While we celebrate Halloween in the United States, Mexico is busy observing Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. It’s a more serious holiday than Halloween, a time to remember family and those who have gone before us. But it’s also a joyous one, with celebrations featuring plenty of good food and drink.
And that’s why today we’re discussing tequila. I’ve talked before about some of the tequilas I like to drink, and one of the mainstays on the list is Don Julio Blanco. Most of the big spirits companies don’t do a great job with tequila. Their products are too artificial, too manipulated, too manufactured. But Don Julio tequila is a spirit I don’t hesitate to recommend.
When you hold up a glass of this tequila, you see the crystalline purity, while the aroma bursts forth: bright, saline, and herbaceous. Such a lush and appealing scent. You can tell that a great deal of the agave’s essence has been transformed into the spirit — exactly what you’re looking for in a good blanco tequila.
The agave is also up-front-and-center on the palate. It’s a little sweet at first, changing to salty and spicy after a moment. The delicious, vegetal flavor is just as lush as the smell. It also has a nice, viscous mouthfeel, with a brief, slightly bitter finish without too much heat. Don Julio made be owned by Diageo, the largest drinks company in the world, but the people making this tequila know what they’re doing.
Don Julio Blanco tequila is too good to shoot. It should be sipped and savored. Or, naturally, you can enjoy it in a fine cocktail like a Margarita or Paloma. Lately I’ve been enjoying it in a simpler preparation. Add a healthy measure of Don Julio to a glass with ice, throw in a squeeze of lime and a splash of agave nectar or simple syrup. Simple, but elegant and delicious.
The world of tequila is a complicated one, torn between large commercial producers that use the latest technology, and smaller, more craft-oriented producers that do things the way that distillers have for generations.
There is not necessarily a clear advantage to taking one path or the other – great tequila can be made by companies both large and small – but there is certainly a fascination with and appreciation for those who take the extra time and effort to follow tradition.
Selección ArteNOM Tequila is a company that celebrates that tradition. They find great spirits produced by small distilleries, in a variety of locales and utilizing a variety of techniques, and bring them to a wider audience.
Their Selección de 1414 Reposado is produced by the Vivanco Family in Arandas, located in the Highlands region of Jalisco, Mexico. They grow their own agave and distill it into their own tequila, putting their personal stamp on everything they do. And that dedication to quality and control shines through in the final spirit.
Despite spending ten months resting in used American white oak barrels, this spirit is very pale in color – only slightly darker than the typical blanco. Naturally, it is 100% agave, in this case Blue Weber. It has a rich and appealing aroma of agave, both vegetal and sweet.
Once sipped, those same qualities come across on the palate. There is sweetness and a mild vegetal tang, accentuated by a touch of brine. It’s mild, but still very tasty, with spices including cinnamon and clove. Seleccion 1414 Reposado has a lot of different flavor components that are working together in balance, which makes it both complex and delicious.
It has a medium-long finish, not too hot or spicy. Only at the end does it kick in with a little something extra to remind you that you’re drinking a real tequila. But it never beats you over the head. This is subtle, rather than bold.
Overall, Selección ArteNOM Reposado is sophisticated and rich, highly recommended for both sipping and mixing. (It made an outstanding Margarita, although I felt it disappeared in the Paloma.)
I first became aware of Z Tequila when they won two Double Gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition earlier this year — an impressive feat for a small distillery with very limited distribution (currently only in Texas and California). This was a tequila I had to find out more about.
Z Tequila is produced in the lowlands of Jalisco, Mexico under the direction of Master Distiller Pepe Zevada, a veteran of the spirits business for four decades.
In the past, Zevada developed and nurtured brands for several of the big companies, including introducing Tequila Espolon to the American market. When he was offered the opportunity to create his own craft tequila, he jumped at the chance.
All three tequilas are made from seven to nine year-old Blue Agave plants — older than the norm — and are bottled at 80 proof. The Reposado and Añejo are both aged in Canadian white oak barrels rather than the more typical ex-bourbon barrels. Zevada is trying some unique things with his tequilas, a refreshing alternative to the mass-market brands.
