There’s a strange sense of responsibility when compiling a list of spirits that I think others should try. I always try to put across a list that covers as many styles as possible, and includes products that I’d gladly recommend to anyone if I was stood at the bar with me. Of course a list of products is always subjective, and there are always others that could have made the list, but the point is to give anyone reading this a starting point, and hopefully to get you thinking, and talking about the category.
Because my knowledge of tequila is good, but I work with someone who knows even more than I do about agave goodness, I thought I’d use this as an excuse to be led through the category by someone else for a change. James Triffo, my business partner in NOLA, helped to launch Partida and Ocho tequilas into the UK, and worked for Tomas Estes of Café Pacifico and Ocho tequila fame, managing one of the La Perla sites in London. When I asked if he’d help me put together a list of 10 Tequilas that would show the breadth of the Tequila category, he suggested we use this as an excuse to do a tasting and maybe get a few Tequila lovers together to talk them through.
Now if you live or work in London, and you like Tequila, then one of the first bars that will jump to mind is Café Pacifico in Covent Garden, so where better to go and taste tequilas? Jesse and Tomas Estes kindly agreed to let us take a corner of the bar, and drink our way through a pretty healthy selection of their back bar. They also let slip about some of the design touches for their new bar, El Nivel, which will be coming soon to the space above La Perla on maiden lane… and trust me this is going to be an agave lover’s paradise! Enlisting the help of fellow Tequila lovers Matthias Lataille (ex Green & Red and now ambassador for Olmeca Altos tequila) and Guy Hodcroft (spirit buyer for Selfridge’s) we set about compiling a list of blanco, reposado and anejo Tequilas. Our original intention was to have a list that covered a range of highland and lowland styles, but as we worked through our samples we all seemed to gravitate towards the Highland style (with the exception of one). Needless to say that dinner, after tasting our way through so many Tequilas, was a lively affair.
So below you’ll find a list of some great Tequilas, all of which I believe offer a fantastic drinking experience. That’s not to say that there aren’t others that are just as good, including many valley or lowland tequilas, just that these offer you a glimpse of the category, and serve as a great jumping off point to start experiencing this amazing spirit. They’re all 100% agave, they reflect a range of prices and styles, and they’re all well made Tequilas that are a pleasure to sip. I hope you’ll try them and maybe find out which ones you enjoy the most!
While all three may be highland tequilas, they are very different from each other, and all are great examples of 100% agave Tequila, but all very different from each other. All the tasters agreed that to really start appreciating Tequila, blanco is where to begin as you get the purest taste of agave from them. It was a shame not to include one from a different region, but these three are so diverse that they cover a range of styles.
This is a tequila lover’s benchmark, with many agreeing that this is a classic example of what blanco tequila should taste like. It’s not the cheapest, but the quality justifies the price tag easily.
On the nose it’s sweet, with hints of nougat and marzipan, the tiniest implication of smoke and even a hint of saltiness or brine. It’s a complex nose, that’s reflected in the first sip, where the creamy mouth feel coats your tongue before an almost peppery bite kicks in and a balance of the sweetness picked up on the nose and the savory note play out as the flavour opens up.
This is a lively tequila, with an almost perfect touch of bitterness that hits the side of your tongue, lingering and making you want to take one sip after another. In fact all agreed that Siete Leaguas is a pleasure to sip, and a great example of why Tequila shouldn’t be taken as a shot. Challenging and complex, Siete Leguas is the kind of Tequila that should be savoured and enjoyed.
Olmeca pruduce three ranges of Tequila, the standard Olmeca, Altos and Tezon, which we'll come on to a bit later. Olmeca Altos blanco is one of the easiest Tequilas to enjoy, and a great product to introduce people to the category. On the nose we picked up citrus blossom, dried dates, a mineral almost flinty note as well as white pepper and a slightly creamy vanilla undertone, that’s subtle and inviting.
On sipping it there’s a gentle and pleasant tingle on the tongue as the spirit washes over, leaving you with a very light peppery impression. The mouth feel is extremely pleasant both coating the tongue and at the same time feeling very crisp and clean It’s almost creamy and yet not overly rich.
In comparison with Siete Leaguas, the tasting notes tend towards the mineral side; not earthy, but flinty, with notes of liquorice sticks, a subtle citrus note and a sweetness that is understated. Olmeca Altos was extremely easy to sip and left us all wanting more, and as a fan of using spirits in cocktails this one also cried out to be mixed. The verdict all around was that this is a great starting point for people starting to explore this category, and as the price doesn’t break the bank, this is an obvious choice for agave beginners, and yet a tequila that can still be apreciated by aficianados.
While Tapatio may share similar geography and abv with Olmeca Altos blanco, it’s a very different Tequila indeed. An all time favourite with many bartenders, this Tequila offered one of the more complex sets of tasting notes, that perhaps in reading don’t sound as inviting as others (blue cheese and rubber bands?!) but is actually extremely pleasant to sip.
