Category Archives: Tequila

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2011

WhiskyFest remains the whiskey enthusiast’s festival to beat. With hundreds of whiskeys, it is a mad dash for all sorts of great stuff — if only you can find it in the scattered auditorium and muscle your way to the front of the line. Don’t worry, you can do it, and even though the 2011 installment of this awesome event had more than its share of no-shows from the advance whisky list — Isle of Jura Shackleton, Tomatin 30 Year Old, Pierre Ferrand Ancestrale Cognac, the entire Usqueabach table — there were so many amazing whiskeys here it is hard to complain.

Favorites were unilaterally from the private bottling companies, including Duncan Taylor’s killer 36 Year Old Lonach Blend, Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 21 Years Old — all that time in ex-sherry butts — and maybe by new favorite whisky ever, Samaroli Evolution 2011. Notes on all of these follow, plus comments (however brief) on everything else I sampled during the evening.

Thanks again to Whisky Advocate (nee Malt Advocate) for putting on such a terrific show (and inviting me).


Samaroli Evolution 2011 / A+ / this Rome-based private whisky bottler was a fave at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, and this bottling was a revelation; a vatting of whisky stocks dating back to 1957, it is incredibly supple, complex, and impossible to put down

Samaroli Glenlivet Top Class 1977 / A- / amazing elegance

Samaroli Linkwood Top Class 1983 / B+ / bit tougher

Samaroli Glenburgie 1989 / B+ / rich and chewy

Samaroli Highland Park 1989 / B+ / has an edge to it

Samaroli Bunnahabhain 1990 / B+ / surprising sweetness

Auchentoshan Valinch / B / hard finish

Auchentoshan Bordeaux 1999 / B+ / sweetness up front leads to a rough finish

Auchentoshan 21 Year Old / B+ / my fave of the Auch line, better balance

Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve / B

Glen Garioch 1994 Vintage / B / big nougat notes lead to a strange, funky finish

Tomatin Highland Single Malt 25 Year Old / B+ / almost American in styling, sweet finish

Tomatin Highland Single Malt Decades / A- / a vatting of 5 decades’ worth of whisky; complex and lots of fun

Isle of Jura Superstition / A- / nice balance with the peat here

Isle of Jura 16 Year Old / B / big grain notes, exotic

Laphroaig Triple Wood / B+ / finished in sherry, which adds just a touch of citrus to standard Laphroaig’s peat and iodine; interesting but could go farther

Gordon & MacPhail Benromach 10 Year Old / B / young but charming

Gordon & MacPhail Caol Ila Port Finish 10 Year Old / B+ / nice mix of smoke and sweet, needs more aging

Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood 15 Year Old / A-

Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 21 Years Old / A / spends all 21 years in sherry casks, an amazing whisky, deep and rich (by far the darkest Scotch I saw all night)

Gordon & MacPhail Tamdhu 30 Years Old / B+ / a bit over the hill, wood-wise

Compass Box Great King Street / A- / a masterful blended whisky

Springbank 14 Year Old Manzanilla Cask / B+ / big olive notes

Springbank 18 Year Old / B+ / not feeling it tonight; too much of a coal character

Kilkerran WIP 3rd Release / B+ / like Kilbeggan, Kilkerran is doing releases as its whisky ages; at 3 years old it is young but exciting, lots of promise ahead

Duncan Taylor Banff 35 Year Rich and Rare / A / amazing fruit and wood here, lovely finish

Duncan Taylor Lonach Blend 36 Year / A / cinnamon and apple pie, all sorts of fun

GlenDronach 21 Year Old Parliament / B+ / curious wood and spice notes

GlenDronach 15 Year Old 1995 Pedro Ximenez Cask #2045 / B

Macallan 18 Year Old / A-

Highland Park 25 Year Old / A- / musky finish

Bruichladdich Black Art 2 / B+ / finish delves deep into grain character

Bruichladdich Octomore 3/152 / A- / the new “most peated” whisky in the world, actually quite pleasant and not the bowl-you-over dram I was expecting; more like a barbecue than a smoke bomb

Ardbeg Corryvreckan / A

Ardbeg Alligator / A- / Ardbeg’s latest, aged in ultra-charred oak barrels; the wood really does battle with the peat here, giving it a curious but less enthralling character, I think


Redbreast 12 Years Old / B+ / really woody kick; the reputation exceeds the whisky

Redbreast 15 Years Old / B+ / not terribly different

United States

Bardstown Riverboat Rye Whiskey / B / a younger version of Redemption Rye

Bardstown Temptation Bourbon / A- / good sweetness, balance

Bardstown Barrel Proof High Rye Bourbon / A / intensely rye-focused, and intensely alcoholic; not released (the company is hoping for 2012)

Koval Lion’s Pride Spelt Whiskey / B+ / aged 2 years; not bad, lots of grain character

Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve 10 Years Old / A- / love the rye kick; probably better since it was poured by Jimmy Russell himself (picture below!)

