- Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
In Texas especially, everyone has a tequila story. A night you’ll always remember because of the mischief and mayhem that ensued after margaritas at Chuy’s, maybe, or after too many shots of your college roommate’s cheap tequila, which went down more easily because of a lick of salt and a squirt of lime. And, of course, a morning after you can’t forget, either — the reason you decide to stay away from the agave spirit for at least a little while.
Nowadays, many tequila producers are hoping to change that story. They’re doing it, quite simply, by making better tequila, turning it into an artisanal drink you’ll want to sip and savor rather than shoot.
Much of the tequila available in the U.S. is now distilled sustainably from 100 percent agave, rather than a combination of agave and other sugars — mixto tequila — that previously dominated the marketplace. But for all the brands out there doing it right, there are also a lot that are all image and no taste.
As a result, finding a truly well-crafted tequila on a crowded bar shelf can be tricky. The stories of the passionate producers behind these four tequilas — one for each of the blue agave spirit’s main categories — might help with that, and in the process add a chapter to your own tequila tale.
Blanco tequila is the purest expression of the Mexican spirit, going straight into the bottle, instead of a barrel, once it’s been distilled out of the agave juice of a baked piña. It’s often far more rustic and captures the sweet vegetal soul of the Jalisco-grown plant it came from better than the aged versions. While blanco is often the first release of a new tequila line, for Casa Dragones, it was the second one, the one intended for cocktails, company co-founder Bertha Gonzalez Nieves says.
“One of the visions (my Casa Dragones co-founder) and I had was that we want to be part of the tequila producers pushing the boundaries for what has been done before and bring tequila into the future,” she says. “The first 18 to 24 months of our journey was figuring out how to innovate on tequila, how to turn our product into a real sipping tequila. That’s how the joven was born.”
Nieves is in a fairly remarkable position. She’s not only the co-founder of a tequila brand with MTV creator Bob Pittman; she’s also the first woman to be certified as a master of tequila, making Casa Dragones alongside “tequilero” and mentor Benjamin Garcia. Her success, she says, has happened in part because she hasn’t let herself view her gender as an obstacle. “I focused instead on having a point of view and a passion for the industry,” she says.
With Garcia, she’s created Casa Dragones Joven, a silky, nuanced blend of blanco and extra añejo tequila, as well as Casa Dragones Blanco ($75), a more versatile version that recently launched in Texas.
Nieves had always wanted to be involved with tequila somehow, ever since realizing “how much tequila represents Mexico; I’m more enamored with the industry every day that passes.” She worked for Jose Cuervo for 10 years before finally taking the entrepreneurial plunge. “I had to branch out on my own,” she says.
The Spanish word for “rested,” reposado is tequila that’s been aged for a minimum of two months and a maximum of less than a year. It’s more mellow than blanco, beginning to take on the vanilla and oak flavors of the barrel. Tequila 512’s newly released reposado ($34) is no different — it’s got the bold peppery soul of the blanco it had once been but packs less of an agave punch.
For Tequila 512 founder Scott Willis, the launch of his reposado coincided, unexpectedly, with other big milestones: signing a distributor for his business and receiving the news that Tequila 512 Blanco won double gold and the “Best in Show” award at the prestigious 15th Annual San Francisco World Spirits Competition. That’s a far cry from where he used to be only a few years ago.
After all, no one expected Willis’ small, bootstrapped-together tequila business to last, wife Lauren says. But the big win at the spirits competition was a gratifying affirmation to him that all the hard work he’d put into it, while also juggling a full-time job and raising a family, wasn’t for nothing.
And yes, Tequila 512 is a lot of work, he says. Even though he lives in Austin and doesn’t actually make the tequila himself, he’s still very involved in the process. “Be honest about it,” he says. “That’s what I’ve always said. ‘We use a distillery that produces other great tequilas. They also produce mine to my specifications.’ I go down there for all the bottlings, I go down there to make sure it’s my product, I go down there to taste the profile throughout the process.”
The reposado, in particular, took some time: Tequila 512’s blanco matured for nine months in used bourbon barrels, a bit of a long aging period for a reposado. It didn’t taste just right until then, he says.
That attention to detail suggests partly how his underdog blanco tequila did so well in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. “I set out asking whether we could make a tequila that was really good and not super expensive, and that (win) shows, yes, you can,” he says.
While blanco and reposado are often the base of tequila cocktails, añejo is reserved for sipping all by itself. This matured tequila, aged anywhere from one year to no more than three, is even more mellow and pulls in ever-greater notes from the barrel. And for Dulce Vida Tequila, añejo allows the Austin-based company to stand out, with not one but four different expressions of the category all based on the types of barrels used.
The Lone Star edition ($73), which will be released again in about a month, was aged in a Los Altos distillery for more than 18 months in Garrison Brothers 10-gallon barrels — making it the first tequila to have matured exclusively in Texas whiskey casks. The result is a tequila with slightly more bourbon-and-barrel characteristics (such as black cherry, cinnamon and vanilla) than other aged tequilas, to great effect. It’s a big hit, founder Richard Sorenson says, because of that Texas connection.
Like other Dulce Vida tequilas, the Lone Star añejo is 100 proof, an unusually higher alcohol content that Dulce Vida’s Mexico-based employees guarantee for every bottling because Sorenson is “really trying to capture the essence of the agave,” keeping it present and potent in aged tequilas and tequila cocktails alike. Plus, all Dulce Vida spirits are certified organic, the result of Sorenson’s mission to establish more sustainable practices not just in making tequila in Mexico, but in everyday life.
He might not seem like the most obvious candidate for founding a tequila company, especially so late in his career: Sorenson used to work in the medical and telecommunications industries before getting involved first in a soft drinks company making organic soda with agave sweetener rather than high fructose corn syrup. While that company has since shuttered after being sold, Dulce Vida is thriving under his careful guidance.
“I’m just having a ball,” he says.
The newest category of tequila, established in 2006, is the ultimate test for tequileros and their aging and blending skills — the chance to see if they can pull off the tricky balance of barrel and agave, which can hit a tipping point after three years of aging. (That’s the minimum age requirement for extra añejo tequila.) But if anyone can make an expert expression out of this hard-to-handle tequila category, it’s master distiller German Gonzalez, who’s got tequila in his blood.
His father had been a tequilero before him, creating a very special bottle: the first 100 percent agave tequila, Chinaco, distributed into the U.S. in 1983, a year when mixto tequilas were all there was. Gonzalez similarly wants to push boundaries and, in addition to his T1 Tequila Uno line, has made the extremely rare Tears of Llorona Extra añejo ($250), aged for 54 months in a mix of Scotch, sherry and brandy barrels.
“We believe tequila can be as high end as Cognac or Pappy,” he says, referencing the Pappy Van Winkle bourbons that can go for hundreds of dollars a bottle. His Tears, named after an old Mexican ghost story, has become the Pappy of tequila in many ways — and, most importantly, lives up to the hype surrounding it.
The amber-hued tequila is, in a word, exquisite, beckoning first with an aroma of black cherries, baked apples and creme brulee before giving way to a nuanced blend of spicy and sweet flavors, from clove and cinnamon to toffee and caramel. But it’s the port finish, very round and rich and enduring, that will make Tears of Llorona a bottle reserved for only the most special of occasions. You’ll want to savor every last drop.