Review: Sauza 901 Silver Tequila

Sauza 901 Bottle Image

Justin Timberlake-backed 901 Tequila made a huge splash back in 2009. So huge in fact that Sauza — one of the biggest names in the business — bought the brand in 2014.

Promptly renamed “Sauza 901″ and semi-repackaged (same bottle, new label), Sauza 901 is a different product that’s made in Sauza’s own distillery.

JT is still involved with Sauza 901, but now the tequila is being positioned as a slightly higher-end alternative to Sauza’s mixtos and less expensive 100% agave brands like Hornitos. Rather than $48 a bottle for the original 901, Sauza 901 costs a mere 30 bucks. It may go without saying that Sauza 901 is going to be a different experience.

The new Sauza 901 is not a bad tequila. I’d have no qualms about whipping up a margarita with this spirit, or even sipping on it straight for a bit as I’ve been doing to write this review. But as blancos go, it isn’t going to set the world on fire. The nose is rubbery and hot with more industrial alcohol notes. Has triple distillation instead of the usual double distillation method removed too much of the character from the spirit?

The palate is heavy on the vegetal agave notes, though notes of lemon and some ripe banana bubble up from beneath. The finish is a bit oily and punchy with fuel-like notes, but that intense, black pepper-meets-greenery character hits you hard and seems to last for days. A wisp of white sugar on the finish takes things in a weirdly unexpected direction, but I can’t say it wasn’t a welcome one after what comes before.

B- / $30 / 901.com

Review: Dulce Vida Extra Anejo Tequila

dulce vida extra anejo

The arrival of a new extra anejo tequila is always cause for rejoicing, and Dulce Vida’s new bottling is no exception.

This tequila spends 5 1/2 years not in bourbon barrels but in a mix of former Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot barrels from Napa’s Rombauer winery. Crafted in the Jalisco Highlands, the tequila is fair-trade certified. The producer expects stock to last for the next two to three years.

Thoughts follow.

The nose is classic, well-aged tequila — all caramel, butterscotch, and Mexican chocolate notes. On the palate, it’s a much bolder, racier tequila than many extra anejos tend to be. Here, the agave is surprisingly pushy, offering immediate spice and black pepper notes and backed up by lots of punchy salted caramel character. Notes of rhubarb and red berries emerge, given enough time. The finish melds the two major components — racy agave and sugary caramel sauce — together, ping-ponging back and forth between the sweet and the savory. The finish is long-lasting and engaging, an exotic but approachable XO tequila that marries its seemingly disparate components together in beautiful, harmonious fashion.

100 proof.

A / $160 / dulcevidaspirits.com

Review: Mezcal Amaras

mezcal amarasThis new brand of mezcal hails from San Juan del Rio in Oaxaca. It’s a blanco made in a decidedly traditional style. To wit:

This traditional mezcal is made from Espadín agave plants grown on the hills surrounding San Juan del Rio, which are harvested at their optimum maturity by Jimadores, and roasted for 5 days in conical stone ovens over sustainable Holm Oak logs. Next, the agave hearts are ground on a horse drawn Egyptian mill, which creates an extract that naturally ferments in open pine containers for up to 13 days.  Finally, the liquid is slowly distilled twice in copper pot stills, a process which removes impurities, refines the character of the mezcal, and produces a soft, smooth flavor with a slightly smoked, citric aroma.

Amaras (“you will love”) is a bit more smoked than that description would indicate, but it does indeed have a citrusy, barbecue-like aroma that pushes right along as the palate gets a grip. Notes of pineapple, honeycomb, and melon make for some interesting appetizers before the smoky body really begins to dig in. It isn’t overbearing or particularly harsh, but it does offer a sizable amount of campfire flavors. Notes of Mexican chocolate build on the finish if you give it time, adding a layer of complexity to an otherwise fairly straightforward but extremely well-made mezcal.

82 proof. Reviewed: Lot #1 (2014), bottle 147/3300.

A- / $50 / mezcalamores.com

Review: Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia Tequila 2014 Edition

jose cuervo reserva 2014

I’ve said before that Cuervo’s top-shelf bottling, Reserva de la Familia, doesn’t vary much from year to year.

This year, at least the packaging is changing. Reserva de la Famila is now officially an Extra Anejo, not just an Anejo. The label has been significantly reorganized, keeping the same overall design motif but placing Reserva de la Familia front and center while shuffling Jose Cuervo off to the corner. Of course, the wooden box has also been updated in keeping with this tequila’s annual tradition. This year’s was designed by artist Carlos Aguirre, one of the foremost figures in Mexican contemporary art.