Z Blanco Tequila ($30) – I started with the crystal clear silver tequila, a spirit bottled straight from the still. A lively, vegetal smell is followed by a burst of flavor and heat on the tongue. This blanco has a lot of rich, tequila taste, but not a lot of subtlety. It was a little too much for me to enjoy on its own, but it was smoother with a little dilution, and mixed up very nicely in a Margarita. (Some people say you shouldn't make cocktails with tequila like this. To them, I say: it was delicious!) Final Grade: B
Z Reposado Tequila ($33) – The Reposado has a more welcoming presence. The color of light straw, this expression spends at least nine months resting in barrels. The aging has smoothed out some of the rougher edges, lending it a crisp, woody and dry taste. It has the floral aroma of agave, with a nice, spicy presence on the palate. A fine sipping tequila. Final Grade: B+
Z Añejo Tequila ($35) – The Añejo was my favorite of all. A lovely golden hue, this tequila is aged for nearly two years in oak, and it's all the better for it. All of the harshness that I found in the blanco is gone. Simultaneously more flavorful and yet subtler as well, the Añejo demonstrates the mastery of Zevada. It has a lovely balance between spicy and sweet, and a finish that keeps you thinking of this tequila for a long time. Very well done. Final Grade: A
My only complaint with these tequilas is a small one. I found the bottle tops to be annoying. They look like wood stoppers, but are really just decorated screw caps. The Anejo top broke off in my hand when I opened it, and the Reposado has a frustrating pour restrictor on it, causing the spirit to dribble into the glass. Not a big deal, but such fine tequilas deserve better.
With the renaissance of the craft cocktail movement, and the increased focus on making quality drinks at home, several companies have moved into the market with syrups and mixers designed for both home and bar use. One of the latest to come to my attention is Powell & Mahoney.
Founded by a couple of cocktail fans, Powell & Mahoney produce a line of twelve mixers, including such popular flavors as Bloody Mary, Margarita, and Mojito. They also make a few that are more unusual, like Peach Bellini and Hot Toddy.
I was contacted by the fine folks at P&M recently to see if I'd be interested in writing about their products. I was, so they sent me some of their mixers to sample.
What first impressed me with their products was the interesting range of flavors and, even more importantly, the ingredients they contain.
P&M mixers contain no high fructose corn syrup, which goes so poorly with alcohol (and most everything else). Their mixers contain real fruit juices and purees, natural flavors, and organic cane sugar. If you're going to use a mixer instead of crafting ingredients on your own, this is the way to go.
I found the ones I tried to be tasty and true to their promised flavor, without being overly sweet or cloying. As much as I sometimes enjoy making a cocktail with five or six ingredients, there are also times when I just want to drink something easy that still tastes good. Mixers like this can come in very handy, as long as you don't rely on them too much.
My favorites were the Ginger and the Peach Bellini. The Ginger contains filtered water, organic sugar, citric acid, natural flavors, natural ginger flavor, ginger extract, fennel extract, elderflower extract, milk thistle extract, and caramel color. I whipped up a Highball with three parts whiskey (your choice — I used bourbon) and one part Powell & Mahoney Ginger. Add a little ice and you're ready to go. You can stretch it with some seltzer if you'd like, but I didn't bother.
The Peach Bellini contains filtered water, organic cane sugar, concentrated peach puree, orange juice concentrate, natural falvors, citric acid and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C). I used it to make Peach Bellinis, with three parts Prosecco (use something inexpensive — I chose Cupcake) and one part Powell & Mahoney Peach Bellini. Combine in a champagne glass and you've got a delicious, quick, refreshing drink. My wife and I went through several glasses of this.
Some people turn up their noses at pre-made mixers like these, but I'm not one of them. There are many people who don't have the materials, time or inclination to make their own fresh cocktail ingredients. For them, it's important to have quality products they can use and still make good tasting drinks. Powell & Mahoney's mixers fill the bill quite well.
Last weekend we had family visiting from California, which could only mean one thing: I was mixing up cocktails. We were making Mexican food for dinner, so we decided to spice it up a little by having a tequila tasting to kick things off.