George Dickel Barrel Select / A- / nice rye going on here

Not Whiskey

Frapin Cognac VS / A- / 4 years old; surprisingly clean for a $49 Cognac

Frapin Cognaac Chateau de Fontpinot XO / A- / big nose on it, great citrus and sherry finish

Frapin Cognac  VIP XO / A- / quite similar to the Fontpinot

Frapin Cognac Extra / A / 75 years old, extremely complex, mellow, and lingering

Pierre Ferrand Cognac Selection des Anges / A- / beautiful, smooth

Pierre Ferrand Cognac Cigare / A / not smoky, and in fact not as big a body as you’d expect with a name like that; very well crafted and lush; drink with or without a cigar

Tequila Corrido Extra Anejo Barrel #2 / A / a killer, and the only tequila here; lovely chocolate finish

chris null and jimmy russell Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2011

Review: Tequila Gran Dovejo

This new highland tequila is a single-estate spirit, double-distilled in copper alembic stills. It is, of course, from 100% blue agave… the pinas of which are “fermented with the use of champagne yeast while the harmonious sounds of music play in the background as this is found to optimize the sugar conversion.” Hmmm.

We tasted all three of the traditional expressions. All are 80 proof.

Tequila Gran Dovejo Blanco - Unaged and unrested. A really delightful and unique blanco. Very smooth for a silver, it offers surprising sweetness, almost butterscotch in its character. Long, smooth, and lightly herbal finish — it fades into rosemary and bay leaf character in the end. A great sipping tequila for those who like the punch of herbs but don’t like the harshness that often comes along with them. A / $47

Tequila Gran Dovejo Reposado -Aged 6 to 9 months. A touch of wood changes this tequila quite dramatically, pumping it up with cinnamon and allspice notes, further increasing the sweetness, and giving it a bit of a Mexican chocolate character on the finish. This is quite a departure from the relatively delicate Blanco, bold, punchy, and aggressive. Enjoyable but striking in its own way — and perhaps a bit on the brutish side. A- / $53

Tequila Gran Dovejo Anejo - Aged 1 to 3 years (quite a range!). Here, the caramel and vanilla take over — often the case with anejo tequilas — and the herbs (both the Blanco’s green ones and the Reposado’s brown ones) are drowned out with the flavors of flan. Nothing wrong with that, and this is a gorgeous dessert drink. Nuanced? Not really, but sweet tooth tequila fans won’t care. A- / $55

gran dovejo tequila lineup Review: Tequila Gran Dovejo

Review: 123 Tequila

123 — pronounced, of course, “Uno Dos Tres,” is a new, 100% organic tequila from David Ravandi, a 15-year veteran of the tequila business. I won’t expound on his past successes, but Ravandi knows his stuff, and he does it again with this high-quality series, which I had the fortune to try recently.

Using 100% Lowlands agave (4200 feet qualifies as “low” in Jalisco, by the way) from tha Amatitan Valley, these tequilas were designed with the wine connoisseur in mind. You’ll find each of the expressions has a very different character to it, though they all contain the same DNA.

Here are thoughts on each. All are 80 proof and bottles are hand-numbered.

123 Blanco Tequila (Uno) – Unaged and clean. Vibrant with lemon peel, black pepper, and minerals. Smooth as silk, with a slight sweet kick on the finish, which is so easy it’s criminal. The cleanness makes it perhaps my favorite tequila in this lineup, though it’s awfully close (as the grades will indicate). A- / $40

123 Reposado Tequila (Dos) – Aged 6 months in oak, which gives it a very light color and no real hint of wood. Rather here we see salted caramel, creme brulee, and toffee notes. There’s agave on the nose, but it quickly dissipates as you head for a light dessert course, complete with minty finish. Probably the most complex tequila in the lineup. A- / $45

123 Anejo Tequila (Tres) – After a year in oak, Tres’s wood character is more prominent, and on first blush it is heady on the nose with tannin and wood oil notes. This fades after time in the glass, revealing richer versions of those characteristics in the Reposado: Caramel, and some chocolate notes. A lovely anejo, it really opens up if you give it time. A- / $50

123 tequila Review: 123 Tequila


Recipe: Herradura Smoked Peach Iced Tea

smoked peach iced tea Recipe: Herradura Smoked Peach Iced TeaOur pals at Herradura Tequila sent in this delicious-sounding recipe in honor of the end of summer. Get to your local farmer’s market: Peaches are tasting great right now.

