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People in Tequila: Kelly Cash of TequilaNeat.com

Additional Info

ML: Right off the bat, what attracted you to Tequila and when?
KC: It was about 2007 when I realized I knew of good wines, good scotches, and so on, and it seemed strange that all the tequilas I’d had weren’t very good.

I wondered if there were high-end tequilas as there were with other spirits. Then on my birthday, I got a Corazon Blanco, a Don Julio Reposado, and a Casa Noble Extra Anejo. I thought “Wow, these are a LOT better than what I’d tried!” So I started looking for tequila bars and started tasting everything I could. I’d talk to bartenders when they had time (usually mid-afternoon on weekends, when the traffic was low) and learn all I could.

ML: That pretty much sounds like my Tequila journey, the bars, the search and some helpful bartenders, it's nice that ML has built up it's reputation over the years and now some companies are shipping bottles directly to us. :) I believe the last time we met up your Tequila and Mezcal database was just over 800 entries. Where are you now? Please tell us your process?
KC: It’s over 1100 now, but it’s not growing as fast as it has in the past. I’ve been more focused on my TequilaNeat Talks, and I’m not traveling as much (which allowed me to scope out tequila bars and products I haven’t tried). The process isn’t really complex- I taste a product, make notes about it, including my impressions of it, and put the data in my spreadsheet ranking it in order of my preference. In order to figure that rank, I’ll often compare it side by side with other products already ranked. I’ll occasionally go back and re-taste things to either confirm or refine the rankings.

ML: Nice, 1100 that's very impressive. Speaking of your job, what do you do, and has it had any effect on how you look at Tequila?
KC: That’s an interesting question, one I hadn’t thought about before now. I’m a computer engineer by trade. Part of what goes along with that is that I’m curious by nature, and fairly detail-oriented. I guess that’s why I put so much into that spreadsheet of mine. (he laughs) When I tell friends that I’ve worked on this big tequila spreadsheet, they say “Yeah, that sounds like something you’d do, Kelly!”

ML: Tequila is an insane industry these days, how do you think that affects quality and especially with the brands with endless amounts of marketing dollars making it hard for the novice Tequila drinkers to find the smaller gems?
KC: There are a lot of answers to that! You’re right, the industry seems to be exploding, and not always in a good way. There are loads of new brands coming out. Some are really good, and they’ve taken their time to do it right. But others are just trying to jump on the bandwagon now that tequila is becoming trendy. I find that a lot of these are overly sweet, under-complex and lack the soul of a really good product. I know of one particular brand who’s engineered their production process to make such a tequila. They don’t make the best they can, but what they think they can sell the most of to the U.S. market. At the end of the day, I get that they’re a business, and want to maximize profits. But it still bothers me. Take the big brands- you know who they are: The ones with billboards, TV commercials, and so on. They are all about marketing and volume. Most, if not all of them, were much smaller at one point, and actually made really good products. But as the demand went up, the volume also had to rapidly increase in order to meet that demand. When that happens, it’s common for the artisanal production processes to be replaced by bigger mass-production processes. This in turn typically lowers the quality. So the good, smaller ones (whether new or not) are still there, but with their limited marketing budgets it’s hard for them to be noticed amidst the noise made by the big companies. Still, I know many smaller companies who are passionate about their products, dedicated to surviving and thriving, and they’re doing well. All one needs to do is look, and there are a variety of sources for that- My site is but one of many. My site even links to many other good sites.

ML: What direction in 2015 do you see the Tequila industry going?
KC: I’m far from qualified to predict industry trends, but it seems that most things move from small production, to big production, then back to artisanal quality again. Look at wine- When California was first recognized as a wine producer, it was Gallo making trainloads of the stuff. Then the Napa revolution happened, and now we’re seeing lots of high quality wines, from all over the country. Beer is the same way-For years it was only Anheuser Busch, Coors, and Miller. Big macro-brews. Then Samuel Adams started, and lots of smaller, craft brews got going (as well as all the imports). So with tequila, we’re seeing lots of really good products from smaller brands, even if they’re only a contract product in a larger distillery. Patron has even released a new line, one that they claim is back to their roots; a more quality artisanal. I’d say the big brands have seen the writing on the wall, and in order to remain relevant they realize they need to address the market differently.

ML: You mention “contract products in a bigger distillery.” Please explain that to some of our readers who may not be familiar with that term:
KC: Not everyone who wants to make a tequila can afford the startup costs to build their own distillery. The costs of the building, all the equipment, and a ready source of agave are high. And even if one does start their own distillery, they’ll have to buy agave on the open market for seven to twelve years before they can harvest their own plants. So what do entrepreneurs do? They contract with a distillery, which will make the product for them. They tell the distillery how they want the products made, sometimes providing some of their own people to oversee production. Look at the four digit number called NOM on each bottle of tequila. That number denotes in which distillery that product is made. I keep track of these numbers in my spreadsheet. It’s interesting to see how many tequilas come from the same distillery. There’s nothing wrong with this process- Think of it as outsourcing production, much as many other industries do today.

