Move over, Tequila and Mezcal

100% Agave Spirits Made in India

Back in 2014, I wrote a number of articles about Desmond Nazareth and his Agave India products, as well as how agave made its way to India. (See articles here and here.) Recently, I learned that Desmond has joined forces with Martin Grassl, the founder of Porfidio tequila.

Here is how their joint venture is described on Old Town Liquor’s website.

The joint venture was created out of the mutual respect of two entrepreneurs of disparate backgrounds but with similar creative minds. They shared a profound admiration for a botanical wonder, the “tree of marvels” as the Spanish Conquistadors called the agave when they encountered it in Mexico.

The product is called SINGLE AGAVE® 100% AGAVE AMERICANA EDITION (Code Name: S3xA). It’s not made in Mexico but in southern India— the Deccan Plateau, a geographical area where the agaves grow. As the story goes… the agave was transplanted from Mexico to India by Queen Victoria for fencing off the railways of the Raj to stop Holy Cows from being crushed by trains. The Agave Americana is the producer’s way of celebrating that 100-year-old event by distilling the wild plants.

I spoke with Desmond Nazareth or DesmondJi, as his brand is called, and here are excerpts from the interview.

BB: How did your relationship with Martin Grassl and Porfidio come about? How did you and he meet?

DN: The relationship was born out of respect for each other’s achievements and each other’s product quality. Martin noticed articles about Indian agave spirits appearing around 2012 in the Mexican press and contacted me.

It was both Martin’s and my opinion that agave spirits— be it tequila, mezcal or other— are unique precisely because of the botanical uniqueness of the agave plant (“the inulin factor”), the true and only star of the equation, not because they are Mexican-made.

The idea, of course, is not new, as it simply mimics what Baron Rothschild did for the world of wines 50 years ago by creating the first non-French wines in Chile and Napa.  It was revolutionary idea at the time.

Both Martin and I strongly feel that Indian agave spirits, made in our craft distillery (India’s first), should be viewed in the same league as Mexican agave spirits like mezcal, by nature of being made from naturally grown and foraged agave plants, as opposed to plantation-grown agave plants. The fact that my products are made from 100% Agave Americana, rather than 100% Blue Agave, takes our premium products intentionally beyond tequila, along the lines of Mexico’s finest mezcals.

BB: This is a special edition product, how is it different from your other Agave brands?

DN: It differs in terms of product formulation from our other agave spirits products. Certain adjustments were made to the hydrolysis, fermentation and distillation process to create a product which is more attuned towards international taste profile preferences, rather than India’s domestic preferences. For this first special edition, a traditional process of heat hydrolysis has been used, the oven cooking method.

BB: Can you discuss the nature of the business relationship between the two companies?

DN: Single-Agave 100% Agave Americana is a joint venture product between DesmondJi and Porfidio. It forms part of Martin Grassl’s brainchild “world series” of non-Mexican made agave spirits, such as agave spirits made from Agave Cocuy (Venezuela), Agave Australis (Australia) and Agave Karoo (Africa). Agave spirits can be made wherever agave is grown, same as high quality wine can be made wherever appropriate grapes are grown. France certainly never liked the idea of the coming into existence of wines from Napa Valley, Barossa Valley and Mendoza, I guess it could not be helped, as it is the natural progression of things.

Agave India is essentially the ‘field-to-bottle’ producer of Indian craft spirits and Porfidio is a premium global co-branding and marketing partner We jointly decide what is an appropriate craft offering for the global market.

BB: Where do you see this joint venture going in the future?

The idea is to expand quickly into super-premium barrel aged expressions Indian Agave spirits, similar to Mexican Reposados and Añejos.  Ours is a step-by-step approach, with the Blanco-style expression simply a starting point.

BB: Tell us more about the story behind the idea— “the agave was transplanted from Mexico to India by Queen Victoria for fencing off the railways of the Raj to stop Holy Cows from being crushed by trains.”

DN: There are two happenstances which brought about the existence of Indian agave spirits. For one, the general nature of the so-called Colombian Exchange, by which the agave, among many other plants and animals, “went international.” In addition, the Agave Americana arrived in India as a cost-effective means of fencing off the British rails to protect its trains from killing or maiming animals.

While the British probably single-mindedly aimed at protecting their financial assets— their trains—the concept of this fencing idea was equally a culturally-sensitive decision by the British Crown in protecting India’s free-roaming Holy Cows, one of our spiritual and cultural assets.

So, the “agave solution” was embraced by the colonizers and the colonized, as benefiting both. Neither “them” nor “us” grasped the true dimension of this pivotal fencing decision as the Mesoamerica-sourced Agave Americana proliferated beyond anyone’s wildest expectations on Southern India’s fertile soils, the Deccan Plateau Highlands. Why the Empire chose the Agave Americana towards such purpose—used in Mexico to produce some of the finest Mezcal—rather than any other variety, is a mystery still to be fully uncovered by botanical historians. Whatever the reason for the choice, it unquestionably benefited us.

BB: Other than in the US are there other countries where you’re working together?

