“Master distillers keep raising the bar by dialing deeper into the science of fermentation and seeking experimental new dimensions." Johnny Hernandez, Chef and Restaurateur

Johnny Hernandez’s tequila romance blossomed in Jalisco.

“Tequila was integral to my plan for delivering an authentic taste of Mexico at my first restaurant, La Gloria, in 2010,” Hernandez said. “Through trade connections with our sister city of Guadalajara, I traveled to Jalisco and began my immersion in the world of this ancient spirit.”

His education included attending distillery school, blind taste-testings, and earning top-level certification from the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), which enforces the industry’s purity and quality laws.

“Mother Nature knows her stuff,” mused Hernandez over a nighttime flight of tequila at his home. “Native to Jalisco, where 90% of tequila comes from, the 100% Weber Blue Agave that grows naturally in the region’s lowlands and highlands is the first thing you look for when buying tequila.”

From the minty, peppery notes of the 1921 Tequila Blanco to the delicate caramel and spice of the Casa Noble Añejo, poured from a bottle signed by music legend Carlos Santana, it was a “spiritual” awakening to remember.

Tequila is front and center at his San Antonio, Texas, restaurants, which include just-opened Casa Hernan, the reimagining of his former Southtown neighborhood home into a wonderland Mexican cantina with private terrace and patio event space.

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“Approaching tequila as a chef, the menu is a dance card for different tequila duets,” said Hernandez. “Blanco works best with lighter fare and first courses like salads, soups, and ceviche. Reposado is well suited for spiced and sauced dishes like chilis and mole poblano. Añejos and extra añejos are for after-dinner sipping and pairing with desserts. With chocolate especially, those well-aged flavors are a marriage made in heaven.”

He has seen the tequila industry “significantly” evolve over the past decade.

“Producers have shifted their innovation lens from cultivation to distillation,” he continued. “Focused on yeast, temperature and other factors, master distillers keep raising the bar by dialing deeper into the science of fermentation and seeking experimental new dimensions beyond extra-añejo.”

He is most excited about Cristalino, a blend of blanco and barrel-aged reposado, añejo or extra añejo run through charcoal to produce a crystal-clear spirit that combines peppery blanco character with aged attributes such as tropical fruit, vanilla, leather and tobacco. “Elegant and approachable, it’s a great sipping tequila for first-timers that is gaining an increasing foothold in the market and appreciation from aficionados.”

We tasted the award-winning 80 proof Avión Reserva Christalino Añejo; it was as smooth and richly balanced as advertised.

Producers are also dialing more into the aging process.

“With blanco tequila, they showcase their expertise in bringing forth the true essence and terroir of the agave through fermentation and distillation,” Hernandez said. “Now they are exploring new frontiers with the barrel-aging process, which takes over the natural agave flavor in increasingly interesting ways.”

Hernandez has an especially deep bond with Herradura, a major force of tequila innovation in the modern age. Taking over shortly after singer Bing Crosby obtained import rights and introduced the brand to the U.S. in the mid-50’s, Gabriela de la Peña introduced both reposado and extra añejo as major new categories in her 40-year run leading the company. In 2009, Herradura named Maria Teresa Lara Lopez as the world’s first woman master tequila distiller.

“Dona Maria gave me a taste of reposado tequila directly from the barrel on my first visit to the Amatitán distillery in 2010,” recalled Hernandez. “She also helped me select my first single barrel of reposado as part of a program for special customers. I learned much from her and from Ruben Aceves, then Herradura’s global ambassador, who has hosted me and my team many times. Tequila can bring people together like no other spirit.”