Herradura Smoked Peach Iced Tea

1 ½ oz Herradura Reposado
½ oz Lemon Juice
1 ½ oz Peach Juice
1 ½ oz Earl Grey  tea
¼ oz Simple Syrup
¼ oz Mezcal
1 Lemon Twist for garnish
1 Peach Slice for garnish

Fill a highball with good quality cubed ice. Add all ingredients and stir thoroughly with a bar spoon. Garnish with a long lemon twist and/or a peach slice.

Review: Ambhar Tequila

A name like Ambhar makes me think more of my local tandoori shack than a line of tequilas, but such is life… and such is the booze business. The company behind Ambhar says the name refers to an ancient goddess of the same moniker, but all I can find online when googling “Ambhar” are searches in Las Vegas for a bikini-clad “tequila goddess” to represent the brand.

All of these tequilas are 100% blue agave, bottled at 80 proof. Bottles are hand-bottled and individually numbered. All are 80 proof. All of those reviewed below are from batch #1.

Ambhar Platinum Tequila – This plata/silver tequila is exceptionally clean, and while it offers a smooth and rich agave character, it’s got more of a citrus, lime, and almost tropical character to it. Ambhar calls the nose floral, I’d suggest they’re a bit more perfumy than flowery. A very delicate spirit and quite delicious. A- / $50

Ambhar Reposado Tequila – Aged in oak for just under a year, this pale yellow spirit is easygoing but offers a strong wood punch, which mutes a lot of the nuance of the Platinum, replacing it with oak chips and some brown sugar notes. It’s a fun and lively tequila, but it’s not as intriguing as the Platinum. B+ / $55

Ambhar Anejo Tequila – Aged over two years in Bourbon barrels, giving this Anejo a whiskey-brown color and a deep, cocoa-inflected flavor to it. The agave is, surprisingly, stronger in the Anejo than in the Reposado, and it’s balanced by caramel notes. Lots of wood here, still, as you’d expect, but slightly better balance than the Reposado. B+ / $60

ambhar tequila Review: Ambhar Tequila

Review: Craft Distillers Mezcalero Release #2 San Baltazar Guelavila

First a primer on how most mezcal makes it into the U.S.: Some American gets on a plane and road-trips through Oaxaca, Mexico, tasting his way through artisan distilleries until he finds something he loves. That American then becomes an importer, and in the case of really good mezcal, sometimes only a few hundred bottles make it into the States.

Craft Distillers did just that with Mezcalero, now in its second edition, and available initially with less than 200 bottles allocated to our country, all in California. The company has just 60 bottle left on hand, so if this sounds at all interesting to you, now’s the time to act before it’s all gone.

Distilled from the wild tobala, wild tepeztate, and domestic espadin agave varieties by the San Baltazar Guelavila distillery, Mezcalero #2 makes no bones that it’s going to be intensely fiery and smoky. Where many modern mezcals rest of their smoldering smoothness, Mezcalero is a torrid heat-bomb. Smoke is overwhelming on the nose and on the tongue. Great mezcal can have lots of interesting secondary character, but aside from notes associated with the grill — black pepper, onions, maybe a touch of brown sugar on the very end — this one is lacking. The body lacks weight and there’s just no balance to the BBQ character. This is wholly drinkable, especially with water, but I’d hoped for more.

96.4 proof.

B / $84 /

Mezcalero no 2 san baltazar guelvila Review: Craft Distillers Mezcalero Release #2 San Baltazar Guelavila

Dispatches from Aspen Food & Wine Classic 2011

“Is this your first Classic?”

It was a question I’d hear more than once over the three days I spent in Aspen last month at what has become the pre-eminent annual food and wine event in America. Emphasis on food. In a single evening I encountered Mario Batali, Jacques Pepin, Jose Andres (who personally prepared the salt-crusted grilled prawn I ate while berating someone for disturbing his onions), and Andrew Zimmern (who heroically saved me from a deadly spider).

A few weeks later, so much of the Classic, hosted by Food & Wine magazine and an event of absurdly high expense to those who pay to attend it, is now but a blur. Is it the Aspen elevation? The long days of seminars and tasting sessions? Or simply the mountain of business cards I now have to follow up on that makes the whole thing seem so daunting in retrospect?

