Many of you may know the storied tequila brand, Porfidio. While Patron may have been the first widely-marketed premium tequila sold in the US, there was nothing like Porfidio in the late ’90s to early 2000s. You might not remember the name, but you certainly remember the “Cactus Bottle”. It captured the imagination then and still brings a smile to my face today. It is a beautiful hand-blown glass bottle with a small, green, 2-inch tall, glass cactus sitting inside the bottle on the bottom. The cactus is like a little green guy waving “Hi. Come drink me.”
Initially, only the anejo existed so you had the gorgeous amber anejo working wonderfully in the clear bottle with the green cactus. I cannot believe I never saved even one empty bottle – what an idiot!
And this was a premium tequila because it cost about $100 even then. I first discovered it on a trip to Cozumel in the late ’90s. I was with the crew that still travels with me to Oaxaca every year, and we had just arrived at the Hotel Intercontinental in Cozumel. We saw the bottle behind the bar and knew we had to try it – and it was transcendent! We were already tequila drinkers but this was a new ballgame. Definitely a WTF moment.
Over the years, as more premium tequilas poured into the U.S. – and poured down our throats – Porfidio remained the standard bearer for us. Even though tequila drifted away for me and mezcal began to dominate my agave spirits consumption over 10 years ago, I’ve always known Porfido was my first love. Also, as I’ve met more people in the agave spirits world over the past ten years, I have come to learn there is a bit of controversy around my beloved Porfidio.
In the late ’90s and into the 2000s, there was a thread in the spirits industry questioning the provenance of Porfidio. Was it really tequila? Was it made in Jalisco? Speaking to Tequila.net, the founder of Porfidio, an Austrian named Martin Grassl, fueled the mystery as he spoke of European production techniques (“new world school”) and said he did not necessarily use highlands or lowlands agaves, but based his agave selection on “objective analytical quality” of the agaves – sounds fishy, right? So people were suspicious.
Happily, my friends and I knew nothing about this – we just loved the juice! Now, I really have not thought much about Porfidio over the past 10+ years, and I rarely drink tequila anymore. And you can still buy Porfidio – it’s expensive, though they’ve cheapened the look of that beautiful bottle, and I have no idea how it tastes anymore. But trust me when I tell you, 20 years ago, there was pure magic in that bottle.
Here is where my story comes back to mezcal (I am not sure I have ever written a story that does not start, finish, or come back to mezcal so I am not going to break my streak now). I go to Oaxaca with the boys every January, and we were there a few weeks ago. We had the good fortune of joining Asis Cortes at his family palenque in Santiago Matatlan on a Sunday afternoon. Asis is the face of El Jolgorio, Agave de Cortes, Nuestra Soledad and the 2018 release of Origen Raiz – an A. cenizo made in Durango. I’ve written a lot about Jolgorio as it is one of my favorite brands. Asis tells me that people suspect he is paying me! Not a chance. Early on, they gave me small 2oz samples of their mezcals, but other than that there has been no remuneration for Mezcal PhD. I simply love what they do. Back to the story….
We were at the family palenque and Asis’ father, Valentin, was working the palenque. The tahona (big stone wheel) was mashing cooked madrecuishe and Valentin was loading the mashed fibers
into a wheelbarrow and then lifting it into a fermentation vat. It is always amazing to see the time, effort and amount of physical exertion that goes into each step of mezcal making – this is hard work.
When Valentin had finished this part of the process, he sat down with Asis and all of us, and we started tasting mezcal. Going to a palenque is frequently filled with highlights, but it rarely gets better than an unhurried sit-down and tasting with the master mezcalero and his son. Here, the stories come out. The rich history of the family’s mezcal making past. The cultural significance of what mezcal means to them – in this case, they are Zapotec and, among many other things, mezcal is the way for them to connect with their ancestors. And the challenging times, which were not so long ago, when nobody wanted to buy mezcal. As the story turned to this difficult time for mezcal commerce, Valentin told us of an Austrian entrepreneur who came knocking in the late ’90s.
This gentleman had heard of the outstanding mezcals made by Valentin and his extended family in Matatlan, so he tracked down Valentin and his brother-in-law, Oscar Hernandez. He tasted the family products and wanted to strike a deal. Keep in mind, during this time, they did not have a well-known brand (no one really did then), and there was no certification process for mezcal yet either – that started in 2005. What little they did sell was largely for the immediate community. So an outsider who wanted to buy a lot of mezcal was a rare find.
But this fellow had a strange request: he only wanted to buy what was produced after the first distillation – he did not want the finished product. In this case, he wanted to buy a roughly 30% ABV espadin joven (an unaged mezcal made with agave espadin). While Valentin and Oscar, found this odd, they asked no questions and had the first batch ready in about a month. Over the first year or so, he regularly came to Oaxaca from his unknown origination point, and left with his mezcal in stainless steel containers, on his way to an unknown destination.
