A tequila, an open-air market, a distillery and a hotel.

That’s a short list of the current and planned offerings from the trio behind La Pulga Spirits, which earlier this year unveiled its blanco and reposado tequilas and, more recently, released its higher-end añejo offering. 

La Pulga Spirits was founded in 2020 by restaurant founder and owner Sarah Castillo, former bar owner Andrew de la Torre and real estate developer and entrepreneur Stephen Slaughter. 

“Andrew and I had been discussing launching a tequila and then Stephen, a friend since high school, called me asking about starting a tequila brand,” said Castillo, the founder and managing partner of Taco Heads, Sidesaddle Saloon and Tinies. 

But before there was the tequila, there was La Pulga, the name for the historic Pequeño Mexico flea market at 960 N. University Drive, which de la Torre says is one of the oldest open-air flea markets in the country. All three considered the flea market as key to maintaining the culture and character of the Northside community and Fort Worth in general.

“You see roasted chicken, fresh fruit everywhere,” said de la Torre. “You see people shopping, bartering. It just means so much to the community.” 

Castillo, who grew up in the area, said she considers it the “gateway to the Northside,” where she grew up.

They didn’t want the area to lose that identity, but during the COVID pandemic the flea market and its vendors saw sales nosedive, and the property was put up for sale. 

“We knew if a private equity group bought it, which seemed likely, it would be torn down,” said De la Torre. 

He reached out to Castillo to see if there was anything they could do. Castillo had just returned from a trip to Mexico to research entering the tequila market. Soon after, Slaughter called to talk tequila.

The three, with their various backgrounds — restaurant founder, bar owner and real estate developer — gathered over coffee and made a plan for both the property and the launch of a tequila brand. 

They were competing against two other well-funded parties, but, by the beginning of 2022, they owned the 12-acre property. That dovetailed with their desire for a tequila brand and, eventually, a distillery for another spirits product, sotol. 

The plan is to continue operating La Pulga’s weekly market selling authentic local Hispanic foods and goods, but consolidate it into a smaller space. On part of the land, they plan to break ground soon for a state-of-the-art spirits distillery and, eventually, build a boutique hotel on the site, too.

While the idea for La Pulga Spirits was born in Fort Worth, their tequila is distilled and bottled in Jalisco, Mexico. Much like Champagne that is always made in its namesake region in France, tequila is always made in Jalisco, an industry rule. 

As a longtime restaurant owner and operator, Castillo knew what she wanted in a tequila – and in the bottle housing the spirit. 

“We pride ourselves on making vibrant tequilas with the taste of Mexican culture, passion, and flavor, and our Añejo is no exception,” she said. “If you’re looking to support locals, drink clean and add a beautifully crafted tequila, that’s what we offer.” 

La Pulga’s Añejo joined the company’s tequila lineup in August. It is an additive-free tequila made with 100 percent pure agave and aged for 18 months in former bourbon barrels. The 80-proof Añejo is packaged in a 750 milliliter bottle that retails for $74.99.  The other two offerings hit the market earlier this year. The Tequila Blanco, priced at $44.99, is an unaged 80-proof silver tequila and the Tequila Reposado, priced at $54.99, is aged for seven months in barrels to impart flavors of agave, caramelized sugar, licorice, honey and black pepper.

The size and shape of the bottles makes them easy to hold for bartenders, which was important for Castillo. 

“When we’re picking up the bottle, we want it bartender-friendly,” said Castillo. “We wanted to fit in the well. So they like it and can use it.” 

Aside from the easy-to-pour bottles, each is sealed with a premium cork stopper and carries a keepsake La Pulga medallion on a chain around the bottle’s neck. Each label incorporates an alebrije, a brightly painted piece of wooden Mexican folk art, that reflects the cowboy and Western cultures present in Mexico and in Texas. The alebrije for La Pulga’s añejo is the stag, while the blanco features a bucking bronco and the reposado features a bull. 

Their timing seems good. Tequila sales surpassed whiskey for the first time in 2022, according to IWSR, a London-based company that analyzes the beverage market globally. Tequila is set to overtake vodka in 2023, to become the industry leader by value in the spirits category, according to the IWSR report.

Distributed by Republic National Distributing Company, La Pulga Spirits can be found at high-end restaurants, bars, and liquor stores throughout major Texas markets or through the company’s website.  National expansion is planned for 2024. 

The plans for La Pulga Spirits doesn’t stop with the tequila or the flea market. 

Earlier this year, the group brought on board Ale Ochoa, the former whiskey scientist at Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co., as head of spirits. 

She is ready to tackle the company’s plans for tequila, its cousin mezcal, and for sotol, until recently a niche spirit. Sotol is the name for both the drink and the source plant, a desert shrub — sometimes called the desert spoon — that grows in Mexico, West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. It is part of the asparagus family and a close relative of the agave plant. While still relatively unknown, the spirit is gaining in popularity. In 2022, rocker Lenny Kravitz launched his line of sotol with Mexican spirits group Casa Lumbre. 

“I like a challenge,” said Ochoa, who recalls her family passing around mason jars of sotol when she was growing up. 

Farther down the line will be a boutique hotel on the property that sits near the corner of University Drive and Jacksboro Highway. La Pulga’s plans coincide with other development plans taking shape in the area near the Panther Island project, as well as the developments happening around the former Fort Worth Independent School District administration building at White Settlement Road and University Drive. 

But the trio have more than just development on their minds. 

“We want to be able to show visitors, people who stay here just how rich this culture is,” said De la Torre.  

Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at bob.francis@fortworthreport.org.  At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Robert Francis is a Fort Worth native and journalist who has extensive experience covering business and technology locally, nationally and internationally. He is also a former president of the local Society...