Spirits of Mexico Festival founder secretly educates us all, one sip at a time
By Anthony King | SDUN Editor
While many people have dubbed her the “Diva of Tequila,” first and foremost, Dori Bryant is a teacher. And as founder of the annual Spirits of Mexico Festival – the largest, most comprehensive gathering of professionals and lovers of everything agave – Bryant uses her role to help educate the masses.
Celebrating its 10th year, the Spirits of Mexico Festival returns to Old Town for five days starting Tuesday, Sept. 17. From the newly established “Art of Tequila Exhibition” and ever-popular Tequila Trail, to the private judging, awards dinner, auction and main tasting event, Old Town solidifies itself as the center of all things tequila.
“The largest consumption per capita of tequila in the United States is in that little tiny area called Old Town San Diego,” Bryant said, laughing.
But she is quick to point out that there is much more to the industry than tequila. Mescals, sotols, bacanoras: Bryant talks about all types of agave spirits, and just how much they have grown in popularity since starting 10 years ago. In fact, she said mescal was the category to watch.
“You change and embellish as the industry progresses. Back then, there were really only a handful of 100 portos on the market, and now it’s the biggest and fastest-growing segment of agave spirits,” she said.
Once again, Bryant proves to be the eternal teacher. One hundred refers to 100 percent agave – the alternative is “mixtos,” with a minimum of 51 percent agave – and porto references the oak, port-wine barrels used to store the liquor as it ages.
For tequila, there are five different types, mostly based on aging: blanco or white; gold; resposado, which is aged between two months and one year; and añejo, aged less than three years, followed by extra añejo. Extra añejo, which is aged for a minimum of three years, was established as an official category in 2005, and Bryant can talk a lot on that, too.
“The bottom line with us is education, but in a festive environment. You don’t know you’re getting educated,” she said. “We purposefully have experts, aficionados, master distillers [and] authors come to host seminars because education is the bottom line of our platform. It’s been that way since we started.”
Bryant is currently the event director at the International Wine & Spirits Competition Group, which oversees the Spirits of Mexico festival among many other wine- and spirits-related events. Her company The Polished Palate was the first to be sanctioned in the United States by the Academia Mexicana del Tequila, and she holds the title of “Tequilier Ambassadeur” from the organization as well. She has organized and overseen several other drink-related professional festivals, including the International Rum Festival in Tampa Bay, Fla., where she currently lives.
But by all accounts, it is tequila that she really loves.
“When I launched the concept, I launched it because I have a such a passion for these spirits,” Bryant said, calling the Spirits of Mexico Festival’s 10th anniversary special. “It’s funny, I can recall every single year since we started.”
Bryant and organizers moved the festival to Old Town in 2010, and events take place at numerous restaurants and businesses in the neighborhood, as well as Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. The Tequila Trail – held Thursday, Sept. 19 from 6 – 9 p.m. at 11 eateries – benefits the Old Town Chamber of Commerce directly.
“I call it ‘sympatico.’ I don’t know how else to best talk about Old Town,” Bryant said. “When I get to Old Town, all of a sudden I have this smile on my face. It just feels good.”
Bryant credits the “ambiance” and “atmosphere” of one of San Diego’s oldest neighborhoods as the perfect fit for the festival, and said participating distilleries agreed.
“The whole feeling has everything that’s mixed in with Mexican culture, and the festival is not just about the spirits, it’s about the whole culture: where the spirits are produced and where they come from,” she said.
Scheduled events for this year’s festival include the kick-off “Contemporary Cocktails/Ancient Cuisine” on Tuesday, Sept. 17 from 6 – 9 p.m. at The Blind Burro, located at 639 J St. in Downtown, and the “Art of Tequila” exhibit at Barros Studio Gallery, 2802 Juan St. back in Old Town. Featuring unique tequila and agave-spirits bottles – an art in and of themselves – the exhibit is open from 1 – 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 18 – Sept. 21.
Friday, Sept. 20 from 6 – 10 p.m. is the awards dinner and live auction, where many people search for new, unique brands. The evening’s events are $95, and take place at Old Town’s Barra Barra Saloon, 4016 Wallace St. The auction benefits the Sky Ranch Foundation, on which Bryant is a board member.
The final event happens Sept. 21, from 6 – 9 p.m. inside the State Park. Called the Main Tasting Event, VIP ticket holders have the first opportunity to meet master distillers at 6 p.m., followed by general admission at 7 p.m. Free seminars will also be offered.
Master distillers at this year’s festival include Guillermo Erickson Sauza of Tequila Fortaleza, German Gonzalez Gorrochotequi of T1 Tequila Uno, Doug French of Scorpion Mezcal and Don Jose Pilar Contreras of Tequila Don Pilar. Bryant said she encourages attendees to meet with them, as well as the numerous brand ambassadors, to learn something new about agave.
“Here’s another thing,” she said. “I think it’s one-third … of all the new brands that have come [on the market] in the past 10 years have launched at the Spirits of Mexico Festival San Diego. They’ve used our festival as a launching platform.”
Tickets for Thursday’s Tequila Trail are $35, and each of the 11 restaurants will offer tastes of select agave-sprits, as well as food samples. The trail is co-sponsored by Olmeca Altos Tequila, and the after party – a $10 admission – is held at Fiesta de Reyes, 2754 Calhoun St.
For complete information and tickets, visit thespiritsofmexico.com or call 619-709-0555.