PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK C. ANDERSON
An award-winning tequila with local roots
It’s all in the name. El Jefe’s Carmel-native creator Ryan Sanchez isn’t afraid to admit it.
“The whole industry is about marketing,” he says. “We have the most marketable name for tequila. I don’t think I knew the value when I registered it.”
In fact, he was confident enough in his choice that he turned down more than $1 million for the name well before he filled his first shot glass.
“I knew it was the one opportunity I’d have to create a household brand,” he says. “It was risk-versus-reward, and the ‘journey’ part of it I was really intrigued with.
“Besides,” he adds, “I wasn’t gonna think of another name that good.”
Maybe not all in the name: There are other elements to recommend Carmel’s quasi-hometown spirit, including its source, Casa Maestri Distillery in the town of Tequila, Jalisco. Maestri is the most decorated distillery in Mexico, with its partner brands scoring 53 medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in the last decade alone. The quality of the 100% blue weber agave in the silver, reposado and añejo tequilas speaks for itself, with a smooth mouthfeel and a touch of natural sweetness—plus roundness on the aged tequilas born of time in American oak cabernet sauvignon barrels.
Sanchez’s nose for tequila has been developing for some time. After spending his youth working at his family’s store, Bruno’s Market, he opened high-end spirits emporium Surf N Sand next door in 2003 at the tender age of 25. (He’s since opened small deli-grocery spots Corral de Tierra Market and Valley Hills Market.) Surf N Sand allowed him to study the category as it was surging in popularity— and as brands came and went. For years he also hosted some of the area’s deepest spirits tastings, with a bias toward tequila, fanning out dozens of top cactusjuice brands for interested locals. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Sanchez since we played basketball against each other in high school and have collaborated with him on a number of projects.)
“There’s always shifts in liquor trends,” he says. “Back then there were a lot of tequilas popping up on the market, and consumers were better educated about it. I gravitated to that varietal.”
Now El Jefe is as boss as ever thanks to a few factors. One is the development of nitrodraft margaritas on tap at major venues for big-time events—including backdrops like WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Save Mart Center and Chukchansi Park, along with festivals like Grizzly Fest, California Roots and Monterey Jazz Festival. (Jose’s Mexican in Seaside is the rare restaurant that pours them.)
Another is an increasingly solid roster of restaurant accounts like Seventh & Dolores in Carmel, Seascape Beach Resort in Santa Cruz and Michelin-starred Plumed Horse in Saratoga. El Jefe’s presence in California cities from San Diego to San Jose continues to be strong. A timely sponsorship deal with rising Central Valley boxer Jose Ramirez years ago means El Jefe appears prominently on a world title holder’s robe and trunks in front of millions on national networks; his next title fight happens in February on ESPN.
Celebrated Montrio Bistro’s “spirit smith” Anthony Vitacca has been a believer from the beginning. He features El Jefe’s reposado in his rich and savory Mexican Manhattan along with mezcal, mole bitters and Spanish sherry. “I was looking for tequila with nice characteristics— some oak, some earthiness—that’s not overwhelming,” Vitacca says. “It’s a nice balanced reposado with vegetal, banana and anise notes, and more body and flavor than other tequilas.”
He pauses for half a second, then continues: “Plus it’s El Jefe! It’s the boss!”
RECIPE: Courtesy Carlos Colimodio, bar director, Seventh & Dolores in Carmel
PHOTOGRAPHY: Mark C. Anderson
El Jefe is a nice balanced reposado with vegetal, banana and anise notes, and more body and flavor than other tequilas.