Tequila has come a long way from its reputation as simply a shot based spirit into a liquid that people feel equally at home drinking in a cocktail or a sipping beverage.
But tequila’s popularity hasn’t come without challenges, both in terms of authenticity, environmental concerns and the blending of traditional methods with innovation.
One brand that is walking the tightrope of craft tequila distilling is Tequila Tromba.
We speak to co-founder James Sherry about the agave liquid, distillation, and of course, how to best use his tequila in a cocktail.
Tiff: Tequila has come a long way from its reputation as simply a shot based spirit into a liquid that people feel equally at home drinking in a cocktail or a sipping beverage. But tequila's popularity hasn't come without challenges, both in terms of authenticity, environmental concerns and the blending of traditional methods with innovation. One brand that is walking the tightrope of craft tequila distilling is Tequila Tromba. We speak to co-founder James Sherry about the agave liquid, distillation, and of course, how to best use his tequila in a cocktail. Thank you for joining us James.
James Sherry: Of course happy to be here.
Tiff: Now the obvious place to start would be with the name. What does Tromba mean?
James Sherry: So Tromba is actually a slang terminology used by the people of Jalisco in Mexico, where we make our tequila. It's a name that signifies the intense rainstorms of the region that feed the blue weber agave that grows in the Hills surrounding Jalisco, which is the source ingredient for our tequila.
Tiff: Now how did two Australians and a Canadian ended up starting a tequila brand?
James Sherry: So the story of the founding of Tromba is really five stories. Myself. Nick Reid, who I grew up with here in Australia, Eric Brass, our Canadian business partner and Marco and Rodrigo Cedano our production family, have each come to it from different areas.
But basically it's a story of how Nick, Eric and Rodrigo met at university in Guadalajara back in 2005 and effectively, what happened with Nick and Eric was that exposure to the Mexican drinking culture, particularly in city of Guadalajara, which is the center of the tequila universe.
Everyone comes into drinking tequila for the first time, I think with preconceived notions of what it actually is - a dirty drink, a harsh drink. And it was those experiences that they had while studying in Mexico, that really changed their opinion on tequila. And it was something that just sat in the back of their heads for a long time.
Like I said, they had crossed paths with Rodrigo in their university days. I'd been able to go on and visit Nick while he was living in Mexico and he had introduced me to that same Mexican drinking culture. And it was through those experiences, and I guess us as foreigners to that experience, and wanting to bring it back to places like Melbourne and places like Toronto.
It was really that notion in the back of our minds and that experience, we really wanted to share that with as many people as we possibly could and short of actually going to Mexico and having that experience firsthand, we figured we could bottle something, bottle an experience and create something that said everything we wanted to say about tequila and introduce it to people outside of the borders of Mexico.
But like I said, it's five people coming together with different backgrounds, different ideas for what we could actually do as a brand and as a business. And that's wanting to capture that drinking experience an idea. So we partner with Marco and Rodrigo, our production family, that we were able to actually, make Tromba a reality.
Tiff: When you started, the tequila market was a very different place than it is today. How difficult at that stage was it to start a brand?
James Sherry: It was a very difficult experience. Like I said, it didn't get going until we partnered with local people. Nick and myself, as guys who grew up in Melbourne, about as far away from tequila country, as you possibly could get, we weren't able to, just to go over to Mexico, knock on the door and say, 'Hey, we want to start a tequila company.' It's a bit more complicated than that. Marco and Rodrigo on the ground, and with not only their production expertise, but also their connections in terms of being able to find a distillery to kick off the project, being able to work with local agave growers, it wouldn't have come together without Marco and Rodrigo at the helm.
So the actual initial startup process in Mexico whilst difficult, was made a lot easier with our team on the ground, able to put it all together. Once we'd been able to do that, then we have this product in our hands, we were working a long time at introducing our brand to people.
And in some respects, we're still working at that. We don't have a massive marketing budget, we're a small company, we don't have a massive celebrity endorsement. We've got our own celebrity, his name is Marco Cedano he's one of the most famous names in tequila, but we don't have that sort of big marketing approach.
So, really, the difficulty based around it, has always been the same in terms of just talking to as many people as we possibly could and getting liquid on lips. And, we started doing that in 2010 and we've been doing it ever since
Tiff: How different is the market now? What's changed, how has selling changed?
James Sherry: A better educated market than it was 10 years ago. So, I'd say the top tier of hospitality professionals have always had a decent understanding of agave spirits and definitely some have a massive passion for agave spirits.
Talking to those people in the early days it was easy to communicate what we were about and what Tromba was as a brand and as a product. But you would still get the occasional, 'Oh we don't sell much tequila here or we just have this cheap and nasty stuff for the people who ask for it.'
Whereas now it feels like every bar/ restaurant have a decent tequila offering, both top shelf, mid range, and something that they sell out of the well. The education has certainly improved and that's come from the top tier bars and restaurants putting good spirits on the back bar, not just tequila, but across the board. And also, in turn, consumers learning about high quality agave spirits and demanding that the bars or restaurants they frequent, carry it.
So if I had to put it down to one thing, it's a better educated market today. You still have the occasional conversation with people who just don't seem to get it. But the overall consumer is definitely caught up and has garnered a certain acceptance in the market as something that can be a premium spirit.
Tiff: Now the brand is using the tagline, take life by storm, which obviously comes from the meaning of Tromba. But what does that expression mean to you?
James Sherry: What it means to us. Is, like you said, it does relate back to the Tromba. We always trying to conjure up imagery of the Highlands of Jalisco where we make our tequila.
But that idea of taking life by storm is definitely centred more on our entrepreneurial spirit, it's something that definitely comes out of our experience in a mass market. Of just having a crack, as we would say, take life by storm is basically a call to action to follow your dreams, to embrace your passion, to pick up something like Tromba that you might not have heard of, you might not have seen it before and give it a try. Marco and Rodrigo, for example, definitely embody this take life by storm passionate.
Marco, in particular has been working with the tequila industry for over 40 years and could definitely have a comfortable job with a much bigger brand. But he decided after his experience with working with big brands to go out and do something on his own, do something with his son, something he could put his name to, something he could be proud of.
And, upset the norms of the tequila industry and take life by storm, it embodies that entrepreneurial spirit that the brand has
Tiff: Now speaking of Marco and his son, how important was Marco's experience with Don Julio? How important has that been to the brand?
He was a master distiller at Don Julio for 16 years, which is one of, one of the biggest brands, if not the first ever premium tequila brand to hit the mass market. His experience, as it relates to Tromba is twofold.
He was distilling those first batches of Don Julio was without permission from his boss. He just had it stuck in his mind, a premium a hundred percent agave tequila, it would be a worthwhile experiment worthwhile project, something that wasn't shared by the higher ups, the company's called Tres Magueyes at the time, but he went and did it anyway .
Forgive the harking back to your previous question, but to take life by storm and to have a crack at something new. That's, he's experience in that regard of actually producing a premium a hundred percent agave spirit has massive ramifications not just for his time at Tromba, but for the industry as a whole, because the idea of premium tequila isn't that old, its only come through since the mid eighties. So that's one side of it.
The other side of it is obviously us starting as a no name brand and a small company with an idea on paper which effectively is where we got started before we started producing tequila to have Marco's decades of experience, not only just at Don Julio, but in the tequila industry in general, was invaluable to get us started, to have someone who had the skills he has as a distiller, the connections he has with agave growers to get premium ingredients. But then also to have that background, that story that we could pass on and use to educate potential buyers and potential consumers of Tromba. It's been huge for us as a brand.
Tiff: Now you mentioned his relationship with growers. I imagine that's hugely important in the flavour that you're able to get from the liquid.
James Sherry: A hundred percent. If you start with poor agave, you're going to end up with poor tequila. There's just no way around it. You can potentially mask some deficiencies with ageing, but a majority of what we sell is a Blanco expression, which is unaged. It’s the purest form of tequila, so to have high quality agave is absolutely crucial. And what Marco's experience, Marco's connections have allowed us has been not only access to agave because agave is actually very hard to come by at the moment, we're in the middle of an agave shortage, which makes production all the more difficult and all the more costly. So being able to rely on those relationships and afford us high quality ingredients to make sure each batch of Tromba is produced to Marco's demanding standards has been unbelievable. We've had to get creative in terms of how we source our agave and paying for plants five years in advance and things like that in the past.
