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BRYSON-0718-390x242by LEW BRYSON
SINGLE MALT SCOTCH has some long, strong coattails. The success of single malt, with its distillery identity, age statements, and deliberately distinct characters, served as an example to bourbon – which went single barrel, super-aged, and limited edition – Irish whiskey’s single pot still explosion, Japanese whisky’s renaissance, and a Canadian revolution that’s still building.

And then there’s what single malt did for tequila.

Yes, tequila, where things have jumped from añejo to extra añejo, and the wood looks to become more important than the agave at the heart of the spirit. That’s not the only whisky-driven ‘innovation’ in tequila these days, either. Let’s have a look.

I got to take a trip to Jalisco, Mexico recently, and we drove up into the highlands to the La Alteña distillery to talk to legendary third-generation tequilero Carlos Camarena about his highly traditional EL TESORO tequila. After touring the estate agave fields (including an embarrassing experience taking over a jimador’s coa and trimming an agave piña . . . managed to do it without shedding any blood!) and the distillery, we sat outside and talked about aging.
He compared a blanco tequila to a watercolor of an agave field, freshly painted and still damp: bright colors, fresh work, and the absolute focus of your attention. A reposado would be the same painting, framed in a simple wooden rim: it gives it a bit of context, but the flavor and character of the agave spirit is still the main attraction.

A slight pause, and then he went on to say that an añejo was more like the paintings you see in a museum, the older master paintings with a large, ornate frame, one where the frame draws your attention almost more than the painting. “The wood has taken over,” he said.
You might think that means Camarena doesn’t really approve of añejo, and yet he was one of the prime movers behind the creation of the “extra añejo” category, which became officially recognized in 2OO6. His EL TESORO PARADISO spends five years in ex-cognac casks, a length of aging that was outside the definition of añejo when he started doing it.
This is all part of the evolution of tequila, a relatively young spirit to the US market. Like single malt Scotch, today’s younger drinkers have always known tequila as a premium spirit, made from 1OO% blue agave, and with various aging levels and distilleries. That wasn’t always the case; when I was young and (barely) legal, most tequila was mixto, a minimum of 51% blue agave and the rest . . . sugars, of some kind. This was the stuff that gave us those “bad experiences” that were part of growing up tequila, and why licking the salt and biting the lime was so popular: the distraction made the booze easier to get it down.

But just like we found single malts, and single pot still Irish, and Armagnac, we found 1OO% agave tequilas, and as we moved into a period of cheap agave in the 2OOOs (after a severe shortage in the late 9Os), many brands spread into the market. Tequila became premium, and as it did, producers and their marketing partners found ways to make it more so: fancy bottles, new stories, and more wood aging.
Did the new emphasis on aged tequila, the rise of the extra añejo, stem from the growing popularity of whisky? “Standing over here in Whiskyland, it sure does look like it,” says Max Toste, who runs the Lone Star Taco Bar in Allston. “The success of whisky charged the añejo/extra añejo market, the idea that older is better. People taste with their eyes and brains more than their mouths.” Toste, like another person in the business I talked to (a brand rep who didn’t want to be named for obvious reasons) prefers blanco to the aged tequilas; they want to taste the variety of cha racter from terroir and process.

I will say this about añejo,” he says. “Drop a big rock in it and it brings out the whisky-ness of it. I’ll drink that in the winter, and it tastes like whisky. Mix whisky cocktails with añejo, and it tastes really good.

Like whisky, tequila makers are experimenting with other wood. There are añejo tequilas being aged or finished in wine casks. As with whisky, these need a fine hand, and some consideration on how long and what wines.

They’re also experimenting with barrel-finishes from whiskies other than the usual bourbon. The new DON JULIO REPOSADO, DOUBLE CASK is aged in bourbon barrels for 8 months, like the standard Don Julio Reposado. But then it is finished an extra 3O days in casks that previously held Dalwhinnie single malt, which gives it an additional, more European fruitiness, and like Dalwhinnie, just a hint of peat.

