Blanco Tequila: The Great Divide
I’ve always thought of myself as a tequila fan. But recently I’ve decided instead that I’m an agave fan.
The panel tasted blanco tequilas.
Crystal Tequila ***
$34, alc. 40% vol.
Rough, rustic and intense, with earthy, spicy, vegetal, saline flavors that explode from the glass
Tequila — good tequila — is made entirely from the fruit of the blue agave, a succulent plant. But tequila is no longer the only agave spirit that’s widely available. In the last decade, the spread of excellent mezcals has offered a fresh perspective on the joys and complexities of agave spirits. In the process, these mezcals have raised questions, at least for me, about what exactly you are getting in a bottle of tequila.
A recent tasting of 20 blanco tequilas did little to settle those questions. In fact, you could say the results were somewhat disquieting for the spirits panel, which included Florence Fabricant and me, along with two guests: Robert Simonson, who writes frequently on drinks for the Dining section, and Jim Meehan, bartender extraordinaire and managing partner of Please Don’t Tell, a cocktail bar in the East Village.
Many people reflexively associate tequila with Mexican restaurants. I could make a case that this association has held back the growth and appreciation of Mexican cuisine in this country because the restaurants are so often seen primarily as vehicles for supplying frozen margaritas.
That perception has evolved, though, in recent years. The cocktail revival has brought a renewed appreciation of pure tequilas, distilled 100 percent from the sap of the blue agave, as opposed to mixto tequilas, the fuel of many raucous frat parties and margarita machines, which need only be 51 percent blue agave.
Demand for 100 percent blue agave tequilas has risen significantly. In 2012, more than 12 million cases of all types of tequila were shipped to the United States, about 54 percent more than a decade ago, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade group. Although super-premium tequilas, the highest-end blue agave spirits, accounted for just about 15 percent of all tequilas shipped to the United States in 2012, they were by far the fastest-growing segment, practically quadrupling to almost 1.9 million cases in 2012 from about 500,000 in 2003.
The nagging question is whether something has been lost in that rapid growth. While the panel’s favorites were complex, elemental and intriguing, we were troubled by a lack of intensity in many of the bottles as well as by a sense of artificiality in some. As Florence put it, we found a great divide between those tequilas we liked and those we didn’t like, without much in the middle.
I couldn’t help contrasting some of these tequilas to mezcals, with their direct, unmediated expressions of agave in all its nuanced complexity. Now, tequila by its nature will generally be smoother and gentler, but still the flavors should have depth.
In the past, I’ve suggested that good tequila tastes like a good margarita, with all the saline, citrus and vegetal elements of the cocktail built right into the spirit. Yet, compared with the roughness and vigor of the mezcals, many of the tequilas seemed wan, as if all their inherent rusticity had been rasped away in an effort to make them presentable in polite company.
Jim noted that such a comparison was not entirely fair. Mezcals are often essentially handmade small-production spirits, while tequila is generally made in industrial quantities. That’s true, and tequila, of course, ought not to resemble mezcal too closely. The spirits are made in different ways, from different types of agave. Yet clearly, something is being lost when many tequilas seem to be faded chalk outlines of what they could be.
Partly, that reflects a corporate approach to selling tequila. Indeed, most of these tequilas are exported, and, as Robert and Jim pointed out, the corporate tequila producers have rushed to appeal to the sizable audience for America’s No. 1 selling spirit. “Tequila producers seem to have taken their cues from the vodka category,” Jim said. “They’re trying to make neutral tequilas to appeal to the vodka market.”
By their nature, blanco tequilas, also called silver or plata, ought to offer the purest, most forceful expressions. These are clear, essentially unaged tequilas, unlike reposados, which spend 2 to 12 months in oak barrels, and añejos, which are generally aged 1 to 4 years in oak.
Perhaps we showed our mezcal bias in our rankings of the blancos. Our favorite, the Casa Noble Crystal, was explosive, with rough, rustic flavors that, in their intensity, certainly reminded me of mezcal. At $34, it was also our best value.
Our other top picks were the Select Barrel Reserve from Milagro, a similarly direct and complex tequila, which got about a month of barrel aging, and the powerful, elemental Astral. A new and unusual brand, Astral was introduced by the sommelier Richard Betts, who also imports Sombra mezcal. It is an effort, he says, to make tequila using artisanal methods, as before it became an industrialized product. This was my first taste of Astral, and I was impressed by its craggy, raw flavors.
This is not to say that the big brands have nothing going for them, or that all refined tequilas are to be sneered at. Patron is one of the best-selling brands, and we very much liked its subtlety and elegance, which did nothing to muddle the purity of its identity. We were also won over by the complexity of the Calle 23, the stony flavors of the Siete Leguas and the robust, rough Partida.
We also found some oddballs, like the 1921 Blanco, our No. 8 bottle, which we all found appealing, even though we detected flavors reminding us of toasted coconut and cinnamon. The No. 10, 1800 Reserva, was sweet and tasted like gingerbread, which completely divided the panel. Jim and Robert loved its distinctiveness; Florence and I thought it bizarre. Robert attributed these flavors to the 15 days of barrel aging that the 1800 gets, and the fact that it is blended with some aged reserves. Well, that doesn’t make it less strange.
It is hard to say what our tasting results mean for fellow agave spirits lovers. If, indeed, tequila is moving in a more refined, vodkalike direction, I hope brands like Casa Noble will still offer refuge for those who prefer their tequila more expressive.
And as far as mezcal goes, I’ve heard that big tequila producers are buying up quantities of agave in Oaxaca, where mezcal is produced. If true, this could interfere with small-scale mezcal production, which is surely cause for concern.
Casa Noble, $34, ***
Crystal Tequila, 40%
Rough, rustic and intense, with earthy, spicy, vegetal, saline flavors that explode from the glass. (Wilson-Daniels, St. Helena, Calif.)
Milagro, $52, ***
Select Barrel Reserve Silver Tequila, 40%
Pure and unalloyed vegetal and mineral flavors that are complex and concentrated. (William Grant & Sons, New York)
Astral, $40, ***
Blanco Tequila, 46%
Powerful and elemental, with rich, floral, spice and saline flavors. (Sombra, Sausalito, Calif.)
Patron, $48, ** ½
Silver Tequila, 40%
Smooth and elegant, with subtle vegetal and saline flavors. (Patron Spirits, Las Vegas, Nev.)
Calle 23, $23, ** ½
Blanco Tequila, 40%
Vegetal and almond flavors dominating, augmented by mild spice and floral notes. (Suro International Importers, Philadelphia)
Siete Leguas, $38, **
Stony and earthy, with mineral, saline and vegetal flavors. (Sazarac, New Orleans)
Partida, $50, **
Blanco Reserva Tequila, 40%
Rough and tumble, with earthy vegetal, saline and spicy notes. (Partida Tequila, San Francisco)
1921, $42, **
Blanco Tequila, 40%
Unusual, with flavors of vanilla, cinnamon and toasted coconut. (Casa 123 U.S.A., Manhasset, N.Y.)
Corzo, $57, **
Silver Tequila, 40%
Light-bodied, with floral and vegetal flavors and a touch of caramel. (Corzo Tequila, Seal Beach, Calif.)
1800, $38, **
Tequila Silver Reserva, 40%
Unusual sweet flavors resembling gingerbread; quite unlike tequila. (Proximo Spirits, Jersey City)
Asimov, E. (2013, July 25). Blanco Tequila: The Great Divide. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/31/dining/reviews/blanco-tequila-the-great-divide.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0