This month we explore the expansive landscape of aromas and flavors provided by Tequila, Mexico's native distilled spirit. Made from the blue agave plant, a punk rock-like member of the amaryllis family, Tequila is perhaps, at present, the most intriguing white spirits category. It has seen unprecedented growth in consumption and sales not just in the United States but around the world. It's been in the news quite a bit lately, too. We've heard reports on the agave shortage (which, depending on whom one speaks with, is due to frost, disease, and/or increased consumption) and about a fractious international flap with black marketers in Spain, who are selling faux Tequila that's made in the Canary Islands. In addition, we've seen more and more distilleries open, not to mention the continual introduction into an already burgeoning marketplace of more super- and ultrapremium Tequila brands.
Seventeen bottlings from a total of ten producers are included in this early summer collection, illustrating Tequila's broad sensory spectrum—from vanilla-like to woody to ash-like to herbal. The roster's per bottle suggested retail prices, which range from $11 to $75, are admittedly a tad staggering. Are the Tequilas that cost $40 per bottle or more really worth it? It's up to consumers to decide, since pricing is not a factor in Wine Enthusiast ratings. Do note, though, that none of the 17 Tequilas that I reviewed received 96 points or more.
When I began evaluating Tequilas professionally in the late 1980s, my taste preferences routinely gravitated toward the richer, woodier, amber-hued anejos. I admired their complexity, concentration, and layers of bouquet and taste. But now, after visiting the state of Jalisco a half dozen times and sampling scores of Tequilas that ranged from grand to feeble, I actually take greater pleasure in the raw, colorless, unaged silver Tequilas. Like most Mexican consumers, my palate has come to appreciate the unique, zesty, herbal qualities of unadulterated agave distillate. I've arrived at the juncture where I believe many of today's reposados, anejos, and extra olds border on being overproduced—they are the victims of overzealous human intervention. Too much time spent in oak barrels. Too much caramel coloring. In other words, many Tequilas are trying too hard to be decadent or profound. The more time they spend in production or maturation, the more Tequilas begin to resemble brandy. Tequila, by its wonderfully idiosyncratic nature, is best when it's fresh, perfumed, slightly harsh, intensely herbal and right off the still.
Also in this edition of the Spirits Buying Guide, don't miss four Cognacs from two excellent producers, as well as a handful of unflavored vodkas.
—F. Paul Pacult
SUPERB (90-95) Highly Recommended
Don Julio Blanco 100% Blue Agave Tequila (Seagram Americas, New York, NY) 40% abv, $40. Clear, but with a few insignificant suspended particles. The nose of toast and buttered popcorn is unusual and idiosyncratic. After seven minutes of airing, the buttery scent expands to bacon fat and sautéed almonds. The flavor is dry, very oily, and well endowed at palate entry; the midpalate adds tastes of black pepper, tar and dried herbs, and the aftertaste features a unique oiliness that is irresistible. This is one of the most singular tequila bouquets of the last ten years, and is the most exciting silver to be released in the last three years.
Don Julio Reposado 100% Blue Agave Tequila (Seagram Americas, New York, NY) 40% abv, $43. Pale straw yellow hue; ideal clarity. The first two nosings offer savory scents of white pepper, dill, brine and spice; the third nosing adds a subtle note of dried herbs. The fourth and final sniffing, following eight minutes of aeration, highlights the dill with a background of vegetal brininess. The palate entry is smooth, silky and agave-sweet; the midpalate stage displays ripe, sweet flavors of butter, oil and black pepper. The finish is long, oily, a tad smoky and luscious. Faintly echoes the lighter single malts of Islay, say Bunnahabhain or Bruichladdich.
XQ Plata (Silver) 100% Agave Tequila (Better Beverage Importers, New Castle, DE) 40% abv, $45. Crystal clear. The nose is pleasant in a piquant herbal manner; later nosings pick up a citrus rind-like characteristic and the seductive agave/vegetal/ briny scent that could only come from Tequila. The palate entry is soft, almost neutral, then the midpalate taste sensation turns tangy, snappy and prickly, as concentrated vegetal/lead pencil flavors dominate the taste buds. The aftertaste is ashy/ sooty, very long and oily.
