Tomas Estes, Who Put Tequila on a Pedestal, Dies at 75

Tomas Estes, Who Put Tequila on a Pedestal, Dies at 75

Tomas Estes, who had given up his career as an English teacher in high school to open Mexican bars and restaurants across Europe, helped transform the image of tequila from the fraternity house’s red estate into a fine spirit that ranks alongside cognac and singles Malt whiskey, died on April 25 at his home in Ashland, Ore. He was 75 years old.

His son Jesse confirmed the death but gave no reason.

Starting with his first restaurant, Café Pacifico, which he opened as an expatriate in Amsterdam in 1976, Mr. Estes brought Mexican cuisine and culture to a continent that was only vaguely aware of Latin American cuisine. He made most of his ingredients fresh every day, an innovation but also a necessity as things like tortillas and guacamole were nowhere to be found in Dutch grocery stores.

Café Pacifico was an overnight hit and became a regular hangout for American celebrities walking through Amsterdam. Mr Estes liked to talk about the time when Debbie Harry, lead singer of the band Blondie, waited two hours at the bar to get a table.

But the real star was the tequila. Mr. Estes, born and raised in Southern California, had spent his youth driving to Tijuana, just across the Mexican border, where he fell in love with the various flavors and styles of pure agave tequila. He brought the same love into the bar program at Café Pacifico, which in a short time became known for one of the best tequila collections in the world.

“Long before tequila became popular outside of Mexico, he tirelessly spread the gospel of tequila in Europe to those who would listen,” said Carlos Camarena, a third generation tequila distiller and close friend.

In 2003, the National Chamber of the Tequila Industry, a branch of the Mexican government known by the Spanish initials CNIT, appointed Mr. Estes as Official Tequila Ambassador for the European Union.

Five years later, he and Mr. Camarena teamed up to create their own brand, Tequila Ocho – and once again, Mr. Estes helped shape the way people think about tequila.

Tequila must be made in the Mexican state of Jalisco and distilled from the blue agave plant. The best tequilas use it exclusively. Agaves are grown in different soils and at different altitudes, resulting in nuances that a distiller must be prepared for to get a consistent product.

Mr. Estes had a secondary passion for wine from Burgundy, where the winemakers highlight the characteristics brought about by tiny differences in soil and climate or in the environment they call terroir. He and Mr. Camarena wondered if they could do the same for tequila: what if they celebrated it instead of ironing out differences in terroir?

Each batch, they decided, would be made from agaves grown in a specific field and harvested at a specific time of year, and each bottle would list the details of how it was made.

They released Tequila Ocho in 2008 when consumers in the US and Europe embraced the idea of ​​local, authentic production, whether in their clothes or in food. Soon they were joined by a wave of supporters eager to hop on the single-field wagon.

“Everyone thought we were crazy,” said Mr. Camarena. “But it was a snowball that we slowly put together, then we started rolling and it went off.”

Thomas George Estes was born on August 30, 1945 in Whittier, California, a town in the southeast corner of Los Angeles County probably best known as the youth home of President Richard M. Nixon. His father, James Neal Estes, was an insurance broker and his mother, Dorothy (Thomas) Estes, was an executive director.

Mr. Estes’ parents were of Welsh and English descent; After his restaurant career began, his mother started calling him “TOE mass,” which is the Spanish pronunciation, and he dropped the H in his name.

He grew up with Mexican culture, first traveling across the border with his father, then alone to Tijuana, where he spent the evening with tequila and then slept on the beach before returning north.

“To me, Mexican life seemed so immediate and real compared to life in the US that I find it artificial, materialistic, and status-conscious,” he said in a 2009 interview with The Drinks Report, “like you would live in the head rather than in the heart. ” and soul. “

Mr. Estes graduated from California State University at Long Beach in 1967 and began teaching high school English and coaching wrestling, another of his lifelong passions, the next year.

He married Dorothy Jean McDowell in 1966 and had one son, Thomas. The couple divorced in 1971. He married Marla Simon in 1986 and they had three sons, Jesse, Luke and Max. His children and wife survive him along with his brother James Jr. and sister Karen Estes.

In the late 1960s, Mr. Estes felt fenced off from bourgeois American life. He dreamed of moving to Amsterdam after visiting the city on vacation, and it was during a family trip to Central America in 1970 in a Volkswagen van that he realized how this was to be done: he was going to open a restaurant.

Although his only experience in the industry was washing dishes while studying, he was diligent in saving money. In 1975 he gave up teaching and moved to the Netherlands.

The only place he could afford was on the edge of De Wallen, Amsterdam’s red light district which is now full of tourists but dirty and dangerous at the time.

Although people started visiting Cafe Pacifico almost immediately, they weren’t usually locals, but tourists from other European countries who were in Mexico and wanted a different taste of its cuisine – and its national spirit.

After the success of Café Pacifico, he opened more restaurants and bars across Europe and Australia, a total of 18. In his bars, a customer could find tequilas ranging from an obscure bottle from a tiny local producer to a valuable expression from a world-famous distillery, from some of which could sell for hundreds of dollars a cast.

Mr. Estes preferred to drink his tequila properly, but he wasn’t a snob: he was just as happy pouring shots, and guessed that his bars had served eight million margaritas.

It also became the inspiration for a new generation of tequila bartenders. Among them is Ivy Mix, who worked for him and later opened Leyenda, an award-winning Brooklyn bar; She wrote “Spirits of Latin America: A Celebration of Culture and Cocktails with 100 Recipes from Leyenda & Beyond” (2020).

“He really started teaching people what good tequila is,” she said. “It influenced the way I make drinks, how I put my bar program and even how I wrote my book.”

Mr. Estes was aware of his identity as a white American who sold Mexican food to Europeans. He emphasized authenticity – he brought his teams to Mexico for training every year – and used his platform to promote aspiring tequila producers.

Mr. Camarena said, “I thought he was a Mexican who happened to be born outside of Mexico. He was Mexican at heart. “