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What I’m Drinking: Tequila
I thought I’d introduce you to one of the world’s finest and rarest tequilas. Unfortunately, it’s one you won’t be able to find in New Zealand. I recently spent a week in the Jalisco province of Mexico, where the majority of the spirit is produced. Jalisco is also home to the town of Tequila itself, a beautiful World Heritage Site 60km from the city of Guadalajara.
The Tapatio Excelencia Gran Reserva is a revered bottle amongst connoisseurs. I was lucky enough to find this very special Extra Añejo in the city of Tlaquepaque, hidden away in El Buho, possibly the world’s best tequila shop.
The Extra Añejo (Very Aged) category for tequila is the highest level, and was only officially introduced in 2006. It refers to those that have been aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels. This may not seem very old to whisky drinkers, but tequila matures significantly faster due to the hot and dry climate. In Scotland, where it is colder with high humidity, the average amount of whisky in barrel lost to evaporation (‘The Angels share’) is 2% per year. In Mexico they lose an average of 10% a year!
The original batch of Excelencia was distilled in 1996 by legendary master distiller Carlos Camarena at the famed La Alteña distillery (Distillery number NOM1139), ten years before this category existed. Tapatio is the family’s original label, mostly sold only in Mexico, and is a local term for a person from Guadalajara. The estate has a cult status with aficionados, who have been making the trek to La Alteña for many years.
Carlos is the grandson of Don Filipe Camarena who built the distillery in 1937 in the mountain highlands of Los Altos. The family has been producing tequila since the early 1800s but the original distillery was abandoned and destroyed during the Mexican revolution. The name Alteña literally translates as ‘lady from the highlands’. Carlos continues to use some of the most traditional methods of production in all of tequila for the brands he produces here. They only make 100% pure agave tequila using no additives.
He started with very old and ripe Blue Agave plants aged ten years, all grown organically and hand harvested by the Camarena family. The Pinas of the agave are hand cut and hand loaded into a traditional horno (stone oven) where they are slowly steam cooked and cooled over four days to extract the sugars. The cooked pinas are then carefully crushed and pressed to extract the juice. Carlos kept the fibres with the juice in small wooden fermenters, where a 75yr old yeast culture completed the fermentation. Double distillation was in small 95-340 litre copper ‘Alambique Mexicanos’ pot stills.
The spirit then was aged for four years in brand new #4 deep charred American white oak. In 1996 this was a very long time, with most aged tequilas only having 1-2 years in wood. It was then moved from barrel in 2000, to 5L glass jars for long term storage, as this tequila was never meant to be released. It was kept in these jars for over 13 years, and used occasionally by Tapatio for blending. Carlos would sometimes add a small amount into their regular Añejo to increase the oak character, depth and complexity. In theory a spirit kept in glass should not change, but Carlos said this special blend continued to integrate and mellow over the years. It was sometimes poured by itself on special family occasions, and was tried by some customers who said it was ‘excellent’. After much persistence from some of them, he finally relented and released some under the name Excelencia. It is now regarded as one of the finest tequila’s ever produced.
This can best be compared in quality to the greatest aged spirits in the world, like XO Cognac or very old Scotch. The colour is deep amber and mahogany. The nose is extremely powerful, rich wood, maple, caramel and vanilla with strong cooked agave notes. Often when a tequila spends too long in wood, it can lose much of its agave character. This is incredibly smooth and rich on the palate, with everything from the nose, along with dark chocolate, brown sugar, sweet earth and spices, all held together with soft creamy oak. Unlike some aged spirits, that can get too mellow and woody, this still has plenty of fire to balance out the mature characters. The finish is extremely long and complex. Wow.
Excelencia is an absolutely stunning drink for slow sipping in the late evening. If you ever get the chance to taste or buy a bottle, don’t hesitate, it’s a bargain compared to the other luxury tequilas and spirits it competes with.