ML: Outsourcing, as in sending production to Asia? (laughs) I realize that is not possible with Tequila but you get the gist of the question.
KC: (laughs) No, not off-shoring. All the production must remain in Mexico; in one of five specific states to be exact. It can’t be called “tequila” if it’s not made in the approved Tequila region. This is much like champagne- If it’s not made in the Champagne region of France, it’s got to be called “sparkling wine.” But consider other kinds of outsourcing- Cars, book printing, many kinds of manufacturing. It doesn’t have to go off-shore to have subcontractors. NASA subcontracts to private companies in the U.S., so do many other public and private organizations.

ML: As with any spirit there are great ones and not-so-good ones, what advise would you give to someone in choosing a Tequila?:
KC: How does a person choose? It’s a challenge, to be sure. There are many web sites out there which will help guide one as to what’s good and what’s not. But at the end of the day, what YOUR tastebuds tell you is really the only way to decide. But it’s not always practical to taste everything out there as I have tried to do. And that also gets really expensive and time-consuming, though I can’t say it hasn’t been fun! You can look at my spreadsheet and see my notes on most of the products you’ll find. But remember, they’re ranked the way I like. Use it as a starting point, not as gospel. Your taste will undoubtedly vary. As I often say, “If there was one kind of tastebud, there’d be one kind of tequila.” (Did I just quote myself?)

 

ML: What about price? Are you a believer that expensive indicates a better Tequila?:
KC: It’d be nice if the price were a good indication of quality. But it’s not. It’s amazing how many really good tequilas there are which cost very little, and how many mediocre (or worse) tequilas there are which are quite expensive. I hate to keep going back to “the spreadsheet,” but I also keep track of prices in it when I can. I then sort the data based upon price, and then my ranking. This shows me a tequila’s relative value. If you’re looking for a tequila in a given price range, say, from $50-$60, look for the lowest ranking numbered product in that price range. That would be the best value (again, by my way of thinking).

ML: Speaking of tastes, what is it you look for in a Tequila?
KC: I like complexity. Many have often heard me rail against tequilas that are too sweet. It’s true that I don’t like syrupy, sickeningly, “cloyingly” sweet products. In truth, I do like a little sweetness but I don’t like ONLY sweetness. I like a tequila to have some earthy mineral qualities, some citrus flavor, some floral notes. In the barrel-aged products, the reposados, anejos, and extra anejos, I also like subtle hints of oak, leather, tobacco, chocolate, and so on. If a tequila has only one flavor, it’s not interesting enough for my taste. I’ve had tequilas that are only sweet, only citrus, only anis (black licorice), and so on. I don’t rank them very highly.

ML: (laughs) Yes I have often heard you rail against sweet Tequilas but I have also heard you speak of flavors a lot. Do you have any way of keeping track of flavors?
KC: As a matter of fact, yes. I’ve made a tasting comparison sheet that’s on the web page. It can be freely downloaded. It helps a person identify the most common flavors and their intensities in a tequilas aroma, taste, and finish. It’s useful as a guide. Even I don’t remember to look for every flavor every time I taste. It’s my belief that it’s not just important to know what one likes, but why one likes it.

ML: Kelly I would like to thank you for your time with us here at Mr. Latino Magazine. I know we have been in touch for a few years now and I am glad we finally were able to do this interview. I truly enjoyed it. Thanks again.
KC: Thank you, Pete! I've really enjoyed this! (laughs) Yeah, I've been wanting to do something with you and Mr. Latino Magazine for a long time! One thing or another though, you know how it goes! People can look at my web page, TequilaNeat.com and even get the spreadsheet from there, and connect with me on Facebook.com/TequilaNeat.

Kelly Cash Bio & Links
For most of his life, Kelly Cash knew virtually nothing about tequila. Then in 2007, spurred on by a gift of three good bottles for his birthday, he embarked upon a journey of discovery. Tasting everything he could, and engaging anyone who’d talk to him, he has continually expanded his knowledge of tequilas, their various production techniques, and how those techniques affect flavor profiles. The notes that he kept eventually turned into a tremendously large spreadsheet of tasting impressions and production details. At the time of this writing, there are now over 1100 tequilas and mezcals included in his list.

As time progressed and his experience grew, he created a web site with which to share his passion and all he had learned. He has been a judge at multiple tequila competitions and has begun speaking at large events. Along with his website, he has become a tequila resource to people around the globe. Visiting the tequila-producing region frequently, he often tours distilleries and has helped launch his friend’s Guadalajara-based tour company “Tequila Culture Expeditions.” This is an organization dedicated to introducing people to all aspects of tequila production and Mexico’s rich culture and colorful history.

Through his own company, TequilaNeat, he maintains his website and social media presence on Facebook. He also hosts "TequilaNeat Talks," a series of monthly educational seminars and tastings that are held at multiple locations.

Website: TequilaNeat.com
Facebook: facebook.com/TequilaNeat


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