Under the hood, it’s pretty much business as usual here — molten caramel, laced with spicy, racy agave notes, dominates — while underneath some light, fresh herbal character adds nuance. Think sage and rosemary, touched with black pepper. The finish offers ample vanilla extract notes, oak, and banana.

Pitting the 2014 Reserva against the 2012 and 2008 bottlings — all that I have on hand — shows off the series’ exceptional familia resemblance, as usual. Today, the 2012 is exhibiting a stronger cinnamon note on the nose while the 2008 offers a bit more fruit — apple and pear — but on the whole they remain extremely similar. Kudos for the consistency… I think?

80 proof. Reviewed: Bottle #08753, bottled 6/24/14.

A / $100 / cuervo.com

Review: DeLeon Tequila Platinum

Deleon 69469 1

P. Diddy‘s not happy to be a major player in the world of vodka. Now he wants to rule tequila, too.

DeLeon is a new ultra-premium Highland tequila, 100% agave of course, designed to go toe to toe with Patron and other top-shelf tequila brands. Available in no fewer than six expressions — including Diamante, a joven expression, and Leona, a reserve anejo bottling that costs $825 — the most simplistic (and affordable) of the bunch is a blanco: DeLeon Platinum, which runs $60 and up. All the better to pay for the fancy, thick-glass bottle, metallic stopper, and talk of traditional clay ovens and such.

And hey, celebrity branding aside, it’s a pretty good tequila.

The nose is rich with peppery notes, but also hints at lemon custard, along with some vanilla-dusted creme brulee notes. It’s got the character of a classic blanco, but it also hints at austerity — despite the fact that this is a completely unaged and unrested tequila. The body continues the theme: Spicy agave, bright lemon juice — almost candied with a sweet edge — honey, and touches of menthol. It’s very mild, and extremely easy-drinking — the same qualities that make Patron so very popular.

DeLeon Platinum is a tequila that doesn’t exactly pump up the agave, but it doesn’t try to mask it, either. Rather, it takes the natural herbal character of blanco tequila, then tosses in some natural complementary flavors that add subtlety and complexity. The end product may be on the lighter side — so approach DeLeon with the appropriate attitude — but that may suit many tequila drinkers just fine.

80 proof.

A- / $60 / deleontequila.com

Review: Tequila Espolon Anejo

Espolon Anejo Hi-Res

Tequila Espolon was relaunched in 2010 as one of the first of a wave of high-quality, 100% agave tequilas that were far less expensive than most any other 100% agave tequilas on the market. But there was a hole in the lineup: No anejo.

Now Espolon is back with an anejo expression, at long last. Intriguingly the anejo tequila is aged for at least a year in unused white oak barrels, then finished for two to three months in ex-bourbon barrels, specifically Wild Turkey barrels. (Typically, tequila and most other spirits are fully matured in bourbon casks.)

The nose is rich without being aggressive, with big caramel and vanilla notes that hit the nose right at the start. The body engages right away, pushing that silky sweetness into some woody notes with a slight, agave-driven, vegetal edge. The finish is long and complex, hitting some racy red pepper notes as it begins, then punching up butterscotch and more vanilla syrup before a slow fade that brings the agave back to the forefront. None of this is particularly surprising, but it’s all on point and just about perfect for an anejo, proving again that, pound for pound, Espolon is one of the best bargains in the tequila business.

80 proof.

A / $35 / tequilaespolon.com

Review: Jenni Rivera La Gran Senora Tequila Reposado

jenni rivera

I had never heard of Jenni Rivera before her face showed up on my doorstep. Literally. That’s Rivera mugging from the label of her eponymous tequila — perhaps the most glorious and arguably inappropriate vanity spirit bottling I’ve ever seen. (The only way this could be topped is to imagine a Kardashian vodka, with Kim’s face on the front and her butt on the back label…)

Rivera was a Mexican-American performing artist who died tragically in a plane crash in 2012. While she is said to have approved of this product and personally tasted it, I presume her estate is what is actually lending her visage to a 100% agave line of tequilas. The three standard expressions are available. We received only the reposado, which is aged for 6 months in oak barrels. Thoughts follow.