Structurally the Classic sounds like an easy-to-manage thing. For two and a half days, the schedule (basically) runs like this: Sessions (there are a dozen food, wine, or spirits-focused seminars to choose from) start at 10, then the grand tasting event (more on that later) is open for a couple of hours after that. The tent shuts down for a while to allow for more sessions, then it reopens in the afternoon, closing promptly around 6 o’clock so dinners can be had and the parties can begin. Depending on who you know there may be a half dozen to chose from each night.

Friday and Saturday are “full” days, and Sunday is a lighter one, as most people try to get home, fast (not an easy feat from remote Aspen, Colorado).

“The tent” — the grand tasting pavilion — is , for most people, the centerpiece of their experience here. Hundreds of exhibitors represent wineries around the world, spirits sellers, food merchants, kitchenware purveyors, restaurants, even countries hoping to get tourists, cruise ships, car companies, and just about anything else have a booth. Everyone is either pouring or cooking: A quick spin through a fraction of the tent will have you noshing on Korean noodles, sashimi, barbeque, chocolate, salad, root beer, and pork rinds — and probably in that order. While there’s plenty of supermarket brand stuff being poured here, a lot of it is upscale, sometimes extremely so. While there were many fabulous wines (including a whole sub-tent devoted to Spanish wine), I found the spirits purveyors to be the most rewarding: Casa Dragones tequila, private bottlings of all sorts of whisky from Samaroli (see pics), and Ron Cooper personally pouring just about all of his company’s Del Maguey mezcals, including the bizarre but fantastic Pechuga (which is made with a whole chicken breast), of which only 650 bottles were made. I probably looped back to Cooper’s table four times over the two days I was in the tent.

The seminars should not be underestimated. I attended two great ones: One tasting the audience members on old wines dating back to 1980, and another comparing Oregon and California Pinot Noirs of various vintages and regions. (Discovery: I liked southern California Pinot the best of these.) If you’re more into cooking, copious celebrity chef-led demonstrations are available, as are sessions dedicated to all levels of expertise.

Then there are the parties, and one finds that in the tiny town of Aspen, it’s easy to hop from a Macallan event to a tasting of two vintages of Penfolds Grange in a manner of minutes. (The 2006 Grange stands as my favorite wine tasted the entire weekend.) Everywhere you go, someone’s cooking a whole pig or three (as with the Wines of Spain party), or pouring something surprising (as with the “Magnum” party, where several dozen large-format bottles of wines are available to try — all self-serve).

I feel fatter just writing about it.

If you’re a gourmand and you have the means (all-access tickets are over $1,000, but tent-only consumer access runs under $400 for the weekend), this is worth an excursion once in your life. Some advice if you go: Stay as close to town as you can, over-prepare for the extreme altitude (various supplements were recommended to me), and get some rest before you arrive. You’ll need it!

Review: Tres Agaves Tequila

The spawn of some old-school tequila execs (and a spinoff of the Tres Agaves restaurant, now just called Tres), Tres Agaves burst on the scene last year as another producer of high-quality, 100% agave tequilas. The company also makes a very good agave nectar and naturally-flavored margarita mix, with key lime and agave nectar as main ingredients.

We tasted both the blanco and reposado tequilas. Both are 80 proof.

Tres Agaves Blanco Tequila - A very archetypal blanco, with a big agave nose, punchy agave on the palate, then a finish that soothes that beast with a touch of sweet vanilla and lemon. Some lingering bitterness follows. I was a bit curious that this might have actually seen a week or two of barrel time before release as a way to rest the spirit, but that seems not to be the case? All in all, a solid margarita tequila. B / $28

Tres Agaves Reposado Tequila - Aged in ex-Bourbon barrels (a variety of companies’ barrels are used) for 6 to 9 months. This tequila is a total surprise. Very green in character, perhaps more so even than the blanco. Big agave notes remain surprisingly prominent, punctuated with black pepper, lemongrass, and wood. But the sweetness of the blanco is inexplicably gone here, leaving you with a punchy and quite bitter finish. C+ / $33

tres agaves tequila Review: Tres Agaves Tequila

Review: Jose Cuervo Low-Cal Margarita/No-Cal Margarita Mixes

Pre-bottled margarita mix is certainly one of the biggest scams perpetrated on the American public since the Flowbee. Really, people, how hard is squeezing out some lime juice and adding a little sweetener, if you’re so inclined?

And yet the just-add-tequila margarita mix remains and, judging by the vast amount of shelf space these mixes command, it remains a top seller.

Now Cuervo is taking things to an extreme: Ripping the calories out of margarita mix with a no-calorie mix and, if you’re too lazy to dump in your own tequila, by offering a sub-100-calorie pre-mixed “Light Margarita” as well.

