602-4 Locust Street doesn’t look like a restaurant called Tequilas. The four-story brownstone stands just two blocks from Philadelphia’s stately Rittenhouse Square. It was built in 1853. Owner number one was William John Duane, Treasury Secretary under Andrew Jackson. Owner number two was William D. Dulles, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer and relation of John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under Eisenhower.
The grand interior, with its high ceilings and chandeliers, still looks more appropriate as digs for U.S. Cabinet members than the backdrop for a Mexican restaurant. However, when you consider the soaring ambitions of David Suro, Tequilas’ owner, the surroundings start to look apt.
If the fortunes and reputation of agave spirits, and the people who make them, have improved over the past two decades, Suro can take a lot of the credit. His interest in the affairs of tequileros on both sides of the border has grown from the local, as a young leader of the Mexican community in Philadelphia, to a position as macro as you can imagine. Suro’s advocacy takes many forms, from Siembra Azul, his line of 100 percent agave tequilas, to the endless series of seminars he conducts to expand consumer knowledge of agave spirits, to the many trips to Jalisco and Michoacán he has hosted, showing bartenders and other liquor professionals the artisans and traditions behind the bottles they enjoy.
“We’re not talking about someone who’s looking at profit margin,” says Steve Larson, a physician who’s worked extensively with the migrant community in Philadelphia for 25 years and met Suro in 2008. “He’s a renaissance man looking at the world from a really big picture.”
How big? Consider the story behind Siembra Valles Ancestral, a new expression Suro released last year. The spirit is his attempt to create a tequila as it might have been made a century ago, before international success forever altered production methods. He worked with historians to unlock the forgotten practices of the past, and then approached the Rosales family, distillers he has worked with for decades. He asked if they would devote a section of their plants to the project. He also got them to agree to work with a different family, the Vieyras, who make mezcal, and were willing to set up the operation. (“You have to know that tequileros and mezcaleros don’t talk to each other,” says Suro, explaining the enormity of this collaboration. “It’s Cognac and Armagnac.”)
The enterprise involved such ancient processes as the use of a pit oven, hand maceration of the agave piñas with wooden mallets, wooden stills and, naturally, bat-pollinated agaves. In someone else’s hands, Ancestral might be dismissed as a gimmick. For Suro, however, it was one more plank in a carefully constructed philosophical platform. He recognizes that the small tequila producers he champions cannot hope to go toe to toe with the big conglomerates that dominate the market. Their only way to remain relevant is to march in the opposite direction. “Let’s make a U-turn,” he argues. “Let’s go back to the genesis of the category, where the big guys can’t compete.”
Suro frequently does things that aren’t in his best interests as a businessman. When former bartender and brand ambassador Simon Ford and his partners began the search for a tequila to bottle under their 86 Co. label, Suro pointed the way. “He was instrumental in helping us find a distillery in Mexico who would work with us,” says Ford. “Because of his passion to preserve the traditions of tequila production and the farming of agave, he introduced us to a family that had been growing agave for more than five generations, since 1922.”
David Suro was born in the heart of tequila country, in Guadalajara. His mother was a chemist. She was married for only two years to Suro’s father, an agronomist engineer and a member of the Guardias Blancas, the Mexican president’s secret service. Suro describes him discretely as “a very interesting character.”
Suro had no desire to leave Mexico. But a job with a restaurant group in Cancún introduced him both to the industry he would make his own, and his first wife, a Philadelphia-based American Airlines ticket counter agent who, one year, flew down 56 times just to see him. When she became pregnant, Suro moved to Philly.
He got a job at El Metate, a Mexican restaurant in the city’s downtown, and he was surprised by what passed for Mexican food and spirits in the States. Soon, local leaders in the Mexican community were encouraging him to open his own place. With the help of his father-in-law, who co-signed a loan, he bought out El Metate at the tender age of 24 and changed the name to Tequilas. The name made sense to him. “Tequila means ‘place of work,’ ” he says. “I found that very appropriate. I was going to be working my butt off for years, long days. But the name was a big challenge in 1986. People don’t trust a place called Tequilas. They think there will be trouble. It was a battle with the community to try to tell them that there is nothing wrong with that name, that there is a lot of history and culture behind it.”
That battle of perception became his cri de coeur. Every day, he worked to change the public’s understanding of the spirit. “The conversation of the big tequila guys kept fitting the stereotypes: the shot glass; the salt; the lime; Acapulco; the sombrero,” he says. “That’s great stuff, but we are more than that. For us to walk through 1,000 years of history in the relationship between man-plant/plant-man and distill that into a drop of stereotypes, into a drop of nonsense”—he hums a strand of the hit “Tequila” by The Champs—“I didn’t want to do that.”
Alfredo Corchado, an author and journalist who met Suro in 1987, remembers once, while drinking tequila, reaching for the salt and lime. “David stared at me as though he was going to smack me with the bottle,” Corchado says.
Such bursts of temper are hard to imagine when you meet Suro. For a crusader, he is remarkably mild-mannered. He is reflexively tactful. He smiles genially and even more broadly after uttering particularly pointed criticisms of the tequila industry. Words like “interesting” or “fascinating” are used to describe situations that likely frustrate him on a daily basis, such as how agave plants have been so abused that they can no longer sustain themselves without the aid of pesticides. At the end of our interview, Suro thanks me for letting him vent, even though he couldn’t have been more gentle and diplomatic.
Maybe that’s how Suro manages to get so many things done in the name of quality agave spirits—with a smile and a kind word. He reserves his strongest language for the large spirits companies who, having transformed tequila into a multibillion-dollar industry, are now branching into mezcal. Suro maintains a good relationship with some of those companies, but there’s not much conversation between them. “I don’t want to waste my time, because I know my views go totally against their view of doing business,” he says. “It took me 30 years to understand how I can be a bridge between a mezcal producer and a consumer. It’s a complex world.”
Suro would rather work with the small distillers. Lately, he’s been helping to establish a system of mezcal pricing—based on things such as methods of production and the amount of time the agave plants spend in the ground—so that, when moneyed interests come courting, mezcaleros can bargain smartly.
And he practices what he preaches. When the Rosales family told him how much it would cost for them to make Ancestral for him, he agreed, but told them to add 10 percent to the figure. “I feel I have to treat them well,” he says. “I have to keep them in the business.”
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