Tequila

Tequila is a distinctive product of Mexico. According to the Federal Standards of Identity: "Tequila is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash derived principally from the Agave Tequilana Weber ("blue" variety), with or without additional fermentable substances, distilled in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to Tequila and bottled at not less than 80o proof, and also includes mixtures solely of such distillates.

Tequila, the spirit, is named after Tequila, the town in northwestern Mexico. In this area, they grow the agave, a huge pineapple like plant with blue leaves. The agave is a type of mezcal and is not the same (although related) plant as the mescal cactus found in the U.S. Agave has been used as a source of fermentation since early Aztec times and primitive mezcal spirits were made all over Mexico. The name Mexico was derived from "mezcal." The Agave which grows in Tequila is regarded as superior to that grown in other areas in Mexico and Tequila therefore has become known as the primary source of the spirit. The relationship between Tequila and Mezcal is like that of Cognac and brandy. Cognac is a brandy that can only come from one place – Cognac. Tequila is a mezcal that can only come from one place – Tequila.

The giant Agave grows in desert land and takes up to twelve years to mature and produces a pinã (heart) which may weigh up to 60 kilos.

Agave is derived from the Greek word meaning "admirable" or "noble". The only species of agave is used for Tequila, is the blue agave. Although similar to the other agave plants, the Blue Agave has blue-hued leaves, not the usual green leaves common to most agave plants. The Blue Agave may look like a cactus, but it is actually from the lily family.

As with wine Appellation Controlee, Mexico has it's own Denominacion de Origien to control production and maintain the quality of the spirit, but somehow it comes as no surprise to hear that in Mexico this law is loosely interpreted and not largely enforced. The quality therefore of Tequila can vary drastically and in searching for the superior brands by looking for the NOM number (Norma Oficial Mexicana de Calidad) on the labels.

Travel outside Tequila and the delimited zone and you will find mezcal. Mezcal is the drink with the worm (which is actually just a grub from the agave leaves) in the bottle. Despite popular misconception, it adds nothing to the "bite of the drink".

Tequila acquired a cult status in the 1950s, when the erroneous rumor that it contained mescaline coupled with its romantic rituals made it a favorite with "hip" Californians. The drink was then incorporated into the aforementioned popular cocktails, as well as many others, and the demand for tequila extended throughout the States.

For at least one thousand years before Spain invaded Mexico, the Aztecs were drinking pulque, a low-alcohol wine made from the mezcal plant. Although it is still consumed in Mexico, it has no commercial appeal outside that country. When the Spaniards brought the secret of distillation in the early part of the sixteenth century, it was a natural thing to distill pulque and tequila was born. Pulque was used by the Aztecs in many rituals, and, indeed, tequila is well known as a drink of ritual, being consumed straight with salt and lime in a ceremony seen in bars throughout the world.

Tequila was first imported legally to the United States in the 1870s. It was further promoted by American soldiers defending Zapata's raids during the Mexican Revolution in 1916. Prohibition also helped tequila gain popularity in the States. Since it was distilled legally in Mexico, tequila only had to be smuggled over the border to quench the thirst of deprived Americans.

The blue Agave is a species of the mezcal plant. When the plant reaches maturity, at about ten to twelve years, the base or "pineapple" is removed. This pineapple may weigh up to 150 pounds and it contains a sweet sap which is suitable for fermentation. The pineapple is first steamed for several hours in masonry ovens to extract the juice. Additional juice is obtained by shredding and rolling the mezcal heads. Fermentation is started by adding some must from a previous fermentation. Following fermentation, which takes about two and one-half days, the alcoholic liquor is double distilled in copper pot stills at 104-106o proof.

Tequila is not necessarily aged and is often bottled when it leaves the still. In such a case it would be labeled "White." If any wood aging is done, it will be done in used whisky casks imported from the United States and the spirit will take up a little gold in the color and become somewhat more mellow. This would be designated as "gold" tequila. The aging of gold tequila is not regulated by the Mexican government but they do recognize an "añejo", aged one year, and a "muy añejo", which is aged as much as 4 years.

Tequila consumption in the United States increased rapidly during the 1970's, but slowed in the 1980's. It accounts for a little over 2% of the U.S. market, ahead of only Irish whisky and cocktails/mixed drinks. Only two brands, Jose Cuervo and Montezuma, are listed among the top 100 selling spirit brands in the United States.

The following is adapted from:

Emmons, Bob, The Book of Tequila,

Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago, IL, 1997

The plant is cut free from the roots and rolled onto its side. Once the plant is rolled, the leaves are sliced evenly from the base to the top with smooth strokes using a tool called the coa. The heavy blade slices cleanly with each stroke, removing the pencas, until only the cabeza or piña is left. The harvested agave are loaded onto a truck.

You can never tell exactly how big the piña will be before you remove the leaves. Plants that appear close in size before harvest may vary as much as 40 pounds afterwards. Most of the plants from the valleys are 70 to 150 pounds in size, but in the Highlands, they grow larger. The normal size is between 100 and 180 pounds, but 200 pounds is not very uncommon.

After about four hours' work, the team of jimadores and assistants has filled the truck. It takes three to five minutes to harvest each plant, depending upon the spacing of the other plants, the proximity of the harvestable plants, and obstructions such as weeds. When the truck is full, with about 250 harvested piñas, or twenty metric tons, it leaves for the fabrica.

Cooking and Milling

The methods and tools used to harvest the agave are unique, because the agave is unique. Though entirely different in growth pattern and appearance, it is a little like tuberous plants such as sweet potato or yam, especially after it is cooked. The starches inside the piña are converted into sugar compounds that taste much like candied yams.

The physical changes within the agave, involving the chemical conversion of starch to sugar, are caused by prolonged exposure to moderate heat. This breaks the long chain molecules of starch into shorter sugar molecules. The cooking process used to convert the starches inside the agave into fermentable sugars is different from the processes used in the manufacture of other spirits, in which natural enzymes such as amylase or diastase convert the starches inside grains into sugars.

After the piñas are brought into the factory, they are cut into halves or quarters and placed in cooking vessels: either ovens (hornos) or autoclaves. When ovens are used, live steam is forced around the inside walls of the ovens, gradually raising the temperature to 135-145° F. (57-63° C.) over a 36-38 hour time period. After the desired temperature is reached, the steam is turned off, and the agave continues cooking through residual heat. The ovens are allowed to cool for another 24 to 36 hours. While the agave is cooking, a sweet liquid is exuded from the plant mass, flows from a special vent at the bottom of the oven, and is collected for later addition to the wort. This liquid is called cooking-honey and can be as much as 20 percent sugar. It is diluted with water and placed in with the other juice prior to fermentation.

The dark brown cooked agave is then removed from the cooking vessels and moved to the crushing-juicing equipment, by hand in the smaller and more traditional distilleries, or by conveyor belt in the large mass-production plants.

Distilleries which abandon traditional methods for the sake of cutting costs use autoclaves instead of ovens. The autoclave is a big pressure cooker—essentially, it is a gigantic version of the familiar receptacle used in hospitals to sterilize medical instruments.

When autoclaves are employed, the steam is injected directly into the container, and the interior temperature may be raised much more quickly than in the ovens. High pressure permits far higher temperatures, so that the total time spent cooking and cooling is 18 hours or less—sometimes it is reduced to eight hours, or even less.