This is a capable, but a fairly gentle reposado. On the lighter side, color-wise, it offers an immediate nose of roasted agave, burnt marshmallow, and caramel. The body follows in lockstep. Sweet up front, with those marshmallow notes the strongest, it builds to some notes of charcoal, some pencil shavings, and a bit of raisin. The finish is clean, sweet, and with a final salute to agave on the very back end. It isn’t a groundbreaking tequila, but it’s a fully credible and capable one that works well either alone or in mixed drinks.

80 proof.

B+ / $46 / 3crownsimports.com

Review: The 86 Co. Cana Brava Rum and Tequila Cabeza

Previously we brought you reviews of The 86 Co.’s Ford’s Gin and Aylesbury Duck Vodka, two winning spirits from a New York-based importer that’s partial to one-liter bottles instead of 750ml ones. (Standard size bottles are seemingly available if you’re interested in hunting them down.) Now we’re back with 86’s next offerings, a Panamanian rum and a blanco tequila. Thoughts follow.

cana brava rumCana Brava Rum – Made in Las Cabras, Panama in a copper and brass column still, aged three years in new oak and ex-bourbon barrels, blended with older rums, and finally filtered back to white before being brought down to proof and bottled in Ukiah, California. Results: Totally solid white rum. Just the right amount of punchiness keeps things high and tight, letting the clear vanilla notes shine while keeping things on a rustic and almost simplistic level, particularly on the lightly medicinal finish. The slightly higher alcohol level pushes the rum’s firewater agenda but doesn’t do much to imbue it with secondary characteristics. Give it time in glass or water to bring out cocoa powder and graham cracker notes — or simply use it as is was likely intended: as a mixer. 86 proof. B+ / $28

Tequila Cabeza – A highland blanco from Arandas in Jalisco. Powerful, fresh agave notes hit the nose right at the start… and tequila cabezathen… more agave. Nothing if not straightforward, Tequila Cabeza fires up the agave and never lets up, offering only vague secondary notes of cardamom and some tropical fruit notes. The finish is drying and a bit on the plain side, offering simple red pepper spice to balance just a hint of sweetness — and plenty of that classic, herbal, agave character. Fans of big, green blancos will be instant fans. 86 proof. B+ / $38

the86co.com

Drinkhacker’s 2014 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Can it be time for the holidays already? We’ve been utterly swamped in 2014 with new products for review, which makes this seventh annual edition of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards” — all the tougher to produce. As usual, we are looking not just at what the very best release have been over the last 12 months, but also want to help you find the perfect give for your special someone, whether that’s whiskey, tequila, or any other spirit.

As always, the offerings below are but a small selection of our favorite spirits from the last year, but we definitely try to focus on products that are legitimately available. Got alternatives to suggest or gift ideas you think we missed? Chime in in the comments, please!

Happy holidays to all of you! As always, thanks for reading the blog!

Check this gift guide out in full-color PDF form, perfect for printing out and taking with you holiday shopping. Also check out our 20132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

woodfordBourbon – Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish ($100) – Every year Master Distiller Chris Morris puts out a special release of Woodford Reserve — sometimes a wildly different one — and his 2014 experiment is the best he’s ever done. This bourbon takes woody WR and finishes it in fruity Pinot Noir casks, bringing out a whole new side of this Kentucky classic. Just as worthy are two other incredible bourbons from 2014, Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary Bourbon ($125) and Four Roses 2014 Single Barrel ($80). That’s really just a modest start to an amazing year for Bourbon. There are so, so many good bottlings out there right now. It’s almost hard to pick badly if you can’t find any of these three.

Scotch – The Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 1 ($350) – The sole “A+” rating I gave to any whiskey all year went to Balvenie’s latest Tun release, Tun 1509 Batch 1. The prior Tun series, Tun 1401, also made appearances on our holiday list, but this year Balvenie quadrupled production in order to give more folks out there a shot at actually tracking this stuff down. The quality hasn’t suffered. Whether it’s for you or for dad, go for it. It’s worth it. Other amazing picks worth seeking out: Mortlach Rare Old ($110), Glenfiddich Excellence 26 Years Old ($500), The Exclusive Malts Ledaig 2005 8 Years Old ($110), and The Arran Malt 17 Years Old ($95).

Green Spot Whiskey USOther Whiskey – Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey ($50) – This is an amazingly tough category this year, but ultimately I have to go with a whiskey that has enchanted me throughout 2014, the blissfully simple yet gorgeous Irish whiskey Green Spot, which finally made it to our shores this spring and currently stands as one of whiskeydom’s greatest deals. (Watch for Yellow Spot to slowly float over, too.) My close second is Hibiki 21 Years Old ($250). 2014 has been declared by others “the year of Japanese whiskey,” but it’s Hibiki, not Yamazaki, that is putting out the very best stuff right now. This year’s Parker’s Heritage Collection Original Batch Wheat Whiskey 13 Years Old ($90), a wheat whiskey, not a wheated bourbon, is also a standout, as is the ever-exciting Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old ($80).

