There’s a mystique and romance surrounding tequila that few products enjoy. The import has captivated the imagination of the American drinking public, making it the fastest growing category of spirits in the country. As aficionados grow more discerning, distillers are responding by releasing the best and brightest their craft can produce, innovative offerings such as ultra-premium blancos, vintage dated and single estate bottlings and increasingly rarer and older añejos.
“I’m confident that in the foreseeable future tequila will challenge vodka as America’s spirit of choice,” contends Gary Shansby, founder and chairman of Partida Tequila. “Tequila has everything consumers are looking for in a spirit—body, texture, aromatics, layers upon layers of sensational flavors, and unlimited drink applications. Vodka simply can’t offer consumers the same enticements.”
Crafting great tequila is a labor- and cost-intensive process. Agaves mature at their own pace irrespective of demand. It takes the plant between 8 to 12 years to reach maturity and optimally is harvested when the plant’s natural sugar content has peaked at about 21-25 brix. The agave thrives in rich volcanic soil, and a warm and dry climate. Cutting corners or speeding up the process may make financial sense, but it’s not how you make great tequila.
The unfettered growth of tequilas has left many consumers feeling overwhelmed. As of November 2014 there were 1,324 brands (“marcas”) of tequila being produced by 154 registered tequila distilleries. So in case you’ve missed the initial fanfare over their release, here is our take on new tequilas destined for the fast track. After all, nothing breeds success like success.
An excellent example is artisanal Maracame 100% Agave Tequila. The super-premium brand is made at Tequila Supremo [NOM 1456] in the Highlands by the famed Camarena Family, who are best known in the States as the producer of Camarena Tequila. To maintain its unparalleled quality, Maracame Tequilas are double distilled in a traditional pot still and comprised of spirits drawn from an atypically small portion of the final distillation—referred to as the “heart.”
The elder statesman of the range, Maracame Añejo, is particularly stunning. It spends up to 18 months resting in small, 200 liter American oak barrels. The tequila possesses a rich, amber/golden hue, a medium-weight body and a wafting bouquet of vanilla, caramel, butter and herbs. Its long finish is punctuated with the flavors of citrus zest, honey, baking spice and black pepper.
Tequila Supremo also makes Azteca Azul, a lovely premium marque priced lower than the Maracame. The silver expression is highly aromatic with an alluring tropical fruit, honey and citrus palate. Azteca Azul Reposado also offers a great tequila experience at a reasonable price. The light gold tequila has a generous nose and a palate marked by the flavors of vanilla, caramel, anise, chocolate and toasted oak.
Mexican Moonshine is a range of tequilas crafted at Fabrica de Tequilas Finos [NOM 1472] in the town of Tequila. Don’t be mislead by its somewhat tongue-in-cheek name, the brand is of high quality and skillfully produced. It is the creation of recording artist Roger Clyne, who the Asbury Park Press has dubbed “…the Bruce Springsteen of the Southwest.” Few musicians are more closely associated with tequila than Clyne.
The agaves used to make Mexican Moonshine are cultivated in the semiarid Lowlands of Jalisco. After harvesting, the agaves are brought to the distillery where they are baked in stainless steel autoclaves. The steamed agaves are then shredded to extract the plants’ sugar-rich juice and transferred to stainless vats for fermentation. The resulting fermented wash—referred to as mosto—is double-distilled in a stainless steel, copper-lined pot still.
Mexican Moonshine Silver is left un-aged and rigorously filtered prior to bottling. The brand’s reposado is aged in charred, American white oak barrels for a minimum of 9 months and the añejo is matured for not less than 18 months.
From a terroir perspective, Luna Malvada 100% Agave Tequila is a groundbreaking, one-of-a-kind tequila. It’s the only way to accurately describe a tequila that isn’t made from agave grown in the Highlands or Lowlands of Jalisco. Instead, the brand’s estate-grown agaves are cultivated in the ancestral growing region near the Colima Foothills of southern Jalisco, a bio-diverse region with rich volcanic soil and dry tropical forests. The agaves are harvested during the full moon cycle—the evil moon as it’s called—when the plants’ sugar content is thought to be at its highest levels and the agaves at the peak of their vitality.