On the nose we found this to be the most green and vegetal of the blancos, but there was a hint of mustiness and some savoury almost herbal notes too, which moves as far as reminding you of blue cheese. Much like Olmeca Altos there were pepper notes, but this time freshly cracked black pepper, along with a stronger hit of alcohol fumes and a rubbery/rubber band note, that I associate more often with Mezcal than I do with Tequila.
On first sipping it we found that unlike the previous two, which had been creamy, Tapatio is very clean and almost washes the tongue instead of coating it. In fact it’s almost watery in the middle, and makes you salivate (which makes you want to take another sip!). The flavour profile is very linear, moving from one flavour to the next very distinctly. It’s lively to begin with, and earthy and peppery notes start the journey. Moving on the vegetal grassy notes come next along with green peppers, and a surprising white chocolate flavour lingers on your breath right on the finish, which is very pleasant indeed.
Perhaps Tapatio isn’t the obvious choice for those just starting to discover Tequila, but is one that once you start exploring the category is well worth trying.
Having tried some excellent blancos, it was time to move on to the reposados, or those Tequilas that have been lightly aged or rested in barrels. Many Tequila purists will tell you that Tequila is best when it hasn’t been aged, but a well made reposado or anejo Tequila can be a beautiful spirit. After tasting the reposados, one of the tasters commented, “it’s like we’re cooking now, instead of looking at raw ingredients” and this is a great way to describe aged tequilas compared with blanco. In the blancos you have crisp, clean and distinctive aromas and flavours, where as in the aged expressions they are more complex and meld together to create something fuller and more rounded.
Calle 23 use a different yeast for their reposado than they do for their other two expressions, and this gives it a completely different fingerprint of flavours and aromas. Of all the reposados we tried it had the subtlest nose, and was found to be slightly floral, with notes of celery, fennel, and even dried basil (see I told you we were cooking now!). It was one of the most challenging to agree the aromas of, and that made us all the more eager to taste it.
This Tequila moves from sweet to savoury and was described as ‘a Tequila with sharp edges’. That’s not to say it was unpleasant, more that as you move through the flavour journey there are distinct moments where individual flavours jump out at you. Starting with an almost caramel sweetness, which fades quickly, you pick up earthy and salty notes next, before the herbal, dried spices and mineral notes take over. There are highlights as each flavour develops, and this Tequila again cried out for me to use in cocktails as well as enjoying neat.
Don Julio was described as being a “sweet shop of flavours and aromas” and when you read the description below you’ll see why. It was pleasant, yet sweet and rich, but had a surprisingly dry finish that made you want more. Definitely one of the richest Tequilas we tried, and agreed by all to offer a completely different experience than any other producer.
On the nose there was toffee and rich butterscotch, as well as vanilla, white chocolate and macadamia nuts, all screaming at a rich sweet Tequila. Underneath these though there was chai tea, bergamot, black tea and even dry wood shavings, but much more subtle that the sweet aromas.
On sipping it we found that it starts sweet, with a white chocolate and almond flavour, that moves into crisp toffee before developing a surprising and pleasant acidity in the middle of the palate. There’s a lively hint of alcohol before it starts to dry our with an almost tannin led black tea finish before you pick up dry, toasted wood as the end flattens out. Rich and complex with a surprising finish would best describe Don Julio reposado, and this is definitely one for those who question whether Tequila has the same complexity as other aged spirits.
Chamucos is produced in the small town of San Francisco de Asis, in the south east of the state of Jalisco, outside of the traditional lowlands or highlands regions famous for producing Tequila. This is reflected in the flavour profile of the tequila and this was the one product that split the opinions of the judges. There’s a note to both the aroma and flavour that comes up occasionally that tends to appeal to those who grew up in North America, but reminds those who were raised in Europe of medicine. I guess this is one that we’ll have to chalk up to cultural differences. All agreed that it was a well made product and very different in style to any other that we tasted, and so it makes the list as an example of a different style of Tequila, and as far as I’m concerned one that’s well worth a try.
On the nose it reminded us of vanilla ice cream; not the expensive ones where you can see the vanilla seeds, but the cheap yellow one that reminds you if your childhood visits to the seaside. In contrast there was also a hint of smoke, like dry, scorched wood. Needless to say it was one of the more intriguing Tequilas to smell.
The flavour profile starts almost thin and delicate, before it opens up into a herbal and sweet middle. There’s rich honey, vanilla, a herbal note that brings to mind oregano, and then the note that divided the panel; wintergreen or sarsaparilla (or if you’re English, a medicinal note I’m told). As the flavour develops even further, you find hints of pepper, a toffee sweetness and dry wood, which balances it out perfectly at the end.
In conclusion this was a challenging tequila, but one that definitely offered a lot to talk about and to experience. Don’t shy away from it though, it’s beautifully made, and is different than any other tequila you’ll ever try.