I brought out five varieties of silver (or blanco) tequilas to taste. We started off by sipping all of them neat to compare the flavors, and then we tried them in Margaritas. The shots of tequila were accompanied by shots of Sangrita, a Mexican aperitif that is traditionally served along with tequila. (It's kind of like a tangy Bloody Mary mix.)
All five of these tequilas are made from 100% Blue Agave, and all of them are the unaged expressions from their distillers. They each come in at 40% abv (80 proof).
As a general rule, silver/blanco tequilas are usually used for mixing, while the aged varieties (reposado and añejo) are saved for sipping. However, only by tasting it straight can you enjoy the pure flavor of the tequila, and a few of these made very respectable sippers.
Here are the results, compiled from the reactions that the three of us had. The grades are based on the flavor/quality of the tequila, without regard to price.
Milagro Silver (Final Grade: B)
A solid, herbal aroma of agave. Very zesty flavor, but slightly bitter and citrusy. Came in on the hotter side of the "smooth" scale — it had more of a burn than some of the tequilas we tasted. Not as balanced. Made a delicious Margrita.
Avión Silver (Final Grade: A)
A wonderful grassy aroma. Pure agave on the tongue; spicy, floral and bursting in flavor. Very smooth and balanced. Easily the best of the night. I didn't mix this one in a Margarita — I wanted to save it to enjoy neat.
Corazón Blanco (Final Grade: B+)
Another tequila with a plesant, vegetal smell of agave that carried over into the flavor, along with hints of fruit. This one was a little sweeter than the other tequilas, with a moderate, welcome heat on the finish. A very nice flavor overall. I didn't mix this one in a cocktail, but I'm confident it would work quite well.
Familia Camarena Silver (Final Grade: B-)
Good agave aroma and a peppery flavor, but not as smooth as the others. This one definitely had the most heat of the brands we tasted. This tequila was solid all around, but didn't leap out as a sipper. It did make an excellent Margarita, however, so use this one for mixing.
Cazadores Blanco (Final Grade: B)
The strongest aroma of the five tequilas — it was almost pungent on the nose — but the lightest flavor. Very smooth, with the only heat coming on the brief finish. Certainly not bad, but not much point in sipping it. Clearly designed for mixing, and it made delicious Margaritas.
The Avión Silver was easily the winner of the taste test — it stood out from the pack with its delicious taste and smooth character. It's the one I would go to first for a sipping tequila. It was also the most expensive, so this is an example of getting what you pay for.
I wouldn't hesitate to use any of these five tequilas in a cocktail. All of them have the agave flavor that you want from a tequila and are very mixable. At its price point – I've seen it on sale for around $16 – the Camarena Silver would be hard to beat. I would recommend the Cazadores Blanco to those drinkers who aren't "tequila fans" and are looking for something lighter in their drinks.
Here's my Margarita recipe, so you can try some of your own:
1 1/2 oz Tequila 1 oz Triple Sec 1/2 oz Lime Juice
Shake with ice, then strain into an ice-filled rocks glass.
Make sure you use a good quality Triple Sec. Cointreau is the gold standard, although I used Patrón Citrónge this time around and it worked very well.
My wife brought a giant watermelon home from the store. Naturally, my first thought was, "Make a drink out of it!" The challenge was that, to my mind, the flavor of watermelon doesn't naturally lend itself to a lot of different combinations. So I decided to stick with something simple and make a Margarita out of it. Plus, I was hot and wanted to make something that would help me cool down.
Frozen Watermelon Margarita
Mix in a blender:
1 cup Watermelon, cut in cubes 4 oz Tequila 2 oz Triple Sec 2 oz Fresh Lime Juice 1 oz Simple Syrup (optional) 1 cup Ice
Makes 2 drinks.
Ordinarily I don't think you'd need to add the simple syrup. Even with the dilution caused by the ice and the watermelon, the Triple Sec and the melon itself should provide enough sweetness. However, with this being an end-of-season watermelon, it didn't have as much flavor as you'd get from a better piece of produce, so I needed to balance out the sourness of the lime.
Still, a refreshing drink for a hot day. Now bring on some football! (This drink has left me feeling just a bit less than masculine.)