DN: The US is the world’s biggest market for agave spirits. So, we thought it a good idea to do the initial special edition product launch in the US. Our next target market is Japan and China, based on Porfidio’s existing distribution platforms in these countries.

Thank you, Desmond.

Indian Agave Americana
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The Missing Prosecco: A New York City Story

This can only happen in NYC

The City of New York has a building ordinance called Local Law 11, described as follows:

To keep buildings safe, owners of properties higher than six stories must have exterior walls and appurtenances, such as balconies, inspected every five (5) years – and they must file a technical façade report with the Department.

Recently, the building in which I live was inspected by our engineering firm and it was determined that we needed to inspect the building—particularly the balconies—and that repair work needed to take place.

So, starting in July, a pedestrian bridge (also known as a shed) went up all around the sidewalk of our building, scaffolding was deployed, and a team of workers began to prepare the façade and mainly the balconies. It’s a complicated process so I’ll spare you the details. It’s sufficient to say that we could not use our small balcony in the summer or fall and it took until mid-December for the work to be completed.

Despite the slight inconvenience, I was in awe of the men riding the scaffold each day to do the job. Imagine going up and down a 31-floor building, doing this for more than eight hours a day, and getting on and off to work on balconies. I get dizzy and wobbly getting on a step ladder to change a bulb. There is not enough money for me to even contemplate getting on a scaffold—including what Diageo paid for Casamigoes.

Now on to the story…

One day last week, our balcony was finished and I opened the door, partly because I wanted a close look at the work (fabulous) and mainly because I could, for the first time in six months. I didn’t stay there long; it was freezing out.

It just so happens that on that particular day we had a small group of friends coming over for a cocktail party. I bought what I needed from the nearby wine and spirits shop—hey, it’s NYC and there’s one every other street. Included in my order was four bottles of prosecco… Mionetto Prosecco to be exact. Sparkling wine is fun, celebratory, easy to serve, and some folks prefer it to other drinks.

My order arrived but the problem was how to keep the prosecco cold; the refrigerator was full of food and I could only get two bottles in. How to keep the other two bottles cold was a bit of a dilemma.

I know, I thought, now that the balcony was accessible, I’ll do what most of my neighbors and I do in the winter and store two bottles out there. If you live in an apartment in the city, you don’t have room for an extra refrigerator, so a balcony, or even a fire escape, when the temperature is low enough, will do the trick.

Two bottles in a plain black plastic bag were put outside to keep cold. But different types of alcohol freeze differently. An 80 proof (40%AbV) spirit will not freeze but a wine at 8 to 14% AbV will first turn to slush then freeze after just an hour or two. I had visions of frozen sparkling wine and shooting corks taking out neighbors’ windows.

So, around fifteen minutes before our guests were due to arrive, I went out to the balcony to check on my cache.

The balcony was empty.

No booze. Gone. Disappeared.

I live on the 11th floor of the building so, unless Spider Man was in the upper east side and decided to climb up to my balcony and take the prosecco, there was only one other explanation—the workers took it.

I called the building superintendent, a good friend, and laughingly told him the situation. He immediately deduced that they were on a scaffold going down and finished for the day, so they must have thought the wine was a gift for them. Hmmm. Made sense to me. “Never mind,” I said. “Let them enjoy it.” His reply was a terse, “Let me see what I can do.”

I shrugged and immediately called the liquor store and, reminding them what a good customer I am, I begged them to send up two more bottles asap.

Ten minutes later the doorbell rang. Two gentlemen were standing outside. One was the delivery guy from the store and the other was one of the building employees. Each had a bag containing two bottles of prosecco. We now had six.

The aftermath

I felt really badly about the building taking the assumed gift away from the workers. These fellows worked long and hard and a couple of bottles of booze was small additional compensation. But my friend the super thought he was doing me a favor. I shouldn’t have called him.

What really pissed me off was that of the six bottles of prosecco, only one was consumed. A couple bottles of Eagle Rare Bourbon, seemed to be the preferred libation.

As we say in New Yawk, go figure.

My building
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Ted’s Vietnam Adventure—Part Two

The Journey to Open a New Market Continues…

Our story so far: Ted McDonnell, a salesman and brand builder working in Asia, has been given the assignment to work with the Chivas Regal group.  He is sent to Vietnam to help the local team grow the brand in the newly opened market. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to Ted, he ends up in Hanoi when he was supposed to go to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). By the time Ted learns of his mistake, he has been through a bit of an ordeal—deserted, dark and lonely roads, fears of having been kidnapped, going from hotel to hotel in search of a place to stay, and exhaustion from the ordeal.

But, Ted also learns that the Vietnamese he meets are warm and friendly and, despite his fears, are anxious to help him.

We pick up our story at the point where Ted has just learned of his mistake. (Here is part one.)

Back to the Airport

So, it’s late, Ted is exhausted and anxious to get to Ho Chi Minh City. If he stays in Hanoi—assuming he can find a hotel room this late at night—he will lose time in getting there. Then the thought hits him: Get back to the airport, surely there’s a hotel there, and get the first plane out to the southern city.

