Hot new tequila has more going than just a bottle

In a little cafe just the other side of the border ...

Wait. That's the opening line to the Jay & The Americans classic "Come a Little Bit Closer." But, it's true.

I was spending a few relaxed hours with a group of people in an old cantina in dusty downtown Tequila, Mexico, discussing the explosion in the town's namesake liquor among U.S. consumers and others and the merits of the various brands and styles.

It was the perfect setting for the topic. A few tiny tables for two. Long, dark wooden tables. Plum-colored walls. Faded posters that had been pasted to them long ago. A dark bar with a pleasant, weather-beaten bartender presiding, pausing from time to time in his chats with other customers to deliver little tapas plates of soft, fresh cheese, crisp nuts and salted pineapple chunks to go along with our glasses of cerveza and tequila.

As the tapas and drinks were downed, the opinions ranged far and wide: Tequila is by nature a raw drink, so the younger stuff is truer; like food right from the microwave, tequila needs to settle down a bit before it is consumed; tequila tastes smoother and classier after at least a few months in wooden aging barrels. And on it went. Ultimately, only three things were unanimously agreed upon:

1. The industry standard that the liquor must be made 100% from the blue agave plant to be called pure tequila is an excellent rule, particularly when one drinks it straight.

2. The mixto version that combines agave juice with other sugars is OK for mixed drinks, but only a few labels are good for straight imbibing.

3. When tequila is aged beyond a certain point, the possibility arises that it turns into something other than tequila.

In my view, the first two points are givens. The third is perhaps most pertinent to the expanding tequila field. Javier Orendain Lopez agreed. The brand manager of Tequila Orendain de Jalisco told me, "It's a topic that is being discussed and debated more all the time.

"As distillers try to separate themselves from the competition they want to keep turning out new and different tequilas. So, many of them age them in different wooden barrels for different amounts of time. A lot of people are saying the taste is so different after long aging that even though the results can be wonderful they may not truly be tequila anymore."

By law and industry decree, tequilas fall into one of five categories:

• Blanco (white, or silver) is unaged and bottled immediately after distillation.
• Joven (gold) is a blend of unaged tequila with aged.
• Reposado (rested, or aged) has been aged in oak containers for at least two months.
• Añejo (extra aged, or vintage) has been matured in oak containers of a maximum capacity of 600 litres, for at least a year.
• Extra Añejo (ultra-aged), the emerging category and the one in which prices are skyrocketing, aged for at least three years in direct contact with oak.

The tinkering is all over the place. For example, Jose Cuervo, the industry's top seller, ages its Black Medallion in new charred oak barrels just as bourbon distillers do. It's done for about 12 months or so, years less than bourbons but enough time to pull out a bit of the oak flavor and color.

Elsewhere, aging generally runs from 90 days to a year or two. In my experience, the longer the barrel aging the more floral and fruit notes begin to emerge along with the caramel coloring and flavoring that naturally come from oak. Sauza Tres Generaciones, as just one example, is a super-premium aged a full year in wood and winds up with a gold coloring and notes of pineapple and citrus although I find it lighter on the nose and with a comparatively short finish.

It's getting difficult to distance products from each other, so any nuance is trumpeted.

Vida ultra premium tequila, for example, has just launched in the New York, Chicago and Miami markets. The company notes that while other distillers toss away either the "head" or the "tail" of the blue agave heart, Vida tosses both and uses only the heart of the heart. This, it claims, gets rid of "the unpleasant tasting compound similar to the metallic taste found in many other tequilas."

But the hot number tequila aficionadoes are keeping a special eye on is a line of fine tequilas from a California-owned company called AsomBroso.

Owner Ricardo (Rick) Gamarra makes his tequilas in Tala, Jalisco state, near Tequila. He unabashedly refers to them as "the world's finest," and packages them in hand-blown Italian lead crystal decanters. Although there are variously decorated bottles, the basic design is patterned after an 18th century design.

And, what a design. One lady of my acquaintance took one look at what can only be described as phallic-shaped bottles and remarked, "Wouldn't these be better displayed in the bedroom than the kitchen?"

That first impression aside, the remaining impressions are, virtually without exception, high quality.

"I wasn’t your typical tequila drinker,” Gamarra says. “I don’t mean that I was a spirits snob, but I have always felt that many of the tequilas already on the market were too harsh and missing a level of sophistication to attract a broader market. With that first sip of AsomBroso, I knew I was tasting something truly special, something reminiscent of a fine brandy; certainly not a tequila I had seen in the market before.

"Ultimately, I was able to learn from the older, experienced artisans how to make the fine sipping style tequila, and to further refine the ultra premium tequila-making process.”

AsomBroso relies on multiple distillation and special filtration of the juice of the baked, aged agave. Its newest product is AsomBroso LaRosa Reposado (seen above), named for its reddish hue provided by aging in French oak wine barrels used in maturation of red Bordeaux wines. It's available in either 3-month or 11-month aged versions Gamarra describes as "like our El Platino (silver) gone off to a fine finishing school.”

A pair of 5-year-old tequilas are included in the line. AsomBroso del Porto, a five-year-old aged in vintage port wine barrels, was released to the market last November. El Carbonazado, extra aged in Tennessee whiskey barrels, will join the product line this year in limited quantities.

Go here for my AsomBroso tasting notes.

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