Mexico is in the midst of the biggest boom in its four-century history of mass producing tequila.
Don Pedro Sanchez de Tagle, the marquis of Altamira, began commercial prduction around 1600 in what became the state of Jalisco, the center of today’s tequila industry.
Distillers racked up record levels of both production and exports in 2006, according to the Tequila Regulating Council. They exported 37 million gallons in 2006 (28 million of them to the U.S.), up nearly 20 percent from the previous year, and overall produced 64 million gallons, a 16 percent hike.
What we have here is not merely a statistical game. The quality level also has been amped up. Thus, the competition has begun for precious retail shelf space among a growing number of aged tequilas in the "reposada" and "anejo" categories that carry higher prices.
Not long ago, holding a tequila tasting was rather simple. The range of choices was small, the manufacturers comparatively few in number.
Now, thanks in large part to the thirst of American consumers, that has changed. True, tequila can only be produced in Jalisco and a few adjacent areas and must meet stringent regulations. Anything other then 100 percent juice from the blue agave plant is known as "mixto." Not necessarily bad, but not preferred by aficionados.
Mexico’s legal definitions of tequilas are blanco, or silver (clear, bottled fresh from the still); oro, or gold (modified with colorings and flavorings, usually caramel); reposado, or rested (aged in white oak casks two to 11 months), and anejo, or aged (aged in white oak casks for a year or more). There also is reserva, not yet legally defined as a category. It signifies an anejo aged in oak up to eight years.
The debate is whether such extremely aged tequila is really tequila at all. The maturing of what traditionally has been a young spirit and the use of various barrels flavored with bourbon or sherry is, in the view of some, transforming the spirit into a different product.
My preference in any sort of spirits sampling is for small-range tastings of four or five styles. This allows tasters’ palates to zero in on what is being experienced rather than risk being deadened by abundance. Thus, I put together a quartet of 80-proof tequilas that offer a significant range of characteristics.
My tasting notes:
Sauza Hornitos: This pale reposada from the same distiller that produces Tres Generaciones is rested for three months in American oak barrels. This tends to smooth out the middle notes and balance the complex tastes somewhere between pear and a slight spice.
Don Eduardo Silver: A triple-distillation with a pleasing floral nose and an oiliness that is very smooth on the tongue and palate. Enough body to linger pleasantly even when sipped over a ice.
Gran Centenario Plata: Soft, herbal from resting a month in white oak barrels. Dry middle notes. Hints of cinnamon and other soft spices run throughout.
Corazon: The reposada version is twice-distilled and rested for up to a year in charred new oak barrels. Pleasantly sweeter than the average reposada.
Of these four, and even compared to sense memories from other tequilas tried at other times, the Don Eduardo comes out of top for me. I find it a delightfully complex distillation that lends itself to both straight sipping and mixture in cocktails.
I had visited the Don Eduardo agave fields and distillery several months ago for a field-to-bottle look at the Orendain family enterprise. I was so impressed with several sampling sessions I purposely held off doing any comparative tastings for fear the hospitality extended during the visit would unduly influence my opinion.
Now seemed a good time to see if Don Eduardo held up to memory. Without question, it did.
Others concur. The entire line of Don Eduardo tequilas is a consistent medal winner in major international competitions.
(c) 2007 Hearst Newspapers