I’ve been known to go on and on about the virtues of the Paloma or the Penicilina and about my love of tequila to anyone who willing to talk about cocktails and distilled spirits over the last couple of years. Maybe it’s because I’ve never had Jose Cuervo, maybe it’s because I’m part Spanish or maybe it’s because I enjoy being a contrarian, but drinking this underdog distilled spirit made from the Blue Agave plant has always been a truly pleasurable experience for me. Recently, I befriended a guy who is a BIG tequila fan. Actually, since he has tried almost 300 different tequilas, I think it’s fair to call him an aficionado. So, when I found out that Saturday, July 24th was National Tequila Day, I thought it would be perfect to spend the afternoon tasting tequila with him.
It’s always funny to be headed towards a bar on a sunny Saturday afternoon, but as I tugged open the heavy door to Tres Agaves in San Francisco, I thought to myself, “Away we go!” It was an all too familiar sight, a person hunched over copious notes with a row of glasses in front of him. Usually I’m that person; today it was my friend the Tequila Freak (TF for the rest of this note). I didn’t even have a pen in my purse. I was there for fun and maybe some color commentary.
I sat on the stool next to him and glanced over the various colors in the glasses from clear to burnt amber. “Did you want to try anything?” he asked. I ordered my favorite grapefruity, fizzy cocktail, a Paloma. While waiting for my drink, I sniffed the half dozen glasses before him. “You can taste them if you want,” TF said. “Oh, I always smell a flight of distilled spirits before tasting,” I replied. “I like to check for flaws so that there are no ‘rude awakening’ smells as the tasting progresses.” Lord knows I didn’t want to encounter a corked tequila!
As I sat there pondering what to try first, I realized that even without my pen and trusty Moleskine notebook I couldn’t cut loose and just enjoy these tequilas. The wheels were already ready turning: Production methods and barrels and flavors and aromas all pop into my head as I go from glass to glass. He orders more tequila, and I try to keep my geekiness to myself. How long do you think that lasted?
Before I knew it, I was parsing peppercorn aromas while tasting the Fortaleza Reposado. White pepper is sharp, black pepper is heat, green pepper is an herby spice and the elusive Szechwan peppercorn is a floral and fragrant spice. The Fortaleza was definitely green pepper. The bartender overheard my machinations and jumped in, “Oh, this one is really green pepper!” He then poured me a taste of the El Tesoro Reposado. It was lovely—supremely smooth with green peppercorn, again. I announced, “I think I would introduce someone to this style with the El Tesoro, but a real tequila drinker would probably love the Fortaleza because it is much more distinctive.” I get a glazed-eyed look from the bartender. “Oh no! I’m doing it again,” I thought to myself as the first pings of guilt sound in my ears.
You see, dear reader, the truly wonderful thing about TF is that he ranks his tequilas according to what he likes. Me—I’m always thinking of a beverage’s purpose: is it a fair price, is there a customer who wants this kind of item, will it complement the rest of the offerings in that section? “But Anne, did you like it?” is the inevitable question. “Oh yeah…it was good,” is my usual reply. Sometimes the freedom to truly love or hate a beverage seems like a luxury. I look at his notes and am jealous. An offer to take a margarita making class saves me from making any more “wine geek” comments.
After consuming my weight in guacamole, we returned to the bar to try a couple of more things. TF looked at me and asked, “Does this smell like sweat socks?” “Sweat socks… you’re kidding…can’t be?” I think. I smell the tequila. It had to be brett! Yup… the bacteria that many red wine drinkers either love or hate was sitting in this glass of tequila. “What is it?” he asked. “Critters,” I answered. He waves his hands in a motion to say please elaborate. For a moment I feel like Eve with a golden delicious in my hand getting ready to smash the Eden that is just enjoying tequila. I rapidly gloss over what brettanomyces is and say I need to go ask the tequila buyer a question. Sure enough, I get an explanation of open top fermenters vs. stainless steel and wild yeast vs. inoculated and lots more fermentation process…yup it was brett. I felt better. My nose was right.
Did I detail the minutiae of the fermentation process to TF? No. I’d rather hear the unvarnished love or hate from him. I watched him rank the tequilas and listened to the good and bad. It was great fun. And I did take some mental notes, with the hope that I might be able to help you find tequilas you love best… I’m dying to know what you think! Check back soon for cocktail recipes and fun tequila facts.
Arette Artesanal Blanco Suave ($47.99) Made at the El Llano distillery right in downtown Tequila, the Orendain family has owned Arettte since the early 1900s. A linear citrus finish follows the heady aromas of the cooked agave, green peppercorn and earth. Focused and clean, it was an excellent choice in a simple cocktail.