Do you remember Jacob’s Ghost, the filtered aged whiskey from Beam that came out a few years ago, a clear whiskey? It had no color, but was rounded and smooth, with a fruit salad array of esters largely free of oak. That’s the idea behind “cristalino”, another term that’s popped up with tequila. It involves taking añejo, reposado, and blanco, or just one, or two, blending it, and then filtering it so it’s clear and uncolored, like blanco, but with the wood-smoothed body of an aged tequila.

Cristalino isn’t a recognized term – yet – and not every producer uses it. One that isn’t is HERRADURA on their ULTRA. “Ultra is a blend of CASA HERRADURA’S AÑEJO – aged for 25 months – with premium Extra Añejo that has been aged for up to 49 months in American white oak barrels,” explains Mariana Esquinca, Global PR manager for tequilas at Brown-Forman. “A subtle hint of agave nectar is added before the liquid is filtered, creating a rich, crystal-clear tequila with a full-bodied flavor and smooth taste.”

In general, it’s good to remember that Mexicans themselves mostly drink blanco and reposado; it’s the American market that’s driving the longer-aged expressions. We have the money and the thirst for new flavors. We also have the notions about older is better that were planted by Scotch marketers . . . and like the agave, those notions may take years to mature, but they’re flourishing. Extra añejo is what a lot of people want, convinced that it’s the best kind of expression of tequila, and they’re going to buy it.

Things won’t end there, either. When I toured La Alteña, one of the things I saw were some huge wooden vats, ex-Italian wine tuns, in excess of 1OOO liters, and therefore well outside the top size allowed for añejo aging. What’s in there? Another tequila variant without an official name . . . yet. “Maybe extra reposado?” Carlos said with a wink.

Although it may say “1OO% blue agave” on the label, 1OO% doesn’t necessarily mean a full 1OO%. There are additives allowed in non-blanco tequila by Mexican regulations, up to 1% of the volume. Makers can add sweeteners (often agave syrup, but others are allowed as well), caramel color, oak extract, and glycerin. These are all natural products, and glycerin is a naturally occurring by-product of fermentation and distillation. And just because a producer can use them, doesn’t mean they have. But you can always ask.

“Blanco” doesn’t equate to “unaged.” Blanco tequilas may well go almost directly from the still to the bottle, although all of them go through at least a rest of a day or two in steel tanks. But blancos may be “rested” in large wooden casks for up to six months to smooth the flavors.  Joven, or “young” or Plata, “silver” are just different ways of saying blanco.

The craft distilling revolution is spreading. I recently heard about a new Mexican whiskey, Sierra Norte, made from three strains of Oaxacan corn. The corn, called Maiz Criollo in Oaxaca, is currently available in white, black, and yellow; local farmers are working on growing up other strains from seed bank samples.

Not only are these corn plants not genetically modified (GMO), they are not even the product of modern hybrid breeding techniques. They’re plants from the very early development of corn. The Maiz Criollo strains only produce about half the yield of modern yellow corn strains, but they have unique flavors. The distillery pays “fair trade” prices for them, too, getting more money into the hands of the local farmers.

Sierra Norte is made from 85% corn and 15% malt, and aged in French oak barrels. The three whiskeys are distinctly different. I found the white corn to be the most like American corn whiskey: mealy, cracker notes, with sharp barrel notes. The black is sweeter, with an oily, fuller body and some toasted marshmallow notes. The yellow is a shocker, quite spicy, with some clear chili flavors that are going to perk up a cocktail.

I’ll admit I was a skeptic, but there’s something interesting here.

Mariana Esquinca provided this cocktail recipe for Herradura Ultra that emphasizes the spirit’s soft, fruity character.

2 parts of Herradura Ultra
1/2 part of apricot liqueur
3/4 part of lemon juice
3/4 part of Monin ginger syrup
1/2 part of white peach puree
1/2 dashes of Angostura bitters
1 egg white
shake all ingredients (1st time: no ice; dry shake. 2nd time: with ice) and strain into coupe glass. garnish with edible flowers.