A new tequila that hit Washington State Liquor Store shelves in December is a lot more than just a good time.
It’s the product of decades of planning and years of struggling with imports and licensing by Sammamish resident Sergio Barajas to realize a family dream of making and selling their own tequila brand.
El Relingo Blanco is currently available for $26 in about 200 Washington liquor stores, and a variety of restaurants.
“This has been in the making since we were very young,” Barajas said. “We dreamed for a long, long time of seeing our family’s agave crop turned into our own tequila.”
Barajas grew up in a farming family in Jalisco, Mexico, playing in the agave fields and watching the harvested plants go to the big distilleries, dreaming that one day they would be going to his own distillery.
In the early 1980s, Barajas moved to Washington and spent 12 years working for the City of Seattle before founding his own flooring business. The dream of making tequila didn’t stay behind, though; his brother Carlos, who remained in Mexico, began buying fields in the mountains of Jalisco State and planting blue agave to harvest for tequila.
“Every money I have left over after paying my bills, it goes to buying plants, to more soil, to grow the stuff, to keep the dream alive,” Barajas said.
Blue agave is at the heart of tequila. The plant grows on dry, mountain hillsides, and takes about 10 years to ripen. When it’s ready for harvest, farmers chop off the leaves, then cut up and roast the 40 to 70 pound core, causing the starches in the plant to become sugars. The roasted cores are then shredded and pressed for juice, which is collected in an oak vat for a 30 to 48 hour fermentation process. After, the juice is distilled twice, and bottled immediately or aged anywhere from two months to eight years, depending on the type of tequila.
“Not many people know that process, and once they find it out, I think that makes them appreciate tequila more,” Barajas said. “It’s not just a shot and a squish of lime anymore; they start to taste it.”
Barajas Importers makes four different types of tequilas: Blanco, a white tequila that is bottled immediately; Resposado, which is aged in oak casks for up to one year; Anjeo, aged for more than a year; and a Gold tequila, which is 59 percent agave juices and 41 percent other sugars.
The Blanco is currently the only type available in the United States, but all four have been popular in Mexico for the last three years.
“That’s what gives us money to keep the dream alive,” Barajas said. “All the money we get for sales down there, we turn around and use to getting bottles up here.”
And getting the bottles here was the toughest part for the family.
It took 19 months to gain approval from the Food and Drug Administration and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau before the tequila could be brought into the United States for sale. It then underwent Washington State Liquor Control Board testing.
“Basically, they send you to hell twice, you come back all burned up, and then they send you to hell again,” Barajas said about the process.
He met with a small panel of Liquor Control Board staff to give a 10 minute presentation detailing marketing strategies, sales goals, and what makes the tequila special, among other things. The panel also received a sample for tasting.
Barajas’ Blanco tequila was approved — one of only three liquors accepted that day, out of 25 submitted.
Barajas said he will continue to submit his other tequilas until they are accepted; in the meantime, they’re available by special order in restaurants.
A Liquor Control Board spokesman said the most common reason a liquor wouldn’t be approved is because of an abundance of similar products.
“The first time I saw my tequila on the shelves, I was in the Eastgate liquor store, and I have tears in my eyes, and I still do every time I think about it,” Barajas said. “It was incredible to see my tequila right next to the Jose Cuervo, and they’ve been around for hundreds of years. I cannot even explain the feeling.”
Barajas lays the success of his tequila on the shoulders of his supporters, and calls the business “100 percent a family thing.”
And the best way to drink Barajas’ tequila?
“Take a straight shot,” he said. “It will give you a kick.”