But the management that he and Rodrigo do in terms of ensuring we get that access to the high quality ingredients has been first-class. It definitely translates to the overall quality of the product, because as I said, that Blanco tequila, which is unaged, there's no, you can't mask any deficiencies in the agave.
And I think that the blanco tequila that we produce is probably the best expression that we have for that result that high-quality agave is the direct result of that.
Tiff: Now you mentioned that the agave is grown in the Highlands. How does the terroir of that rich red earth come through with the flavour of the liquid?
James Sherry: So there's two main tequila production centres within the state of Jalisco, which is the main tequila state in Mexico. The tequila valley, where the town of tequila is, has some beautiful tequila being produced there, but it's quite earthy and robust. Whereas the tequila from the Highlands definitely carries more what they call the feminine characteristics.
And the tequila from the region tends to be a bit sweeter, a bit more floral in nature, a bit lighter on the palette and the terroir, and the resulting agave that grows in those red soils of the highlands. It's been described to me many times in relation to growing grapes. In some parts of a vineyard, you'll find a vine that has to grow up on the side of a hill doesn't get a lot of sunlight and the byproduct of that is the gripe works a bit harder to survive and will actually produce a lot more sugar than one that grows in idilic conditions in the sunshine.
And the same is said for agave. So the soil of the Highlands isn't as nutrient rich as that, of the tequila valley. So the agave has to work harder to survive. There's a difference in altitude of about 800 meters between the Tequila valley and Los Altos and that effects the ambient temperatures.
So it's a lot colder in Los Altos. And that again has a harsh impact on the agave so, again, that agave grows a bit harder. The rainfall that Los Altos experience, we name our tequila after a rainstorm. They get a lot of rain in Los Altos in that can have nourishing affects, but it can also be a problem for agave, so again that agave works harder to survive. So these elements in Los Altos don't necessarily help all the time and the resulting impact on agave is it works harder and tends to produce more sugar than the agave of different regions. And we have a bit of a sweet, a bit of a more floral tequila as a result in the end product.
Tiff: Now, your brand talks about production being equal parts, science and art. Can you explain what that means?
James Sherry: Yeah. So Marco produces his tequila to pretty exact specifications. What I mean by that is for example, the cooking of the Agave in these brick ovens that we have called Hornos
They stack the agave a particular way. They set the temperature to a specific degree. They allow for a specific amount of time and is very exacting in the way they cook the agave to get a nice caramelised, even cook all the way through these agave plants at the start of the process . T he milling of the agave, where they crushed the agave and introduce a purified water source to create the liquid goes into fermentation, that is a very exacting process as is the cultivation of wild yeast where we harvest our agave, as well as the proprietary yeast strains that Marco has produced to give Tromba a distinct flavour is all very scientific process. And then you get into the distillation of the final product.
So that mosta goes into a 72 hour fermentation process, and then they go in and distill that effectively it comes through fermentation and it becomes an agave beer of sorts, which is then distilled. A lot of the distillation process is down to Marco and Rodrigo really actually being there to taste the product, to taste the distillation of every part of it. It's a lot to do with touch and smell and taste. So I guess that's where the art form comes in, where the final version of the product has as much to do with feel as it has to do with the scientific approach taken beforehand.
Tiff: Now you have three expressions, what can people expect from each?
James Sherry: Yeah we actually have five expressions now. We have our three main expressions. We've recently produced a couple more in a limited capacity, but just to start with our blanco tequila, for example. So that's our most popular expression as previously mentioned, it is unaged completely it's just what comes off the still. The original tequila comes off the still at about 55% ABV and then it is brought down to a more palatable proof, appropriate for mixing and all that sort of stuff.
So we have the Blanco, we have the Reposado which is aged sort of six to eight months in ex-Jack Daniel's barrels and that ageing process imparts an oak flavouring that compliments the sweeter agave flavour of the original tequila and produces something that's both versatile in terms of sipping and in terms of creating cocktails.
And then we have our añejo tequila, which is aged 18 to 20 months which just takes that ageing process even a bit further and it's definitely more of a sipping tequila, something you would have as an after dinner or just drunk straight . We have those three main expressions of our tequila.