High temperatures can cause the destruction of some of the enzymes and flavoring compounds, and may result in elimination of some congeners. An additional problem in using autoclaves is that the steam injection washes a natural wax, called bitter-honey, from the outside of the agave. This water-wax liquid can impart a bitter taste to the tequila, so the first portion of the juices has to be discarded. The use of autoclaves reduces the quality of the tequila, and is only suitable for mixto.

The autoclaves used to cook agave can be made up to any size, but most are from ten to twelve feet in diameter and at least twenty feet long. They look like very large segments of stainless steel pipe with covers on each end and function like giant pressure cookers.

The traditional method, going back over 200 years, of separating the fibrous pulp of the agave from the juice, is the great stone wheel, called a tahona (pronounced 'ta-ona'). In the old days, in some areas only ten years ago, the wheels were very large and was pulled by oxen or horses. In some cases the wheels were up to eight feet in diameter, from two to three feet thick, and weighed as much as ten tons.

The tahona was placed in a circular pit lined with cobblestones, with a pivot pole in the center. Another pole ran from the pivot pole, through a hole in the center of the stone wheel, and was harnessed to the animals used to turn the stone. The pit was filled with the cooked agave, and the animals pulled the stone wheel around the circular pit, crushing the fibrous material and expelling the juice. After the agave was fully crushed, the juice would be lying on top of the mat of fiber and could be picked up with buckets and placed in the fermentation tanks.

Some companies employ these traditional techniques, and some are returning to them, but currently most use the grinder-juicer machines, involving large crushers similar to those used in juicing sugar cane.

Fermentation

After being separated from the fiber, the juice is placed in fermentation tanks, and yeast is added. Companies that make only 100 percent agave tequila usually have a natural yeast culture which they have developed over the years. Many of the companies that make mixto use commercial yeast products similar to brewer's yeast. The yeasts selected have a definite effect upon the taste of the finished product. One of the tequila companies has isolated 15 different strains of natural yeasts and determined that each affects the final taste of the tequila in a different manner.

At least one company (El Tesoro) takes the fiber from the pit and re-introduces it into the juice before beginning fermentation. This is done because the company believes that leaving the fiber and the juice together as long as possible enhances the agave flavor and aroma of the finished product. This company also leaves the fiber in the fermented must through the first distillation, so that the must is introduced into the still by hand, and the bagasse (leftover fiber) is cleaned from the still in the same way. Not until the ordinario is ready for the second distillation can the liquid be moved by any method other than by hand with buckets.

If the distillery is making mixto, the non-agave sugar is added after the juice has been placed in the tanks, just before yeast is added. Commonly, the non-agave sugars are added in liquid form, in carefully measured amounts, to the freshly pressed agave juice. Most often used is granulated cane sugar that has been dissolved in warm water. Next is piloncillo, dried sugarcane juice (brown sugar), formed into large cones and packaged in paper bags. Sometimes these two products are used in conjunction with each other. Then there is a commercially prepared liquid sugarcane product called Glucosa, and finally there is plain old corn syrup. Any of these will be introduced at a concentration of about ten percent sugar in the liquid.

Natural fermentation usually takes from seven to ten days, but for mixto tequilas many companies use yeast nutrients called 'accelerators.' these are nitrogen compounds such as ammonium phosphate which encourage growth of the yeasts and improve conversion of the sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. This allows the companies to cut down the fermentation time from days to hours. If all of the shortcuts that can be used are utilized in making tequila, the process, which normally takes from ten to twelve days, can be cut to one or two days, and the quality of the tequila will suffer accordingly.

During fermentation, the juice boils and bubbles, and a foamy crust of bubbles and particulate matter forms on the surface of the juice, now called 'fermented must' or mosto. In some instances, the process can become quite violent, causing the tanks to vibrate from the force of the chemical conversion. A reaction this dramatic is usual only when accelerators are used, so that the release of carbon dioxide is very rapid. Generations ago, animal dung or other sources of urea were used as yeast nutrients. Sounds unpleasant, but the distillation process does not allow any solid material into the final spirit, and the heat of fermentation , as well as the accumulating alcohol, kills any infectious bacteria.

Distillation

After all of the sugar has been converted to alcohol, the reaction ceases and the fermented must is then emptied into a holding tank to await the first distillation. The recommended method of distillation is the pot, or alembic still, and two distillations are the recommended norm.

The must is piped into the still and heated to somewhere between 190° and 205° F. by live steam injection through a spiral pipe at the base of the unit. The precise temperature needed to vaporize the alcohol may vary according to the percentage of alcohol contained in the fermented must. Since the vaporization point of alcohol is 172.5° F., this allows the alcohol vapor to be separated from the other components in the must, and drawn off through the long neck into a cooling condenser called a 'worm.'

The worm is surrounded by a jacket full of cold water, which causes the alcohol vapor to condense back into a liquid. The distillate, now called ordinario, then runs down a pipe into a holding tank. The first and last portions of the distillation run will be discarded or placed into the next run, since they may contain high levels of unwanted aldehydes and congeners. The second run, which turns the ordinario into tequila, will usually be made through a second still, though some very small companies have only one still.

Pot stills were originally all made of copper, and the most authentic are made that way today, but many are now made of stainless steel. There is, however, another type of distillation unit. It has been called by many names, from 'Coffey' (the name of the inventor), to 'patent' (pronounced 'pay-tent'), to 'continuous action' still, but the most recognized name today is 'column still.' This distillation unit processes large amounts of fermented must in a short time.

While tequila normally requires two distillations in a pot still, when using a column still many companies only use one distillation run, feeling that once the proper concentration of alcohol is reached, that is good enough. Since this is a continuous action unit, the discarding of the heads or tails of the distillation is handled in a slightly different manner, with the separated components which contain the unwanted volatile flavors being discarded and the other products being re-combined into tequila. If improperly operated, this may result in a lessening of the quality of the tequila. There are no requirements demanding that either type of distillation unit be utilized, but the use of pot stills is preferred when making 100 percent agave tequila.

Aging and Blending

When the tequila leaves the still after the final run, it is as clear as water, or very close to that. This first stage of tequila is called blanco or white, plata or silver. >From blanco, all other kinds of tequila are made. It is controversial whether a really good blanco is improved by aging, though a poor or mediocre blanco may lose some of its rough edges.

The product often described in the U.S. as 'gold' or oro is usually called joven abocado in Mexico. The only difference between 'gold' tequila and blanco is the addition of coloring and perhaps a small amount of some sweetening agent. Possibly the only thing added would be caramel, which both colors and sweetens. The best-quality tequilas would never be made into joven abocados.

The blanco may also be put into wood containers for aging. The legal categories for aged tequilas are reposado and añejo. But although reposado means 'rested' and añejo means 'aged,' these are both really categories of aging, the reposado being aged for a shorter time. Furthermore, añejos may vary considerably in their length of aging.

Tequila described as reposado must be aged in wood for a minimum of two months. This aging is usually carried out in large wooden tanks, each holding from ten thousand to thirty thousand liters. Some reposado tequilas are aged in 180-liter barrels, but most is in the large tanks. The Mexican government inspects these tanks and places paper seals on the bungs to ascertain that the time limit is met. After the minimum time, the tanks or barrels may be opened and the tequila bottled, but it is more usual for the tequila to be left in the wood for a longer period, usually from four to eight months.