VERY GOOD (85—89) Recommended
30-30 Reposado 100% Blue Agave Tequila (Sans Wine & Spirits Co., Irvine, CA) 40% abv, $19. The pretty color is the same as pale white wine. Unfortunately, aeration doesn't appear to agree with this reposado: In the middle-stage nosings, there's a notable weakening of aromatic strength; in the final sniffing, however, the peppery quality returns and the aroma springs back to life in waves of black pepper, vegetable broth and mild dill. Better in the mouth than in the nose, this reposado starts out almost buttery, then turns silky smooth at midpalate as flavors of agave, sweet oak and light caramel save the day. The aftertaste is a touch smoky, almost candy-like and long. A svelte mixing reposado for margaritas and Tequila sunrises.
Corralejo Reposado Tequila (WDL Spirits Ltd., St. Helena, CA) 40% abv, $45. Double distilled and matured in French oak barrels (Limousin), but don't hold that against it. Pale lemon juice hue. The opening sniff detects a lovely, fresh, vegetal scent of agave that's slightly sour but compelling; the middle stage nosings offer delicate, understated aromas of spring flowers, grass, and agave. Right from the palate entry, rich, hard-candy-like flavors of lemon and oak take the taste buds by storm. The midpalate phase is slightly less intense as the flavors settle down on the tongue, allowing the agave base flavor to emerge from behind the curtain of sweetness. The aftertaste is medium-long and more vegetal-herbal than candy-sweet.
Don Julio Anejo 100% Blue Agave Tequila (Seagram Americas, New York, NY) 40% abv, $45. Pale straw-yellow hue that's marred by floating debris. The initial nosings pick up a mildly sweet herbaceousness and toasted nuts; the final nosings add subtle notes of wood resin and hard cheese. The taste is sweet at first as the wood impacts the flavor; then the midpalate shows caramel, wood resin and nougat. The finish is long and creamy, with butter and nut notes—smooth with a sassy bite at the tail end.
El Jimador Blanco 100% Agave Tequila (Sazerac Company, New Orleans, LA) 40% abv, $20. As crystalline as mountain spring water. The deep, alluring nose offers supple, stately aromas of grass, hay, herbs and a dash of licorice; by the fourth nosing pass, linseed-oil and slate-like perfumes rise from the glass. The palate entry is dry. At midpalate, rich agave, herb and licorice flavors develop. The long finish is oily, minerally and dry, with hints of chalk.
El Jimador Reposado 100% Agave Tequila (Sazerac Company, New Orleans, LA) 40% abv, $22. Color is pale gold, blemished by clouds of transparent floating particles. Initial nosing discovers sour scents of mustard seeds and dill; the second sniffing picks up nuances of green olives and brine. With the third whiff, following six minutes of air contact, the mustard and dill deepen. More likeable in the mouth than in the nose, this reposado starts out bittersweet in the palate entry, then turns zesty and peppery at midpalate as sweet tastes of candied almonds and ripe agave sugars rule the day. The aftertaste is long and sweet in an herbal, nearly medicinal manner.
La Fogata Extra Aged Tequila Dona Carlota (Duggans Distillers, Blauvelt, NY) 40% abv, $45. The faint straw-yellow tint is pretty. The nose upon opening is flat; the middle stage nosing passes, after aeration, unearth soft, sweet aromas of dill, asparagus and crushed flowers. After 10 minutes in the glass, the bouquet turns positively stately, as firm but understated scents of ripe agave, dried herbs and brine emerge. Flavors begin at entry with desert-dry vegetal agave; the midpalate deftly expands that theme and introduces a peppery, dried thyme flavor that's pleasantly round. Finishes brief and bone dry. Displays its best stuff in a classic straight-up margarita with fresh-squeezed lime juice and Cointreau.
Nacional Silver 100% Blue Agave Tequila (Rio Bravo Spirits, El Paso, TX) 40% abv, $40. Limpid as rainwater, but there's considerable floating detritus. The nose at opening is focused, tart and enticingly botanical in a dried bark, root-like way. Later passes add light touches of pepper, charcoal and tar. The palate entry is totally dry, then the flavor at midpalate zooms ahead in a toasted, smoky, charcoal flare-up on the tongue. The aftertaste is all cigar smoke, soot and ripe, sweet agave. Not a landmark silver, but it has an admirably smoky quality.
