Meet Sarah Kennan, the woman behind La Leona 100% Agave Spirit
Meet Sarah Kennan, a lady whose love and passion for high quality spirits has led her on a trip from Cape Town to Mexico and all around the Karoo. She’s learnt from the masters and is now distilling spirits from locally grown agave. We chat to Sarah to find out a bit more about what drives this unique passion of hers…
Can you tell us a little about yourself, and more specifically, how you got into making local agave spirit?
I was born and raised in Zimbabwe; I then attended University in Australia but have always loved South Africa and Mexico. I am simply creating a product that brings those two loves together.
I am fascinated and passionate about anything 100% agave – Tequila, Mescal (Mezcal), agave spirit, food, and surfboards! I am also a lover of everything sourced from the Karoo.
Originally I experimented with making my own version of Tequila from agave syrup just for fun. It got great reviews from my friends but I always knew there was something not quite right with the taste. I knew that I had to discover how to make it exactly how the Mexicans make it. So, I travelled to Tequila Town in Mexico on a “Tequila Tour”; I stayed there and learnt from the master distillers. In my travels around Mexico I also discovered Mescal, which is very similar to Tequila but made in a different region of Mexico. It is made in a more old-fashioned way, where the agave is baked with wood and the smoke gives the spirit a smoky flavor.
I was super inspired after my Mexican adventure and looked into importing but discovered that it would be too expensive. At the same time, I discovered that agave grew well in the Karoo and so I thought, “Why not make it from the agave that grows right here?” It would be a unique local product, using a local plant and it would create an industry using Karoo agave much the same as they use agave in Mexico. So, I went on a agave farm tour through South Africa and got in touch with the right farmers. I then found a distiller with the right equipment and now, in partnership, we are making 100% Karoo Agave Spirit, exactly how the Mexicans make Mescal and Tequila in Mexico.
What is the difference between agave spirit, Mescal and Tequila?
All Tequilas and Mescals are agave spirits but like Champagne or Port there is a protection of the Appellation of Origin in order to call it “Tequila” and “Mescal”. If an agave spirit is not made in a specific region in Mexico, even if it is made in exactly the same way, it cannot be called Tequila or Mescal (even though both are 100% Agave Spirits). Mescal is made in different region of Mexico to Tequila and is made in a more old-fashioned manner where during the baking process the smoke from the wood fires affects the agave and gives the spirit a smoky taste.
How do the reposado, the honey reposado and the blancho differ?
Blancho means “white” in Spanish. This is what all Tequilas/Mescals/agave spirits come out of the still looking like as the liquid has not been aged. La Leona Blancho is the most smoky (most similar to Mezcal) tasting of the three variants.
Reposado means “aged” in Spanish. Reposado is achieved by adding blancho spirit to oak barrels and allowing it to age for a 3-6 month period. The colour and flavour of the wood affects the spirit. This will be appreciated by the whiskey drinker. A slightly sweet beginning from the oak, with a smoky aftertaste.
Honey Reposado is infused with raw honey sourced from around Cape Town. This is great for someone who enjoys something a little sweeter.
What is it about the spirit that gets you so excited?
All alcohols are depressants but 100% agave spirits are the most energy giving of all alcohols and are really pure. I am a big promoter of drinking pure, high quality spirits; if treated with respect, they can give you an amazing night out, without the horrible hangover in the morning.
100% agave spirits can have the same smooth flavor and complexity of a fine whiskey.
Can you explain the process of going from plant to product; how you source the agave and how the spirit is actually made?
It’s a process of waiting 8-12 years for the plant to mature, knowing when it’s the right time to harvest, harvesting, baking, crushing, fermenting, distilling and ageing. Come to my launch at Cabrito on the 19th of Jan and you can find out more for yourself!
What has been the most rewarding part of starting the business?
Discovering how many people love to drink high quality 100% agave Tequila as their drink of choice. Learning that there is no better teacher or lesson than experience. Learning to solve problems on your own and trusting your own judgment. Learning that no matter how crazy your idea, if you believe in it enough and put enough time and passion into it, that little by little it can slowly become a reality.
Can you tell us the inspiration behind the name La Leona?
La Leona means “Lioness” in Spanish. The name is a show of respect to the Mexican origins of the spirits but still having strong African roots. I have always loved lions and wanted to use that in the name.
What has been the most challenging?
Educating consumers that, firstly, Tequila should not be a horrible experience thrown back from a shot glass at two in the morning in a nightclub. Many of the Tequilas that we have been sold for the last few years is a cheap mix of Tequila and cane spirit known as a “Mixto”, which is what causes horrible hangovers. 100% agave Tequila/Spirit is the good stuff.
Secondly, 100% agave Tequila should be savoured and treated like a fine whiskey.
Thirdly, “100% Agave Spirit” is very similar, if not the same as Tequila and Mezcal.
What is your favourite way to enjoy each of the variations?
Blancho – if you’re familiar with the taste of Mescal this would probably be your favourite of the three, because of the strong smoky flavour. It is best to drink it neat. It is also great in cocktails.
Reposado – over ice, drink it plain, or with a squeeze of lime. If you prefer a tall drink, try with lime and soda.
Honey Reposado – serve over ice, plain or with a splash of soda.
Where can people find La Leona?
Orphanage, Bree Street
El Burro, Greenpoint
St Francis Brewery, St Francis
Bottle Stores in Cape Town
Woodstock bottle store
If you’re interested in learning more, pop by Cabrito’s in Green Point tonight (Thursday 19th January) for the official La Leona launch.
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