Anything under a year in the wood is called a reposado, because the añejo must legally be kept in barrels of 600 liters or less for at least a year. The barrels are usually 180-200 liters and most were previously used by the whiskey companies of Kentucky and Tennessee, though some companies are experimenting with new oak barrels. Many companies are still using barrels that may be fifty years old or older. Some barrels were purchased by the founders of the companies and have sentimental value to their descendants.

The tequila that is aged in used barrels doesn't change as much as that aged in newer barrels. The methods used by the cooper in preparing barrels for aging whiskey involves charring the insides of the barrels. This action caramelizes and releases the sugars present in the wood, modifies the tannins and releases some of the other flavoring agents in the oak. Many of these wood fractions are absorbed by the whiskey that is first placed inside the barrels, but many are left to smooth and color the tequila.

Other wines and spirits do not use the method of charring the barrels, though some may use a method called toasting. Most use the wood in its natural state, and allow the interaction between these two elements to bring the wine or spirit to maturity. Tequila is more delicate than most other spirits however, so the preferred method of aging in barrels is to utilize barrels that have been previously used. The previous use of these barrels has drawn off a large part of the extractable flavoring and coloring agents present in the wood, and reduces the impact of the wood on the tequila.

This is the stage at which all spirits gain their coloration, either by the addition of artificial coloring or by aging in oak barrels. All distilled spirits are clear when they come from the still, and the transformation into brown spirits is caused by the interaction between the spirit and the wood or the addition of other forms of coloring.

The effect on the tequila is determined in part by the age and use of the barrels. If the barrels have been used continuously for a long period of time, the extractives that change the spirit are slowly depleted. The natural extractives will all be pulled from the wood by successive generations of tequila that are stored in the barrel, and the rate of change in the spirit will diminish.

This problem, if it is perceived as such, can be rectified by the addition of new staves or barrel ends that have been charred, but this process requires that the barrel be disassembled and reconstructed. The purchase of new used barrels is easier and less expensive, but sometimes the barrels become scarce, and reconstruction is the only way to maintain the proper balance of sugars in the wood.

After aging, the tequila is prepared for bottling. For both reposado and añejo tequilas, blending between various age groups is common, but any age statements, on the label or elsewhere, must legally be determined by the age of the youngest component. At this point, caramel is sometimes added, mainly to ensure continuity and stability in the color of the spirit. Flavorings are also used by some manufacturers, with the current favorite being coconut.

The blender is the person responsible for the continuing aroma, taste and appearance of the reposado and añejo tequilas. The blenders use all of their senses in the practice of this art. Their aim and intention is to keep the spirit the same in appearance, aroma, and flavor from year to year. Their noses are crucial, for while the color and appearance may be adjusted with coloring and the taste be modified with flavors that can be added, the aroma is more difficult.

The sense of smell is arguably the most accurate and intense judge of quality that we humans possess, being able to detect as few as five parts per billion of certain fragrances. It has been shown that smell is the controlling factor in our sense of taste, and as such, is the most useful sense in the blending of all types of spirits.

The blender takes different tequilas from his stock of the distillery output and mixes them in such a manner as to ensure that the tequila stays the same in all ways on a year to year basis. The aim is that you will not be able to tell the difference between one bottle and another bottle of a certain brand and type of tequila, even if they were made from five to ten years apart. This is not always possible, since growing conditions vary greatly from season to season, but the effort is made to come as close as possible.

The final stage at the distillery is the bottling or shipment of the product. All aged or 100 percent agave tequilas must be bottled inside Mexico, and most companies have a small bottling and packaging facility. These types of tequila are bottled and packed in cardboard boxes for shipment by truck to the Mexican distributors or to the various exporting companies. For mixto, the most common method of shipment is in tanker trucks, which are filled up with tequila at the distillery. These trucks each carry around 6,500 gallons (or 25,000 liters) of blanco or gold tequila to the rectifiers and bottlers in the United States or elsewhere.

Tequila Brand Descriptions

Aguila Anejo Tequila Blue Agave: Made from 100% Weber Tequilana blue agave in the Jilisco area of Mexico. Sold in a hand-blown blue bottle with cork finish and gold fired-on label. Considered a super-premium tequila.

Cuervo White Tequila: Clear, white tequila imported from Mexico. Clean, crisp, and smooth. Herbal, agave, dill nose. Earthy, evergreen flavors. Finish of juniper, black pepper, and anise. Good for mixing or margaritas.

Cuervo Especial Gold Tequila: Gold tequila imported from Mexico. The largest selling tequila in the world. Pale yellow color. Aromas of herbs and cactus. Velvety texture. Flavors of herbs with a touch of licorice. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a *** (recommended) rating.

Cuervo 1800 Tequila: Aged (añejo) tequila from Mexico. Made from 100% blue agave which is baked in small batches in the original brick steam ovens that have been used for over 200 years. Distilled in copper pots and aged for over one year in charred oak barrels. Pyramid shaped bottle has a wood stopper and a blue agave plant etched in the glass. Medium honey/amber color. Flavors of caramel and a sherry-like aftertaste. Sweet for a tequila. Woody and brandy-like. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a **** (highly recommended) rating.

Cuervo Tradicional Tequila: Imported from Mexico. Made from 100% blue agave and aged for a minimum of two months in wood. Pale flaxen color. Buttery, vegetable, perfumy bouquet. Flavors of bittersweet chocolate, coffee, and hard candy. Very different from the Cuervo 1800. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a **** (highly recommended) rating.

Cuervo Mistico Tequila: Flavored tequila imported from Mexico. Cuervo with natural citrus flavors added. Good for mixing with fruit juices or soda.

Herradura Gold Tequila: Gold tequila imported from Mexico. Made with 100% blue agave with no additives added. This is a reposado tequila: aged in wood for at least two months. Pale straw color. Sweet-sour aromas of green olives, flowers, and herbs. Silky with flavors of orange peel and tangerine. Creamy finish. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a **** (highly recommended) rating.

La Cava De Don Agustin Tequila: 100% agave tequila from the Arandas Jalisco area of Mexico. Made from the heart of the blue agave plant which are steam baked for 72 hours, after which the nectar is extracted with old-fashioned mills. Its juices are fermented in stone lined tanks and then double distilled in copper stills for purity. Aged for 11 months (which makes it a reposado tequila) in American oak barrels. Bottled in hand blown bottles and packed in unique hand-crafted wooden boxes.

Monte Alban Mezcal/Worm: Imported mezcal from the Oaxaca area of Mexico. Mezcal is a distilled drink, not tequila, made from agave juice (not blue agave like tequila). While the agave used to make tequila uses steam in its cooking, mezcal uses wood charcoal fires, resulting in a smoky taste being imparted to the liquor. Pale gold color. Metallic, green-olive, soy-sauce nose. Sharp charcoal flavors. The worm in the bottle is taken from the agave plant.

Patron Tequila: Patron is produced and blended by a small family owned and operated distillery high in the mountains of Jalisco. Recently an additional new distillery has been built which will incorporate the traditional tequila manufacturing methods of the past while integrating modern techniques of quality control. This particular growing region of Mexico is considered the most ideal for production of the Weber Tequilana Blue Agave. The climate is warm and the soil is clayey with high ferrous oxide content.