“Ours is the only ultra-premium tequila from the recently rediscovered natural growing region of the Tropical Dry Forests of Jalisco,” notes Andrew Rose, president of importer Evil Moon Spirits. “The tequila may be more expensive to produce than most, but we feel the result is worth the effort. It’s been said that Luna Malvada ‘owns a specific place on the flavor wheel.’ This is what we want, a high quality product that is truly unlike any other. This is not just the same stuff in a different bottle.”
New to the range is small batch Luna Malvada Añejo, which is aged for 16 months in French red wine barrels. The añejo tequila is crafted at Destiladora de Agave El Mentidero [NOM 1572]. During its stay in oak, the tequila develops a rich amber hue and a palate of vanilla, oak, honey and spice with notes of toasted agave. It’s an alluring spirit, perfect for leisurely sipping after an exceptional meal.
Emerging spirit brands marketed in figural bottles have amassed a rather dismal track record over the years, one marked by poor quality, flashy packaging and lightning-quick exits from the marketplace. However, even the most jaded of consumers will be favorably impressed with Gaviota 100% Agave Tequila, a recently introduced range of 100% agave tequilas. A quick sip will confirm the tequila is every bit as enticing of their bottles.
That’s good news because the bottles are shaped like busts of buxom, provocatively dressed women. They’re genuinely striking and likely encourage trial. The statuesque Gaviota range includes an unaged blanco, a 6-month old reposado and a year-old añejo.
“On a crowded shelf Gaviota Tequilas stand out from the rest, in part, because of their colorful, curvaceous bottles,” contends Vanessa Orozco, the company’s COO and co-brand owner. “If our bottles don’t make you look twice, the aroma and flavor of our tequilas will. They’ll leave you wanting more than just one taste.”
In what might be the most unusual name choice yet for an absolutely elegant extra añejo, The Bad Stuff 100% de Agave Azul Reserva Especial is primed and ready for a long stay on your backbar. Made by master distiller Felipe Soto-Mares, this exquisite, museum-grade tequila has a generous bouquet laced with the bakery fresh aromas of vanilla, cinnamon and allspice. The palate is frontloaded with spice, but then slowly gives way to a thoroughly satisfying warm, peppery glow. The body is buttery and the finish sublime. Needless to say it’s too good to share with the in-laws.
The Bad Stuff is made at Compañia Tequilera de Arandas [NOM 1460], which cultivates its own estate grown agaves. After being double distilled in a copper pot still, the tequila is aged a minimum of 36 months in new, medium charred French oak.
“I’ve been working on this tequila for over 15 years and shared it only with family and friends. The timing was perfect for us to bring it to market,” says co-owner Soto-Mares. “As for the name, in urban marketing The Bad Stuff means the best of the best. That’s an accurate description of what we’ve created.”
Silver tequilas are the surest measure of a distiller's skill and artistry. Admittedly barrel-aged expressions are in their own right things of beauty, spending months or years in toasted oak barrels can mask imperfections like off-flavors and off-aromas in spirits. Not so with unaged blanco tequilas. These transparent gems greet the world exactly as they came out of the still—clear, vibrant and unadulterated. At the same time, blanco tequilas best showcase the character of the agave, which for enthusiasts is fundamentally important.
Tavi Platinum Ultra-Premium Tequila 100% Agave Azul is a sterling example. The brainchild of Tavi Eggertson, Tavi Platinum is a sophisticated silver tequila handcrafted above 7000 feet at Premium de Jalisco [NOM 1559]. The mature agaves used in its production are hand selected and carefully harvested in such a way as to eliminate all of the plant’s waxy greenery, which will impart bitterness to the finished tequila.
The agaves are slowly cooked for more than 4 days in clay ovens. Their sugar-rich juice is expressed and then allowed to ferment precipitated by naturally occurring, airborne yeast. During fermentation, Baroque music is played over loudspeakers. Dubbed the “Mozart method, it’s thought the soothing strains of the classical music have a positive affect on the yeast as it ferments.
The Tavi Reposado is matured for 7 months in American white oak barrels, while Tavi Añejo is aged for 17 months. However, it’s the lush Tavi Platinum that’s grabbing the headlines. Frankly, its aromatic signature alone is worth the price of admission.
“We ensure every step of production is slow and gentle,” notes Eggertson. “It’s a labor-intensive process, but one that yields the finest tequila possible.”