It’s not our usual bailiwick, but we took a stab at tasting them both.

Jose Cuervo “Zero Calorie” Margarita Mix isn’t terribly surprising: It’s simply a blend of artificial sweetener and some kind of lime essence (sans calories). The flavor is a bit like a diet Sprite that’s gone flat, which could be worse, and if you’re on an extreme diet, well, you probably shouldn’t be drinking margaritas but, if you can’t stop yourself, then I guess this will do in a pinch. Adding tequila (even 100% agave good stuff) actually doesn’t help things at all: It gives the mix a bitter edge and brings out its artificial character. Bottom line: If you want to save calories, skip the mix altogether and just add lime juice the way you’re supposed to. C- / $7 per 1.75-liter bottle

Jose Cuervo Authentic Light Margarita (pictured) – I’m not sure how Cuervo can put the words “authentic” and “light” right next to each other, considering this product certainly has no actual lime juice and is flavored with the same artificial sweetener as the “zero calorie” mix above. This one works better, probably because there is so little alcohol in it. (Cuervo claims it is composed of Cuervo Gold, triple sec, and “a twist of lime.”) And yet somehow this ends up at just 9.95% alcohol. It’s not awful, with real tequila bite, better and more authentic-tasting citrus character, and only a mildly cloying finish. If you need something for a tailgate party in a plastic bottle and there’s a diabetic in the crowd, well, I suppose it will do.* C+ / $15 per 1.75-liter bottle

Cuervo Authentic Light Margarita Review: Jose Cuervo Low Cal Margarita/No Cal Margarita Mixes


* Drinkhacker does not offer medical advice and has no idea if this stuff is diabetic-friendly.


Review: Sino Tequila

This Los Altos tequila is one of very few — if not the only one — to be 100% crafted by women (or, as they say, 100% Latina owned and operated). (We know of just one other female Tequilera.)

Judy Rivera is the owner of Sino Tequila — which is only available for the time being in silver and reposado expressions — and she’s building this brand one account at a time. We were excited to be able to review the bottlings for Drinkhacker, and look forward to the future anejo.

Both are 80 proof.

Sino Blanco Tequila – Mild agave on the nose, plus peppers black and green. The creamy, almost milky body is overwhelming and surprising, drowning out much of the agave notes. The finish is reminiscent of young corn whiskey (or white dog), rough and full of grain character. Agave makes an appearance in the end to remind you this came not from Kentucky but from Mexico. B- / $35

Sino Reposado Tequila – Aged a quick four months in ex-bourbon barrels, and what a difference it makes. The sweet vanilla character is a perfect match for Sino’s creaminess, and the agave notes meld nicely with that silky body. This is a sipping tequila that’s a stunner on the palate, smooth and easy. I’d love to see more complexity from this spirit, but for a relatively simple reposado, it hits it on the nose. A- / $38

Re-Review: Partida Reposado Tequila

I first encountered Partida when this blog was young. Very young, just a few months old. Given the chance to sample the full Partida line, I greatly enjoyed the product. In fact, I remember recommending it by name to numerous young tequila enthusiasts.

I have encountered Partida several times since then, but in a formal tasting environment it next arrived this February at the infamous blind silver tequila tasting I attended. This time Partida fared dismally: Its meaty, smoky character earning a solid C on my paper.

Bad bottle? Bad product? Bad reviewer? Who knows, and recently I got a new bottle of Partida — reposado this time — to compare notes, at least vs. that 2007 review.

The results: My notes were basically in line with the old review, though tempered this time, probably because I’ve had vastly more tequila experience since then. No insane “meat” flavor here, but I did get a whiff of smoke. I’ll never know what the issue was with the Partida at the blind tasting, but I’m at least happy to learn that I wasn’t wholly insane back in 2007 when I first sipped Partida’s tequilas. I gave it an A- then and my rating today is close.

2011 comments: The nose is lightly smoky and woody, with mild agave notes. The body: Bigger agave character, tempered by sweet vanilla character, which carries on to the finish. As it goes down, the agave shows its face again, bringing burn and a slight amount of vegetal character at the back of the throat. Not unpleasant at all, but a bit at odds with the sweetness in the middle of the shot.

Check back in 2015 for the re-re-review!

80 proof.

B+ / $55 /

Partida Reposado tequila Re Review: Partida Reposado Tequila

Review: Jose Cuervo Tradicional Silver Tequila

Some years ago, Jose Cuervo launched a tequila that was unique for its time: 100% agave, affordable, and available everywhere. For a nation that grew up on the cheap mixto that is Cuervo Gold, this was something else.

