In Mexico, they’re referred to as Tequila Puro, while the United States we know them as 100% agave tequilas. The first sip of these luxurious spirits quickly reveals why they’ve captured the imagination of the American drinking public. They are so flavorful that you’re left with the unmistakable impression that this is how tequilas are meant to taste.
These are the best of times for tequila. Demand for the spirit has caused the category to expand another 3.9% in volume in 2013 with all of the growth attributable to the high-end, super-premium segments of the market (those with a retail price above $22), this according to the 2014 Technomic’s Adult Beverage Resource.
The differences between brands of 100% agave tequilas are years in the making. From cultivating agaves to the un-barreling an añejo, the production cycle can easily exceed 12 years. It is a time-honored process, one in which every decision made along the way ultimately will impact the tequila.
Nothing breeds success like success and tequila continues to be an impressive success story. The past year or so has seen the introduction of a bevy of new brands. We’ve culled through the lot and selected our 12 favorites, each a triumph of style and craftsmanship.
1519 — One sip and you’ll wonder where this tequila has been all your life. It’s made at Agave Conquista [NOM 1577] in Guadalajara, one of the industry’s newest and most impressive distilleries. Not only are the agaves used in production USDA certified organic, but the entire production process has earned the same designation, the first and only company to obtain 100% organic certification.
While the brand’s barrel-aged expressions are sensational, the 1519 Blanco 100% Puro de Agave is perhaps the best gauge of the master distiller’s talents and the distillery’s state-of-the-art capabilities. The blanco has a generous floral and herbaceous nose and a citrus, herbal and profoundly spicy palate. The finish is thoroughly satisfying.
“The 1519 Tequilas are things of beauty,” says Mark Levinson, president of importer A. Hardy USA Ltd. “The distillery is immaculately clean, and although the equipment is of modern design, the process used to craft our tequilas is artisanal in approach.”
Aha Yeto — The agaves used to make Aha Yeto Tequila 100% Blue Agave are cultivated in the high altitude of Arandas. After harvesting they are brought to Grupo Tequilero de Los Altos [NOM 1548] where the agaves are baked in brick ovens, shredded, and the extracted juice and the plant’s fibers are transferred to large wooden vats. There the juice is fermented using naturally occurring yeast and then twice distilled in a copper pot still.
Bottled fresh from the still, Aha Yeto Blanco is spicy and silky smooth. All of the aged expressions—reposado, añejo and extra añejo—are matured in charred, American oak barrels. As a collective, the aged marques are highly aromatic and brimming with oak-induced flavors.
“Aha Yeto Tequilas are handmade spirits crafted according to traditional practices,” states tequila consultant Corky Graff. “Although more expensive to produce, Aha Yeto Tequilas are reasonably priced to make them more accessible to consumers.”
Celestial — Critically acclaimed Celestial Tequilas are made in Amatitán, Jalisco at Tequila Las Américas [NOM 1480] under the capable supervision of master tequilero Raul Garcia. The agaves used in production are grown on a single estate by 4th generation agave farmers.
Celestial Reposado is a Lowland masterpiece matured in charred, American white oak up to 11 months. The tequila has a floral, herbaceous nose and a palate of honey, butterscotch, cinnamon and nutmeg. Celestial Añejo is barrel-aged for 18 months. It’s a luxurious tequila with spicy aromas and a long-lasting caramel, dark chocolate, honey, clove, cinnamon and vanilla palate.
According to Bruce Milligan, vice-president of Tequila Celestial, the defining characteristic of Tequila Celestial is Maestro Garcia’s style of showcasing the character of the agave center stage. “The very essence of the Lowlands is forward and present; bright, yet earthy like the flavor of freshly roasted agave. Celestial is made with care, passion, love and a true undying respect for nature and our environment.”
Centinela — Casa Centinela [NOMM 1140] has been crafting tequila just outside of the town of Arandas since it was founded in 1904.
“Casa Centinela is a family-owned company with 110 years of experience, everything in our tequila production process is artisanal,” states Diana Jimenez, U.S. market tequila specialist for Casa Centinela. “We use clay ovens to slowly roast our agave, we have a stone Tahona wheel, and in our cellars we have over 56,000 barrels, the largest collection of aging tequila in the world. We allow Casa Centinela Tequilas to rest longer than so you’ll get all of the amazing aromas and flavors possible in a tequila.”
Centinela Añejo is an excellent example of just how superb the distillery’s tequilas are. The noble spirit is aged for 30 months in small, 200-liter oak barrels. It has a fruit, pepper and cinnamon nose and a long, spicy finish. An ideal añejo to sip after a fine dinner.
The iconic Centinela Distillery also makes Tequila Cabrito, a range of tequilas brimming with character and sporting modest price tags.
Demetrio — New to the United States is Demetrio 100% de Agave Tequilas, a range of memorable, high quality tequilas marketed at affordable, value-laden prices. Demetrio is made by Tequila Selecto de Amatitán [NOM 1459] in the Lowlands of Jalisco using only mature agaves and pure artesian water. The distillery is outfitted with modern equipment, such as autoclaves to steam bake the agaves and a stainless steel pot still.
True to its mission, Demetrio offers a lot of tequila for the buck. The Blanco expression is especially brilliant. Bottled directly from the still, the tequila is crystal clear with an alluring set of aromatics and a spicy, herbal and zesty citrus palate. The Demetrio Reposado is matured for 7 to 9 months in small, 200-liter white oak barrels, while the añejo is aged 15 to 18 months.
“The Demetrio difference starts immediately on the nose. It’s soft and briny and doesn’t have that pungent agave and ethanol smell,” says sales manager Douglas DeNicola. “The biggest difference has to be the finish. There’s no burn. It is a pleasant all around experience from the nose to the finish.”
Don Felix — This extraordinary, limited edition añejo was created as a gift from a loving family to its patriarch, Don Felix Bañuelos, one of the pioneers of the reposado expression and creator of Hacienda Vieja Reposado and Cazadores Tequila.
Introduced in 2011, Don Felix Añejo is handcrafted at Destiladora de Los Altos [NOM 1412] in Arandas. Every step of production is slow and deliberate from roasting the agaves to patiently fermenting the sugar-rich juice of the agaves. After being twice distilled, the tequila is matured for two years and eight months in virgin American white oak.
Be prepared to be impressed. During its stay in oak, Don Felix Añejo develops an enticing bouquet and a lavish palate of cinnamon, honey, vanilla and baked agave. The lip-smacking flavors persist an amazingly long time.
“Don Felix’s commitment to the quality of the distillate led us to create the tagline, ‘not all 100% agave is created equal,’” explains Monique Huston, national spirits education ambassador for importer Marsalle Company.
Dos Lunas — This 21st century brand is made at Tequilas del Señor [NOM 1124] from mature agaves grown in Zapontlañejo, a growing region in central Mexico. The agaves are cultivated with organic compost and the tequila is made without the use of glycerin, artificial colors, or pesticides.
Dos Lunas Silver is triple-distilled tequila, after which it is briefly rested in new white oak barrels and cold-filtered prior to being bottled at 80 proof. Ultra-premium Dos Lunas Reposado is a blend of tequilas aged for 9 months in seasoned Tennessee whiskey barrels and new American white oak. The diversity in wood finishes imbues the reposado with the flavors of caramel, mocha, vanilla and baking spice.
The Dos Lunas Añejo is also matured in Tennessee whiskey barrels and new American Oak casks only it stays in wood for 18 months. “The añejo is an ideal tequila to drink neat,” says Stephanie Scott, operations manager for Dos Lunas Spirits. “The longer you allow it to breathe the more aromatics seems to come to the forefront.”
Grand Leyenda — The agaves used to produce this elegant range of Lowland tequilas is USDA certified organic. It’s more labor-intensive and significantly more expensive, but there is no better way to make tequila than to start with mature, essentially pure agaves.
After reaching peak maturity, the harvested agaves are brought to Tequilas Las Americas [NOM 1480] in Amatitán where they are baked in traditional stone ovens over several days and fermented using natural, airborne yeast.
Grand Leyenda Reposado is matured for 11 months in both French Limousin and American white oak barrels. Its palate is a lavish affair of honey, butterscotch, nutmeg and zesty citrus flavors. The brand’s añejo is also aged in both varieties of oak for 24 months. It’s a sophisticated tequila loaded with engaging aromas and long-lasting, bakery-fresh flavors.
“Tequila has been the fastest growing category of spirits for the past decade or so,” states Jesus Santoya, CEO/founder of Grand Leyenda Tequila. “If you take a step back and analyze the spirits sector as a whole, I would argue that the market is not becoming saturated, but rather just highly competitive.”
Jenni Rivera La Gran Señora — For the two years preceding her tragic death in a plane crash in 2013, international recording artist Jenni Rivera was actively working on developing her own brand of tequila. The limited edition range of 100% agave tequilas has now arrived in the U.S. Like the young diva’s voice, the tequila is a thing of beauty.
