Roxanne Fernandez Tiburolobo is a head production distiller at Corning & Company Distillers in Sonoma, California. He learned to make corn beers and other ancestral beverages growing up with a mother of Raramuri descent and a father who’s Chiricahua Apache Nde. After studying molecular toxicology at the University of California at Berkeley and leaving medical school, Tiburolobo worked in biotech before getting into the alcohol industry. He’s speaking at the Tales of the Cocktail panel “This is What Indigenous Representation Looks Like” at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday, July 25, at the Ritz-Carlton. Find more information about Tiburolobo at linktr.ee/el_tiburolobo, and about Tales at talesofthecocktail.org.
Gambit: How did you get into the spirits industry?
Roxanne Fernandez Tiburolobo: When I was doing my undergrad in molecular toxicology, I was planning on going to medical school. I started med school but couldn’t really afford it because that was deep in the recession. I floated around biotech for a while, but I got to a point that I wanted to do something that was engaging.
I grew up homebrewing. My grandmother’s people, on my mother’s side, the Raramuri — they do a lot of ancestral beers, like corn beer, as part of their ceremony. So I used to make those with her. The fermentation aspect of that is super interesting to me. That’s the part where I nerd out.
My dad is Chiricahua Apache, and they also have ancestral beers. They have these things called tesguinos, which is the beverage. They’re for tesguinadas, which are like parties. There are specific ones that are only for major ceremonies and religious holidays. Other times they’re for social gatherings.
Originally, I wanted to go into spirits because I have always been more of a spirits drinker, but California was in a weird time with microdistilleries. The laws had just changed over, so you could have tasting rooms and more places could open. So a lot of distilleries were getting off the ground, but nobody was hiring.
But brewing was big, and I was like I know how to homebrew, and I have a science background. Actually, the hardest part was not getting put on the QAQC side, like immediately put in the lab. I didn’t want to sit behind a microscope. I was like, “I want to be on the floor. I want to be in production.”
I did brewing for almost five years. Then me and my husband moved to the north Bay so he could go to paramedic school. When we did that, I was looking at new jobs. There are some good breweries up there, like Russian River and Moonlight and all these legacy breweries that beer nerds know. There are a bunch of little distilleries up there as well.
I got contacted by a distillery in Petaluma called Griffo. They are mostly known for gin, but they also do whiskey and coffee liqueur. My first project was getting that coffee liqueur off the ground, which was really cool because it won a bunch of awards. Then the pandemic changed their trajectory towards canned cocktails, and that wasn’t what I was into.
Sonoma Distilling was hiring, and I have been there for close to three years now. Corning & Co. is the parent company. I am the production lead. When people contact us about new recipes or making a whiskey, I help design that and make sure it’s set up on our system for optimal fermentations.
Gambit: How did you get involved in Tales?
Tiburolobo: This is the third all-native panel at Tales. I was on the first one, but it was virtual because of the pandemic. We talked about ideas about inclusion. There are not a lot of us, and that comes from a lot of historical issues with the alcohol industry and how alcohol has been weaponized against us. That makes it hard to be in the industry.
We have talked about dispelling some of those myths. With this panel, we want to move on. Part of the panel is about ancestral foodways that have contributed to current drinks culture, like ingredients we use. When you talk about beverages that are getting more popular, like tepache and things like that, what are Indigenous contributions? What do ancestral and current ones look like?
There is a lot of cultural appropriation in spirits. Like in ingredients. There are these medicine plants that are extensively used in ceremony, and people are incorporating them in gins and whiskies. I have seen paulo santo-aged whiskey. That plant got driven to the brink of extinction because people like lighting it in incense, even though we use it in ceremonies.
We want to talk about our experiences in the industry, and you can move beyond land acknowledgements and things like that. What can you do to make native people more comfortable in the industry and also acknowledge what they are already doing?
We continue to run into the same problems. I still run into people in the industry who are like, “I thought you guys couldn’t metabolize alcohol the same way.” That is totally myth, but a lot of people believe it. Some people say I thought native people couldn’t have alcohol because they are allergic to it, or something like that. I am like, our people have been making alcohol for thousands of years. There are people who are hyper-sensitive to alcohol, but there is no greater distribution of it in our population than any other population. My response is, I don’t know what to tell you other than it’s a really weird thing that you would hear a blanket statement about a racial group and not interrogate that further.
Gambit: Are we losing any of the ancestral beverages?
Tiburolobo: There are people that are working to revive some things. I know tribes in the Southwest made prickly pear wine, but I don’t know of anybody who makes it any more.
Part of that is because there is a negative connotation against alcohol within the native community because of the way it’s been weaponized against us. You can get a negative reaction for trying to work with alcohol.
In certain communities, if something is an active part of ceremonies, it still exists. But there are some beverages we know about, but nobody is making them. With corn beers in my father’s tribe, the malting and all the stuff about preparing the corn is the providence of women, but very few people know how to do it anymore. So that might just die out. There are lots of beverages out there that are threatened.
The girls at Bow & Arrow, Shyla (Sheppard) and Missy (Begay), they use Neomexicanus hops in some of their beers, that’s the actual American hop plant that grew in the Americas and was used. People knew about it, but it was kind of lost. Rediscovering that was kind of their thing. And working with it in a more modern way, instead of a medicinal way.
Keeping those things alive is so hard. We have to find the people who have this knowledge and pass it down. You have to get the younger generation interested in it. If I had infinite money and resources, I’d love to team up with a native anthropologist and go to different tribal groups and get them comfortable with it and document it, and also make these things.
We asked Chockie Tom about becoming a bartender, how drinkers can embrace change and her upcoming seminar at Tales.