Now we move on to the more heavily aged Tequilas, where the influence of the barrels come through more strongly, and the fresh, green, vegetal notes have turned more herbal and spicy. Anejo Tequilas tend to divide bartenders, as many feel that they don’t reflect the base ingredient (agave) well, but as far as I’m concerned if you pick the right anejo tequila they can be hugely rewarding and enjoyable. I’ve chosen three very different styles, at very different price points, so hopefully there’s something for everyone below.
The first of two entries from Ocho, the anejo is aged for the minimum time allowed in this category (one year) which means that for an anejo tequila there is less influence from the wood than most. The nose is soft, and feels closer to a reposado than an anejo. There’s dry earth and mineral notes, as well as cucumber and beetroot, along with fresh horseradish root rounding off the vegetal notes. These are backed up with cracked black pepper and nutmeg adding a sweet spice to the nose that makes you want to dive in and take your first sip.
The flavour profile is complex and rewarding, and all of us agreed that this is a real sipping tequila. It starts with a creamy, toffee note that develops into roast agave and natural brown sugars. The sweetness gives way to a herbal flavour of sweet basil along with dry spices shot through with vanilla. There’s a smooth flavour journey taking you from sweet to dry, moving through herbal, spicy and peppery flavours before ending in a dry wood note so subtle it’s almost implied rather than experienced. I highly recommend buying yourself a bottle of this, and enjoying it one sip at a time!
Olmeca Tezon stands out from other tequilas due to the fact that it uses 100% Tahona liquids in it’s production, meaning only liquid extracted from the intensely labour intensive stone milling process (using a huge ‘tahona’ stone, hence the name!) which is pretty rare. It’s produced in the old fashioned way using small copper pot stills and the yield gained from this process is considerably lower than using modern techniques, but is of an exceptionally high quality.
On the nose you find it’s subtle with white chocolate and butterscotch at the fore and a sweet grassy undertone, a hint of pencil shavings and even dry cinnamon sticks. It’s soft and understated and very, very intriguing.
The moment Tezon hits your tongue you know you’re dealing with a different beast, the mouth feel is soft and fresh, and the immediate impression is that this has had nothing added to it. It’s almost light on the tongue, and the sweetness is much more understated than the nose implies. The dominant notes are nutty, with macadamia and almond springing to mind, there’s still the subtlest hint of white chocolate, but while that implies sweetness, it’s not what I would call a sweet tequila. The finish dries out, staying subtle, with the nuttiness lingering as hints of dry wood arrive and the sense of dry spice. It’s the kind of tequila that shouldn’t be mixed, and definitely shouldn’t be shot. This is a pure sipping tequila for those who appreciate a well-made spirit.
Named in honour of the year that their master distiller began making tequila (at the tender age of 17), Don Julio 1942 is what you would classify as a ‘super premium’ tequila, given that it retails in the £120 range. This is the most heavily aged of the tequilas we tried, having spent two and a half years in ex bourbon barrels.
The nose is honey sweet, with vanilla and candied orange jumping out right away, followed by more subtle notes of dry grass, straw and underneath it all dark chocolate and coffee beans. These are bold, sweet and earthy flavours that imply a full-flavoured tequila.
While it’s not as sweet as the nose implies, there is still a pronounced nectar sweetness, along with a rich mouth feel that coats the tongue. Vanilla and dry woods hint almost towards bourbon here, and then comes cherry and the candied orange picked up on the nose. There’s a long creamy finish, with the fruit giving way to cream and white chocolate. This is definitely a rich, full bodied tequila, and while purists may mourn the loss of the vegetal notes and agave, this is still definitely a tequila, it’s just richer and more influenced by the wood it has aged in.
So I thought I should throw a curve ball into the mix, and while I had originally intended to add a ‘mixto’ tequila into the list, in the end I was inspired the setting for our tasting, and thought we should try Tom Estes’ own Ocho Curado. Not strictly a tequila as such, Curado is in fact Ocho blanco tequila infused with roasted agave. The result is something new and completely different, with the rich baked sugar sweetness of the roast agave having the effect of intensifying the flavour of the tequila itself.
On the nose Curado is sweet with caramilised sugar, with plenty of spice including cinnamon, nutmeg and white pepper. There’s a return to the minerality that was found in some of the blanco tequilas, with flint and iron as a hint on the nose.
The first thing you notice upon sipping Curado is the rich mouth feel, which is a result of the interaction with the roasted agave. The sweetness is absolutely perfectly balanced, so it’s not overpowering, just pleasant and full-bodied. The flavour opens up, delivering tobacco and leather under top notes of orange blossom and an almost yeasty, bready note that lingers on your breath.
Curado is such an amazing product that despite all of us having tasted it before, we were all left extolling it’s virtues and drinking it happily as we pondered just how versatile and varied a category tequila is. I’m sure this animated conversation had nothing to do with how much tequila we’d consumed by this point!
Well-made tequilas are a fantastic spirit, so if there’s still anyone out there who thinks that they don’t like Tequila, put aside your cheap mixto (but keep in mind that there are a few decent ones out there if you really search), buy yourself a bottle of a well-made 100% agave Tequila. And start to experience what Tequila is really all about.