My apologies to readers and visitors. I have been working on a book on Tequila, travelling, and suffering from a heart condition, but am now back in business. And this shows some of what I have been working on.
PERHAPS THE BEST PLACE TO START IS WITH THE DISTINCTIVELY RUGGED BOTTLE OF PATRÓN, which pioneered taking tequila upmarket. Made, of course, in Mexico, the company that owns it is registered in Switzerland and COO John McDonnell says, “If the tequila is no good, then no amount of packaging and marketing can make it up – and ours is fantastic. We only use the best agaves, we cook them in clay ovens for 72 hours; we use a tahona wheel along with a roller mill.”
Harvesting the Blue Agave “pina”
Patrón’s expansion was based on its existing customer base being affluent travelers, and, says McDonnell: “When they fly into major cities globally and can’t find Patrón, they might try something else and then we could end up losing them, so we made sure that Patrón was available at all the high-end restaurants, bars and hotels.” And of course, the locals have been getting the hint of “agavaciousness” as well expanding sales. For example affluent Russian women in particular are taking to tequila on a huge scale.
Premium is as premium does. Over the last decade, tequileros have refined their art to give premium tequilas the smoothly assured maturity of cask aged malts and cognacs without masking the subtle vegetal and spicy undertones that make the spirit of Mexico what it is. As with all luxury items, hands-on work and attention to details make the difference – which is reflected in the prices and sales of the premium tequilas that soared
Readying the pina for roasting
worldwide during the Crash.
The premium tequila makers point out that for tequila distillation – the genesis for most spirits – is merely the culmination of an eight-year process where they have planted and nurtured the long-lived agave pinas to maturity.
Each maker swears by their own methods: the pinas are cut to different leaf stub lengths, cooked in different types of ovens, and then while some use the traditional tahona, the stone mill to grind the Agave, others put them through a grinder. Each swears by their own choice of yeast, some like Olmeca, using local culture they have selected, while Herradura claims to use natural yeast from the air around the courtly tree-shaded hacienda nestling at the core of their modern plant.
Tequila aging in Oak Barrels
Each bottle has the number of the distillery in which it is made and by international treaty tequila can be made only in Mexico, using only one species of agave grown in a designated area, like champagne or cognac. In fact, tequila is protected in the US as well, unlike champagne!
Casa Noble’s Jose “Pepe” Hermosilla joined with several local families and between them they took 20 years from buying the fields to bringing the product to market, earning the strictest all-organic certification. “We grow our agave in the mountains, to stress them, and they take ten years to be ready.” They experimented with different woods for aging before settling on French oak in which Casa Noble’s latest offering is aged five years, which, Hermosillo points out, represents the equivalent of 15 years in other products. He considers its price of $130 a bottle to be very reasonable with all that care and capital invested in it – and hid appreciation is shared by superstar Carlos Santana who has bought into the company.
Ian WIlliams nosing a blanco
Hermosillo relishes “how many different notes and aromas it can have, based on the different contributions of the terroir where the agave is produced.” Casa Noble has, he says, “complex fruit notes, spices, white pepper, peppermint.”
But while, impelled by the success (and added value) of oak aged spirits, the tequileros point out, and many connoisseurs agree, that the rigorous attention to detail produces excellent white tequilas.
Also advancing rapidly on the luxury front is tequila’s stepbrother, Mezcal which now has its own marque. Artisinal mezcals each made and bottled in different Zapotec villages Oaxaca like Del Maguey Single Village Mezcals, which won Distiller of the Year Award at the San Francisco Spirits Festival last year, or the varietals made from different types of agave and aged for up to seven years by Scorpion are also claiming big prices from aficionados.
There’s liquid gold and silver in them thar’ hills down south of the border. IW
LOOK FOR Ian William’s (IW) forthcoming book, “Tequila: A Global History” from Reaktion Press later this year.
[Photos via Ian William + Respective Tequilas]