Arette Artesenal Añejo Suave (no pricing available) The tequila from Arette is aged in Jack Daniels barrels, and it shows in this very clean and pure example of an añejo. It stills shows the earthy, floral and fruity aromas and flavors of the agave, but doesn’t have an overwhelming “woody” aroma or taste. A light vanilla finish rounds out this añejo.
Casa Noble 2-year-old Añejo (Special Order from K&L $65.99) Casa Noble, which is USDA certified organic, prides itself as being the pure expression of blue agave. The plants take up to 14 years to mature and ripen. After hand harvesting, they are slow steamed so that the pina are cooked through. They are then cooled, shredded and allowed to slowly ferment. After a triple distillation process, the tequila is aged in Limousin oak. This lovely añejo has earthy, musky aromas of the agave with a light fruity top note. The finish is long and rich with that distinctive crème caramel flavor that could only come from a high toast Limousin barrel.
Don Fulano Reposado ($59.99) Great winemakers always say that the wine begins in the vineyard. The folks at Don Fulano feel the same way about their tequila. Their agave fields are in the highlands area of Jalisco around the town of Atotonilco. The altitude and aspect of the iron rich soils give the agave a cooler, more temperate terroir (terruno in Spanish) for the agave to grow. The amber hue of the tequila and nutmeg spice aromas are eveidence of extended aging in French oak barrels, 8-11 months. The wood flavors and aromas blend seamlessly with the fruity, heady aromas of cooked agave. The Don Fulano is a full plush style of reposado.
Don Fulano Blanco Fuerte (100 proof) (Special Order from K&L $59.99) I always wonder about “over-proof” spirits. Will they deliver in the aroma and flavor as well as have a big kick? The Fuerte shows heat and warmth backed by an almost savory quality. Is it the iron soil of the highlands showing through? Dense and mouthfilling, this tequila still shows some floral notes to go along with the rich bass notes of the cooked agave. Enjoy it solo!
Don Fulano Blanco (80 proof $54.99) The Don Fulano basic blanco is an intense expression of agave. From the aromas of celery root and black pepper to the crisp intense finish, this tequila shows its highland heritage.
Dos Manos Extra Añejo 5-year Reserva (Special Order from K&L $99.99) The Dos Manos is another triple-distilled tequila. Fine and almost silky, this agave slips across the palate with ease. Aged for about two years in a combination of used Bourbon and Sherry barrels, the Dos Manos has an almost Calvados nose reminiscent of a Macallan whisky with a big kick of vanilla on the finish.
Fortaleza Blanco (Special Order from K&L $51.99) Guillermo Sauza is a fifth generation distiller of tequila. His great-grandfather founded Sauza tequila, which he sold in 1976. Guillermo has carried on making artisanal tequila at his distillery that he calls “Los Abuelos.” I read somewhere that there were 600 aromas and tastes to tequila, and I am certain that they are all present in the Forteleza tequilas. This blanco is quirky and earthy, with subtle floral and pepper aromas to the nose. The attack on the palate is compact and sharp like a jab, but the warming richness of the cooked agave comes through in the long minerally finish.
Fortaleza Añejo (Special Order from K&L $61.99) The beauty of this añejo is the balance of the oak to the richness of the agave. Earthy aromas of golden beets and pear are complemented by the vanillin oak and pepper spice. This tequila is full and plush on the palate, while the long finish shows great depth and concentration. I could linger for hours enjoying the subtle, layered flavors of this intense spirit.
Fortaleza Reposado (Special Order from K&L $81.99) Fortaleza means fortress in Spanish and this Reposado is a stronghold of flavors. Floral aromas give way to celeriac and white pepper. The richness of this tequila envelops the palate like a gentleman’s handshake, firm and sure. The focused finish shows great depth and minerality and subtle wood tones.
Penca Azul Añejo (Special Order from K&L $119.99) Four generations of the Ruiz family have been making Penca Azul Tequila in the Highlands region of Jalisco. They harvest their agave when it is between 10- and 12-years-old and age their tequila in 180l barrels. Double-distilled, this extra aged añejo still shows a fiery side to it. The extended aging is plenty evident, however, in the deep amber color and crème brûlée finish.
Siete Leguas Reposado ($47.99) Like the Don Fulano, Siete Leguas is based in the town of Atotonilco. Artisanal to a fault, the folks at Siete Leguas still use mules to run their tahonas, or mills. Eight months in white oak barrels gives this reposado its dinstictive yellow-green hue. The aromas show the earthy, floral sweetness of the agave nectar balanced by the woody flavors on the palate. The light use of the oak maintains that fiery, lively Highland finish.