The Patron Bottles

Each bottle is a unique and numbered creation. It is important to note that slight variation in apparent fill volumes are due to the uniqueness of each bottle. By law each bottle must contain 750ml of this delicious tequila. All tequilas are 80 proof/40% Alc. by volume. Patron Silver, Patron Reposado and Patron Anejo are produced and uniquely packaged for those few who appreciate and demand the finest spirits.

Patron Brands:

Patron Tequila Silver: Made from 100% Weber Tequilana blue agave. All bitter sprouts are removed before cooking. Distilled twice with no sugar or caramel colors. Sold in a one-of-a-kind hand-blown bottle which is numbered and signed by a craftsman. Considered a super-premium tequila.

Patron Reposado

Patron Anejo

Pepe Lopez White Tequila: Imported tequila from Mexico. It contains 51% agave and is double distilled. Meets the Mexican standards for tequila quality.

Pepe Lopez De Oro Gold Tequila: Premium gold tequila imported from Mexico. Made from mature blue agave plants and double distilled. The Pepe Lopez family has been producing tequila since 1857 and have received the Mexican governments NOM award for quality and origin of production.

Sauza Gold Tequila: Oak-aged from the Tequila region of Mexico. Aged twice as long as required.

Sauza Conmemorativo Tequila: Aged in oak barrels for smoothness and golden color. Made from blue agave plants grown in the town of Tequila. White wine appearance with yellow and green highlights. Aromas of earth, yeast, salt, and chalk. Semi-dry on the palate. Flavors of citrus and aftertaste of pineapple, orange, and banana. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a *** (highly recommended) rating.

Sauza Hornitos Tequila: Tequila made from 100% blue agave and aged or rested in wood for a minimum of one year (resposado). Flaxen color. Multi-layered aromas of pepper, salt, cardboard, pulp, and finally of licorice. Semi-sweet flavors of peaches, apples, pears, and black pepper. Warm, velvety finish. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a **** (highly recommended) rating.

Sauza Tres Generaciones: Imported super-premium aged (aged in wood for one year or more) gold tequila. White wine-like appearance. Similar to Conmemorativo with a slightly richer nose. Flavors of citrus and pineapple. 'Kindred Spirits' gives it a **** (highly recommended) rating.

Two Fingers Tequila Gold: Premium tequila imported from Mexico. Made from blue agave plants grown in the mountainous Los Altos region.

Tequilas to Seek and To Avoid

(Larry Hunter's Tequila Tips – Found on the Web)

Tequilas to seek out

    1. El Tesoro de Don Felipe, Muy Añejo. Wonderful aroma, almost perfume. Best price I've seen is $31.99 at Calvert Woodley in D.C. My current choice for drinking (as opposed to margarita) tequila. Typical cost is $34. Their "Plata" (silver) is typically $28.
    2. Patron Añejo. Aged in French Oak barrels, light in color, refined but intense flavors. Best price I've seen is $28.99 at NYC's Warehouse Wine & Spirits. More typical price is about $40. The Patron Silver (unaged) is typically just a few dollars cheaper, and not quite as wonderful.
    3. Herradura Añejo. Largest distribution of the top brands. It changed in early 1994, getting a new label (dark brown instead of beige) and the liquor is also darker in color. There is a slight difference in taste as well, and I don't like it as much as the old style. I used to rank it with Patron & El Tesoro, and now I rank it slightly below. The Herradura Silver (typically $22, best $18) is a good margarita tequila, although somewhat pricier than Sauza Hornitos (See below).
    4. Chinaco (Green label). I haven't seen one of these in a long time. I recall it being very good, though, so find a bottle and send a report.
    5. Centinela Añejo. Not quite in the Patron/El Tesoro league, but at $21 (best) to $24 (typical) a real bargain. Their Blanco (unaged) is typically $19 (I prefer the cheaper Hornitos, see below), and the reposado is $21; go for the añejo here.
    6. Real Hacienda Añejo. At $36 (typical), a little too pricey given the competition. Still very good, however. Their $18 (typical) silver or $21 (typical) reposado are much better deals.
    7. El Viejito Añejo. Like the Real Hacienda, at $33 (typical) the El Viejito costs too much for what it is. However, an nice tequila if nothing else is available.
    8. Sauza Hornitos. Unaged, but delicious tequila. My current choice as best tequila deal. At $12 (best) to $17 (typical), it's a steal. In Mexico, it was widely available for about $12 a litter (not 750ml)! I use this in my margaritas. Note carefully that there are many different Sauza brand tequilas, and this is the only one I recommend. Look for the green label.
    9. The cheapest 100% Agave tequila you can find. My travelling companion and I once found a bottle in a state liquor store in Rapid City SD for $8. It was "Durango" brand, and alas, I've never seen it since. It wasn't actually labeled 100% Agave, but it sure tasted like it.

Tequilas to avoid

    1. Cuervo. All of them. They add sugar, and, I suspect, artificial flavoring to their liquor. I'd almost always rather have a generic cheap unknown 51% tequila than Cuervo. Cuervo 1800 adds insult to injury by typically costing more than $25 for a mediocre, blended liquor. They have now come out with a "traditional" tequila which is a decent 100% Agave, but at $40 (typical) for 500ml (the prices quoted for everything else are for 750ml bottles), it's simply not worth buying.
    2. Porfidio Añejo. In a very pretty bottle, but nearly tasteless. Perhaps it is filtered before being bottled? I think of it as tequila flavored vodka, and won't spend $35 (typical) on it again.
    3. Sauza Tres Generationes. Despite being Sauza's top of the line ($30 typical) it is not labeled 100% Agave, and I am suspicious that it might not be. I don't like it nearly as much as the half-the-price Hornitos. The Conmemorativo (at $25 typically) is also not as good in my opinion as the Hornitos.

The History of Tequila (From the University of Tequila Web Site

Los Universidad de Tequila)

So where did it all begin?

Tequila's origins lie with the indigenous Aztec peoples of Mexico, the Chichimecans, Otomies, Toltecans and Nahuatls who made a beverage from the agave plant long before the Spaniards arrived in a village called Tequila in the shade of a dormant volcano named Tequila in a land they called Techinchan.

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in April, 1530, they were running out of brandy and other comestibles they had brought along from Spain, so they fermented agave juice. The first tequila factory, however, was not established for 70 years, not until 1600 when Don Pedro Sanchez de Tagle, the Marquis de Altamira started to cultivate mezcal and distill tequila, a liquor that gets its name from the Nahuatl word for "volcano." The town of Tequila, Mexico, became a Municipality in 1824, and its status was elevated to that of a city in 1974.

Tequila's reputation is as much a legend as it is an image problem. In movies, it was associated with dark, hot little adobe cantinas, and drunken cowboys with itchy trigger fingers. In real life, it has been famous around the frat house for its monumental hangovers.

Baby boomers are credited with the current trend from cottage beers and fine imported wines and single-malt scotches to tequila. Boomers are health conscious, and image conscious, so part of tequila's popularity might result from the fact that you've never seen a "tequila gut," while the "beer gut" is endemic in some sectors.

Many bars (Las Margaritas especially) list tequila with their fine sipping brandies and liqueurs, and gourmet chefs use tequila to perk up even their most proven recipes. It works well as ingredient or an accompaniment to a particular dish.

Tequila is not hallucinogenic. It is not Mexican moonshine. Tequila does not have a maggot or some other worm in the bottle. Tequila is not made from cactus. These are just a few of the myths you'll find in the Universidad de Tequila.

