Spirits: Suave Agaves
Carlos Camarena fills three snifters with the blanco, reposado, and añejo varieties of his El Tesoro tequila. “They are like a woman in different stages of dress,” says the third-generation master distiller. The blanco (white), or “platinum,” as El Tesoro brands it, is “like a woman without clothes, the way she really is.” The barrel aging of the reposado (rested), he explains, is the dress that adds to her complexity, revealing a casual beauty not overwhelmed by enhancements. But for Camarena, it is the añejo (aged), like a little black dress, that carries an evening to its end.
Camarena’s carnal inclination toward tequila is a family trait that dates to at least 1937, when his grandfather, Felipe Camarena Hernandez, founded the Camarena Hermanos distillery in Arandas, Mexico. To gain recognition north of the border, the family changed the name to El Tesoro (the treasure) and formed a partnership with Jim Beam Brands; however, Camarena continues to produce his tequila just as his late grandfather did, using slow-cooking methods and distilling to proof. He boasts that El Tesoro is one of the few remaining distilleries, if not the last, that makes tequila without electricity.
Not coincidentally, El Tesoro’s top-end tequila, the Paradiso ($130), is one of Mexico’s best-dressed. Aged in A. de Fussigny cognac casks for five years, this ultrapremium añejo is limited to a production of 100 barrels per year. The dark amber spirit features a rumlike butterscotch nose and a lingering finish of citrus oil, spice, and soft agave flavors. A tequila of this caliber needs no lime or salt to quell an acetone burn; rather, it should be savored, says Camarena, in a fashion befitting a fine cognac.
Like cognac, an añejo presents one of life’s great postprandial pleasures. Añejos are aged for one to seven years and are the only tequilas that can receive an ultrapremium designation. High-profile examples distributed in the United States include Herradura’s Selección Suprema ($350) and Cuervo 1800 Coleccion ($1,200), although equally noteworthy añejos are available from lesser-known producers such as Chinaco and Don Julio.
Chinaco introduced its ultrapremium tequila to the United States in 1983, but the añejo’s popularity waned after a production halt in the early 1990s. Now partnered with Jim Beam Brands, the cult favorite has returned to the U.S. market with its 30th Anniversary edition ($325). A complex añejo aged for seven years, the tequila is limited to 900 bottles, each signed by distiller German Gonzalez. The spirit presents a perfect nightcap with its balance of fruit, oak, and butterscotch flavors.
Don Julio, which produces Mexico’s number one–selling ultrapremium tequila, also has formed a partnership with a spirits giant, in this case Diageo, to import its product to the United States. Aged for three years in American oak, Don Julio Real ($375) is light in color and medium in body. The tequila’s floral, fruit, and roasted agave aromas give way to mild oak flavors accented by chocolate and caramel.
Another newcomer to the U.S. market is Penca Azul ($120). Kentucky bourbon casks give this pale yellow añejo, which is aged for 30 months, a hint of anise on its long, warm, and mellow finish. Light in body, Penca Azul goes down easy with sweet herbal flavors and no bite.
All ultrapremium tequilas, as well as the finest blancos and reposados, are made from 100 percent agave. If a bottle does not state “100 percent agave,” its contents could include as much as 49 percent cane sugar product, resulting in a blend that is often so far removed from agave’s true form that many aficionados refuse to acknowledge it as tequila. As El Tesoro’s Camarena says, “It’s like a woman with so much makeup you cannot see what’s really inside; you don’t recognize her anymore.”
Skyy Spirits (Cuervo 1800 Coleccion)