Jenni Rivera chose to make her namesake spirits at Destiladora Del Valle de Tequila [NOM 1438] in the town of Tequila. The portfolio leads off with Jenni Rivera Blanco, a fresh and exuberant tequila bottled fresh from the still. It has a lively set of aromatics and a broad palate of citrus and ripe red fruit. The barrel-aged reposado has a light amber/gold hue and the oak-induced flavors of vanilla, dried fruit, cinnamon, citrus and nutmeg.
The capstone of the range is Jenni Rivera Añejo. Aged in American white oak for more than a year, the tequila features the lingering flavors of caramel, toffee, vanilla, cinnamon, chocolate and toasted oak.
Malinalli Extra Añejo — This handcrafted work of art is distilled by Corporación Ansan [NOM 1360] in El Arenal, Jalisco for Malinalli Tequila LLC. After harvesting, the estate-grown blue agaves are taken to the distillery where they are steam baked in an autoclave. They are then shredded and the extracted is transferred to large vats and allowed to slowly ferment. The process is precipitated by a proprietary strain of anaerobic yeast. The fermented wash is double distilled in a traditional pot still.
Malinalli Extra Añejo is matured in French Limousin oak barrels for a minimum of 4 years. The tequila has a bouquet of cinnamon, honey, vanilla, caramel and black cherries. Its delectable aromatics continue to build with time, so be patient. The entry quickly expands filling the mouth with a treasure trove of flavors. Fortunately Malinalli has retained much of its vim and vigor, which is a welcome quality in a tequila of its advanced age. The flavor extravaganza persists well into the extended finish.
Tears of Llorona — This spectacular extra añejo was originally created by acclaimed Master Distiller Germán Gonzalez for his private stock. The limited edition Tears of Llorona is handcrafted at La Tequileña [NOM 1146] in extremely small lotes (batches). The agaves used in production are cultivated on estates in and around Atotonilco in the Highlands of Jalisco.
Tears of Llorona is aged for nearly 5 years in various types of barrels, after which Germán blends a few barrels at a time. The extra añejo is comprised of tequilas half of which were finished in Scotch whisky barrels, a quarter in Sherry wood and a quarter in French Limousin barrels used previously to mature Cognac.
Tears of Llorona is exquisite in every possible way. “I made this tequila for my friends and family to enjoy together. Sit back, relax and savor the aroma, flavor and the perfection of the day,” suggests Germán. “Like a great whiskey or Cognac, this extra añejo is ideally served neat in a brandy snifter after a fine dinner. It’s the perfect way to discern the extraordinary flavors in Tears of Llorona.”
Tequila Embajador — This classy, ultra-premium range of Highland tequilas is made in its namesake distillery, Tequila Embajador [NOM 1509] in Atotonilco. One of the distinguishing features about Embajador Tequila is a certain percentage of their estate-grown agaves are roasted in traditional brick ovens, while the remainder is steam baked in the autoclave. This combined cooking style is one of the processes that influence the tequila’s character.
Embajador Platinum Blanco is double-distilled in traditional pot stills and rested in stainless steel vats for 40 days, which allows its constituent flavors to fully integrate. The Embajador Reposado and Añejo are both matured in French Limousin and American white oak barrels—the reposado for 8 months and the añejo for 18 months. Each variety of oak has a distinctly different affect on the aromatics and taste of the tequila.
“It is a positive thing to have a wide variety of tequila brands in the market so consumers can experience the various styles and expressions,” says Andres Garcia, regional sales manager and family member behind Embajador Tequila.
Tequila Peñasco — Puerto Peñsco is a picturesque fishing town situated on the Gulf of Cortez about an hour’s drive from the American-Mexican border. The popular resort community will soon be known as the creative inspiration behind Tequila Peñasco 100% Puro de Agave. The range of tequilas laudably captures Puerto Peñasco’s understated beauty and elegance.
The tequila is produced at Tequila Quiote [NOM 1433] in the heart of Jalisco. One of the bona fide gems of the portfolio—Tequila Peñasco Reposado—is aged for 4 to 6 months in charred American oak barrels. It has a wafting floral and fruit bouquet and the flavors of plums, cinnamon, clove, cacao, caramel and vanilla. The lingering finish is spicy warm.
Equally impressive is Tequila Peñasco Añejo, which is barrel-aged for 14 to 16 months. The tequila has a flawlessly smooth body and a fetching bouquet of fresh fruit, chocolate, fresh cut flowers, heather honey and cinnamon. The elder statesman of the range is Tequila Peñasco Reserva del Pueblo Extra Añejo. The special edition release is matured for no less than three-years in charred American oak.