringements of Porfidio's trademark rights in Mexico and the United States in conjunction with Bevmo of California. Company successfully defends itself and by so doing retains its trademark rights.
Company's tourist facility and Grassl's private residence in Puerto Vallarta is stormed and occupied by force by 400 members of one of Mexico's peasant farmer's association. The physical possessions are ultimately transmitted to Abraham Gonzalez Uyeda, Mexico's Undersecretary of the Interior. Company is forced to engage in a prolonged legal battle and temporarily obliged to exit the cruise ship tourism business.
Martin Grassl wins the lawsuit against the Government in Federal Administrative Court regarding Porfidio's NOM number, which fully reinstated his legal rights to use the Porfidio NOM number and the Tequila marque. Porfidio Tequila only uses the NOM for sales in Mexico, not export.
First in the world to apply color changing amethyst glass to a spirits bottle: Porfidio Single-Agave Plata Super-Jalisco Vintage 2007
First in Mexico to introduce Hollstein distillation technology to Mexico with a patented catalyst system
In conjunction with a German university, company fundamentally revolutionizes the agave spirits industry through a patented process of hydrolyzing agave without heat application in order to substantially reduce the methanol content of agave spirits (as opposed to traditional heat hydrolysis through steam cooking)
Company relocates its head administrative offices to Hong Kong with the intent of making a serious commitment to the Chinese market.
Company assumes control of a Japanese glass manufacturing plant. As a result, the glass quality of the cactus bottle is elevated to new heights, and a new edition of the Porfidio cactus bottle is released in selected markets: Porfidio Single Barrel Añejo Extra.
Throughout the company's history, Destileria Porfidio has been a primary leader of innovation in both tequila production technology and packaging standards in the tequila industry. Porfidio is proud to have transferred innumerable technological innovations from technologically advanced countries to Mexico and by so doing contributing to the advancement of the Mexican alcohol and glass industry.
As a result of being subjectively perceived as a potential threat to the existing status quo of the traditional tequila industry and a personal offense to national Mexican pride by reason of Grassl's race and origin, the company has been actively politically persecuted in Mexico throughout its history.
Over the years, Porfidio has become, against its intention, a political symbol in the wider context of third world versus first world politics, hated by certain Hispanics for the wrong reason and likewise adored by certain Caucasians for exactly the same wrong reasons.
If the old adage holds true that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" and the intent of stealing an expression of admiration of somebody else's property, Porfidio, The Cactus Bottle, and the 'Ponciano Porfidio e Hijos' tourism brand are three noteworthy examples.
Porfidio has staunchly defended its independence over the years and stands today as one of the very few remaining independent companies in the Tequila industry.
Porfidio Tequila Awards / Accolades:
Awarded in Hong Kong with the "Best Bottle Award" by W&S Asia Pacific Design Awards, ahead of all Cognac and Whisky brands
Awarded in Hong Kong with the "Innovation Award" by W&S Asia Pacific Design Awards, ahead of all Cognac and Whisky brands
Grassl commended internationally by Reuters News Service as "the Austrian whiz kid that pushed Tequila up market"
Grassl commended in the United States by the Washington Post as the "initiator of the booming popularity of tequila in the United States"
Porfidio awarded in the United States with the "Best Overall Packaging Award" by Beverage & Food Dynamics: Porfidio Añejo Single-Barrel
Awarded in the United States with "98 Points" by the Wine Enthusiast, that is, the highest qualification to any tequila brand
Grassl commended in Mexico by Contenido as "one of the three most successful tequila producers in history"
Grassl commended in the United States by the Wall Street Journal (front page) as the "culprit behind the premium tequila trend in the U.S."
Awarded as the Winner in the United Kingdom of the DI Cocktail Challenge for the entire white spirits category
Awarded as the Winner in the United Kingdom of the DI Cocktail Challenge in the tequila category
Awarded in Russia as the winner of the Vinnaya Award in the tequila category (best tequila)
Awarded with the "Sehr Gut" distinction in the tequila category by ISW Germany
Porfidio Product History:
(1) Porfidio Añejo, 100% Agave Original Version, 44% Alc. 500 ml
Category Labeling: 100% Agave Spirits (Agavenbrand), not Tequila
Note: Añejo available in two versions: Cactus Bottle and "Cactus bottle without Cactus", not yet Single Barrel aged
(2) Porfidio Silver, 100% Agave Original Version 40% Alc. 500 ml
Category Labeling: Tequila
Note: Not yet triple distilled, ceramic bottle
Porfidio Añejo, 100% Agave "Aged 2 Years" 500 ml
Category: Discretely labeled as tequila in small letters, still advertised as "Eau de Vie D'Agave" (100% Agave Spirits)
Note: This bottle substituted the "Cactus without Cactus bottle" from the year 1991
Porfidio Añejo 100% Blue Agave "Aged 2 years" 750 ml 40% Alc.