Tequila is just different from all the other liquors. It can exhibit the same complex subtleties as cognac. It generates the same loyalty and passion as a fine wine. It can stimulate good conversation and fellowship like a good whisky.

When you first start to learn about tequila, keep in mind that there are more varieties than just clear and gold. Under Mexico's tequila law (Norma Oficial Mexicana Tequila, 1949) only certain plants are allowed to be used to make tequila. These plants may be grown in certain regions and tequila may be manufactured only to certain standards.

By law, tequila is double-distilled from the fermented juice of the heart of the blue agave plant, and the best stuff is 100 % agave.

Chinaco Tequila (From their Web Site)

During the War of Reform in the 1850s and the French Intervention in 1863, a group of wealthy landowners banded together, and with their workers, joined in the fight for Mexico. These men were known for their dashing elegance and legendary bravery for going up against the tremendous force of the enemies' armies. They were the Chinacos. One of these Chinacos, Manuel Gonzalez, was destined for greatness.

After the wars, he returned to the northern state of Tamaulipas (his birthplace) with the military rank of General and began buying extensive tracts of land from Tamaulipas to Mexico City. This enabled him to herd cattle safely to the city to be sold and allowed him to become highly involved in the Department of Agriculture.

In 1880, he was elected President of Mexico. During his four years in office, Gen. Manuel Gonzalez accomplished many great things. The first Mexican owned bank, Banco Nacional de Mexico, was founded under his direction. He brought electricity to Mexico City. But perhaps the most important accomplishment of all was the growth of the railway system. Currently there are 10,000 Km of railroad tracks in Mexico. 5,000 Km of those rails were built during his time in office, the most expansion done in the shortest amount of time, giving Gen. Gonzalez the distinction of being called "the Father of the Railroad". After leaving the presidency in 1884, he was elected Governor of Guanajuanto, a position he held until his death. When he died in 1893, he was the first former president to be interred in the federal Rotunda, a place of honor where several famous artists and presidents have since been laid to rest.

Gen. Manuel Gonzalez's great grandson, Guillermo Gonzalez started his career as a lawyer in Mexico City. He also farmed land in Tamaulipas that he inherited from his great grandfather. His career as a lawyer took a turn, however, when his entire cotton crop was destroyed by frost in 1952. In a newspaper interview, he announced that he and the new president of Mexico were going to instate a national agricultural insurance program. (Coincidentally, the first time the new president learned of this plan was when he read it in the paper.) With his concept established, Guillermo was named the head of the Department of Agriculture.

In 1965, Hurricane Beulah devastated the southern portion of Tamaulipas. When Guillermo went there to survey the damage, he observed that some wild agave plants were the only plants remaining. That gave him an idea. He contacted one of the large tequila producers in Jalisco. They offered a generous price for any agave that the farmers in Tamaulipas could grow. Encouraged, Guillermo and his neighbors in Tamaulipas planted thousands of agave plants. Eight years later, the first crop was harvested. Unfortunately, the large producer reduced the offered price to less than half. Furious, Guillermo burned the entire shipment of agave. It was then that he decided to build his own distillery and use the agave grown by the local farmers. He purchased an old abandoned cotton gin and hired engineers from Jalisco who had designed other tequileras (tequila distilleries) to convert it into a distillery. Almost a year later, Guillermo attempted to register a trademark for his new tequila. His application was denied when several large tequila producers from Jalisco lead an uprising within the industry, quoting the laws governing tequila that limit production to Jalisco and the neighboring states. The Chinaco's great grandson thundered into the battle. Guillermo tirelessly appealed his case until 1976 when José Lopez Portillo was elected president.

Lopez Portillo sympathized with the farmers in Tamaulipas, understanding the investment they made in planting the agave. With this in mind, he agreed that the legal area for tequila production should be expanded to include 11 municipalities of Tamaulipas.

This additional area was officially recorded into the Norma on October 13, 1977 "due to the request made by Tequilera La Gonzaleña." The battle won, Tequilera La Gonzaleña began producing small amounts of tequila which Guillermo Gonzalez named Chinaco, a tribute to his great grandfather as well as a representation of the continuous battles he predicted this small brand would have to fight against the larger producers. For seven months, the distillery was in constant production, every drop produced put into barrels for aging. After those seven months passed he limited production to under 1500 cases a year.

Guillermo never marketed Chinaco tequila in Mexico. Instead, it was served in the private clubs that he frequented, reserved for the aristocrats to enjoy.

In 1983, the first shipment of Chinaco Añejo was imported into the United States by Robert Denton and Marilyn Smith of Robert Denton & Company, Ltd. With their hard work, Chinaco became legendary.

In the beginning of 1993, Guillermo's four sons bought the distillery, continuing the tradition of excellence that their father started. The first shipment of Chinaco Blanco produced by the new generation was imported into the United States in November, 1994. Sadly, the founder of Chinaco, Guillermo Gonzalez Diaz Lombardo passed away on February 3, 1996. As a tribute to him, the family has added the letters GGDL to the label.

When Chinaco arrived in the United States in 1983, it was the first of the super premium positioned tequilas. It's smooth taste earned it placement on back bars alongside high-end cognacs and single malt whiskies. Like a lightening bolt, it electrified an entirely new class of upscale tequila consumer. Chinaco developed a cult following predominantly from California's music and film industry.

Chinaco "Blanco"

Pristinely clear, has a lovely bouquet of pear, quince, dill and lime, tinged with aloe. It's very clean, smooth, fresh and bright on the palate, with exceptional depth and balance, followed by a smooth, long, lingering finish--fabulous fresh tequila.

Chinaco "Reposado"

Medium-pale straw, has a generous nose of citrus zest, peach and apple, hinting of dill and quince. Clean, fresh flavors carry through on the palate, with food depth and balance, capped by a medium-long, lingering, fruity, spicy finish. Barrel aged for up to one year, this tequila is presented in a beautiful artisan decanter. Similar to those brought over by the conquistadors.

Chinaco "Añejo"

Medium-straw, has subtle aromas of pear, wild flowers, vanilla, smoke and baked apple, edged with papaya and mango. The flavors are very rich and complex, with exceptional depth, balance and style, ending in a luscious, spicy, smoky finish. Barrel aged for up to four years. "This is the ultimate in handcrafted, low production tequila. The Chinaco Blanco and Añejo are, in our opinion, head and shoulders above any other tequila available today." Quoted from The Insiders Wine Line Magazine, April-May 1996

El Tesaro de Don Felipe (From their Web Site)

Using techniques passed from father to son, El Tesoro de Don Felipe tequila is meticulously handcrafted high in the Los Altos mountains of Jalisco, Mexico. El Tesoro is a prize for the senses; from the vibrant watercolor of the agave on the label, to the full agave aroma and flavor captured in the bottle. This tequila is a masterpiece waiting to be enjoyed.

Before the town of Arandas was established, it was a trading post and rest stop for weary travelers. Two families lived in the area, each disputing the other's land holdings within the fledgling town. (The town seal is actually a representation of the "tug-of-war" between the two families.) One of these families was the Camarena family.

The Camarena family has been producing tequila since 1937 when it became legal in their area of Jalisco. The art of tequila production has become a family tradition passed from father to son. Don Felipe Camarena, the son of the founding Don Felipe, is slowing turning control over to the third generation, his son Carlos. Working together to create their amazing tequila, each has found a special area in the process where he excels.