Pepe Lopez Premium Gold Tequila (Mexico; Brown-Forman Beverages Worldwide, Louisville, KY) 40% abv, $11. Rich, vibrant amber hue. Nosing immediately following the pour detects delicate, lean and focused aromas of herbal agave, mild dill and salty brine. Subsequent nosing passes reveal additional background scents of black pepper, hay and damp vegetation. Palate entry is dry but basically nondescript; the flavor grows dramatically on the midpalate, as medium-full tastes of sweet, ripe agave, dried herbs and buttered asparagus delight the taste buds. Finish is acceptably hot and intensely vegetal, toned down in the sweetness department, but firm. Best Buy.
Sauza Extra Gold Tequila (Allied Domecq Spirits USA, Westport, CT) 40% abv, $14. Pale flax hue is perfectly free of suspended particles. The peculiar opening bouquet is astonishingly nutty; the middle stage nosing passes expand on the nut theme by adding soft traces of peanut butter and steamed asparagus. An atypical tequila perfume, but pleasant. Palate entry is meek, but by midpalate moderately sweet flavors of candied nuts and nougat make for an enjoyable experience. The aftertaste is medium-long, nutty, nougat-like and charming. A bargain Tequila for everyday enjoyment. Best Buy.
XQ Reposado 100% Agave Tequila (Better Beverage Importers, New Castle, DE) 40% abv, $50. Its appearance is blemished by unattractive detritus. The initial nosing pass finds keenly fresh, green pepper aromas that are also wax-like; later sniffings detect delicate background scents of pine nuts, sea salt and brine. In the mouth, this sweet reposado comes off oily, briny and intensely peppery. The midpalate is especially nice, as the rich agave base gets topped off by sweet oak flavors. Finishes long, oily or waxy and mildly sweet.
30-30 Blanco 100% Blue Agave Tequila (Sans Wine & Spirits Co., Irvine, CA) 40% abv, $18. Limpid as springwater. The nose at opening is more vegetal than herbal, but it is attractive and fresh. The middle stage passes witness a moderate deepening of vegetal agave aromas. The opening flavors are sweet and clean; the midpalate stage is sweeter still, but with scant agave personality. Finish is sweet and extended, but a touch too hot and basic.
30-30 Anejo 100% Blue Agave Tequila (Sans Wine & Spirits Co., Irvine, CA) 40% abv, $27. Pretty straw yellow color that's free of debris. The opening nose is anemic; the second and third passes detect muted green peppers, dill-like agave and oak. In the mouth, it shows more life as pleasing tastes of vegetal agave, dried thyme and sweet oak greet the taste buds at palate entry. The midpalate stage, however, turns lackluster and wan. The aftertaste shows slightly more zip as the sweet oak carries the ball. Too inconsistent to be recommended.
Margaritaville Oro Tequila (The Seagram Spirits and Wine Group, New York, NY) 40% abv, $16. The burnished gold color has an odd, almost manufactured, orange glow to it. The nose at opening is dill-like and vegetal; the middle stage nosings unearth dull herbal and caramel notes. Palate entry is sweet—more candied than ripe agave. The midpalate is meek and overly sweet. Finish is caramel-like, medium long, and overly sweet.
XQ Gran Reserva Anejo 100% Agave Tequila (Better Beverage Importers, New Castle, DE) 40% abv, $75. Matured for three years in three types of wood barrels. The harvest-gold medium-amber hue displays lots of suspended debris. Toasted, woody scents inhabit the opening nosing; the middle stage passes unearth tangy, resiny aromas that include wet cotton, linseed oil, asparagus and cucumber. Palate entry is dangerously sweet—candied. The finish is long, thickly candied and oaky sweet.
CLASSIC (96-100)/Highest Recommendation
Brillet Très Vieille Réserve XO Grande Champagne Cognac (Martin Sinkoff Wines, Inc., Dallas, TX) 40% abv, $100. The opening whiff offers succulent aromas of toasted almonds and apple butter; the middle stage sniffings add delicate aromas of old oak and hard cheese. By the fourth and last nosing, the two decades of maturation in small oak barrels appears as roasted nut, dried fruit and rancio aromas. Palate entry is oaky, resiny and ripe in flavor. At midpalate, the multilayered flavors turn fuller though never chunky, as rich and powerful tastes of nuts, cheese and oak glide along in perfect harmony. Finishes long, oaky sweet, and a bit caramel-like. Most apt descriptors are "luscious" and "integrated." A genuine thoroughbred. Best Buy.
