July 2011

Tequila

While scotch trades on its heritage and vodka its high-gloss sheen, the agave-based spirit finds common ground with both

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PHOTO: BRIAN LEATART

Set aside, for the moment, the yellow Cuervo Gold of your youth. That drink of yore is “mixto” tequila, a distilled blend of at least half agave (the plant from which the liquor’s sugars are derived) and the rest other sugars such as cane. These days, mixto is losing market share to tequila that’s labeled “100 percent de agave.”

As our preference for 100 percent agave tequila grows, it’s no surprise that brands are now popping up to take advantage of that trend. But what is really interesting are the niches tequila is carving out: Some are being bottled in sleek vessels complete with the same marketing and mystique that seems to be inspired by premium vodkas, while other new tequilas are promoting the artisanal, historical and romantic notions of the agave spirit, akin to scotch whisky—even if the brands were created within the last week.

Tequila as Vodka

Like the dozens of luxury tequila brands launching now, Patrón, the label that helped create the high-end tequila market, originally made its spirit at another distillery and aimed it at the American market. (For its first 12 years, Patrón used the Siete Leguas distillery.) The brand’s success and its gentle flavor profile—many fans don’t know they’re drinking tequila, only that they’re drinking Patrón—have inspired hundreds of imitators, with more launching than ever before.

One hundred percent agave tequila comes in five aging categories: blanco/silver (usually unaged), oro or joven (a “smoothed” tequila or a blend of blanco with older tequilas), reposado (aged two months to one year), añejo (one to three years) and extra añejo (more than three years). Tequila gains color from barrel aging, but the many brands attempting to appeal to vodka drinkers concentrate on making the end product as clear as possible.

Blanco-only brands include the Justin Timberlake–fronted 901 Tequila, Inocente, El Don Tequila Plata and Karma. (El Don Tequila Plata and Karma plan to follow with reposado and añejo in the future.) Other brands are aged tequilas that, because they are clear, take on the appearance of an unaged spirit. Maestro Dobel is a blend of reposado, añejo and extra añejo filtered to clarity. Casa Dragones blends blanco with extra añejo, filters the color out...and asks a shameless $275 per bottle.

A bevy of tequila brands are using the same techniques and vocabulary aimed at vodka drinkers—that a better tasting product comes from more distillations and exotic filtration through things like lava rock, diamonds and gold dust—in some cases as an attempt to neuter this usually flavorful spirit. Brands, including Milagro and Casa Noble, are distilled three times, while two tends to be standard. Luna Sueño claims quadruple distillation.

Far removed from dramatic bottles and marquee owners, heritage brands promote distiller expertise, nuances in production and the quality of the raw ingredients.

Even more complicated, Gran Patrón Burdeos is distilled twice, aged for a year in American and French oak barrels, redistilled and then aged again in oak barrels that were previously used for Bordeaux. Corzo begins with the same distillate as Cazadores tequila, then it is either lightly aged, distilled a third time and sold as Corzo silver or aged once more for the brand’s reposado and añejo bottlings.

The third distillation isn’t entirely flavor subtractive, though. Casa Noble compares it to a filtering step. Tania Oseguera, brand ambassador for Cazadores, says, “The third distillation process provides smoothness and purity, while the aging process in between distillations provides flavor complexity.” Also, like vodka before it, the tequila market isn’t just getting crowded; it’s getting crowded with celebrities.

Though Sammy Hagar founded Cabo Wabo roughly 15 years ago (recently sold for $80 million to Gruppo Campari, which owns Skyy Spirits), currently celebs like Timberlake and adult film star/entrepreneur Jesse Jane (Diosa Tequila) are getting into the game. Country singer Toby Keith is launching a mezcal, Wild Shot, complete with the bug at the bottom of the bottle. Ed Hardy and Christian Audigier have both launched self-branded tequilas. And Avion tequila had its own plotline on Entourage.

Tequila as Scotch

The technology used by La Alteña distillery—in the rusty-red-soiled highlands of the state of Jalisco—consists of a giant volcanic stone wheel called a tahona rotated by a tractor (previously, a mule) to crush the baked agave, brick/stone ovens and open-top wooden fermentation vats that look like they’re replaced every 30 years or so. While there is also newer equipment at the facility, La Alteña is essentially a working museum.

This distillery produces the El Tesoro brand (now owned by Jim Beam) and a lower-cost Tapatio brand, plus newish contract labels Excelia (aged in ex-cognac casks) and Ocho (made with single-plantation agave). The distillers from Charbay Tequila in California fly down to use the stills at La Alteña as well. Far removed from dramatic bottles and marquee owners, heritage brands promote distiller expertise, nuances in production and the quality of the raw ingredients.

Though it can be downplayed through repeat distillation and filtration, tequila is a fairly robust-flavored spirit that can express the terroir of the agave fields: citrus and pepper notes of the highland agave or the herbaceous flavors and tropical fruit notes that characterize plants grown in the lowlands. Ocho embraces it: Each bottling is labeled with the name of the estate on which the agave was grown and year of harvest.

Most aged tequila (and scotch and rum) rests in casks formerly used for bourbon. And like scotch brands, tequila labels are suddenly using every type of barrel they can get to put a new spin on what is being aged in them. Casa Noble uses new French oak barrels made by Taransaud. AsomBroso offers tequilas aged in port, French oak and Bordeaux wine barrels; the barrels Semental uses have French oak tops and bodies made with staves of American oak.

Again following the whiskey lead, brands including Herradura and Casa Noble are now selling single-barrel tequilas (bottled before shipping) to individual bars and retail outlets. If whisky is the model, we should expect to see cask-strength and unfiltered tequilas hitting the market in upcoming years.

Like scotch distilleries that promote their historic and cost-inefficient floor malting, despite the availability of more modern methods, tequila brands also celebrate the outdated technology of the tahona, the giant stone wheel. New distilleries like Allied Domecq and the forthcoming Lily y Julio and La Esmeralda have made the tahona part of the plan. For these new and old-heritage brands, vintage production technology and tradition are the luxury for which you pay.

On store shelves and back bars, the heritage and luxury brands are often lined up next to one another—the bottles of the former squat and decorated with traditional symbols of horses and agave plants, the luxury brands in tall, clear bottles. Most crowd the $45–$100 range, with just a few extra añejos and designer labels crossing the $200 mark. The new tequilas are split definitively between style and substance, but regardless of your choice, the price is about the same.

Possibilities abound—now see 13 tequilas worth a try >