The Story of Two Brothers
Twelve years ago, in the shade under a large tree in Jalisco, Mexico, two brothers, Sergio and Jose Juan Carlos Barajas, shook hands. "It was a mesquite tree," Sergio tells me. "It takes forever to grow." They stood in an otherwise empty field and agreed to make the best tequila they had ever tasted. They agreed to plant their own fields of blue agave, and to one day build their own distillery, and to sell their tequila around the world.
"And it was underneath this tree, we gave each other the heart, you know," says Sergio. "And it was like—we make the deal, the deal like you will not break it, you know."
The brothers agreed to call the tequila El Relingo, or The Stallion, after their grandfather Don Lupe, who at an advanced age tamed a wild stallion through sheer force of will. "He's just, you know, this skinny old guy," Sergio tells me. "But I remember him keep saying, 'Stop, relingo! Relingo, I will ride you! I will ride you!' And sure enough, a week later you will see my grandpa, skinny old guy, riding up in that horse—I mean, he's got bruises and scratches everywhere, but he's riding that relingo..."
Jose Juan Carlos tended the agave fields while also running the brothers' two Mexican car dealerships. Sergio, who had immigrated to Issaquah in 1982, started a flooring company (his first job here was mowing lawns for the Seattle parks department). For a decade—agave takes 10 years to mature—it was floors and cars that supported the Barajas family's tequila dreams.
The Story of Three Tequilas
When drinking good tequila, it's important to remember what a blue agave piña looks like. It's the "heart" of the mature plant—it looks like a giant pineapple—and it forms the basis of tequila. It's important to remember that it's a plant. Good tequila tastes like the plant from which it comes.
"This one—the one we're drinking—we harvested this field about a year ago. This is one of my agave fields," says Sergio as we lift our glasses of El Relingo Blanco. There are three grades of tequila—blanco, reposado, and añejo—named for the amount of time the spirit rests after distilling and before bottling. Blanco is bottled directly from the distilling vats, without resting, and is the cleanest, clearest, sharpest of the three.
El Relingo Blanco is remarkably smooth. There's a strong taste of vegetation, and the sharp notes usually found in a blanco are subdued here—there's a little pepper, a little bite around the edges, but it's one of the smoothest blancos I've tasted. It's bright, light, and energetic, lacking the flammable taste of most young tequilas.
The next grade is reposado, referring to the repose of the tequila in an oak barrel for up to nine months. Tequila barrels are traditionally bought secondhand from bourbon makers in Kentucky and scorched with a blowtorch. After almost a year, the liquor emerges from the barrels darker, sweeter, and warmer. El Relingo Reposado won the coveted San Francisco World Spirits Competition's gold medal last year (El Relingo Blanco and Añejo both took silver medals), and it earned it. Any sharp corners of the blanco are fully rounded over, and there are hints of honey and oak.
Finally, the añejo, which ages in the oak barrels for over a year. The oak and honey flavors are intensified, and a smoky, almost vanilla taste develops. You can still taste the vegetation, but there's a richness, a depth, in this one that makes you want to stare into the golden liquid, to hold it up to the light.
If there's a problem with El Relingo, it's not inside the bottle; it's the bottle itself. It's the world's most straightforwardly shaped bottle, competing in a market of handblown, numbered, tapered, tinted glass sculptures. The label looks like clip art. It's a sipping tequila that looks most at home in the well. Sergio knows it. "Don't judge the bottle," he says emphatically. "It's what is inside the bottle that matters."
The Story of Two Sons
Jordan Barajas, Sergio's son, great-grandson of the stallion-wrangling patriarch, is in Union de Tula, Jalisco, standing under the same mesquite tree where his father and uncle made their tequila oath, holding a bottle of El Relingo in one hand and a glass in the other. He squints into the sun in the snapshot his father shows me on his iPhone.
"There are benches there now, under the mesquite," Jordan tells me by phone. "But it's still the biggest tree around."
Sergio sent his son down to learn the agricultural end of the family business (and to learn proper Spanish—his was reportedly terrible). "He went for two months," Sergio says. That was three years ago. "I asked him the other day when he is coming back, and he said, 'Never.' He's up in the mountains up there. He's drinking the añejo up there in the fields."
"The agave, they don't really need anything," Jordan says on the phone, talking about his days tending the fields. "There's landslides to clear, and there's snakes and scorpions, and it's like 110 degrees, but the agave will just grow, no matter what." The life suits Jordan, who by his own admission "wasn't ever really that into school."
Jordan and I spoke about how growing the ingredient changes your perception of the finished product. How knowing what to look for can change what you find. How clearing weeds away from an agave plant can make the añejo even sweeter.
"At the end of the day," he says, "not a lot of people care about the blood, sweat, and tears that went into making this tequila—they just want the best-tasting tequila. But knowing what it took to make it makes me drink it more slowly, for sure. I respect this tequila."
Is he ever coming back to Issaquah? "No, man, I'm not gonna come back." Jordan fell in love not only with the Mexican sun, the land, and the agave—he met and fell in love with his wife. Their first son, coincidentally, was born last Sunday, on Valentine's Day.
El Relingo Blanco tequila is available at all Washington State liquor stores; El Relingo Reposado and Añejo may be special ordered there.
This article has been updated to reflect the arrival of Jordan Barajas Jr.