Brillet Très Rare Heritage Brut de Fut Grande Champagne Cognac (Martin Sinkoff Wines, Inc., Dallas, TX) 50% abv, $300. Aged for 50 years in oak, then bottled at cask strength. The opening sniff offers subtle traces of marzipan, walnuts, spice cake and dried red fruits; in the second pass, gentle aromas of baked pears. On entry, elegant, classical flavors of dark caramel and old oak greet the tip of the tongue; the midpalate boasts opulent, vanilla-laden, butter and cream flavors that flourish in graceful harmony. The aftertaste is infinitely long, deeply caramel-like, sweet and spicy. A "complete package" Cognac that's worth every penny.
Courvoisier L'Esprit de Courvoisier Cognac (Allied Domecq Spirits USA, Westport, CT) 40% abv, $5,000. A blend of Cognacs from the Courvoisier paradis, none of which were distilled later than 1929. The nose is a bit muted at first, but by the second pass it's clear that this is no ordinary Cognac: Deep aromatic waves of hard cheese, oak, nutmeg, beeswax and vanilla extract wash over the olfactory organs. The third sniff reveals further layers of cheese-like rancio and dark toffee, while the final whiff is butter and remarkably delicate. By midpalate, the flavors are soaring as streamlined tastes of marmalade, spice cake, old oak, rancio and spirit. The finish, where the age shows the most, is medium-long, moderately sweet and fruity. An exquisite, aristocratic Cognac that comes through in flying colors on all sensory accounts.
SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Brillet Sélection Petite Champagne Cognac (France; Martin Sinkoff Wines, Inc., Dallas, TX) 40% abv $35. The clear yellow-gold color appears exceptionally pure. First nosing offers several layers of aromas, from pears to soft old oak to beeswax. The second pass, following three minutes of air contact, adds a subtle hint of citrus peel; later sniffings add light-fingered touches of pleasantly prickly spirit and oak. Palate entry is sleek and mildly sweet in a fruity way more than in a woody manner. The midpalate stage hums along with harmonious tastes of ripe red fruit, buttery oak and firm spirit. The aftertaste is long, svelte and more fruity than oaky. The complex, mildly chalky character of the Petite Champagne district is crystallized in this swank beauty. Best Buy.
CLASSIC (95-100)/Highest Recommendation
Gvori Vodka (Beverage Brands, Roswell, GA) 40% abv, $20. Clear as rainwater. The toasted, charred, sooty early aromas of this Polish vodka are beguiling, mildly sweet and concentrated on the grain; middle-stage nosings add an oiliness that perfectly complements the smoke. After nearly nine minutes in the glass, the aromatic potency hasn't lost a step-indeed, it adds a further scent of dark-roasted coffee beans. The coffee beans continue on at palate entry in the form of a lip-smacking cocoa-coffee taste. The midpalate is bold, beautifully textured and offers hearty but silky flavors of vanilla, coffee beans and cocoa. The aftertaste is medium-long, intensely bean-like, sweet and warms the throat. Superbly satisfying on its own, well chilled.
Pearl Vodka (Pearl Spirit, Inc, San Francisco, CA) 40% abv, $25/liter. This Canadian vodka is impeccably pure and clear. The dry winter-wheat aroma is both polite and bountiful in the opening nosing-it smells like cereal before you add milk. In the second and third passes, there's an understated aromatic richness that highlights the wheat. This is not a big, street-brawling bouquet but a quietly opulent, grain-driven perfume that's stately and well-defined. The satiny, even mildly oily, texture at palate entry is a class act; the midpalate stage features warm, slightly roasted but delicate tastes of steamed rice, wheat crackers and sweet grain. The finish is smooth and flavorful in a concentrated grainy way. The finest vodka yet to be produced in North America.
VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
Thor's Hammer Vodka (Williams & Churchill, Ltd. Chicago, IL) 40% abv, $25. Whistle-clean and pure. In the tradition of Scandinavian vodkas (this one's from Sweden), the nose is agile, grain-driven and charming in the first sniffing; the middle stage passes reveal a totally dry, minerally/stony aroma that's wonderfully clean. This is a typical, well-made, Nordic-style vodka that's light as a feather to the point of being ethereal. Slightly more expressive in the mouth, Thor's starts out dry and grainy at palate entry, then turns moderately sweet-almost fruity-at midpalate. The finish is long, sweet, minerally and more intensely grainy than the midpalate.