The new company pioneering Californian Agave Spirits
Jano Spirits is a lot of things. It is a terroir focused project by geeky wine & spirits dudes in California. It is a story of Mexican American and Californian cultural expression and evolution. It is a brand pioneering the next big wave in agave. It is a delicious spirit. It is all of these things and more, and it is just the beginning of their journey.
Gian Pablo Nelson, Brian Mascia, and David Ortega met while working together at a distillery in Napa Valley California. In 2021 Gian shared his ‘crazy idea’ to start a California agave spirits company. The idea was born from Gian’s wanting to do something of his own in the distilling world, combined with a desire to honor his roots as a Mexican American. David, also Mexican American, and Brian were all in, equally excited to try something new.
You might think that the first step would be a tour through traditional distilleries in Mexico to learn the ins and outs from masters of agave spirit distillation. While Jano takes notes from Mexico and its traditions, ultimately they have their own unique process and very purposefully are focused on creating products and systems that are specific to their region.
“Being Californian is an identity” shares Gian, “the integration of Western people and traditions with Mexican communities creates its own unique culture.” Jano embraces ancestral methods that were used in the Southwest before political borders, which is a form of reconnecting to ancestral roots, but Jano seeks to double down on the contemporary identity as Californian with Mexican roots, rather than trying to replicate Mexican traditions. The product serves as an allegory for this identity, a unique blend of both Mexico and California.
A pivotal part of the journey was fine tuning the production, especially without a master distiller mentor. They described a steep learning curve that required them to serve as each other’s mentors, from the spontaneous creation of the brand to stumbling their way through production, oftentimes improvising. Their first attempt was not commercially viable (mostly because of yield issues), and while it may have been a painful setback they described ‘mountains of progress’ from batch one to three. They have smoothed things out in the distillery and made connections of what to look for in the field.
They have produced two commercially available batches with enthusiastic reception. The first batch was released May 2022 and the second one was released October 2022.
I was lucky enough to taste batch #2. I tasted it as a new category of agave spirit rather than a traditional mezcal and for me it is a well made clean and balanced agave spirit, unique in flavor and texture, and incredibly expressive of its terroir. I think of it like a California Agave Brandy, more than a traditional mezcal. You can read my full tasting note here, including all the ins and outs of production specifics.
One of the most exciting prospects of the project is using a fresh, natural, local product, as opposed to a bag of grain. With backgrounds from the wine industry, the importance of having a connection to the farming and provenance of primary source material was top of mind for Gian and Brian. They reached out to Craig Reynolds, founder of the California Agave Council, who connected them with Henry Garcia, a second generation agave farmer in Woodland, CA. Henry’s father, a visionary, began planting agave Americana 25 years ago.
They have noticed that people have been planting more agave in the last 3-5 years, but given the expansion of people wanting to make agave spirits from USA grown agave, source material may be scarce or inconsistent for the next few years. Right now there is not enough agave available to harvest on demand, something that may very well change within 5-10 years. They are already seeing many farms rip up almond and olive trees that require significantly more water, in favor of planting agave. UC Davis is dedicating research to understand how this will affect the ecological balance of environments and interface with the accelerating climate instability.
Brands like Jano will be important drivers of the California agave agricultural industry. Working in collaboration with the California Agave Council, groundwork is being laid to distinguish the quality and provenance of these regional spirits. There is already a formal certification for California Agave Spirits, essentially a Denomination of Origin, though it is in its nascent stage, still self regulated and without any formal sticker.
Ultimately the idea is to expand the brand to be able to offer a range of spirits that represent the different terroir and regions of California, featuring agaves that are native to those regions. They want to show off the unique flavors of the mountains, valleys, coasts, and desserts. As they pioneer this new category of California agave spirits, their enthusiasm is balanced by humility- they know it is a learn as you go process.
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