The differences between brands of 100% agave tequilas have been years in the making. From the planting of the agave to unbarreling the añejo, the production cycle can take in excess of a decade to complete. It is a time-honored process steeped in tradition and culture, in which every decision made along the way will have a perceptible impact on the finished product. Cutting corners or speeding up the process may make sense financially, but that’s not how to make great tequila.
America’s fascination with 100% agave tequilas can be traced back to the early ’50s when Bing Crosby and Phil Harris first imported Herradura Silver into the United States. Now, more than a half of a century later, consumption of tequila is at a record high, prompting manufacturers to hike production. As of November 2010, there were 1,132 brands of tequila, an increase of 163 new brands in the past year alone.
The unfettered growth of handcrafted tequilas has left many consumers feeling overwhelmed. So which of the 100% agave tequila brands just making their way onto shelves have what it takes to play in the bigs? Here’s our take on the top 12 contenders:
Undoubtedly the most striking tequila making its American debut is artisanal KAH “Day of the Dead: 100% Agave Tequila. The tequila is presented in hand-painted ceramic skulls, which pay homage to Meso-American Dia de los Muertos traditions. As gorgeous as the bottles are, the certified organic tequila is even more so. The añejo is aged in American oak for up to 2 years, while the extraordinarily flavorful KAH Reposado is bottled at a lip-tingling 110 proof.
Equally remarkable is Tequila Corrido 100% de Agave, which offers a distinguished range of single-estate/single-barrel Highland tequilas. While the reposado and añejo are museum-grade, the cornerstone of the portfolio is the limited-production Corrido Extra Añejo. The dark amber tequila is aged to perfection in charred white oak barrels for three years. Its finish is remarkably similar to that of a well-aged cognac.
Two of this year’s franchise players — Regional Tequila and Azuñia 100% Agave Tequila — hail from Empresa Ejidal Tequilera in Amatitán, which lies across the road from Herradura’s Hacienda San Jose del Refugio. The Regional Blanco is especially brilliant, which earned it “Best of Category” honors at the 2010 Spirits of Mexico Competition. The Azuñia Blanco is light and vivacious, while the añejo is loaded with vanilla and savory wisps of toasted oak.
Ultra-premium Nobleza Azul 100% Agave Tequila is crafted in the Los Altos Mountains of Jalisco. Launched in 2010, the Torres family began working on the brand in 2006 after four generations of cultivating estate-grown agaves for other producers. All three expressions in the Nobleza Azul range are sexy, sophisticated and brimming with character.
Sublime Don Cuco 100% Agave Sotol is an unknown entity to most Americans, that is until they try it — then it’s impossible to forget. The brand is distilled from the desert spoon plant, a variety of agave native to Chihuahua. The sotol has been handmade for six generations at a small distillery in Sierra Nevada. Demand for Don Cuco invariably exceeds supply, so grab some while you can. It’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
Few brands are better prepared for success than t1 Tequila Uno 100% Agave Tequila. What easily could be the poster child for artisanal tequilas, Tequila Uno is the creation of master distiller Germán González of Chinaco fame. The Reposado Excepcional is barrel-aged just under a year and the Añejo Estelar is matured 18 months in American white oak. In April 2011, the brand will debut Tequila Uno Maduro, a blanco distilled to produce a fuller-bodied, more flavorful spirit.
Made at a small family-owned distillery, Muchote Reposado ranks among the great tequilas retailing under $30. Distilled in a copper-pot still, the tequila is aged 7 months in used Jack Daniel’s barrels. The essential beauty of Muchote Tequila is in stark contrast to its simple packaging.
The most long-awaited newcomer is Cielo Rojo Bacanora Blanco, the first legal Bacanora in the United States. Bacanora predates tequila by centuries, and its production was banned from 1915 to 1992. Cielo Rojo is handcrafted from wild agaves, spring-fed water and airborne yeasts. It’s utterly sublime in every respect, from its floral bouquet to lush, anise and spice palate. Tequila enthusiasts, be prepared to be wowed.
Rounding out the class of new class is TequilaRack, an exclusive set of 100% agave tequilas handmade in extremely small batches at different family-owned distilleries. The collection features the reposados from Arette Unique, Don Celso Plascencia and El Caudillo. The boutique brands are each characteristically distinctive and available in the United States only through TequilaRack. Salud!