By David Morrill
Angel Salvador Ortega stowed away on a banana boat out of Puerto Bolivar in 1994 and was on his way, he hoped, to being an illegal alien in the U.S. when his fortunes took a dramatic turn.
Life was hard in his native Oña, a town of 3,000, set in a dry rocky valley 60 miles south of Cuenca. “Many people were leaving, because there were no opportunities,” Angel says. “I needed to make more money to take care of my family and the place to do that was the United States.”
Angel’s trip to the U.S. was cut short when the boat docked in Panama. Discovered earlier by the ship’s crew, he was arrested and jailed in Panama City. “It was not a good start,” he concedes.
Following his release several days later, before he could plan the next leg of his trip north, he met a Mexican businessman living in Panama. The man owned several businesses in Guadalajara, including a tequila distillery.
“When I told him that there was nothing for me in Oña except rocks, weeds, and agaves, the Mexican had an idea,” Angel says. “You need to go home and use the agaves to make tequila,” he said. Angel, who had never seen much use for the agave plants that grew everywhere in his valley, and had never tasted tequila, was interested.
For the next eight months, the Mexican spent hundreds of hours with Angel, teaching him to be a tequila maker.
Today, Angel is one of a handful of artisanal tequila makers in Ecuador and, according to those who have taste-tested the market, the best.
Angel’s tequila, called aguardiente de agave because the tequila, by international agreement, can only be applied to liquor produced in Jalisco state, Mexico, is bottled under the brand name Trancahuaico. The business is small and, besides Angel, the staff includes his wife, Zoila Guaman, who runs a small tasting room at the couple’s home off of highway E35 in Oña, and their two sons.
At first glance, parts of Angel’s production line bear a striking resemblance to Snuffy Smith’s Smokey Mountain moonshine shed. On further inspection, though, it’s clear that his is a highly sophisticated operation. To maintain quality standards, Angel continually monitors the ripening aguardiente, continually testing for specific-gravity, color and taste.
“You have to check all the time,” he says. “If you don’t, you may have to throw out your work.”
The blue agaves, or agave azul, that Angel uses are harvested locally. Some are grown on his own land, but most come from neighbors. “We choose agave plants that are about eight years old,” Angel says. “These make the best tequila.”
After the agave is harvested, workers cut out the heart of the plant, called piña due to its resemblance to a pineapple. The piñas are then cooked to convert starches to sugar, after which they pass through presses or grinders to extract the juice, or agua miel, which is then boiled before the distillation process begins.
Almost all of Angel’s tequila is produced from September to December, the optimum harvest time for the agave juice. He produces about 100 liters a day during the period, he says.
Angel makes the point to customers that Trancahuaico is a legally registered business, regularly inspected by local and national health authorities. He is most proud of the fact that his tequila is 100% organic. “They use chemicals in Mexico in the fermentation,” he says. “I don’t and I think that’s why mine tastes so good.”
Almost all the reviews of Angel’s tequila are couched in superlatives.
Part-time Cuenca expats Vicki Spitzack and Gary Hudson, who visited Angel’s tasting room in November, came away impressed. “It’s a high-quality tequila and it’s exceptionally smooth,” Hudson says. Spitzack agrees and says it’s comparable to the Don Julio Blanco label that she buys in California.
Quito expat Gerald Simms is another fan. “One of my hobbies is checking out homegrown distilleries and breweries and Trancauaico is the best I’ve found in Ecuador,” he says. “The tequila’s so smooth you don’t need the salt and lime.”
Simms, who lived in Mexico for three years, says that the high quality is probably the result of the local agave. “From what I understand, the blue agave in southern Ecuador is juicier than it is in Mexico.,” he says. “The finished product is definitely a cut above your standard-issue Jose Cuervo and you can’t beat the price.”
In addition to tequila, Trancahuaico produces and sells a non-alcoholic agave syrup, or Jarabe de Agave. The syrup, naturally sweeter than sugar, is used as a food and drink additive, but also as an elixir for bone and joint health.
Trancahuaico Aguardiente de Agave is sold in only two locations, at Angel’s and Zoila’s house in Oña and at Megatienda del Sur, on Av. Las Americas, in Cuenca, where inventory can be unpredictable. “Most the sales are here in Oña,” Angel says. “We sell to some people who own restaurants and social clubs, but mostly it is in small quantities to people who buy for their personal use.”
Does Angel consume his own product? “I have one cup a day, after breakfast,” he says. “Then I have to work.”
Angel’s aguardiente sells for $15 a fifth and $7.50 for a half-fifth. This compares with $51 for Jose Cuervo Especial at Supermaxi and $115 for Don Julio Blanco at an El Centro licoreria, prices for both jacked up by Ecuador’s high liquor import taxes.
To buy at the source in Oña, the drive from Cuenca on E35, the highway to Loja, offers a dramatic mini-education in Ecuador’s famous micro-climates. To the north of Oña, you’ll pass through lush, high-altitude, pine forests and thick stands of native vegetation. Once you clear a high ridge south of La Paz and descend into the adjacent valley where Oña is located, the lushness quickly gives way to acacia trees, wire weed, rocks, and sand.
The entrance to Angel’s and Zoila’s home and tasting room is on the east side of E35, just past the turnoff to downtown Oña. It’s unmarked, but distinguished by a brick archway. There’s no sign or street number at the entrance and it’s easy to miss. If you see the Mas Gas gasolinera and tienda, also on the east side of the highway, you’ve gone a couple of hundred meters too far, but the tienda employees will be happy to point you back in the right direction.