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Las Cruces friends say new tequila honors Mexican culture

Matthew Hechter, an Oñate High School and New Mexico State University alum and the co-owner of Tepozán Tequila, shows off his new line of tequila at Spirit Winds, July 28 in Las Cruces, N.M. (Nathan J. Fish/The Las Cruces Sun News via AP)

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — Don Carlos Padilla is an agave farmer in San Julian, in the Los Altos region of Jalisco, Mexico. He has been producing artisan tequila for a local market for more than 25 years. How he came to meet two guys with Las Cruces roots — with hopes of bringing his unique tequila to a wider audience — is quite a story.

Matthew Hechter and Christopher Brandon have been friends since they played soccer together at Oñate High School in the late 1990s. Their paths crossed again in Los Angeles after college while both were pursuing careers in the film industry.

After starting several successful restaurants, the friends have launched Tequila Tepozán, a unique, artisan tequila that they hope will honor Mexican culture.

Matt was born in Silver City, then moved to Albuquerque before moving to Las Cruces in the 10th grade when his mom took a job at White Sands Missile Range. Chris moved to Las Cruces from Louisiana when he was 9 years old when his parents took jobs at New Mexico State University.

The two bonded, in part, over surfing — an unlikely connection for two students in southern New Mexico — Chris said. While in school, they — along with NMSU standout basketball player Kelsey Crooks, who died in 2012 — used to go to summer surfing camps in California.

After graduating high school, Chris went to Boston University on a track scholarship, where he would graduate with a degree in film. Matt went to NMSU and got degrees in marketing and business entrepreneurship.

Landing in L.A.

By chance, the two friends ended up in Los Angeles around the same time in 2005. They ended up rooming together and planning for the future. Both had a passion for film. Matt was working an internship at New Line Cinema. Chris had an internship at ABC. There, they met up with a few New Mexico-based film entrepreneurs and made a short film on David Parker Ray, Truth or Consequences’ notorious “Toy Box Killer.”

The pair soon became disenchanted with the film industry. Having worked jobs in bartending and managing restaurants to make ends meet in Los Angeles, they had other ideas.

“One great thing, I think, is that we grew up at home and we trusted each other immensely,” Matt said. “And that’s super important in business. I think a lot of our success in being able to go in and network can be tracked back to our upbringing in New Mexico.”

Both wanted to live in New York City while they were young. In 2009, they moved there with a harebrained idea.

Matt and Chris, with a couple of partners, were able to secure financing for a restaurant in the West Village. Sort of.

“We moved to New York not really knowing a lot about the city or the people,” Matt said. “We partnered with these two brothers, Mark and John Barboni, and we opened Hudson Clearwater, and it’s still going strong — probably doing better now than it’s ever done.”

But it wasn’t easy. The pair had to scrape together every penny they could muster. It was the very end of the recession — which Chris said was probably the only reason they were able to lease the space.

“We moved out there with the sole purpose of opening a tequila bar, funny enough,” Chris told the Sun-News. “That quickly led to being a new American restaurant — a farm-to-table, back when that whole scene was really starting and thriving.”

Having secured a lease on an old carriage house dating to the 1840s, Chris said the partners had a great plan to redo the façade and make over the entire interior. But they ran out of money. So they were only able to complete the interior and add an attractive garden out back — giving it a sort of “speakeasy” feel. Its notoriety quickly caught on in New York City.

“We opened that restaurant in 2010, close to the end of the recession,” Matt explained. “That’s really the only reason that a landlord would allow four young guys to get a lease on a building, especially in Manhattan. At that time, half the city was empty; all these storefronts were shuttered and boarded up. I think the landlord was like, ‘Screw it. If I can even get a few months of rent out of these guys, plus their deposit, I’ll be happy.’”

Martha Stewart was one of the restaurant’s first customers. In fact, Matt said, she enjoyed her first meal so much she ordered a second — exactly the same — to go. Another early customer was Joe Jonas, of the Jonas Brothers — who would become a close friend, business partner and the godfather of Matt’s second daughter.

This Wednesday, July 28, 2021 photo shows the Tepozán Tequila lineup at Spirit Winds in Las Cruces, N.M. (Nathan J. Fish/The Las Cruces Sun News via AP)
Building the Tequila Tepozán brand

Building on the success of the Manhattan location, Matt and Chris expanded to California. Currently, the two have a couple of restaurants there, including PBLC TRDE, a pizza shop in Santa Monica, and Rocket Ship Coffee on Melrose in Los Angeles.

Joe Jonas is a partner in both projects.

Both restaurants are still operational and thriving.

In late 2018, Matt and his wife, Cris Urena, purchased Spirit Winds in Las Cruces, at 2260 South Locust Street, from longtime owner Richard Parra. Matt had been going to Spirit Winds since he was 16 and had gravitated to the Las Cruces landmark during his college years.

The family relocated to Las Cruces at that time, and they’ve lived here since.

Launching Tepozán

Matt and Chris decided in 2018 to launch their own brand of tequila. Because of this, they had to divest in Hudson Clearwater. (Legally, they weren’t allowed to operate a liquor license while owning a liquor company.)

Ordinarily, Matt said, one would go to a large distillery, a tequila producer, and get a “white-label” deal. That’s when someone approaches a mass-market tequilador and asks for a custom-recipe tequila to produce for a broader market — a fairly common industry practice.

With Chris and Matt’s connections in the industry, through their bartending and restaurant experience, they were able to ask around — for “a guy who knows a guy,” you might say. That connection led to a happy miracle when they met Don Carlos Padilla, producing Tequila Tepozán for locals in San Julián.

“We’ve tasted a lot of spirits, given our backgrounds,” Chris said. “But this tequila is so unique. It’s so expressive of the area that they’re in.”

While Don Carlos still has distribution rights to his tequila locally, Matt and Chris are working to distribute it around the world.

Tepozán offers three varieties: a blanco, a reposado and an añejo.

“The Blanco is obviously the pure tequila that comes out after it’s been twice-distilled. The reposado has been aged four months. And the añejo has been aged 14 months — and we age in Kentucky white oak barrels, mostly from the Maker’s Mark Distillery. And we’ll have an extra añejo coming out later this year, which will be just over three years old — and that’s almost more like a cognac, it’s really amazing.”

Honoring Mexican culture with tequila

The Tepozán distillery is located above a volcanic spring more than a quarter-mile below the earth’s surface. The water is used not only to grow the field’s agave, but also in the distilling process.

Having been raised in southern New Mexico, Chris said he and Matt had developed an appreciation for the Mexican culture. However, it’s different across the border than when one travels deep into the interior of Mexico — and not just the tourist spots.

“Matt and I have really just fallen in love with the Mexican culture, as a whole,” Chris told the Sun-News.

They hope that their new tequila brings some of that culture to American connoisseurs.

According to Nahuatl legend, if you are lucky enough to hold the butterfly in your hand, remember to whisper to it your deepest desire, the company’s website explains. Once released, the butterfly will carry your wish to Xochiquetzal, the goddess of joy and flowers, and your wish will be granted.

“The Tepozán is a tree in Jalisco that attracts the monarch butterflies,” Chris explained. “They’ve been calling it that since the Aztec days. And even our branding tries to stick with the pre-Hispanic era of Mexico. Kind of an Aztec vibe, with a post-modern Mexican feeling. Our wax is handmade in Guadalajara. We use a great paper mill in Guadalajara to make our labels. We try to keep everything crafted in Mexico and highlight the culture.”