So our blanco tequila is a straight white spirit. For some people is the lightest version of what we do. Cause it hasn't had the addition of the more robust oak flavouring. But for some people they look at a white spirit and they think, although that's gonna be the harshest, cause it hasn't been mellowed out by the ageing process.
So it really does depend on who's drinking it to compare reactions to this, but it is definitely the truest expression of that highland agave flavour that I was talking about. It's generally sweet, quite floral, grassy on the nose. I think it's very versatile tequila in terms of, being able to sip out and mix in cocktails.
It really is the hero, I think, of our lineup because of how versatile it is and how great of an introductory tequila it is for people who maybe aren't used to drinking agave spirits. We often say that if you enjoy our blanco tequila, then maybe agave spirits are for you, I think it's a very versatile, very pleasing blanco tequila.
And then you have the reposado, that definitely the introduction of the oak flavouring gives it a bit of an earthier quality, but also that introduction of oak in that time that contact with oak, has with the original tequila sort of caramelises those sugars even further. And you end up with definitely a more caramelised agave flavour profile with the tequila. It is definitely versatile as well in terms of its ability to sip it, also to mix it into cocktails.
Añejo, it definitely has more of a dessert-y quality to it, you get like rich nutty flavours and chocolates and dried red fruits. And that further caramelisation of the agave flavours almost gives it an agave-honey kind of quality to it. Definitely more on the sipping side of things.
Tiff: Now if someone were to buy Tromba for the first time, let's say the Blanco, for example, what sort of cocktails would you recommend?
James Sherry: My favourite cocktail of all time is the Paloma. That is a simple highball cocktail that the Mexicans would refer to as a Cantina drink, where you would just build over ice, blanco tequila, some splash of lime juice, grapefruit soda, and maybe garnish with a lime wedge or grapefruit wedge, or if you feel fancy like a ribbon of cucumber or something like that. And always as with all tequila classic cocktails, with a salt rim or a pinch of salt. I think that Paloma is right up there with the gin and tonic in terms of its a beautiful sort of aperitivo style cocktail, refreshing you can have more than one of them. It's just a great cocktail to enjoy in the sun.
That's definitely my pick of the cocktails for using our blanco tequila, but like I said, at the top, it's definitely my favourite drink of all time. You can have a very fancy version of the Paloma cocktail at any high-end bar restaurant you choose to go to and it's just as enjoyable making them when you're having a barbecue at home yourself. It's delicious.
So that would be my pick for the blanco, but what the blanco also has going for it is its versatility. Tequila classics like the Paloma and like any kind of Margarita that you would hope to make, our blanco tequila really does shine but also you can look at gin classics, for example, a blanco tequila and tonic is a delightful drink. Something incorporating egg whites, you could do a Tequila with egg white would be a delicious variation on a sour, substitute blanco tequila for gin in a Negroni and you have an excellent stirred down drink.
So you can look at a lot of gin classics and substitute in some blanco tequila for a different drinking experience. I really do like the versatility that our blanco does afford people who are making cocktails, not only in bars, but also at home.
That being said, when it comes to the Reposado, I think the Reposado makes our best margarita. I only came to this more recently in the last three or four years, I'd say, having experimented every which way with our blanco tequila for making margaritas. I started using our reposado in a more traditional margarita build with tequila, triple sec and lime. And I just think there's something about the classic agave flavour of the tequila mixed with that oak flavouring you get from Reposado tequilas. It's a bit more expensive than our blanco, so it's a bit more of an expensive Margarita, but it is delicious. Sadly, having done this for over 10 years, I can't drink more than one than one Margarita a week, these days. Sometimes I get heart burn just looking at Margarita's
When I do it I like to get a little bit fancy, so the reposado makes a cracking margarita. You can look at some classic cocktails and make tequila versions of those again, on the more Negroni front, or in this case you would look at the Boulevardier and sub in some in some Tromba reposado to make a different version of that drink, which is quite tasty. A tequila Old Fashioned is delightful with Reposado, that's certainly a possibility as well.
And then as far as the añejo goes, I don't drink a lot of cocktails, really. I look at that almost as our dessert tequila. With the extended ageing process, delightfully complex and pairs really nicely with those richer dessert-y flavours. I enjoy a glass of añejo with just a piece of dark chocolate and I think that's, it's just a beautiful way to drink it. If you had to twist my arm, I lean more towards the old fashioned style, just to let the tequila sing with the help of some sugar and bitters would be very nice.