Another unaged marvel destined for your backbar is Titanium 100% Agave Tequila Blanco. It’s made in Tepatitlán by Compañia Tequilera Hacienda La Capilla [NOM 1479]. The distillery utilizes both traditional and modern production methods. Its agaves are steamed in stainless steel autoclaves, while the fermented wash, referred to as mosto, is twice distilled in a copper pot still.
The super-premium blanco is crystal clear with a lightweight, silky body and bouquet of tropical fruit and peppery spice. The tequila never gets close to being hot on the palate, a reliable indicator of craftsmanship. Titanium is a stellar brand to sip neat or with a few cubes of ice. Priced in the low to mid-$30s, it is also an informed choice to feature in a tequila-based cocktail or mixed drink.
“Our small batch tequila is made from finest agave cultivated on land free of pesticides and other outside influences. We believe our agaves are the finest you can grow both in flavor and quality,” says Casey Hartle, CEO of importer Premium Spirits LLC. “We do not over distill as we want you to taste the agave and appreciate you are drinking tequila. Titanium Tequila bathes the palate with wonderful agave flavors.”
Equally engaging is El Decreto Blanco 100% Agave Tequila. Everything about this recent arrival from the Los Altos Highlands screams of authenticity. The brand is handcrafted at Tequila Embajador [NOM 1509]. After harvesting, the agaves are slowly cooked in traditional brick ovens and fermented naturally in open vats. The fermented mosto is double distilled in copper pot stills.
Here’s where things get interesting. Once the tequila exits the still, rather than immediately bottling the tequila, it is transferred to a tank and rested for 15 days to allow its constituent flavors and aromas to fully develop. The finished blanco is highly aromatic and loaded with the flavors of white pepper, spice, fruit and ruby red grapefruit.
The El Decreto Reposado is aged for 8 months and the brand’s añejo is matured for a minimum of 18 months.
Flavor Comes to the Category
For those looking for more character out of their tequila, perhaps Soltado has the answer. It is an añejo tequila—barrel-aged for 28 months—that’s infused with fresh, locally sourced Serrano peppers and natural cinnamon. Of the small handful of tequila infusions on the market, Soltado is the only one made on a base of high quality añejo tequila macerated with all natural ingredients. The premium blend is bottled at 40%alcohol (80 proof).
Guaranteed you won’t soon forget your first sip of this delightfully innovative, surgically balanced spirit. That said, be appraised that Soltado is muy caliente. The nearly combustible combination of barrel-aged tequila, Serrano peppers and cinnamon is evident in every aspect of this fiery gem. On the palate, the heat of the roasted Serranos is front and center, followed closely by the spicy warmth of the cinnamon. The flavor of the tequila is easy to recognize on the finish.
Soltado’s incandescent qualities make it ideal for contemporary mixology. It’s a natural heating element in specialty Margaritas, Bloody Marias and Micheladas.
“The distillery I’ve partnered with is truly unique. It is a co-op owned by 80 agave farmers in the Juanacatlán region of Guadalajara,” adds Soltado’s founder, David Weissman. “Juanacatlán is singular because it is one of the few agave growing towns located in the Midlands region of Jalisco, a region not normally associated with tequila. The distillery only gets its agave from our farmers and we are the only distillery in all of Mexico that can guarantee our agave comes from the Midlands. Only the best goes into Soltado."
Likely the most unusual product in the tequila market is TIQO. It is an easy-to-quaff, tequila-based mixed drink conveniently sold in 375ml, single-service bottles. It’s formulated on a foundation of super-premium, 110-proof blanco tequila produced at the family-owned Destiladora Del Valle de Tequila [NOM 1438] in the town of Tequila. The over-proof silver is blended with ginger, turmeric root, lime and coconut water and then marketed in a snazzy black, aluminum package.
TIQO is amazingly delicious and thoroughly refreshing. Like all great drinks, it is balanced to the point where you’ll swear you can taste almost every ingredient. It’s relatively dry and has an amber hue and a clean, crisp, and carbonated fade. There is a definite market for a product like TIQO. The finished product is 6% alcohol and 150 calories.
“Our tequila is incredibly smooth and is perfectly balanced by the other ingredients. TIQO is ideal for both the tequila and non-tequila drinker as the agave flavor definitely comes through, but it is not overpowering,” observes Sarah Pierce, founder and CEO of TIQO. “We’ve received such positive feedback on TIQO’s flavor that we will soon simply bottle the TIQO tequila in our stylish black aluminum bottle.”