Tasting the tequila flood

Photo by William M. Dowd

Mexico is on the threshold of the biggest boom in the four-century history of mass producing tequila.

Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, the marquis of Altamira, began mass-producing tequila around AD 1600 in what became the state of Jalisco, the center of today's tequila industry.

Distillers racked up record levels of both production and exports in 2006, according to the Tequila Regulating Council. By law, tequila can be made only in Mexico even though it can be shipped out in bulk and bottled elsewhere. They exported 37 million gallons in 2006 (28 million of it to the U.S.), up nearly 20% from the previous year, and overall produced 64 million gallons, a nearly 16% increase.

What we have here is not merely a statistical game. The level of quality also has been amped up by distillers at various levels, with more and more of them producing a range of products beyond the basic level. Thus, the competition for retail shelf space among a growing number of tequilas in the añejo and reposada categories that carry higher prices has begun, just as vodka has been doing for the past decade as part of the tremendous increase in brands and styles.

Not long ago, holding a tequila tasting was rather simple. The range of choices was small, the manufacturers comparatively few in number. Now, thanks in large part to the thirst of American consumers, tastings need to be held more frequently just to keep up with the field.

My preference in any sort of spirits sampling is for small-range tastings of four or five styles which allow the palates of the tasters to zero in on what is being tried rather than risk being deadened by abundance.

Thus, I put together a quartet of 80-proof pure blue agave tequilas that offer a significant range of characteristics.

My tasting notes:

Sauza Hornitos: This pale gold tequila is a reposada from the same distiller that produces Tres Generaciones. It's rested for three months in American oak barrels, which tends to smooth out the middle notes and balance the complex tastes somewhere between pear and a slight spice.

Don Eduardo Silver: This triple-distilled liquid is made from estate-grown blue agave, like all tequilas produced by the Orendain family. It has a slight and pleasing floral nose, an oiliness that is very smooth on the tongue and palate, with enough body to linger pleasantly even when sipped over an ice cube or two.

Gran Centenario Plata: Soft, herbal from resting a month in white oak barrels and dry middle notes. Hints of cinnamon and other soft spices run throughout.

Corazon: The reposada version is twice-distilled in pot stills and rested for up to a year in charred new oak barrels. It's sweeter than the average reposada, which makes it perfect for comparative sampling.

Of these four, and even compared to sense memories from other tequilas tried at other times, the Don Eduardo comes out of top for me. I find it a delightfully complex distillation that lends itself to both straight sipping and in cocktails, the latter as long as they are not overwrought with so many sweetners and intruding ingredients that they drown out the subtleties of the tequila itself.

The result of this four-tequila tasting didn't surprise me. I had visited the Don Eduardo agave fields and distillery several months ago for a field-to-bottle look at the Orendain enterprise. I was so impressed with several sampling sessions of the various Don Eduardo distillations I purposely held off doing any comparative tastings for fear the hospitality extended during the visit would unduly influence my opinion.

From a distance of months, this seemed a good time to see if Don Eduardo held up. Without question, it did.

Others concur. The Don Eduardo Silver is a consistent medal winner in major international competitions such as the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the American Taste Awards.

Just as true champagne can only be made in Champagne, France, true tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and a few adjacent areas of Mexico and must meet stringent government regulations. It is made in two general categories:

Tequila 100% Agave -- Must be made only with the juice of the blue agave plant and must be bottled at the distillery in Mexico. It may be Blanco, Reposado, or Añejo.

Tequila -- Must be made with at least 51% blue agave juices. It may be exported in bulk to be bottled in other countries following the NOM standard. It may be Blanco, Gold, Reposado, or Añejo.

NOM, the official Mexican product safety requirements, defines four types of tequila:

Blanco, or Silver -- The traditional tequila. Clear, transparent, fresh from the still. Must be bottled immediately after distillation process. Traditionally served in a two-ounce glass called a "caballito."

Oro, or Gold -- Modified by adding colorings and flavorings, caramel the most common. Widely preferred for frozen Margaritas.

Reposado, or Rested -- Kept in white oak casks or vats called "pipones" for two to 11 months. Much mellower than blanco or oro, pale in color, gentle bouquet.

Añejo, or Aged -- Matured in white oak casks for a year or more. Maximum capacity of the casks should not exceed 159 gallons. Amber color, oak notes.

Reserva -- Not technically a category, but recognized as an Añejo aged in oak up to eight years.

The debate now is whether extremely aged tequila is really tequila at all. Made from blue agave, true, but the aging of what traditionally has been a young spirit and the use of various barrels flavored with bourbon, sour mash or sherry in that aging process is, in the view of some, transforming such tequilas into a different product entirely.

To Dowd's Spirits Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Wine Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Brews Notebook latest entry.
Back to Dowd On Drinks home page.

No comments: