Enrique De Colsa, master distiller for Tequila Don Julio, refers to the company’s 4 million blue agave plants as his niños. “Like children, they need fresh air, nutrition, and sunlight to grow healthy,” says the jovial, husky-voiced 47-year-old. “It’s a romantic way to say it, but it’s true.”
In the verdant highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, where Don Julio’s La Primavera distillery is located, it is easy to adopt such idealized views. The distillery sits 7,500 feet above sea level, high above the pollution of Guadalajara in the Los Altos tequila-producing region. Here, the iron-rich, brick-red soil and temperate climate ensure that de Colsa’s niños do not grow up too fast—the plants reach maturity in seven to 12 years in the highlands, compared to four to eight years at lower elevations—or too tough. “Agave grown in Los Altos tends to be sweeter, with more honey, citrus, and floral notes,” says de Colsa. “The plants typically grow more concentrated in sugars than those grown in the dark volcanic soil and hotter climes of the lowlands around the town of Tequila.”
Los Altos agave also tends to be smaller than its lowland counterparts, although it is not uncommon in the fields controlled by Don Julio to find plants the size of Volkswagens. In 1942, founder Don Julio González Estrada, then 17, introduced a radical concept when he began planting sprouts three feet apart from each other in rows 10 feet wide. “The idea was to have more space in between the plants so that they received more sunlight and did not compete for nutrients,” de Colsa explains.
For several decades, González produced only mixto, tequila that is a blend of agave and other sugar sources, under the Tres Magueyes brand. But when the tequilero reached his 60th birthday, his sons, Francisco and Eduardo, created a pure-agave tequila for the celebration. The spirit was so well received that, in 1987, the family launched the Don Julio brand of 100 percent blue agave tequilas.
De Colsa learned his craft from González, who has served as a consultant to Tequila Don Julio since going into semiretirement in 1999. His namesake company, which is now co-owned by British conglomerate Diageo and Tequila Cuervo La Rojeña (makers of Jose Cuervo), produces blanco, reposado, and añejo tequilas, including two ultrapremium varieties, Don Julio Real and Don Julio 1942. De Colsa makes Real and 1942 in small batches from a stainless steel and copper still that, he says, concentrates the distillates at low temperatures to bring out the agave’s sweet flavors and aromas.
Since its introduction four years ago, the golden-hued Don Julio 1942 ($125, 750 ml) has become a favorite among aficionados. Aged for two and a half years in bourbon barrels, the spirit has dessertlike qualities, with aromas of vanilla and cream soda and flavors of toffee, crème brûlée, burnt sugar, and cinnamon. Don Julio Real ($350, 750 ml), a blend of tequilas aged from three to five years, comes in a decanter inlaid with silver agave leaves and features citrus, banana, toffee, and vanilla scents and flavors of dry pear, coconut, and herb. Although not labeled as such, Real is an extra añejo, a new term used by tequila producers to describe varieties aged for three years or more.
Like the agave plants from which it derives, Don Julio Real triggers paternal instincts in de Colsa. When one of his family members or friends celebrates the birth of a son, the master distiller presents the new father with a bottle of Real, accompanied by a note that reads: “I’m giving you this to keep; promise me that you will drink this with your son when his first is born.”
Tequila Don Julio