Eric Knudson’s friends call him “the Viking.” At 6-foot-5, with long, straight silver hair down to the middle of his back, and a bushy white beard, he cuts an imposing figure. He’s a deeply religious guy who is quick to laugh and peppers casual conversation with the occasional curse word.
In The Grotto, a dimly lit bar/music venue on University Drive, he sipped from a highball glass of the Number Juan reposado, a dark tequila that’s aged for nine months in both French and American oak barrels. He tried to explain to a reporter the various ins and outs of tequila ratings and designations.
“This is made from 100 percent blue agave, the highest quality you can get,” he said. “On its label, Jose Cuervo will say ‘made with agave,’ and only 51 percent of it is made with agave. The other 49 percent is made with rum sugar.”
Only spirits made in the Jalisco region using blue agave can be called tequila — in much the same way that sparkling wine made outside of the French region of Champagne generally is not called by that name. Anything produced outside of the Jalisco region is called mezcal, which can be made with upward of 30 varieties of agave. There are three types of blue agave tequilas: blanco (or silver), reposado (rested — aged in oak for a minimum of two months), and añejo (aged in oak for at least a year).
Grotto bartender Jon Bearce recognized Knudson from his previous visits.
Number Juan tequila “sells like no other,” he told Knudson.
“We promised the Rivera family that we would never compromise the quality of their tequila,” Knudson said. Other tequila companies “harvest quickly. We let our soil rest for a full year before planting [agave] again.”
As he spoke, he removed his straw cowboy hat with crushed beer bottle caps on the bill, a large pheasant feather shooting out its side, and the cap of a malt liquor bottle dug into the center of the crown with the message, “Chicks dig rock stars.”
Knudson and Reymundo have been friends since second grade, and Knudson has written and performed the soundtracks to all of Reymundo’s comedy specials. He also wrote and performed the music for White’s Comedy Central special. He lives in Fort Worth but gigs here only about five times a year.
Knudson was working with Reymundo on the set of his “Red-Nexican” comedy special when another friend, Julio Rejon, brought in a bottle of tequila called Regalo de Dios.
Reymundo described Rejon as something akin to a cross between television adventurer Bear Grylls and drummer John Bonham.
Rejon “takes a backpack and just loses himself in Mexico,” Reymundo said in a phone interview. “When he comes back, he’s got all kinds of new, cool stuff. He lives in trees with Indians. He’s been kidnapped twice — but by amateurs; he escaped.”
“I’ve been a musician my whole life, and I’ve been on a lot of tours,” Rejon said from his home in Laredo. “When the tours are over, I take off and go into the mountains and different places and find different things, just experiencing different cultures.”
It was on one of his backpacking adventures that he discovered Regalo de Dios. He met some of the Rivera family’s agave farmers in one of the most remote regions of Mexico.
Rejon saw the potential in the tequila. He already owned an import-export business, bringing into the U.S. some of the more interesting foods and drinks he has found in Mexico. He approached his charismatic celebrity friend for help in convincing the Rivera family to allow them to sell their “juice” in America.
“My whole family has always been in import-export,” he said. “My grandfather was the first Mexican broker in Laredo, a hundred years ago. My family has warehouses there and things like that.”
Reymundo went to Mexico with Rejon and spoke to the family. After getting their blessing to export the tequila, the pair then had to sell the Rivera family on the name Number Juan. Rejon said they needed to invoke the man upstairs to convince them.
“They are very religious,” he said of the family. “A priest comes and blesses the tequila [after it’s distilled]. The name of their tequila is ‘gift from God.’ Juan or John means ‘gift from God.’ We told them it’s kind of the same name. But we’re Number Juan, which is kind of funny,” he said, referring to the similar pronunciation of “Juan” and “one.”
Then there was the matter of packaging the product. The Riveras’ bottle didn’t excite either of the men. But the family had a separate bottle made for their home use, and that ended up being the one Reymundo and Rejon used.
“If you want to make your own bottle, it costs about $15,000 just to get the mold made, and then you have to [order] at least a trailer-load of bottles,” Rejon said.
“Alex and I went and saw more than 1,000 different bottles,” he said. “Bottles are like girls — the next one you see you like it more than the last one. You get lost in bottle land.”
The first batch was sent to Louisville, Ky., where Reymundo lives with his wife and two children. Between the time the deal was struck and the first bottle was shipped to the U.S., Rejon worked on getting legalities sorted out in the U.S. and Mexico. Reymundo said he put himself through a crash course in the liquor business.
“It took me almost three years to study the industry in the U.S. and talk to key people in the industry, like John Paul DeJoria of Patrón … and Bill Samuels Jr. of Maker’s Mark,” he said. “Both men said, ‘You’ve got something really special here,’ and Samuels allowed me to talk to their marketing and distributing people.”
White said he approached Reymundo about getting involved in the tequila business after seeing the label. Around the neck of the bottle, there’s a picture of Reymundo’s father, who died seven years ago.
“Once I saw the bottle and saw how much passion he had for it, I said, ‘Let’s do this,’ ” White said. “The liquor game is pretty complex, but Alex will never give up. He’s got everything to gain and everything to lose.”
Knudson, who served as an army medic, survived the first Iraq war only to develop Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He survived that too and said he offered to join the team because he became convinced there was a higher power at work.
“The first time I remember crying with Alex was after he met the [Rivera] family. He was sitting in my truck wearing this big sombrero they gave him,” he said. “I said, ‘That’s your dad telling you you’re on the right track.’
“I told him, ‘I love you, I believe in you, and I trust you,’ ” Knudson said.
“We hit the ground running,” said Reymundo. “I keep telling people we’ve been in the country [one year], like a lot of my cousins.”