Don Julio González-Frausto Estrada was just 17 when he founded his Tequila distillery. It’s been quite a journey from these humble beginnings to being part of one of the largest drinks companies in the world, and enjoyed by celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio. This is the story of Don Julio Tequila.

1925 was a momentous year. America got its first female governor in Wyoming, Nellie Tayloe Ross; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published; as was Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway; and Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush hit the silver screen.

Don Julio

It’s Don Julio himself!

Do Julio, the man behind the brand

It was also the year that Julio González-Frausto Estrada was born. The man behind one of Tequila’s most recognisable brands, Don Julio, was raised in the highlands of Atotonilco el Alto in Mexico’s Jalisco region. “He was born and raised in the heart of a family devoted to the agaves,’ says Karina Sánchez, Don Julio’s global brand ambassador. ‘Since he was a child he developed a devotion to the land.”

He learnt his trade as a young man making mezcal in underground ovens and at the tender age of 15, Julio was distributing Tequila on horseback to provide for his family after his father’s death. In 1942, at just 17 years of age, he bought his first distillery – La Primavera (meaning ‘spring’) – using money lent to him by a wealthy local gentleman.

However, it was another 43 years until the brand Don Julio was officially born. During a party thrown for Estrada by his sons in 1985, he requested that his special reserve reposada be served in the now signature short and square bottles so that guests could see each other across the table. When he was asked by guests where they could buy the Tequila originally only made for the family, it set off a spark for turning his liquid into a business. In 1987, finally the world was introduced to Don Julio Tequila.

Don Julio Tequila HQ

Don Julio HQ

The liquids

Today, the brand has six core expressions: Blanco, Añejo, Resposado, 70 Añejo Claro, 1942 and Real, as well as some special limited bottlings, including one even aged in Lagavulin casks – master distiller Enrique de Colsa is, needless to say, a busy man.

Making the Tequilas is a showcase in quality craft. The agaves (Don Julio only ever uses 100% blue agave) are grown in the microclimate and the mineral-rich red clay soils of Jalisco and harvested after seven to 10 years. Then, the pencas (leaves) are cut from the piñas which are then cut into thirds or quarters and steam-cooked in traditional masonry ovens over three days before going into white oak casks for the aged expressions. Eight pounds of agave goes into one bottle of Don Julio Tequila.

These meticulous methods are testament to Estrada’s love of his craft. His unconventional methods included planting the agave’s further apart and even whispering to his agaves. “I really admire his dedication and love for the agaves – he considered them as his own children,” says Sánchez. “He was also so careful about trimming the grass around them, and he taught the jimadors how to cut the leaves in his own way.”

The legacy

When Don Julio sadly passed away on Tuesday 20 March 2012, there was an outpouring of love for the Tequila pioneer. In a statement, president of global Tequila for Diageo, Maggie Lapcewich, wrote: “Throughout his life Don Julio worked arduously, neither allowing himself to fail nor succumbing to adversities. He always fought and prevailed in his perseverance to achieve his goalsMany describe the journey of Don Julio’s life as one that was honest, just and fair. He remained loyal to his beliefs and was committed to his work and family… we know that his legacy will live on.” 

Indeed it has, with Diageo completing a full acquisition of the Tequila brand and the assets of La Primavera in 2015, pumping $400m into the brand. Since then it’s been sipped by Leonardo DiCaprio, P Diddy and Hailey Baldwin at Coachella’s 2018 afterparty; had a cameo in 2018’s The Predator; and featured in its own TV promo entitled The Man, the Legend.

Don Julio continues to sell by the ‘caja’ (‘crate’) load – even if the second half of last year saw sales drop somewhat, no doubt a result of Covid. With more consumers leaning towards premium tequilas, we’re expecting the agave spirit to continue to fly off shelves and backbars. I’m sure if Don Julio could still distribute his wares on horseback, he would.

The Don Julio Tequila range is available from Master of Malt.