But Cuervo Tradicional was available only as a reposado. No blanco, no anejo. Just the middle, lightly aged version. Who knew why?

Now Cuervo is back to remedy at least part of the oversight with Cuervo Tradicional Silver.

The style should need no introduction: This is an unaged tequila, clear as a bell.

As a blanco, Cuervo Tradicional is very mild and easygoing. Agave is muted, as is pretty much everything else. This is a blanco tequila with little bite and no real character to it: A touch of honey, vanilla, and lemon, with a mild agave lacing throughout it all.

It’s a tequila that’s about as harmless as they come. In other words, about the opposite of Cuervo Gold.

B / $20 /

jose cuervo tradicional silver Review: Jose Cuervo Tradicional Silver Tequila

Review: Lunazul Anejo Tequila

Lunazul: “When the night calls.” Hmmm.

From rather cheesy beginnings come this workmanlike product, designed to bring 100% agave, anejo-class tequila (aged 18 months in oak) to the masses, with a $22 price tag.

That kind of pricing is completely unheard of in the work of 100% agave anejo tequilas, and Lunazul is proof that maybe it isn’t wholly doable. I’m not saying producer Heaven Hill — best known as a bourbon outfit — is cutting corners, but this tequila just doesn’t measure up to its pricier competition.

It’s all about the body. While I expect anejo to be a smooth, vanilla-infused, whiskey-like experience, Lunazul is muddy. The nose evokes a younger tequila, with green agave notes overwhelming the spirit. The body is similar, with a hard, vegetal edge and a pungent agave body. You’ll find tantalizingly sweet vanilla notes only hinted at, which is frustrating. The finish is overly herbal and hard. It doesn’t have that rotgut burn, mind you, but it has a rocky edge that makes it unthrilling.

I love the idea of an affordable 100% agave tequila — that’s what Cuervo Tradicional was made for — but Lunazul just doesn’t quite cut it.

80 proof.

C+ / $22 /

lunazul anejo tequila Review: Lunazul Anejo Tequila

Review: Senior Rio Tequila

This tequila brand got its start only two years ago. Distribution is now crawling its way across the U.S. (now including California, Oregon, Arizona, and Tennessee). We got our hands on samples of each of the distillery’s three expressions. All are, of course, 100% blue agave and 80 proof.

Senor Rio Blanco Tequila – Unaged and clear as a bell. Huge agave nose. On the tongue, peppermint, more agave pepper, and a finish that suggests jalapeno and spice. Not a lot of secondary nuance, just authentic agave character. A solid, big, and flavorful tequila, but with a moderate, even thin body. Prepare yourself accordingly. B+ / $45

Senor Rio Reposado Tequila – Aged 6 months. Immediately more intriguing, but still a ton of agave on the nose and the palate. Some caramel and vanilla notes tantalize you on the tip of your tongue, but they are overwhelmed in short order by that rich agave. Bigger, fuller body here, with a long, spicy finish. B+ / $65

Senor Rio Anejo Tequila – Aged over a year. Senior Rio comes into its own with this anejo, a full, balanced, and delicious sipping tequila with a deep and big blend of caramel notes and agave. Surprisingly light in color, it’s much sweeter than the reposado, silky and lush. The agave still makes its presence known, but here everything works pretty well together. A- / $75

Drinking Tequila with Casa Dragones’ Bertha Gonzalez Nieves

Casa Dragones is almost certainly a tequila brand you have never tried or likely even seen. That’s a sad thing, because it is one of the best silver tequilas on earth.

Casa Dragones is the proud bearer of a number of unique traits. It is the brainchild of Bob Pittman, a founder of the MTV network. It is a joven tequila — blanco in appearance but made up of both unaged and aged tequilas, then filtered to clear, giving it a substantial complexity. It is a lowland tequila, rare in an age where most tequila makers boast about their mountain agaves. It is column distilled, not pot distilled. It is made by the only female Maestra Taquilera ever to be certified in Mexico. Only 24,000 bottles will be produced this year, each at a cost of $275 per bottle.

Said Maestra, Bertha Gonzalez Nieves, explained all of this to me on a recent trip to San Francisco. A former cultural ambassador from Mexico to Japan and ten year veteran of Cuervo, Nieves doesn’t look like the typical Maestro Taquilero I meet with — usually grumpy old men who’d rather be back in the agave fields than on the road meeting with bloggers — but she understands tequila to a surprising depth. In between discussions about the origins of Casa Dragones (born at a New York City party where she and Pittman met) and who the Dragones actually were (left as an exercise for the reader), we enjoyed a fabulous shot of this unique “sipping tequila.”