Note: USA only, not single barrel aged, first futura bottle in the North American market, first dead-leaf green color spirits bottle sold in US
Porfidio Silver 100% Blue Agave 40% Alc 750 ml (USA only)
Note: This bottle substituted the Porfidio Silver ceramic bottle (see 1991) in the US market, internationally sales continued in the 1991 ceramic bottle, not yet triple distilled
(1) Porfido Single Barrel Añejo 100% Blue Agave 750 ml 40% Alc
Note: First single barrel aged Añejo in history, sold with hand woven palm leave tree gift baskets
(2) Porfidio Añejo Extra (guaje) 100% Blue Agave 750 ml 40% Alc (Aged 3 years)
Note: First Añejo Extra in history, US only, sold only for one year due to lawsuit by Tequila El Tesoro's importer in the United States for using the term "Añejo Extra" for a three year old tequila in a "non-existing" legal tequila category; and in a twist of irony the term and definition was thereafter copied and adopted by Mexican legislation, ceramic guaje bottle
Porfidio Triple Distilled Plata 100% Blue Agave 40% Alc
Note: First triple distilled tequila sold in the United States, first bi-color coated spirits glass bottle sold in the world, Winner Drinks International's Innovation Award in Hong Kong in 1995, first tequila to use the term "Plata" for a white tequila (rather than silver or blanco)
Porfidio Veracruz Añejo 100% Blue Agave 750 ml (Mexico only)
Note: Aged 2 years, limited edition ceramic bottle, only 500 bottles made
Porfidio Reposado 100% Blue Agave 750 ml (Export only)
Note: Exclusive edition for Czech Republic, only 500 bottles made
Porfidio Barrique 1 L 40% Alc. 100% Blue Agave
Category: 1998 to 2000: 100% Blue Agave Spirits (Agave Eau de Vie); 2001: Tequila
Note: First tequila aged in unusual wood varieties, first tequila pyrex glass bottle in the world, first tequila to sell in the $500+ retail price category, limited to 3,000 bottles
Porfidio Reposado 100% Blue Agave 1L
Note: Only 1,000 bottles sold in the US, limited edition of 200,000 bottles only, special edition for Mexican domestic market
Meritage de Paloma Porfidio
Category: Mixto Tequila, 51% Blue Agave, 49% Gravensteiner Apples
Note: Decanter bottle with glass cactus closure which encloses small pieces of gold, only mixto tequila made with apple spirits, limited to 1,000 bottles, issued for Martin's anniversary with his wife Paloma, first tequila in the $2,000 retail price category
Cactus (without cactus) bottle Silver 750 ml 40% Alc
Category: 100% Agave Tequila
Note: Targeted explicitly towards the price sensitive casino market in Las Vegas
Porfidio 100% Agave Spirit, Super Jalisco, Beyond Tequila, 750 ml 40% Alc
Category: 100% Agave Spirit, Destilado de Agave
Note: Porfidio re-brands itself as a "higher quality" Super Jalisco Agave spirit, bottled in hand blown glass bottles with cactus ornament, made exclusively from Blue Agave within Jalisco, Plata integrates new glass technology - color changing amethyst glass in 2005, still available in US market as of 2012
Porfidio 12 Year Anniversary Single Barrel Añejo 1L 40% Alc
Category: 100% Agave Tequila
Note: Special edition, available only in South and Central America airport duty free stores, same pyrex glass bottle as Barrique
Porfidio Single Barrel Añejo Miniatures 50 ml 38% Alc
Category: 100% Agave Spirit
Note: Miniature version of the classic Porfidio cactus bottle, winner Vinaya 2004 Russia, winner ISW 2008 Germany
Porfidio Barrique Miniatures 100 ml
Category: 100% Agave Spirit
Note: 200 bottles of Barrique 100ml were produced in 2004 for online store Suave-Agave.com
Porfidio Añejo square bottle, 750 ml 40% Alc
Category: 100% Agave Tequila
Note: Mexico only edition, limited scale
Porfidio Blanco square bottle, 750 ml 40%
Category: 100% Agave Tequila
Note: This bottle substituted the "Cactus without Cactus bottle" from the year 1991
Porfidio Añejo Extra Single-Agave Super-Jalisco 750 ml 39.3%
Category: First Growth Super-Jalisco (1005 Blue agave spirits from Jalisco)
Note: First scientifically advanced "tequila", produced with new German spirits production technology which lowers the methanol content to below 100 mg (from an average of 300 to 500 mg for a standard 100% agave tequila), updated bottle design of the classic Porfidio cactus bottle