Tiff: Now, speaking of experimentation, what has the reaction of bartenders been? Have they been experimenting with the tequila in ways you didn't expect?
James Sherry: It's funny because if you'd asked me this question, seven or eight years ago, I'd probably say, oh yeah, I tried this and it was not expecting it or things like that. I've definitely had every perceivable Paloma riff you could think of from molecular mixology versions of a Paloma where all you can taste is grapefruit and salt foam, to go with your tequila and things like that. But not a hell of a lot stands out . Tromba is a brand that lends itself, nicely to tequila classics like Paloma and Margarita.
One of the craziest things I tried and I got the recipe off this particular bartender, this is a woman named Amy Star who's from Chicago and she used to work the bar at a place called Naha Chicago. I'm not sure if you're familiar with Chicago, but it gets damn cold there and in the winter time, so this is getting towards Christmas. She made me a hot buttered Tromba añejo, so if you're familiar with hot buttered rum cocktails. So she did give me the recipe, cause I did make that Christmas time for some friends. Not all that hard to replicate. You make a butter, chocolate, orange and you mix in a shot of this batter, two shots of the Tromba Añejo and top it with some hot water.
So it's part hot rum, part hot toddy, throw in some tequila and rich dessert-y flavours and you have a hot butter tequila. I can't see myself drinking at a Cantina in Guadalajara on a really hot summer afternoon, but Christmas time in Chicago, it was definitely a winner.
Tiff: No, I can imagine. Yeah. Now you've also done a collaboration with canned cocktail brand, Curatif. How did that come about?
James Sherry: So the guys, a couple of the Curatif brand are guys we've known since we got started in Melbourne. We worked alongside Jeremy Spencer, whose gin brand at the time, has a very similar startup story to Tromba. We worked alongside to help support each other in those days. And Matt Sanger was running a bar group on Chapel Street and was a great supporter of the Trumba trauma brand and had it in all of his bars and things like that. So, that just came about when they decided they were starting this company.
They came straight to us with the idea and the want to put some high quality tequila in their product and having known them for a long time and wanting to support the brand. We thought, why not? It's not something that we've done before or looking to do en masse in the future, these collaboration type arrangements, but when you consider the people involved and you only have to look at the success of the Curatif brand to know they were really onto something and they're good operators.
Yeah, we were always going to get involved and I'm glad we have. They've pulled out terrific Margarita in a can and good luck to them. They've created a terrific brand and it only helps us to be associated with that brand because the rising tide raises all boats.
It's been an interesting one with Curatif and Margaritas. I think it's really helped establish the Margarita as a favourite cocktail for Australian drinkers in recent times.
Tiff: Now, if people want to get hold of tequila, your distributed throughout the US?
James Sherry: It's not an old states. I lived in the states for seven years on behalf of the brand and we had managed to, I think just crack a dozen states by the time I left with were definitely opened up a few since, but because they run as 50 different individual spirits markets, it's a lot harder to get that mass nationwide distribution. And also sometimes it's not good to have the entire country because you have to again, manage them as 50 different markets, so it can spread you a little bit thin. So we've positioned ourselves in strategic markets in the U S and we'll be adding a few here and there, but not at nationwide level just yet.
Tiff: And what about internationally?
James Sherry: We don't do any other markets outside of the US, Canada, Mexico and Australia. The two largest markets for tequila globally, the US and Mexico, and there's a stark drop-off to the third largest market, so much so that there are states in the US that would be considerably larger markets than countries in Asia and Europe. So we've decided to put our focus squarely on the large tequila markets in North America, before we make any global expansion plans. I'm sure we'll get there at some stage, but for the time being, there's still plenty of work to be done in north America.
Tiff: Now, if people want more information, they can, of course go to your website, which is tequilatromba.com, or they can connect with the brand on your socials.
James Sherry: Absolutely. Follow us on our social channels. Mainly we do most communication these days through Instagram, which is @tequilatromba. Very simply.
Tiff: Excellent. Thank you, James, for taking the time to speak with us.
James Sherry: Absolutely. Thank you for having me