The tequila is simply superb. Again, there is only one variety — and there will only ever be one — and the nose at first hints at nothing special. Lemon and orange peel mingle with what come across as somewhat boozy vodka notes. Breath deep and you get a sense of nuttiness, but little else. I wasn’t expecting a lot… and then I took a sip.

Casa Dragones slips across the tongue with beautiful citrus notes, building warmth as it segues into vanilla and cocoa notes, driven clearly by the extra anejo tequila that makes up the blend. It gets sweeter as you sip, showing coffee character and more of a dessert-like body, a surprise that makes you reconsider the crystal clear color of what you’re sipping. And yes, you’re sipping, not gulping. The finish is warm but has no bite, a smooth operator through and through. This tequila may indeed be a Johnny come lately, a stunt driven by a millionaire who wants a tequila to call his own — and a price tag to match — but damn if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing.

80 proof. Tasted bottle #655 of lot #3.

A+ / $275 /

bertha nieves of casa dragones Drinking Tequila with Casa Dragones Bertha Gonzalez Nieves

How a Blind Tequila Tasting Rocked My World

Recently I learned something that completely upended my worldview: It turns out I like Patron Tequila.

OK, this in itself is not a shocker. Patron is the top-selling tequila brand outside of Cuervo, so a lot of people obviously like it. But I just reviewed Patron a few months ago and gave it a B, declaring it “not bad, but there are many better blancos out there.”

That very phrase is now haunting me, because in a blind taste test of five super-premium tequilas, I picked Patron as my favorite.

The occasion was an event sponsored by PaQui, a new brand which I also reviewed last year, and put on by the American Distilling Institute. Five tasters were present. PaQui management was not. The event was run completely fairly: No meddling from anyone. The five brands were known in advance, but not which glass held which tequila. I even tasted the spirits in a random order.

After an hour of sniffing, swilling, and spitting, we all had our grades set and ready. Here’s the tricky part: The event used a 100-point scale. 25 maximum points each were available for nose, palate, finish, and balance. This isn’t remotely close to how I review spirits (because this scale invariably ends with grades for everything in the 90s), but I tried to play by the rules the best I could and felt my ratings represented a fair ranking of which was best and which was worst.

When everything shook out and the bottles were revealed, here’s how it looked. I’m including the letter grade I would have given the spirit had I had to choose one at the time (because as I noted, I don’t think the numeric scores are totally representative of my overall feelings). For my “official,” original ratings you’ll need to poke around on the site.

Spirit / My Grade / My Spot “Letter Grade” / Overall Group Rank

Patron / 87 / A / 2nd place (tie)
Avion / 79 / A- / 1st place
Paqui / 74 / A- / 2nd place(tie)
Partida / 67 / C / 4th place
Don Julio / 64 / C / 5th place

Even though my scores were largely in line with the averages of the group, there are a lot of shocks to the system here. I have gushed about Avion in the past, and found it a really nice tequila at the event, but maybe a touch too powerful against the rest of the crowd. And Partida and Don Julio are brands I have recommended heartily in the past. The group was unanimous that the Partida tasted of meat or bacon — to the point where I wondered if there was a problem with the bottle. I’m at a total loss to understand what was up with the Don Julio. Here, everything was off to the point where I feel I need to look at it again with fresh eyes — and tongue. I ultimately scored two of the five about the same as before, one significantly higher, and two significantly lower.

So what did I learn?

First, as I’ve tried to harp on repeatedly, all reviews are subjective — and they can vary not just from person to person but from day to day. What did I eat before this review and those earlier ones? What time of day was it? What was my mood? Even novices know that some days you want wine and some you want beer. On a “beer day” wine just isn’t going to taste right.

More importantly, in a competitive setting — where multiple spirits are put side by side — things get really complicated. Tasting in a vacuum tends to elevate most ratings, I’ve found: Even a glass of cheap wine tastes OK when there is no other choice on the table, just like a hot dog tastes great when you haven’t eaten all day. But put that cheap wine next to something really good and it reveals its true character. I picked up far more nuance in this event from these tequilas than I normally might because there was more variety to compare.

Ultimately I can’t realistically change the way I do reviews — blind tasting or competitively tasting everything would be impossible — but I am going to make more of an effort to try spirits against other ones. I already do this to some extent, but now it’s going to be more of a priority.