Ah, but what about money? Credit cards are not yet widely accepted and he has a limited amount of dollars (having paid Tran, the driver most of what he had), but he has over 300 British Pounds. “After all,” thinks Ted, “if a dollar can buy 17,000 Dong (Vietnamese currency) the pound should buy a billion. I should have enough.” Although, the universe may have other ideas.

But, first things first. He has to find a hotel at the airport and get a shower and some much-needed sleep. Then get up early, buy a plane ticket and get back on track.

Unfortunately, when he arrives back at the airport, he learns that that there are no hotels, in those days. What happens next according to Ted:

“There was no hotel just a building that was used for airport workers to sleep and they charge them so many Dong a night. I said, ‘Well that’s where I’m going to be sleeping but I need my own room.’ So, Tran wakes up the owner of the hotel at 1 o’clock in the morning. They’re screaming at each other, I’m saying, ‘I need a hotel room because I have to get the first plane.’ They’re thinking I’m crazy.”

“After a little haggling, I gave the last of my US dollars to the hotel guy. He was happy. I also gave Tran his money and he was happy. I got my room. They put my boxes and my luggage there with me and said, ‘Good night.’ I closed the door. I went to take a shower but there was no running water.”

One thing you can always say about a Seagram person, especially the folks who worked in Asia, no matter what, they’ll find a solution. In true form, Ted decides that if he can’t shower, he’ll use the sink. He turns on the faucet and out comes a lovely shade of brown water. He figures “what the hell,” finds a bucket fills it with the water and puts his head into it to cool down.

Please don’t laugh folks… desperate times call for desperate measures.

He’s feeling a bit better (or so he says) and puts on a clean t-shirt, turns out the lights, and quickly falls asleep. For about 15 minutes.

“Something was scratching and rattling the door. Well, you couldn’t believe how tired and exhausted I was, but I was still able to push the bed, the desk, the boxes, and my luggage up against the door. And I stared at that door for another half hour.”

The next day

Finally, around three o’clock in the morning, Ted falls asleep but is up at five to get to the airport, be the first on line to exchange money, get the ticket to Ho Chi Minh City, maybe even find a lounge (there was none) to wait for the plane. At seven, the foreign exchange opens and he’s first on line. He is starting to breathe a sigh of relief, reliving the ordeal of the night before and even managing to laugh about it. But not for long.

“We don’t take this,” the woman behind the counter says.

Ted is shocked: “This is pounds sterling… this is very important money, more valuable than US dollar.”

“No, we only take American dollar, Malaysian Ringett, also take Chinese money, but we don’t take this.”

Ted says, “You please take this, I need to get on a plane for the South and my flight’s at 7:30.” The reply is a firm No!

Ted leaves the counter and once again decides that desperate times call for desperate measures. He decides to approach people and beg.

He walks up to every person, and asks them if they have any money that they would be willing to exchange for pounds sterling. He tells them, “This is what I need to buy a ticket, can you help me?”

Two or three people just refused to speak English to him. One person gave him a few dollars and he thinks he ended up giving him twice the value in pounds because he was so desperate. A few more people gave him money. Finally, one person gave him $100 for 200£ (pounds). According to Ted, “That was a rip off but I was just so happy that I had enough money to buy a ticket.”

And, so, Ted at long last is going to the south. He, his luggage and what’s left of the trinkets, t-shirts and training material get on board. The door closes but Ted is already fast asleep.

Ho Chi Minh City today

The aftermath

If this story was fictional, such as one of my screenplays, Ted’s nightmare would continue (and perhaps get worse) when he landed in Ho Chi Minh City. If you were expecting that, dear reader, forget it. The universe figured he’d been through enough and decided to smile at him.

He arrives, goes easily through customs, meets his Seagram colleagues, who take one look at him and say, “Man, you need a drink, a bed, and a shower. Which do you want first?” They go on to say, “By the way, you have a training session in 3 hours and you need to be there.”

Ted is so thrilled he replies, “Of course I’ll be there.” He checks into his hotel, unpacks and sits in the shower for 30 minutes. All the while thinking about the people in that house, Tran, his friend, the policeman, the people that he met that night, and how everyone was so easy and nice to talk to.

The session with the Vietnam sales team was a big success with the attendees paying rapt attention, absorbing the information like sponges, and the excitement about Chivas Regal was palpable.

Let’s close with a final word from Ted McDonnell:

“I encourage everybody that I talk to, to go to Vietnam because the people are lovely and the country is lovely. Thank you for the opportunity to share my little salesman story. Every salesperson has a door he knocks on or a town he walks into cold turkey. Well, I walked into Vietnam cold turkey thinking all night I was in a city that I was not in at all.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ted McDonnell now runs the Liberty Lighthouse Group, an international alcohol beverage sales and marketing agency. The company’s key objective is to support its Brand Companies to either establish new brands or to further support established brands throughout Asia/Pacific and other Global markets.

Ted at his training session in 1994
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