Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tequila Terroir

Can you tell a tequila by its region? As Americans continue to get smart about tequila – what it is, where it comes from, how it’s supposed to taste and how to drink it – more and more brands are being made and marketed with U.S. consumers in mind.
Tequila Terroir

Ever since Patron, now the second best selling tequila in the country, blazed a path of success by focusing on high-end imagery, many other tequilas have been developed with high hopes for similar results. And some have succeeded.

According to the most recent statistics released by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (Discus), tequila boomed last year at the very highest end, with volume up among super premiums by 10.6%, the fastest growing part of the business. And while tequila is only the seventh leading spirits category in volume, with 10.6 million 9-liter cases sold here last year, it accounted for nearly $1.6 billion in gross revenues in 2008, making it the fifth largest revenue producing category.

(According to Discus, value priced tequilas last year were up 6.4% in volume; premium, the largest category by far, was down 1.3%, while high-end premium was down 9.2%. For comparison purposes, Juarez is a typical value brand, while Cuervo Especial is a premium, Sauza Hornitos a high end premium and Don Julio Anejo a super premium.)

Super premium tequilas were one of the high points for the entire spirit business in 2008, according to Discus. Those brands (mostly extra anejos aged a minimum of three years, but also aging and finishing experiments) including Cuervo Reserva de la Familia, Gran Centenario Leyenda, Partida Elegante, Bordeaux-barrel finished Gran Patron Burdeos and others, have impressed journalists and consumers alike.

Additionally, the quality halo emanating from these brands is just another way that tequila is seen to be improving. Not bad for a spirit that even a few years ago many consumers still though of in terms of salt and limes, worms and frat parties.

Things have gotten so hot that more and more retailers, especially those doing business in California and the southwestern states, are having a hard time keeping those super premiums on the shelf.

Says Zack Romaya, owner of two San Diego area wine and spirits shops, the expensive tequilas he stocks in his Old Town Wine and Spirits shop fly out the door.

“It used to be that single malts were the big high end spirits, but for me now, unusual and very expensive items like the $2500 Dos Lunas, or the $1300 Asom Broso 11 year old are attracting the collectors.”

Romaya stocks around 500 tequilas in his store, many of them in the $40-$70 range, but except for old favorites like Cuervo Gold and Sauza, few of his customers seem to be looking for mixto tequilas. His tequila customers are divided fairly equally into two areas of growth: women looking to explore the smoother side of the spirit through reposado, and men who are favoring both silver and anejo.

Meanwhile, new brands, like Lunazul (which took a silver and a gold medal at last year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition) and El Diamonte del Cielo (praised by both Paul Pacult’s Spirit Journal and by the Beverage Testing Institute) continue to arrive, looking for an edge. The crowded marketplace is spurring brand owners and importers to refine their marketing pitches.

One point of difference beyond the inherent qualities of unaged silver, lightly aged reposado, aged anejo and longer aged extra anejo, has often been argued among tequila connoisseurs: whether tequilas made in the Los Altos highlands (Arandas, Jesus Maria, Atotonilco el Alto) differ significantly from those from the Jalisco valley (Tequila, Amatitan, El Arenal).

Highland tequilas are said to be more fruity and sweet, while lowland brands are said to be more spicy, herbal and earthier. These qualities are mostly evident in silver and sometimes reposado tequilas, which offer more natural agave flavors and aromas before the impact of new or used barrels takes hold.

“Some of my customers know about the areas around Jalisco and the towns and highlands,” says Mario Alejandro Marquez, Tequila ambassador at San Diego’s Café Coyote. “And I do see more of an interest in those differences. I always say that if they want a tequila with more sweetness, they may want to try one from the highlands, because the agaves there seem to get riper quicker. When I’m there and compare the piñas of the highlands, they are huge while those in Jalisco might be smaller.”

The highlands are somewhat cooler, which may affect the growth of the agave, as may the higher iron content visible in the rich red soil there. The result, Marquez says, can mean that lowland tequilas are dryer and more peppery while the highlands more sweet and crisp.

“Some people from Los Altos like to advertise that there’s a huge difference between the agave from the highlands and those from the valley,” says Ruben Aceves, international brand development director for Casa Herradura, producer of Herradura, El Jimador and Don Eduardo. “We have proved that if you produced tequila 100% from Los Altos, they will tend to be sweeter, fruitier with more floral flavor profile. If you produce from 100% from the valley, the tequilas will be more spicy, with pepper, mint and a little bit of cinnamon and citrus.”

But the company’s research indicate that sugar content rarely differs between comparable agaves from the two areas, though the sensory notes that come from compounds called terpenes are somewhat different.

More importantly, many lowland producers, including Herradura, use pinas from both regions. Aceves also points out that tequila is about more than agave location. Are the agaves fully mature? Are they cooked whole or shredded? Are they baked in clay ovens or steamed in auto-claves? Is the cooking slow or fast? Is fermentation natural or does yeast come from a lab? Does distillation occur at low or high proof? Distilled twice or three times? In a column still or pot still or a combination?

Some producers continue to fiddle with their processes. For instance, Tequila Leyenda del Milagro offers a second line called Barrel Select made from older agaves and longer aging times. El Jimador, one of the leading brands in Mexico, has returned to a 100% agave formula after a few years as a mixto. Corzo, a super premium from Bacardi’s House of Cazadores, is made through a process that ages a double distilled spirit for two months before distilling a third time. Corzo is also aggressive in the way they distill, using 24 pounds of agave for each liter of finished tequila; the industry average is more like 10 or 12, says Takashi Nakamura, global r&d director, Bacardi Martini.

Other brands have been expanding their offerings; 1800 last year introduced 1800 Silver Select, which they claim is the only 100 proof silver tequila in the market. Sauza relaunched its Tres Generaciones family of tequilas with new packaging starting in January 2009.

One company, though, is making the argument that where agaves originate matters dramatically. Ocho is offering limited vintage release, estate grown agave tequilas, all produced in the highlands, according to Samira Seiller director of communications for Ocho. Last year the company introduced a silver and a reposado coming from one estate (El Carrizal) and an anejo from another (El Vergel). With 10 or so estates available right now, it will take about 12 years for each of these tequilas to return to market and so comparing them will be a lifetime experience. It may take longer than that to settle the tequila terroir question.


  1. Great input Jack, from San Diego. I am interested in the 11 year. It was not too long ago in the 90s we were told that you could not age tequila over 3 years. Diminishng returns. Enjoy you input.

    Dee Carey

  2. Dee, If you're in San Diego, you definitely need to make the Polished Palate Spirits of Mexico vent, coming up in early September. Lots of tequilas and mezcals.

  3. This is very useful information on Tequila. Thank you for sharing this!