Tequila is big business these days. Consumers have been bitten by the agave bug, eagerly snapping up spendy bottles that fifty years ago would have been labeled “Mexican brandy.” While there are plenty of big brands (Jose Cuervo, Patrón, Sauza) and celebrity-backed brands (Carlos Santana and Casa Noble, Justin Timberlake and Sauza 901) clamoring for attention, there are also dozens of decades-old Mexican distilleries quietly (relatively speaking) producing top notch tequilas. One such brand that’s somewhat new to the U.S. market is Demetrio.
While tequila has a reputation with some as Mexican firewater that requires lime and salt to choke down, it may surprise you that Mexico has extensive and comprehensive regulations regarding tequila and its parent category, mezcal. These regulations are known as NOMs (Norma Oficial Mexicana), and included among the regulations is that each licensed distillery receives a government assigned NOM number, present on any bottle produced. Multiple online NOM databases can help you dig deeper into your bottle’s background. It’s not at all uncommon for a distillery to produce multiple brands of tequila, which a NOM database search will clearly show, as you’ll soon see.
With the rise of upscale artisanal tequilas like Partida, Fortaleza, and Suerte, the big tequila heavyweights like Jose Cuervo and Sauza have seen an opportunity (or threat) and released new products targeting an upmarket niche. A notable recent example is Patron, already considered upscale in some circles, with their release of the Roca line. Sauza, one of the big players, has gone the celebrity partner route, teaming up with Justin Timberlake as co-owners of Sauza 901. I was provided a bottle of Sauza 901 to review, so let’s take a wonky look at it.
Sauza is owned by Beam Suntory, putting it under the same corporate umbrella as Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Laphroaig, Cruzan rum, and Pinnacle vodka. The Sauza subsidiary comprises several well-known tequila brands, including Hornitos and Tres Generaciones, in addition to the base Sauza line.
Let’s address the obvious question first: 901 what? Apparently it references the telephone area code for Memphis, TN, Justin’s home town.
The Sauza 901 bottle shape is visually striking – tall and slender with a sharp angled-face and curved back. Viewed from above you’ll find that the front half of the bottle is hexagonal (six-sided) while the back is circular. Fueled by enough Sauza 901, it starts to resemble a squashed cartoon rendition of the Millennium Falcon. Sauza’s rooster, a company symbol, makes two bottle appearances –on the front as a dime-sized image, and a much larger rendition dominating the reverse.
Inside the bottle is blanco (“silver”) tequila at the usual 80 proof. Unlike many tequila lines which offer blanco, reposado, and anejo versions, the Sauza 901 has a single blanco expression. The story starts with blue agave that’s reached at least seven years of age prior to harvest. A short fermentation process “prevents the development of off-notes and promotes more agave flavor.” Following fermentation, Sauza triple distills it, first in a column still and then twice through a pot still. (By regulation, tequila must be distilled at least twice.) The fermentation and distillation choices are somewhat surprising — I’ll come back to these later. Tequila regulations say a blanco tequila can be unaged or aged up to two months, but I wasn’t able to determine if the Sauza 901 spends any time in wood.
Pouring a bit into a tasting glass, the nose is subtle – a moderate hint of agave and not much more. Sipping reveals a very smooth, almost demure agave flavor. I struggled to pick out any flavors of significance beyond the base agave and slight floral note. I could easily imagine casual tequila drinkers sipping this over ice, as it doesn’t overwhelm, even sipped neat at room temperature. It’s very clean, smooth and subtle with a moderately short finish.
If you’re looking for pronounced flavors in your blanco tequila, the Sauza 901 isn’t the first bottle I’d point you toward. For comparison purposes I tasted it side-by-side with Cabeza and Partida Blanco expressions. Both were significantly more intense in flavor: The Cabeza is more brash and peppery, and the Partida has a lush creaminess. While you can certainly mix with the Sauza 901, I can see bolder tastes such as lime, ginger, and bitters overwhelming its delicate flavor. It would play well in something like this Negroni variation, featuring only light-colored spirits:
El Negroni Amarillo
2 oz Sauza 901
1 oz sweet white vermouth (such as Dolin Blanc)
0.5 oz Suze
Stir over ice, serve in chilled coupe, express orange peel, then drop in.
Having gone several rounds with the Sauza 901 and its marketing material, it seems the target market is not so much the spirits connoisseur looking for an intense, defining character. Instead, the promotional imagery focuses on Sauza 901 over ice in a fancy glass, rather than just another tequila for frozen margaritas. It also pumps up the #nolimesneeded hashtag, a reference to people using limes and salt to mask the rough-tasting, bottom shelf, rotgut tequila flavors you all remember from your college drinking days. For Cinco de Mayo this year, Sauza put out a humorous video (I laughed more than once) called “No limes needed,” starring Justin Timberlake himself as Rick “Sour” Vane, his head encased in a giant lime, bemoaning how the Sauza 901 has killed off the demand for limes after decades of being the number one cocktail condiment. Never let it be said that Justin Timberlake won’t go all the way for a laugh. (See also, “Dick in a Box.”)
From the perspective of a casual consumer, the Sauza 901’s production choices make sense: A short distillation process produces fewer of the organic compounds that make up the flavors we perceive of as “fruity” or “creamy,” but those same compounds are also responsible for some of the more challenging flavors as well. Likewise, each additional distillation pass makes a spirit more pure and “smooth,” but also reduces their distinctive flavor. Distill enough times and you’ll end up with perfectly pure vodka–and literally no taste. The Sauza 901 tequila tilts toward the subtle and smooth, rather than brash and bold – it’s a pleasant lifestyle tequila designed for folks who perhaps want an alternative to vodka, with a moderate agave flavor without being overly assertive.
*You can blame Mrs. Wonk for the bad title pun. Though she wants it to be known that she has never, ever been an ’N Sync fan and only dances to “SexyBack” at the company Christmas party after she’s had a few craft cocktails.
Tequila is one of those spirits that has fought a long battle for respect from the casual drinker. All too often, people’s tequila perceptions are formed in some drunken college haze ending in an incident with vague memories of pressing their face to a cool tile floor, causing them to declare “I don’t do tequila.” Even if an early experience doesn’t cause people to keep a wide radius, there remains a wretched culture of tequila shots, the assumption being that tequila tastes so awful that it must be pounded with a lime and salt chaser. There’s even a blog and Instagram account devoted to tequila face. The truth is, artisanal tequila can hold its own with the world’s great spirits.
The basics of tequila are simple: It’s made in Mexico using the heart of the agave plant, which is baked, crushed to extract the juices, which are then fermented prior to distillation. Per Mexican government regulations (known as NOMs), to be legally called tequila, the agave must be of the Weber Blue variety and the production must occur within the Jalisco region of Mexico, on the western coast of Mexico about 1300 miles south of the US border. Tequila is a subcategory of the broader category of mezcal, which I’ve writtenabout previously. The short synopsis of the difference between tequila and mezcal is that mezcal can be made with a wider variety of agave, and within a larger region within Mexico. So in short, all tequila is mezcal, but all mezcal is not tequila.
As with many spirits, tequila is sold in both aged and unaged varieties. Formal categories denote the amount of aging:
Blanco (little or no aging)
Reposado (more than two months, but less than one year)
Anejo (at least one year)
Extra Anejo (at least three years)
The typical drinker’s perception of tequila starts and ends with Jose Cuervo. This and other low-end tequilas (known as “mixtos”) are required to be made from at least 51% agave, with the remainder coming from “neutral cane spirit,” essentially vodka. Slightly more advanced consumers drink Patron, which occupies the “high-end” tequila niche in most people’s minds.
Beyond the heavy hitters in the tequila space– Jose Cuervo, Patron, Sauza–are quite a few smaller, artisanal producers who make topnotch, thoroughly enjoyable spirits, yet with a price point that’s a bargain compared to more trendy offerings like bourbon, scotch, and “premium” vodka. Dozens of smaller tequila brands, such as Corzo, Fortaleza, Casa Noble and Don Julio, are taking their share of shelf space, and the space is heating up with celebrity owners, two notable examples being George Clooney’s Casamigos and Sean “Diddy” Combs’s DeLeón. In this post I’ll take a look at the Partida line of tequilas, well-regarded by tequila aficionados. I received 50 ml samples bottles of the Blanco, Reposado, and Anejo bottlings for this review. Partida also offers an extra Anejo, but at $300 or more for a bottle, review samples are understandably scarce.
The origin of the Partida line starts with Gary Shansby, a California native who made his fortune in marketing brands such as Famous Amos cookies, Mauna Loa macadamia nuts, and Vitamin Water. After these successes, he was looking to build a company from scratch that integrated his personal passion for Mexico. Around 2005 (dates differ depending on the source), he partnered with Sofia Partida, a California woman with family connections in Mexico. These connections include her uncle Enrique Partida, who farmed 5,000 acres of agave crop in Amatitan, southeast of the city of Tequila and northwest of Guadalajara. Sofia, an executive at Partida, functions as a global brand ambassador. Given the current interest in artisanal tequila, it’s surprising that Partida hasn’t been snapped up by one of the big liquor conglomerates like Diageo or Pernod Ricard, perhaps because Shansby isn’t looking for just another corporate payday.
When selecting agave to harvest, Partida uses stock that’s reached at least seven years of age, letting the agave heart reach an optimal sweet flavor profile. The Partida Reposado and Anejo expressions are aged in once-used Jack Daniels American oak barrels. By sticking with one barrel supplier–and one with an enormous pipeline of stock–Partida can maintain its consistent taste profile. Shansby’s strong marketing background is evident in the bottle design: Rather than a standard cylinder or squared bottle, Partida’s rounded horseshoe shaped bottle (for lack of a better description) make the bottles distinctive and very easy to spot in a crowd. All three versions of the Partida come in at the typical 80 proof.
The Blanco has a very pleasant nose that reminds me of creamed honey – I enjoyed it quite a while before sipping it. The initial sip has a very slight burn on entry, a nice mix of spices in the middle, and ends with a bit of pepper. Upon subsequent sips, I noticed a buttery, creamy note which I’ve experienced before in certain agricole rhums. Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits distillery tells me this is likely the presence of ethyl lactate, commonly found in distilled spirits.
For comparison, I tried the Blanco side-by-side with Cabeza tequila, my normal go-to for a solid mixing blanco-style. The Cabeza is fruitier and has a tiny bit more burn, not surprising given that Cabeza is three percent higher in ABV. I found the Partida Blanco to be quite enjoyable by itself, but it would also be great in a Ti’ Punch-type drink, simply subbing the Blanco for the normal agricole rhum. Mrs. Wonk wasn’t as much a fan of the Blanco, calling it “too earthy” for her tastes.
Next up is the Reposado. It also has a wonderful nose, although quite different from the Blanco. I get lovely spice notes, bringing to mind a great-smelling men’s aftershave. Tasting it, I found none of the creaminess that I get from the Blanco. Alongside the obvious agave notes is a hint of orange, bringing to mind a nice curacao. There’s very little burn, making it an excellent sipper.
Placing the Partida Reposado side by side with Patrón Reposado, I found the Patrón to me much sweeter and less complex. In this regard, the Partida Reposado was the clear winner. Of the three Partida expressions, Mrs. Wonk and I agreed the Reposado was our favorite. It’s refined, but the interesting characteristics haven’t been smoothed away by the aging process. The Reposado would be outstanding in a tequila-based Old Fashioned (tequila, simply syrup, bitters).
Finally, the Anejo. Somewhat surprisingly, the nose wasn’t a more intense version of the Reposado, and instead is closer to the Blanco’s nose. Tasting the Anejo, I found it to be very smooth and round, to be expected given the additional amount of aging, and there’s no burn to speak of. Unlike the Reposado, I didn’t taste the curacao note. Make no mistake, the Reposado and Anejo are very different animals.
I also put the Anejo head-to-head with Corzo Anejo, one of my favorite sipping tequilas. The Corzo is more buttery (again, I’m guessing ethyl lactate) and also had cinnamon notes I didn’t perceive in the Partida Anejo. I’d happily enjoy a dram or two of the Partida Anejo neat so as to best enjoy all the flavors within.
Pricewise, the Partida bottlings are within the range of other premium tequilas such as Patrón or Corzo. Checking online at my usual sources, the Blanco can be had for around US $37, the Reposado for around $42, and the Anejo for $49. If you have to choose just one, I’d recommend going with the Reposado as the best mix of bold flavors yet refined enough to enjoy drinking neat.
A recent confluence of events has had me writing and thinking about fruit shrub, Ancho Reyes Chile licor, and tequila. It’s not a stretch to picture the three flavors together – Ancho Reyes and tequila come from Mexico, and at least here in the U.S., there’s a good chance your fruit did as well. If you’re not familiar with the relatively new Ancho Reyes, it’s essentially neutral cane spirits infused with chile.
The genesis of the idea for my “A Summer Trip to Puebla” cocktail (Puebla is the town where Ancho Reyes originated) was my strawberry shrub, which I blogged about previously. While searching for the next great drink idea, I had the sudden recollection that the flavors of hot spices and strawberries go well together, and that Ancho Reyes provides a nice amount of warm spice without setting your mouth on fire or rendering you prostrate.
The vinegar and sugar in the strawberry shrub do a fine job of providing the sweet and sour elements that make up so many cocktail patterns. But a cocktail with just Ancho Reyes and strawberry shrub alone is too intense for most folks. Plus, to get to the typical 2 oz of 80 proof spirit in a drink would mean 2 oz of Ancho Reyes, which is a large volume of spice.
What I needed was something that would contribute to overall alcohol content, while letting me use a more moderate amount of Ancho Reyes – augmenting the chile flavor but not competing with it. A quick scan of my bar bottles and the choice was obvious – A blanco tequila, rich with its own floral notes, and also a good companion to spicy heat. I used Cabeza, a fine mixing tequila from the 86 Company.
Mezcal is one of those spirits like smoky Islay Scotch that evokes strong opinions from anyone who’s tried it. It has bold flavor, and like Islay Whisky, the most common description that comes to mind is “smokey.” Beyond that, however, the tastes are very different. I’ve dabbled in mezcal for a while, but recently attended a Northwest Tequila Fest session here in Seattle, where I gained a whole new level of understanding and enthusiasm for mezcal. Here are some highlights and takeaways from the event, including why mezcal is among the best values in spirits today, despite its relatively higher price.
While most people are least passingly familiar with tequila, mezcal is relatively unknown: The older sibling with a bad reputation, occasionally spotted on the wrong side of town. Most people I talk to are surprised to learn that mezcal and tequila have a very similar story. One simplified perspective is that mezcal is the broad category of Mexican spirits made from the agave plant, while tequila is a specific variety from a particular region. From this angle, all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. It’s analogous to brandy and cognac, where cognac is a type of brandy from the Cognac region in France, but with further requirements before it can be legally called cognac.
The mezcal and tequila production process begins with agave plants that are harvested and cooked to convert the starches to sugar. The resulting mash is then crushed, fermented, distilled, and (sometimes) aged before bottling. In this regard, agave-based spirits are similar to most other base spirits, with the main distinction being the material used in mash. Agave, molasses, potato, grapes, corn, rye…all are starting points for making spirits using the techniques of fermentation and distillation. Agave makes tequila or mezcal, molasses makes rum, and so forth.
It’s the details of the production process that give mezcal and tequila different flavors. In tequila production, the agave plants are cooked in ovens, smaller producer using brick/clay ovens, and larger producers using autoclaves. The resulting distillate is relatively “clean,” as no outside flavors go into the resulting mash. In mezcal production, the agave plants are cooked in earthen mounds over stone-lined pits. Burning wood is used for heat, and the cooking takes around three days. The resulting agave has a wonderful smoky essence that carries through to the finished mezcal.
There’s more to what defines mezcal and tequila besides the agave cooking method, however. Both have their own norma, which are Mexican government regulations regulating which ingredients are used and where and how each is made. The mezcal and tequila norma have rough equivalents in the rum world, where the French AOC defines what can be called “agricole rhum.”
The tequila norma states that to be a 100% agave tequila, it must be (among other things) made from Weber Blue Agave and produced in the state of Jalisco, as well as various municipalities in the states of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán and Tamualipas. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from roughly 30 different type of agave plants, and as I learned first-hand at the event, the type of agave used has a dramatic impact on taste. Officially certified mezcal can be made in eight different Mexican states, although today most mezcal comes from the Oaxaca region. Unofficially, and currently just outside of the regulatory system, mezcal is produced throughout most of Mexico.
A Maestro Mezcalero
While the vast majority of commercial tequila uses mass production techniques to allow many millions of liters to be produced, the maestro mezcaleros who oversee the production process still make their mezcal the way they have for hundreds of years. The prime example of this is crushing via the “tahona”, a stone wheel pulled around an upright axle by donkeys to crush the cooked agave. The relatively crude stills used are pot stills or similar, so batches are typically in the hundreds of liters, a very small amount all things considered. Often, a village will pool their resources to create larger batches of mezcal. Given the labor intensiveness and small scale of production, it’s a minor miracle that you can buy a fairly nice bottle of mezcal in the U.S. for as little as $35.
While there is an ever-expanding variety of mezcals available from various villages and distilleries, there are many, many more that don’t have broad distribution. At the “Artisanal Mezcal Tasting” event, part of Northwest Tequila Fest, we were able to taste four different mezcals, only one of which is currently available in the U.S. The remaining three were “suitcase mezcal,” brought to the States by Clayton Szczech, owner of Experience Tequila / Experience Mezcal. Clayton’s primary business is providing educational tours of tequila and mezcal producers, and based on the photos I saw, I definitely want to book one soon!
Although I already had a reasonably good understanding of mezcal, Clayton’s walk-through of the mezcals we tasted, their production process, and a good slideshow taught me several new things worth sharing:
The juice from the cooked, crush agave isn’t pressed to extract the fluids for fermentation. The whole mash goes into the fermentation vessel. The photos of fermenting agave mash very much surprised me.
Yeasts aren’t added for fermentation. Instead, naturally occurring yeasts in the air and vessels are enough to induce fermentation, which usually takes between three days and three weeks. Tests have shown that each distillery has its own particular set of yeasts, even when located in close proximity to each other. The natural yeast differences contribute to the different taste from distillery to distillery.
Most mezcal stills used are very crude, and many are made from clay — far more rustic than even the very old stills found in Caribbean rum distilleries. Modern techniques just aren’t a part of artisanal mezcal production.
Between the first and subsequent distillation runs for a particular batch, a mezcalero may infuse the distillate with fruits, vegetables or spices to add new flavor elements. This is analogous to gin production, where juniper and other botanicals are introduced to provide additional flavors.
To determine the alcohol content, the mezcalero pours the distillate into a hollowed-out half of a dried gourd. They then draw up the distillate in a large wooden straw and release it quickly back into the gourd. Based on the size and duration of the bubbles that form, the mezcalero can determine the alcohol content with surprising accuracy.
Drawing mezcal into a wooden straw for determining alcohol content
A gourd for examining the mezcal bubbles to determine alcohol content
While some mezcals are aged in barrels, it’s not nearly as common as in tequila, where barrel-aging creates the anejo and reposado expressions. Conventional wisdom is that anejo and reposado are “better” than blanco, but aficionados know there are great blancos out there also.
In mezcal, the unaged variety is called Joven, meaning young. While aging can smooth out a spirit, it can also subdue some very nice flavors, and for this reason, joven mezcals aren’t necessarily considered inferior to barrel-aged mezcals.
The four mezcals we sampled
The four mezcals we tasted had very distinct flavors, although each was easily recognizable as mezcal. They were:
Vago – Elote
Siniestro – Madrecuixe
Sanzekan – Don Refugio
Sanzekan – Don Ciro
The Elote from Vago is the only one available in the U.S. It’s distilled three times in copper and originates with Espadin agave, the most commonly used agave for mezcal. Between distillation passes, the Elote is infused with roasted corn.
The Siniestro was the most interesting to my nose and palate. I got strong earth and stone elements which were odd at first, but I came to enjoy them. This is mostly the result of using Madrecuixe agave, which is very skinny and produces a very low yield of mash. The Siniestro is distilled twice in copper.
The Don Refugio and Don Ciro come from the same brand but have an easily detectable flavor difference. Both originate with Papalote agave and are distilled twice in copper. However, they come from different mezcaleros, and the Don Ciro is rested for three years in glass, giving it a smoother flavor.
My key takeaway from this experience is that mezcals are an extreme bargain considering the small scale production process and relatively long time from harvest to bottling. At $35 per bottle, I don’t mind mixing cocktails with it. Even nicer expressions are found in the $50 – $150 range, which I enjoy neat to savor all the flavor. I believe we’re in a mezcal golden age. The availability outside of Mexico has never been higher, and production (for the most part) hasn’t been taken over by the large liquor conglomerates who will no doubt simplify, automate, and strip out the artisanal aspect in an attempt to bring you a cheaper bottle. My advice: Buy and enjoy mezcal now, and stockpile a set of nice bottles for a future day when prices on the better mezcals catches up to their actual value.
The weather here in Seattle today was outstanding – May 1st and 80+ degrees. It seems like everybody’s out soaking up the weather we don’t normally get till July.
I haven’t been doing a whole lot of original riffing on cocktails lately – mostly sticking to tried and true recipes so I’ve started to get the itch to be creative again. Normally on a beautiful day, tiki or tropical drinks (rum, lime, etc…) are my go-tos. However I’ve had a lot of tiki lately and I do tiki year-round, and I feel a need to break out a bit from my rum-rut. My other fallback for this sort of weather is tequila drinks, e.g. margaritas with a twist, but something in that vein didn’t feel very ambitious. However, I’ve not had much tequila recently so I had a strong preference for using tequila as a base spirit.
As I often do in situations like this, I start mentally scanning my bar ingredients looking for flavor combinations that might pair well. Tequila, like rum, has a natural affinity for lime, but how not to fall into the margarita trap? What about cherry? Cherry and lime go well together, and I have several cherry liqueurs including Cherry Heering in my bar. Thinking through my options, Cherry Marnier seemed more summery to me than the Heering or the exotic liqueur we muled back from a trip to Turkey a few years back.
At this point I had a solid start but felt like it was still a bit too simple. I was also thinking about amaro drinks like the Americano. Cherry and lime are strong flavors, so I need something that could stand up to them, like say… Fernet Branca! In reasonable doses Fernet Branca t gives a nice minty aspect to drinks. I’ve even seen it work well in tiki drinks, thanks to my friend Connor O’Brien during his tenure at Rumba.
Seattle Summer in May
2 oz blanco tequila (I used Cabeza)
1 oz fresh squeeze lime juice
1 oz Cherry Marnier or other cherry liqueur
.25 oz Fernet Branca
.25 oz simple syrup
Combine all ingredients in a Collins style glass. mix well and fill with crushed ice. For garnish I used a lime slice and some mint springs.