Don Felipe was a chemistry professor at the University of Mexico before taking over the distillery. His expertise, therefore, is in the fields where he can put his extensive knowledge of natural sciences to use. For example, he rejects the practice of cutting the tips off the agave spikes because of the stress it puts on the plant. (Most agave growers do this so that their cows can graze in the fields without injury. ) He also practices crop rotation so that his fields continue to yield the highest quality agave plants possible.

Carlos has developed his talents on the other end of the process- in the cellars. He has studied the effects that each barrel has on the tequila. When the tequila has aged sufficiently, he calculates the proportions needed for the blending of barrels, thereby creating the finest tequila possible. The result is Carlos now has an ability that rivals master cognac blenders in France.

Don Felipe Camarena walks his fields daily to select mature agave plants for harvesting. The harvester is called a Jimador. The Jimador harvests the agave by hand and trims the spines from the plant using a long handled knife called a Coa. The remaining core of the agave (the "piña") now resembles a huge pineapple weighing between 80 and 150 lbs.

The piñas are taken to the distillery by truck (Sorry, no donkeys.) and are cut into quarters so that they are easier to handle. Next, the agave must be cooked in order to convert the starch into sugar.

La Alteña has adobe and stone ovens called "hornos" that are used to cook the agaves. The agaves spend a total of three days in the ovens; 36 hours cooking, 36 hours cooling, emerging from the ovens a deep caramel brown color.

Most distilleries use autoclaves (large pressure cookers). The process is much quicker but which would YOU rather have? A cake baked in the oven or one cooked in a microwave?

After cooling, the hornos are unloaded and the cooked agave are taken to be placed in a large circular pit to be crushed by a large stone wheel. The stone wheel is called a "tahona". The tahona crushes the agave to release the juices or "honeys" in preparation for the next step: fermentation. Most distilleries use shedders. Again, it is a much quicker method but quicker is not always better.

Workers carry the crushed agave to the fermentation tanks in large wooden buckets. Because a tahona is used, there is no way to separate the juice from the fibers (unlike shredders) so everything is fermented together. (Fine cognacs are also produced using this method.) Fermentation is done in large open wood vats and can take up to five days, depending on the air temperature. While most distilleries use selected yeasts, El Tesoro is made using many strains of wild yeasts-Spontaneous fermentation. (Heavy rums also use this type of fermentation in their production.)

The next step is distillation.

By law, ALL tequila must be distilled twice. While all tequila producers use pot stills or modified versions of them, El Tesoro is distilled in small copper pot stills.

El Tesoro's first distillation is done with the fibers. A very unique method that results in a tequila with an intense agave flavor. The product of the first distillation is referred to as "Ordinario". It is not yet tequila.

The second distillation is watched very carefully. El Tesoro tequila is distilled to 80 proof. Most distilleries bring the tequila up to at least 105 proof and then add water to bring it back down to 80 proof. No water is added to El Tesoro.

All tequila comes out of the second distillation as white (clear) tequila. It can either be bottled this way or put into barrels for aging.

Don Felipe Camarena designed his cellars to reflect the famed cellars of Cognac, France. The cellars are deep underground with stone walls and arched brick ceilings. The cool temperature and humidity levels remain constant throughout the year, creating an environment that is ideal for aging.

By law, barrels containing 100% agave tequila must be sealed by a government inspector. This seal must remain intact until the tequila is ready for bottling.

El Tesoro is aged in used bourbon barrels, each bestowing individual qualities on the tequila. For example, a newer barrel imparts more tannins and color, lending structure to the tequila, while an older barrel softens it. A careful "blending" of these barrels creates a balance between the tannins and softness, resulting in a truly fabulous tequila.

With all of the processes leading up to this step done the old fashioned way, would it make sense to use automatic bottling and labeling machines? Of course not! Each bottle is filled and labels are carefully affixed by hand. After the cases are filled, they must be inspected by the Consejo Regulador (tequila regulating council) and sealed with a strip of paper which verifies that they contain 100% agave tequila. Once this has been done, the tequila is ready to be exported for the rest of the world to enjoy.

El Tesoro "Silver"

The Silver (unaged) has a vibrant crystalline and transparent color with numerous and opulent tears. It is heavily scented with the aroma of fresh agave. The palate detects the fruity essence of agave with hints of peppermint and spice. Fresh and elegantly clean, it possesses the finesse of an eau de vie.

El Tesoro "Reposado"

The Reposado is the color of pale straw with opulent tears. The nose reveals subtle nuances of oak and vanilla. On the palate, it has the spiciness of the silver mellowed by the softness of barrel aging.

El Tesoro "Añejo"

The Añejo is aged for up to three years in oak barrels resulting in a tequila the color of deep straw with thick tears indicating deep concentration. A harmonious balance of fruits, the powerful nose has character and concentration with the rancio of cognac. Rich and luxuriously well structured, the taste is exactly what the nose suggests: a wonderful balance of oak derived vanilla and the fruitiness of agave.

TEQUILA LAPIS (From their Web Site)

The Crown Jewel of Tequila

Already among the top five Premium Tequila's in sales, Tequila Lapis is a unique blend of 2½ to 4 year old, barrel aged, 100% Blue Agave.

REGION

    • There are two regions in the State of Jalisco for the production of Tequila.
    • One region is around the town of Tequila, one hour due west of Guadalajara.
    • The other region is around the town of Atotonilco, one hour due east of Guadalajara, in the area known as Los Altos (The Highlands).
    • The soil and elevation differ dramatically along with the effect of the sun.
    • The better quality and higher grade of Agave plants come from the Highland area.

AGAVE

    • There are over 100 species of Agave plants.
    • Agave plants are not CACTUS as most consumers think but are part of the Lily family.
    • The Blue Weber is known as the best species for distilling Tequila.
    • The leaves are 5' - 7' tall, the Pina (the plant in the ground) is approximately 4' - 6' in height and can be 50 - 100 pounds in weight.
    • All leaves are a tint of blue, therefore the name Blue Agave.
    • The plants never mature at the same time, but usually 7 - 9 years are required for maturation.
    • When the plant flowers this usually means it's ready to be harvested.
    • The Blue Weber are planted in rows (like vineyards) and since they do not all mature at the same time, machinery cannot be used to harvest and therefore all picking must be done by hand.

DISTILLATION

    • The selected sections of the plant are transported to the distillery where they are cut into two or four pieces.
    • The pieces are then placed in a sealed room where they are steamed for a minimum of 48 hours which transforms them into a starchy sugar.
    • The cooked segments are passed through grinders where the sugary juice is extracted.
    • The juice is then pumped into the fermenting tanks where it is mixed with selected yeast in order to convert the product into alcohol.

TASTE

    • By using this distillation process, it undergoes even a further distillation through an old fashion copper column still, which makes it smoother by taking out the Fusel oils.
    • Due to a more intense distillation process, the taste of Lapis is softer than most Tequilas.
    • Tequila Lapiz is aged in used oak barrels from Kentucky for a minimum of 2½ years.

MARKETING & PACKAGING

    • Each bottle is elegantly hand crafted and designed in Cobalt Blue glass.
    • Each bottle is individually numbered and comes with a certificate of authenticity.
    • The bottle was also designed for gift giving as well as home decorative use.
    • Tequila Lapis is named after the Blue Lapis (Lazuli) stone.
    • It is currently available in three sizes (750 ml, 200 ml and 50 ml).

Class of '98

New Crop Of Premium Tequilas Comes of Age

Article By Robert Plotkin

Those government statisticians seem to know nearly everything there is to know about us. For example, the average American household spent $277 on alcohol in 1997. But what the G-men don't know is that figure is bound to spike upward with the recent wave of upscale tequilas making its way across the border.

These are the best of times for tequila aficionados. Never has such a broad selection of premium tequilas been available, and tequila is the fastest growing category of spirits in the country. It does raise a question, though: How many brands of super-premium tequilas can the market support?

Unlike those who quaff other top-shelf contenders, the growing legions of tequila aficionados are likely as attracted to the romance of discovery as they are to the spirit's irresistible appeal.

The majority of these hand-made tequilas are not overnight, one-hit wonders, but established brands rooted in tradition and steeped in Mexican heritage. These are not products formulated by chemists. They are typically the vision of one man, the patriarch of a family that has accepted as its mission the crafting of the finest tequila possible.

So is there a point where too many brands of premium tequilas cause a market glut? Perhaps, but don't start looking for that saturation point to come soon. For many, the appreciation of fine tequila requires sampling new brands and styles. There's a joy to the discovery, and if your back bar provides the visa and port of entry, you'll be the long-term beneficiary.

The past year has seen the importation of several sterling new brands of 100-percent agave tequilas, many of which are profiled here. They will attempt to join the ranks of such benchmark brands as El Tesoro, Chinaco, Patron, Herradura and Porfidio.

El Tesoro Paradiso Anejo

If it's true that ingenuity is the mother of invention, then El Tesoro Paradiso Anejo is a stroke of genius. Seven years in the making, it represents an entirely new, innovative style of tequila. Paradiso is a five-year-old añejo, crafted from a blend of El Tesoro 100-percent blue agave tequilas selected for their distinctive characteristics.

The silver El Tesoro contributes a vibrant spiciness and fresh agave flavor. Then several ages of renowned El Tesoro Anejo are added for smoothness and body. This world-class blend is aged further in French oak barrels previously used for A. de Fussigny Cognac.

The result is absolutely magnificent. Paradiso attains a sublime balance between the elegance of cognac and the sultry character of tequila. The essence of both is discernible in every aspect of this spirit, deeply imbued in its bouquet, body, flavor and finish. Paradiso is an artistic achievement. It is imported by Robert Denton & Co.

1921 Tequila

Agave Tequilana Productores y Comercialzadores is a small distillery in the village of Jesus Maria, situated in the highlands of Jalisco. The distillery produces only 100-percent blue agave tequila and uses traditional production methods, including a stone tahona wheel and small pot stills. Its brand is dubbed 1921 Tequila in honor of the end of the Mexican Revolution.

The distillery produces three styles of 1921 Tequila. The Blanco is decidedly complex, with a pronounced floral nose, rich agave flavor and a sweet, delectable finish. The Reposado is equally memorable, a smooth, spicy tequila. The 1921 Reserva Especial is a savory a–ejo that borders on the elegant.

The 1921 Tequila is packaged in a short, square decanter modeled after one fashioned 60 years ago. They are wax-dipped and have clay medallions for labels. The brand is imported by Water Street Imports of Houston.

El Conquistador Tequila

While new to the United States, the tequilas produced by Agroindustrias Guadalajara are well-known in Mexico. The distillery's flagship brand is El Conquistador 100% Agave Tequila.

El Conquistador silver has fresh, spicy flavor of agave. Its tall, cobalt blue bottle adds an exquisite counterpoint to the well-structured spirit inside. The reposado is aged a minimum of seven months in oak barrels. It has a smooth, pronounced finish loaded with vibrant citrus overtones. Packaged in an amber, hand-blown bottle, El Conquistador Anejo is aged more than a year in French oak barrels. It is richly aromatic with a well-balanced flavor laced with vanilla and spice.

El Conquistador is imported by Heaven Hill.

Gran Centenario Anejo

The recent release of Gran Centenario Anejo completes the popular line of 100-percent blue agave tequilas, joining the silver and reposado versions. All along, Carillon Importers has said the añejo would be something worth waiting for, and it certainly was.

Gran Centenario Anejo is produced at Los Camachines in Los Altos de Jalisco, a distillery founded in 1857. It is aged up to 18 months in charred, white-oak casks. The slight charring allows increased contact with the wood for enhanced maturation. The result is a full-bodied tequila with an appreciably smoky complexity. It comes in a bottle worthy of the finest XO cognac.

Sauza Galardon 100% Agave Reposado Tequila

One of the most famous premium tequila producers, Sauza based its reputation on distilling some of Mexico's finest spirits. The tequila giant has introduced its most prestigious brand to-date, Sauza Galardon 100% Agave Reposado Tequila.

Crafted from 100-percent blue agave, Galardon Reposado is made in small batches and aged in white oak casks up to a year, twice as long as other premium reposado tequilas. It has overtones of vanilla in the aroma and a medium-bodied, pleasant flavor.

Sauza gave Galardon Reposado a sculpted metal label that makes a bold and unmistakable quality statement. Imported by Allied Domecq, it joins the fastest growing line of tequilas in the United States.

Herradura Seleccion Suprema

Imported by Bing Crosby and Phil Harris in the 1960s, Herradura was the first 100-percent blue agave tequila available in the United States. Founded in 1870, Herradura distills and bottles its tequilas on the Romo family estate. Recently, the firm released Seleccion Suprema, a 100-percent blue agave añejo issued to commemorate the company's 125th anniversary.

Seleccion Suprema is a sterling representative of the style and is skillfully crafted from select reserve white oak barrels of aged tequila. Although no age statement appears on the label, the company claims it is aged longer than any other tequila.

Production is limited to 2,000 bottles, which accounts for the suggested $275 price tag. Herradura Seleccion Suprema is bottled in numbered, limited edition decanters and is imported by Sazerac Inc.

Tequila Lapiz Anejo

Lapiz Anejo 100-percent blue agave tequila is a blend of aged tequilas distilled at La Tequilena in the town of Tequila. The company was founded in 1967 and then sold in 1990 to Enrique Fences, the largest agave farmer in Jalisco. Marketed in a cork-finished, pyramid-shaped, cobalt blue bottle, Lapiz Anejo has a delicate, floral bouquet and a nutty, herbaceous flavor.

La Tequilena also has released an ultra-premium 100-percent blue agave tequila called Tres-Cuatro-Cinco. It is made from a blend of aged tequilas and is composed of 30 percent three-year-old, 40 percent four-year-old and 30 percent five-year-old spirits, thus the name (3-4-5). Also, some of the tequilas were aged in small sherry casks; the others in rum barrels. The finished spirit has a complex, sherry-laced nose and a flavor reminiscent of aged brandy. The brand is produced in extremely limited quantities, with only 600 hand-blown crystal decanters bottled.

Tres-Cuatro-Cinco carries a suggested retail of $375 and is imported by the TIST Tequila Co.

Reserva Del Dueno Anejo

A marquee brand new to America is Reserva del Dueno Anejo, a smooth and thoroughly enjoyable 100-percent blue agave tequila crafted at La Tequilena distillery. Reserva del Dueno, meaning "the proprietor's own," is distilled from selected lots of mature agaves grown in the plateau south of the Highlands and west of Guadalajara. The area's micro-climate of cool evenings and dry, sunny days and rich soil contribute to the cultivation of large, exquisite blue agaves.

Reserva del Dueno is aged in hand-selected, American oak bourbon casks. The result is a naturally induced golden hue, full body and a slightly sweet, spicy palate. The tequila is bottled at 83.4 proof, an alcohol content the distillers feel best presents the flavor and bouquet. Reserva del Dueno is packaged in numbered, hand-blown bottles finished with wire nettings. It is imported by William Grant & Sons.

La Cava de Don Agustin

In the village of Arandas, one of the seven tequila-producing towns in the Highlands of Jalisco, is the family-owned La Arandina distillery. For years, it produced tequila for sale only through other companies, but recently, the firm released La Cava de Don Agustin, a superb 100-percent blue agave reposado. Pride of craftsmanship is evident in the company's first international export.

La Cava de Don Agustin has an alluring floral nose and a peppery agave flavor that completely fills the palate and lingers. Aged 11 months in American oak, the tequila is mellow and has a well-balanced character, rich with vanilla and spicy undertones. It is marketed in a handled bottle and packaged in a hand-crafted wooden box. Produced in limited quantity, La Cava de Don Agustin is imported by Tranca's of McAllen, Texas.

Barrique de Ponciano Porfidio

In the event you have a healthy budget and are eager to be known as the ultimate tequilaria, Porfidio has introduced what safely can be called the most expensive, and therefore the most exclusive, tequila produced, Barrique de Ponciano Porfidio. This latest release from tequila innovator Porfidio is a 100-percent blue agave añejo, aged two years in new, small (100-liter) French Limousin oak barrels. These casks, called barriques, typically are used to age Bordeaux and brandies.

Barrique de Ponciano Porfidio is an elegant tequila, highly aromatic, loaded with vanilla overtones, with a dark amber-gold color and a character similar to well-aged brandy. It is marketed in a stunning, statuesque one-liter bottle that features a small mouth and a clear, free-standing glass cactus inside.

Barrique comes with a price tag of about $500. The allotment for the United States is limited to 500 bottles, available through Todhunter Imports.

Don Julio Anejo

The Tequila Tres Magueyes distillery was founded in 1942 by tequila legend Don Julio Gonzalez. More than a half-century later, the distillery has named its line of premium 100-percent blue agave tequilas Don Julio.

Currently one of the best-selling brands in Mexico, Don Julio Anejo is aged in white oak barrels from Kentucky. It has a deep, satisfying bouquet, an exceptionally rich, well-rounded flavor and a long, lingering finish. Don Julio Anejo is bottled in a cork-finished tequila decanter and is imported into the United States by Rémy Amerique Inc.

Tequila Mi Viejo Anejo

The Reyneso family has been making tequila for three generations. At the insistence of family and friends, the current heir, Mrs. Xochitl Reyneso, worked with Cavas Real and El Viejito distillery to re-create her ancestors' legacy.

Tequila Mi Viejo is a full-bodied, 100-percent blue agave añejo, aged two years in white oak barrels. The additional aging imbues the tequila with appreciable depth and character. While production of Tequila Mi Viejo is limited, the search is worth the effort. It is imported by the Trading Company of the Americas of Gig Harbor, Wash.

Tequila Cazadores Reposado

Tequila Cazadores Reposado has been one of the top-selling tequilas in Mexico for years. It has achieved its market superiority producing one style of tequila, labeled as a 100-percent blue agave reposado.

Here's a tequila with a well-defined "everyman" quality. It's not overly refined or necessarily flawless. What it does have, however, is a rich, authentic flavor and an indomitable spirit, two essential characteristics of a truly enjoyable tequila, which Cazadores definitely is.

It is produced at a huge, state-of-the-art facility in Arandas, Jalisco, so shortages will not be a problem for the brand. Cazadores Reposado is imported by Tequila Cazadores. NC&B

Robert Plotkin is the chief contributing editor of the American Mixologist Newsletter and author of numerous books on bartending and beverage management including "Increasing Bar Sales: Creative Twists to Bigger Profits." He can be reached by e-mail at barinfo@barmedia.com.

Porfidio

(several different producers)

Porfidio has one of the most unique stories in the tequila business. Its owner, Martin Grassl, successfully predicted the expanding export market for 100% blue agave tequilas. Using a series of different distilleries to produce his various tequilas along with some of the most dynamic packaging in the industry, Grassl took his Porfidio brand to great success in the United States.

Marketing and packaging are Porfidio's strong points. Porfidio is most famous for its hand-blown "cactus bottle," which actually contains a small glass cactus in every bottle. It seems not to matter that cactus has nothing to do with the production of tequila, and that this packaging encourages misinformation about the product. Grassl uses a different shaped bottle for each type of tequila he produces. His Añejo Extra comes in a ceramic bottle in the shape of a gourd with a replica of an agave plant adorning its surface. His Silver and Añejo tequilas come in different colored long-necked bottles labeled with modern designs in bold colors. Grassl even has a triple-distilled tequila, in a long-necked frosted bottle.

It may be difficult for consumers who want to know which distillery is producing their favorite bottle of Porfidio at any given time. Porfidio tequilas have been produced by the same distilleries who make El Viejito, Arette, Tres Alegres Compadres, Regional, and J. R. Reyes tequilas. You can track your favorite Porfidio tequilas back to their original distillery if the bottle has an NOM number.

The future of Porfidio will at least be interesting. I have never met Mr. Grassl, but I have talked to the owner of one distillery who has produced Porfidio in the past. He told me he is considering legal action against Mr. Grassl. I have also contacted Porfidio's former distributor in the United States. They refuse to discuss the matter on advice of their attorneys. Rumors of additional lawsuits continue to circulate. Whether some of this legal entanglement is due to jealously on the part of rivals, I don't know, but tequila is already a volatile beverage. Introducing lawyers into the mix could be incendiary.

Tasting Notes

Porfidio Silver: Full and mellow on the attack, this colorless tequila has moderate agave intensity. Moderate agave aromas along with a dried grass floral character. Slightly sweet with medium mouth feel, the flavors are earthy agave, pepper and anise. The finish is tingly, of medium length, and slightly sweet.

Porfidio Añejo (2 year): Golden color with a strong, pungent attack. Macho agave intensity. Moderate wet cement agave with some caramelized aromas that are overpowered by the hot burn of alcohol. A hint of sweetness and a full mouth feel. Smoke, caramel, and earthy agave flavors. A long, hot finish that mellows into a caramel and smoke aftertaste.

Porfidio Single Barrel Añejo: Gold color with a strong, pungent attack. Macho and suave. Intense ginseng agave layered with caramel, pepper, and toasty oak aromas. Slightly sweet and full in the mouth. Flavors start with sweet caramel and agave, but burst into a long, smooth, smoky, caramel finish.

Porfidio Añejo Extra: Yellow in color, with a strong, pungent attack. A sharp mineral, vegetal aroma redolent of overripe apple overwhelms the modest agave in the nose. Light and thin in the mouth. Vegetal and mineral flavors. A short, flat finish with very little heat. There is a slight aftertaste of cooked vegetables.



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