Any reputable imbiber should understand tequila is a discerning distillate. The one-time rouble rouser of the cabinet is now a refined choice, and efforts to promote 100% agave spirits have been ongoing for more than a decade.
But how do you take a newly enlightened appreciation of tequila to the next flavour level and develop your drinks cabinet to boast the best? Well, if you’re keen to upgrade the agave collection, then two influences to be considered are terroir and maturation.
At its core Tequila’s taste profile is already unique and multi layered. The spirit is produced by distilling fermented agave, specifically the agave tequiliana wever azul, or blue agave. This hardy perennial is carefully cultivated and sun-baked for a decade, and when handpicked is so rich in natural sugars it bestows beautifully sweet and floral flavours. Soil conditions and climate can impart variations on these themes, and since the final spirit is subtle and sensitive to outside forces, wood maturation can also deliver spectacular results.
To focus on terroir first, and as with any natural ingredient, where this agave grows can deliver shifts in flavour profiles. Under strict regulation, agave cultivation for tequila is limited to specific regions and the main area for tequila production is the state of Jalisco. Along with Jalisco, tequila can be made in Guanajuato, Michoacán and Nayarit, as well as small area of the state of Tamaulipas, but that requires further investigation, so for this part of the journey, keep to Jalisco and know it’s divided into highland, los altos and lowland, or valleys.
The highlands offer soil rich in iron, more sun and colder nights, so agaves selected from this region tend to give the final spirit a more floral and fruity profile. In the valley you find the agaves impart a more herbaceous note and usually with a spicier or pronounced pepper note.
Production originally started in the valleys with farmers slowly moving the agave plantations into the higher regions over time, these days it seems the Los Altos profile has more fans, but there are some stunning lowland tequilas, Fortelaza being one, and a personal favourite of ours.
This is the simplest breakdown of terroir but explore further and you’ll discover more nuance. Ocho tequila saw Jalisco’s legendary producer Carlos Camarena team up with tequila expert Tomas Estes to pioneer the concept of vintages, or Single Estate expressions, with agaves selected from different ranches, or smaller fields on different elevations with varied soil compositions. While the changes in the resulting distillates can be subtle, the hours of sunlight, rainfall and minerals all ensure a difference in the final distillate.
The project has yielded fascinating results. The agaves selected from Rancho El Vergel at an altitude of 2,000 meters produced a vintage with honeyed notes, baked pear and cherry and a richer, toffee mouth feel. While Rancho La Magueyera at 1600 metres, had more tropical fruit and a cleaner pepper, even minty finish. Then Rancho Las Pomez, known for its porous volcanic stones and at 2,055 meters, produced a sweeter spice, almost cinnamon profile.
Tomas, who sadly passed away recently, deserves a special mention here, having been a huge influence on rise of luxury tequila, and our own affection for the spirit. A passionate ambassador for agave, he launched Café Pacifico, a Mexican bar and restaurant with an epic collection of the varieties, that helped re-educate drinkers. He’ll be greatly missed, but his Ocho tequila project continues to enhance our understanding of this spirit and having enjoyed a comparative sampling on location, we highly recommend the Ocho Single Estate Las Aguilas Añejo 2017 harvest
Beyond terroir you have the influence of oak through maturation, a relatively new area of experimentation in tequila. Because tequila is a delicate spirit this is a tricky skill to perfect, if the spirit spends too long in the wood and is not robust enough, the oak tramples over the qualities. As you’d expect then, a lot less tequila goes into barrels than rum or whisky, only the very best will enthuse the connoisseur and it invariably appears once and sells quickly.
Any tequila spending time in a barrel fits into three categories, in order of ‘age’: reposado, añejo and extra añejo.
A reposado will be aged in oak for a minimum of 60 days, so will have a subtle impact from the oak. Search for reposados that have enjoyed a spell in smaller casks if you can, some are matured in large vats and have less direct influence from the wood.
Añejo will be aged a year minimum, maximum capacity of 600 litres; and extra añejo will be aged for a minimum of 3 years, again with that maximum capacity of 600 litres.
When you explore extra añejo you find some truly luxurious tequila, and because maturation is in its infancy, the best are incredibly rare. And as with any spirit, the idea of maturation is leading to wider conversations about the style of wood being employed, with barrels previously used for wine or rum now being considered, ensuring the final tequila is as complex as fine French brandy or single malt Scotch.
To emphasise the investment opportunity here, particularly in the case of extra añejo, I was ready to recommend Siete Leguas D’Antano extra añejo and Arette’s Gran Clase Añejo for this feature, but neither are available through obvious sources. Here are some you can still find though:
Carlos Camaerna’s La Alteña Distillery produces a number of exceptional highland tequilas, along with the Ocho tequilas and the Tapatio brand (). But for another hero of horticulture, dip into Don Julio tequilas. Creator Don Julio González revolutionized agave cultivation when he spaced his plants further apart to catch more rays and allowed them longer to mature before picking, while also selecting the most succulent portions of the agave piña. The Don Julio 1942 combines all this agave affection with 30 months in white oak and is a gamechanger in luxury tequila.
And if you want to add some beautiful design to the cabinet selection, then Vivir Tequila Anejo is made at the Casa Maestri distillery using highland agave, is sweet and smooth thanks to 18 months in American oak, and comes in a sleek and contemporary bottle.
Start with Fortaleza blanco and añejo.Once you have them on the list go to Herradura, a lowland distillery that pioneered wood maturation. Or Arette, a bartender favourite. With both these distilleries it’s worth adding all expressions into your cabinet, at the unaged blanco level you’ll appreciate the impact of terroir, but also try something from aged expressions, like Arette’s Unique Extra Añejo releases. With wood aging for up to six years you’ll note how oak can dramatically change the spirit, but with stunning results.
Extended age is not the indicator of quality in tequila, but the best spirit stands up to a longer spell in wood. When aged, these spirits should have a rich and smooth profile, with the sweetness of the original agave distillate present, and with an eminently sip-able quality.
The outstanding Gran Patrón Piedra was rested for three years in new American and French oak and while it has been around since 2013, it remains a great example of successful wood maturation.
Ocho tequila has worked on the concept of terroir, but increasingly wood influence as well. Ocho Rum Cask Finish spend a year an American white oak and was finished for three months in French oak that previously held Plantation 2002 Barbados rum.
Meanwhile in Código 1530 extra añejo you’ll find a tequila rested in barrels previously used for luxury Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley.