Spirits: Numbers Game
Julio Bermejo, tequila expert and owner of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, a San Francisco institution for the last four decades, recalls vividly the 1998 debut of Jose Cuervo’s 1800 Colección. “It blew people’s minds,” he says of the limited-edition añejo, or barrel-aged spirit, made of 100 percent blue weber agave. “It was one barrel to satisfy the entire world; it had shock value.”
Adding to the tequila’s shock value was its $1,000 sticker price, a sum that has increased over the years with the añejo’s four subsequent releases in the United States. The latest 1800 Colección, which became available in the spring, consists of 200 bottles priced at $1,800 each.
The 2006 bottling comes with a pewter and Belgian-crystal decanter designed by Mexican artist Alejandro Colunga.
The blue weber agave for 1800 Colección is slow-cooked for several days at a distillery in the Jalisco Highlands. (Click image to enlarge)
More than the price, however, has changed since the 1998 release, which displayed the name and family crest of Jose Cuervo on its label. Today, the 1800 name—a reference to the approximate year (the actual year was 1795) that Spain’s King Carlos IV granted the first concession to produce tequila to Mexico’s Jose Maria Guadalupe Cuervo—stands on its own. Jose Cuervo International reinvented the 1800 line in 2001 as a distinct brand, and since 2004 it has consisted strictly of tequilas made from 100 percent agave. (The line also includes 1800 Reposado, 1800 Silver, and 1800 Añejo.) The move likely was made to distinguish the spirits from their less-refined relatives—even those that once bore the 1800 name. The Jose Cuervo 1800 introduced to the United States in 1975 was a golden-colored mixto made from agave, cane alcohol, and caramel coloring, ingredients that combined to produce the tequila’s notorious hangovers. The spirit may have been a favorite among fraternity brothers responding to the “Quien es mas macho?” question, but it left a bad taste in the mouths of connoisseurs.
The 2006 1800 Colección shares nothing but a number with Cuervo’s 1975 offering. The copper-hued libation presents an amazing amalgam of vanilla, orange citrus, and clove aromas that cede to tastes of butterscotch, cinnamon, pepper, and baked stone fruit on the palate. The defining characteristics of the 2006 are its smoky, smooth introduction and enduring finish. “I think it’s the most delicate one of all,” says Bermejo, who sells a 2-ounce serving of the Colección for $380. “I can remember the other ones as being much oakier, without as much finesse. The finish is very long, with notes of marzipan and nut, and the spices aren’t overwhelming.”
As with previous editions, the 2006 comes in a leather and burlap box that contains an empty decanter and the bottle of tequila. Celebrated Latin American artists have designed each year’s numbered decanters, and the latest version is the work of Guadalajara’s Alejandro Colunga. Made of four pounds of pewter and Belgian crystal, the decanter appears to be an anthropomorphized still—replete with rivets, a spout, half-closed eyes, and shoed feet—an object seemingly pulled from the pages of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Although it does not state as much on the bottle or decanter, 1800 promotes Colección as containing tequila reserves as old as 50 years. How much of the reserve tequila is in the blend—and precisely how old it is—remains a company secret. Bermejo, who for the last 18 years has traveled to Jalisco an average of 10 times annually to meet with agave farmers and master distillers, says that aging tequila for more than six years overwhelms agave’s delicate flavors. Excessive time in the barrel also would lead to high levels of evaporation in the Jalisco heat. He therefore speculates that the reserves were aged in oak for a few years, several decades ago, then warehoused in temperature-controlled glass demijohns, which are similar to the paradis of Cognac. Bermejo, however, does not venture to guess how much reserve tequila is in the final 1800 Colección blend.
What is known is that this trophy tequila is crafted in the Jalisco Highlands from 10- to 12-year-old, single estate–grown agave that is slow-cooked in adobe ovens for several days. Maestro tequilero Luis Yerenas, a 30-year veteran of the Cuervo company, oversees a team that distills the spirit in small copper pot stills before aging it in new, deeply charred French barrels for five years. The result—regardless of the amount of reserves added to the final blend—is one of the world’s finest tequilas. However, 1800 Colección’s price tag still begs the question: Is it worth the name it bears in dollars? That, says Bermejo, is a matter of taste.