The second year, he had a different request: could they cook the pinas in aboveground ovens and remove the smokiness from the mezcal. Valentin and Oscar said they could accommodate this, but they had to build the oven. So they build an aboveground brick oven, which as you may know, is how artisanal tequila makers cook their pinas. This went on for a while longer and it was a good commercial relationship for Valentin and Oscar. But in the early 2000s, this gentlemen stopped coming, and they never heard from him again. While they were selling to him, the Cortes and Hernandez families never knew what he was doing with his once-distilled mezcal.
Some years later the mystery unraveled as they figured out what was going on through friends of friends. It was really pretty simple. This gentleman was taking the Cortes and Hernandez family mezcals to Jalisco, distilling it for a second and third time, and bottling it as a tequila. Apparently, he could not get the quality of spirit he wanted for his brand by using the blue agave from Jalisco, so he found his way down to Oaxaca to the palenques of Valentin and Oscar and bought their mezcal. But to halfway comply (though not really) with the tequila regulations, he had to distill it a second time in Jalisco and have the appearance of making his tequila there. Tequila was not regulated as tightly 20 years ago, so he could get away with it. Oh yeah, and did I mention the name of his tequila? You know it: Porfidio!
So Porfidio was actually a mezcal from Oaxaca, made from agave espadin, bottled as a tequila. The second distillation, which was done in Jalisco, did not change the provenance of the spirit – this was a mezcal made in Oaxaca. As Valentin told us this story over an amazing mezcal tasting at the family palenque, we could not believe what we were hearing. The tequila we were drinking in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Porfidio, which we worshipped, was actually made by the mezcalero sitting across from us in 2019, and it was not a tequila at all – it was mezcal!
I was stunned. Porfidio was my first love, and we had a difficult break-up as my love for mezcal grew. But in reality, I had never left her. She was a mezcal all along! Baby, I have come home!!
Maybe this was a “you had to be there moment” for you, but I hope not. When we first tasted Porfidio in the late ’90s, it was if we had discovered a Mayan treasure – it was pure gold! And to learn that it was actually being made at the time by one of the best mezcal producers in the world was a mind-blowing revelation!
Back to Porfidio
The founder of Porfidio referenced in this story is Martin Grassl. I have traded emails in the past with Martin, and he is a deeply passionate and educated producer of tequila. I am guessing he would dispute some or all of my story, and say that Porfidio was always made in Jalisco and never sourced in Oaxaca. Maybe not.
Porfidio can still be found today, though the packaging is not as elegant as it once was. As for the quality of the tequila, I really have no idea anymore. It’s still quite expensive, and I suspect it is still very good given the detailed exchanges I have had with Martin about his process, but I just don’t know. Next time I see it, I will certainly try it. Maybe I will even buy a bottle for old times sake (it might be the first bottle of tequila I’ve bought for myself in 10+ years).
That’s all I’ve got this time, and I hope you made it to the end. If you have a chance to drink El Jolgorio, Agave de Cortes, Nuestra Soledad or Origen Raiz, they are all made or orchestrated by the Cortes family and you cannot go wrong! As always, DRINK MEZCAL my friends.
Although amusing for a movie script, as a reality check for those who are overly keen to allow their imagination to go wild in the above article and comments, may I kindly remind them that the Porfidio company, alongside Porfidio’s better known line of Jalisco Blue Agave spirits in North America, also actively participated in other distilled spirits sectors over the decades, such as with Porfidio rum, Kaufman vodka and Porfidio mezcal, which was widely distributed in Austria and the Czech Republic between 1993 and 2004, long before mezcal became fashionable in the U.S. market (although embarrassingly enough, from today’s perspective, with a worm). Please go to the following “Porfidio History” link and then scroll down to “drop- shaped bottles” for the images: https://bit.ly/3GyauAb . For any information on our present product portfolio, including the above referenced Porfidio Cactus Bottle (same as always), please kindly check: https://bit.ly/3z4vFom . Salud!
Thanks Martin. For me, this was a great round trip!
“Valentin and his brother-in-law, Oscar Hernandez” – Oscar Hernandez of Gracias a Dios??
I believe so – yes. But do not know for sure.
I enjoyed your story and found it educational. Sure wish I could have a taste of the Porfidio as it was then. This past summer I did travel to outside Oaxaca and visit a few palangues to learn and see as much of the process as possible. As of now, the mezcal I am most enjoying is Del Maguey’s Chichicapa.
I enjoyed your book as well. Thanks for sharing your passion and knowledge and historical experience.
Thank you for the kind words! It is so great that you’ve been to Oaxaca because that really brings it all home. If you have a minute to give me a review on Amazon for the book, that would be most appreciated!!