Gin – Genius Gin ($26) – Who’d have thought 2014’s best gin would hail from Austin, Texas? Get the standard edition. The Navy Strength is less refined. Overall a weak year for gins, other recommended bottlings include Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve Barrel Finished Gin ($70) and The 86 Co. Ford’s Gin ($30/1 liter).

Vodka  Re:Find Cucumber Vodka ($25/375ml) – Vodka’s never a thrilling category (or much of a gift), but spending 25 bucks on this best-ever cucumber vodka is not a bad way to fill a stocking. Other top picks include the Vodka DSP CA 162 line (each $38), made by the former crew behind Hangar One, Santa Fe Spirits Expedition America West Vodka ($25), and Bluewater Organic Vodka ($27).

vizcaya-21Rum – Vizcaya VXOP Cask No. 21 Cuban Formula Rum ($40) – Fascinating rums have been in short supply of late (I’m presuming you can’t find a way to get Havana Club where you live), but this Dominican rum is a killer bottling. Also highly recommended is Bacardi’s boutique bottling of Facundo Exquisito ($120), which runs up to 23 years old.

Brandy – Charbay Brandy No. 89 ($92) – This craft brandy from Charbay, distilled 26 years ago, is a killer that can go toe to toe with any Cognac. Louis Royer Force 53 VSOP ($43) is also a fabulous spirit and a great bargain.

Tequila – Roca Patron Reposado ($80) – The typically breakneck pace of tequila releases slowed down in 2014. Patron’s new higher-end bottling, particularly the reposado, was my favorite. Also standing out were Tequila Herradura Coleccion de la Casa Scotch Cask Finished Reposado Reserva 2014 ($90) and the festive KAH Tequila line ($45 to $60), which tastes as good as its bottles look. High-end mezcal fans should run, not walk, to Del Maguey Iberico Mezcal ($250).

Liqueur – Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur ($33) – From the first time I tasted this, I knew it would be the Drinkhacker liqueur of the year. Ancho chile is so distinctive and unique, and these guys do amazing work with it in alco-form. Try it in, well, anything.  Other excellent giftworthy liqueurs include Perc Coffee Liqueur ($28), Barrow’s Intense Ginger ($31), and the new Wild Turkey American Honey Sting ($23) — technically a flavored whiskey, but which drinks more like a liqueur.

Need another custom gift idea (or have a different budget)? Drop me a line or leave a comment here and I’ll offer my best advice!

Looking to buy any of the above? Give Caskers and Master of Malt a try!

Review: Tequila Herradura Coleccion de la Casa Scotch Cask Finished Reposado, Reserva 2014

Herradura Reposado Scotch Cask Image 3

It’s another round with Herradura’s Coleccion de la Casa limited edition line of reposado tequilas — each one aged first in a standard Bourbon barrel, then finished in another type of specialty cask. (See also the first two releases in this annual series: Port and Cognac finished tequila.)

This year, Herradura turns to former Scotch barrels, casks which really aren’t used for much other than, well, more Scotch. According to the company, “This limited edition tequila is aged to perfection in charred American oak casks for eleven months. Prior to bottling, the tequila is then transferred to carefully select [sic] single malt scotch casks from the renowned Highland and Islay regions of Scotland for three additional months of aging.”

There’s only a little that raises an eyebrow in the first nosing of this tequila. While the nose is lightly smoky, it’s balanced by the essence of chili pepper, caramel, and a bit of salty brine. The smokiness is unusual for tequila, but could easily be chalked up (along with the brine) to the impact of agave if you weren’t aware of the finishing element here.

The body starts off by showcasing agave, tempering that with notes of austere wood, sweet honey cake, Madeira, and a reprise of those seaside smoky elements. This lattermost element melds surprisingly well with the sweet agave punch that comes back around on the finish — if you’ve ever had a mezcal-meets-whiskey cocktail, you know how interesting the combination can be. Here the duo combine to create a whole that is bigger and burlier than the sum of its parts — and stands as a mighty fine, if wholly unexpected, achievement from Herradura.

80 proof.

A / $90 / herradura.com