Wow! I was reminiscing and telling the story of this tequilla that ended their distribution here in the states and couldn’t remember the name but the cactus bottle search led me here. Thanks for the info and better the story. Simply the best tequilla and even better it’s a mezcal. Apparently there are still some bottles it there. Cheers and thanks.
Thanks! Glad you liked the story!
John, great story; and the Cortes family mezcals are among my favorites… Agave de Cortes anejo is actually starting to nudge my beloved Illegal aside for favoritism… and as unscrupulous as parts of the tequila industry have become, I wouldn’t be surprised if this sort of thing wasn’t more common, even with the DO control… keep on sipping!
Your post is really meaningful and a very pleasant surprise for me, and probably many others, John. Thanks so much for providing it!
So many of us have transitioned from tequila to mezcal. And, like you and others, I enjoyed Porfidio back in the day and am a huge fan of mezcal now and specifically El Jolgorio.
Asis Cortes is a superstar and was so hospitable when we visited his place–Mezcalogia in Oaxaca.
Agree with all! Asis is a huge asset to the mezcal category! Thanks for the comments.
Fascinating story! Very interesting responses! Worth another book, mezcalphd?
Great story John and it certainly brings back warm and buzzy feelings of the early-mid nineties in Cozumel, thanks!
Those were good times, but thankfully so are these!!
BTW, Porfidio Añejo Single-Barrel was always a blend of many and never a single varietal tequila. The blend changed frequently and that gave it away as a pastiche tequila. Towards the end it really went downhill and never recovered it’s sales volume. Martin Grassl claims he marketed it as a super premium agave spirit and never as a tequila. That solved the what is it made of problem right there.
Porfidio was telegraphing the Mezcal provenance of their flagship product by using a glass cactus not found anywhere in Jalisco or Mexico for that matter. The cactus they used is an accurate glass model of a Saguaro and the Saguaro cactus is found only in the Sonoran desert regions around Tucson, Arizona. While I believe this “story” is true, I also believe Porfidio was blended from all sorts of unlabeled white tequilas possibly redistilled as you mention and colored up by resting briefly in used Spanish sherry casks primarily for color. I can say with certainty that it was NEVER puro Espadin. The taste would be unacceptable at 100 percent Espadin to all regular tequila drinkers of that era. Remember that in those days most tequila was MIXED in drinks and made from something far short of 100% blue agave sourced pinas. My boss went through CASES of that Porfidio stuff and shared it liberally to promote “cohesiveness in the staff ranks”. He wouldn’t touch my mezcals as they tasted like shit to his educated palate and I was sourcing high quality mezcals back then although not to the standards of today as none of it was single varietal and it was always blended from whatever pinas were harvested for that batch. I bet the Porfidio was blended to a max 15% Espadin. Any more and tequila drinkers of the day would have rejected it completely. How much could these tiny palenques have produced by hand back in the early 1980’s and early 1990’s anyway? Porfidio simply sold way too much for a single palenque to keep up with demand. It was the single most popular brand of super premium tequila in those days. Not just in NYC but also Japan and across the EU too. Porfidio WAS the topshelf tequila of it’s day. Porfidio went downhill in quality as production increased. I still have a half dozen of these green cactus bottles, mine were redirected from Japanese imports as the Japanese always paid top dollar for their import liquor and Tequila has similar notes to the harsher Japanese Shochu made from Imo and Buckwheat. Ever tried a real Shochu? That stuff packs a punch for being 50 proof.
I have quite the collection of hand blown Mexican bubble glass tequila bottles from the early 1990’s. Even Patron sold their tequila in hand blown bubble glass bottles for several years during their early days as a premium import tequila. Not one producer continued to use hand blown bubble glass as sales exploded, the artisan glass blowers just couldn’t keep up with demand for bottles. If you think you have one, turn it upside down and look for the broken off glass punt where the bottle was removed from the glassblowers iron blowpipe. If you see the broken off punt, is was hand blown. Otherwise it is a molded glass replica.
Thanks for your contribution! Great color!! You clearly know more about the Porfidio story than I do. I don’t know exactly what was in those bottles I was drinking back in the day, but it was good shit. Given the aging, I am not sure I could rule it out that it was espadin – the barrel masks a lot as you know. And espadin is the genetic mother of the blue agave so their flavor profiles are not drastically different anyway.
But let’s not debate it! All I know is I loved it then and wish I had saved a few of those. Which brings me to your reference of “I still have a half dozen of these green cactus bottles”. Are they empty or full? And are you selling or interested in some trading??
No one knows what exactly was in those bottles of Porfidio but Martin Grassl and he isn’t sharen and probably never will. I bet he made a killing by blending some really neutral agave spirits with a much smaller percentage of the artisanal stuff to appeal to a palate that would never be caught sipping the limited production mezcals of that era. Maybe there was some marc or Calvados in there as well. I never tasted a smokey Porfidio but he sold many different versions around the world, even when just starting out in 1991. His deal now is using various agave species from around the world to make a new lineup of agave spirits, some from India and also Venezuela (Viva La Revolucion!). The thing is, Martin Grassl was only 24 when he first shipped Porfidio to the world. If you look into his bonafides and background, he comes from the Austrian fruit liquor and Germanic distilled unaged white liquor traditions (grappa and Eau d’ vie only Austrian versions). He bought and blended to his own specifications and really nailed a product that appealed to EU, US and Japanese cognoscenti. I stopped drinking it by 1995 as my boss had moved up the food chain and no longer needed to appease the peons with high end spirits. But I kept the dead soldiers for my collection. A funny thing is that the ultra high end Clase Azul with the super distinctive ceramic tower bottle is a dime a dozen on eBay as none of those bottles were thrown out as empties. Back then my tequila of choice was the Herradura silver from Mexico as a 100 proof white lightning and it was a Mexico traditional that was never very popular for US tequila drinkers. The US Herraduras were expressly distilled for people who had no previous experience with 100 percent blue agave tequila or 100 proof unaged tequila as a shot or sippers. Imagine how they would react to a modern artisanal single varietal mezcal. No way back in the day.
All my hand blown bubble glass is long empty and it wouldn’t be a good idea to try long term liquor storage in any of these bottles as the hand tooled (often out of round) necks and real cork stoppers leaked, even while on the liquor store shelves. The Patron bubble glass stoppers were particularly out of round and crooked. The glass stopper was glued onto a cork at crazy angles. Bartenders must have hated these bottles on their speed racks as the hand blown glass was super thin in places and prone to cracking with the slightest ding. I mean it’s called bubble glass because it’s filled with air bubbles from recycled fused broken glass and that weakens the glass pretty bad. The pics of Porfidio Anejo with green Saguaro cactus blown inside the bottles I have seen recently look to be machine made as the cactus is really uniform and much bigger than the little 1.5″ tall christmas tree sized ornaments in my bottles. My cactus bottles were redirected from the Japanese market with Kanji characters on the labels and they were all purchased before 1994, starting in 1991. Patron bubble glass was only used in the very earliest years of Patron tequila production and appears to be even rarer. I showed some examples to the Patron distillery employees doing a Patron road show in Denver in the mid aughts and they didn’t recognize them at all. They stated that was the first they ever heard about it but this was back when Patron was a contract product made to spec at another tequila distillery and modern Patron has it’s very own high end small batch distillery complete with many tahona mills, just like the artisan paleques use to crush their fire roasted agave pinas. As far as I know, Patron is the only tequila distillery using the ancient tahona mill process to crush some fraction of their pinas. Patron has long used a molded glass bottle for their product lineup that mimics the hand blown glass but has the much better sealing poly foam stopper that has taken over the industry. Even the super high end Patron super Anejos for a half grand use a molded glass decanter although the surface is hand cut to make it sparkle and shine when back lit on the bar shelf. The last hand blown bubble glass I bought was sometime around 2005 and it was a single bottle of the very smoky early Sombra Mezcal. Later bottles were machine made and filled with a much less smoky mezcal. Seems like both change at the same time in the evolution of a new high end agave spirit.
In wine making, those who buy and blend wines and attempt to charge high prices are called negociants (among other mostly unprintatble things) and the business strategy is typically to introduce a new product using very high quality bulk purchases blended and aged to your specs. Then after the early adopters and wine press have had their say and created market buzz (hopefully all positive as the product is much higher quality than the price indicates), the brand will slowly switch over to less expensive bulk supplies to make back your initial investment and more. Ask George Clooney if a billion buyout for a new but frankly average tasting Casamigos is an okay return? I mean most tequilas are not distilled by a distillery run by the brands owners. It’s contract operations for all but the biggest brands. Mezcal isn’t like that –yet.
But, are you going to help the guy get a bottle with the cactus it it, Dude?
Maybe it’s too early for me, but I don’t understand this comment!!!
That’s a wonderful tale. A love story—with heartbreak and resolution— and a mystery solved, all in one. Perfect for mezcal!
Well said!! Thanks!!
Very cool John!
Thanks! A special moment for sure….
Wow! That’s crazy!
Fantastic, and nearly unbelievable story! But then, of course, it all makes perfect sense in the end. There is simply no denying the excellence of the products crafted by this family. There is only the realization that you loved their work, even before you knew it was their work.
Well said! I don’t know if the post conveyed the disbelief and realization of the moment, but I tried. Thanks for contributing!