Review: Manana Tequila

Mañana, of course, means tomorrow in Spanish. Maybe the name foreshadows a simple reality that you should wait to buy the stuff. (You certainly won’t miss those brightly colored bottles, though, each featuring a tiny metal sculpture of a man in a hammock, which swings back and forth inside a recessed portion of each bottle. Nutty!)

Manana Blanco Tequila – A straightforward silver tequila, unrested and simple. Very strong agave character, with a pungent nose and a crisp bite. Unmistakeably tequila, this is not a subtle, easygoing spirit but rather a tequila that announces itself and doesn’t let up. That’s not a bad thing, really, but a lack of complexity and some greenness in the finish make it somewhat less interesting for more than one shot. B / $45

Manana Reposado Tequila – The barest bit of yellow color on this tequila seems indicative of its youth, but Manana’s reposado spends a full eight months in barrels. Strangely, it’s not enough to have much impact. Agave is again the centerpiece here, though it is tempered a bit by some caramel notes and, surprisingly, bright lemon character. The finish is long and herbal. I like the balance here a touch more than the blanco, but the light body makes it less of a thrill than one might like. B+ / $55

Manana Anejo Tequila – Manana’s anejo jumps to two full years in cask, but judging from the extremely light color, I thought perhaps some kind of mistake had been made. Once again, this doesn’t quite get the job done. Now the lemon and citrus notes take the forefront, followed by creme brulee and caramel, and finishing off with agave again. Balance is way off, and the finish is unremarkable for an anejo with this pedigree. B- / $65

manana tequila Review: Manana Tequila

Review: El Gran Jubileo Tequila

This tequila brand has been available in Mexico and in limited distribution at that. Now it has arrived on U.S. shores, you can try it too. All expressions are 100% agave of course and are 80 proof.

El Gran Jubileo Blanco – For those who like a lot of agave, but not so much bite, this is the blanco for you. Triple distilled, it is not a tequila with a lot of nuance, but one that speaks to the purity of the plant from which it came. Hunt in the body and you may turn up some light vanilla and lemon notes, but in the end it’s that agave that just pours over you. B+ / $30

El Gran Jubileo Reposado – Aged for 10 months in new American oak (not ex-Bourbon) barrels, Jubileo’s Reposado ventures close to anejo territory. The nose is heavy with wood, replacing the agave that you find with the Blanco. The body is sharp and woody, then it fades into big vanilla notes. A touch of agave reminds you you’re drinking tequila, and after it mellows out a bit with some time open to the air, a pretty good one at that. A- / $35

El Gran Jubileo Extra Anejo – Whoa, no one told Jubileo it goes from Blanco to Reposado to Anejo, not Extra Anejo? This monster spends five years in those white oak barrels, giving it a deep amber hue. The nose is quite mild and mellow. The body is gorgeous, sweet and silky, the wood giving the tequila loads of vanilla and light chocolate character. Nougat and nuts give this a huge dessert feel. Drink it with your flan. A massive bargain. A / $65

Jubileo Group White Review: El Gran Jubileo Tequila

Review: Excellia Tequila

This new tequila brand comes from 100 percent blue agave grown in the highlands of Jalisco — and then comes a twist: All the tequilas are aged in Sauternes and 20-year-old Cognac casks, a big twist vs. the usual old Bourbon barrels in which most tequila is aged. The results are, in at least one case, exemplary.

Excellia Blanco Tequila – A misleading and cryptic tequila: Not bottled straight from the still but rested for a couple of weeks in wood. Good decision. The nose is bright agave, but the body is shockingly sweet and mellow. Lemon, vanilla, and custard notes. Smooth and creamy, with a little agave bite at the end. I’m impressed! A / $50

Excellia Reposado Tequila – Spends nine months in oak. Big wood notes here, but it’s tempered by some of the sweeter, citrus notes. Wood dominates here in a way that isn’t perfectly in balance. B+ / $60

Excellia Anejo Tequila – 18 months in oak. Powerful wood character here, with dark honey and vanilla notes and, surprisingly, more agave bite than either the blanco or the reposado. The finish is lasting and dessert-like, with chocolate and a bunch of cinnamon. Not the most nuanced anejo, but worthwhile.  A- / $70

excellia tequila Review: Excellia Tequila

Review: Don Elias Tequila Extra Anejo

It’s hard to find an extra anejo tequila that isn’t any good, and Don Elias proves that you can make a really solid one — even if you don’t charge an arm and a leg.

At just $75 a bottle, Don Elias Extra Anejo is the least expensive Extra I’ve ever tried, and yet the quality is right up there with pricier brands.

The mild agave on the nose lets you know you’re drinking tequila, but the body is lush, sweet, and full of whiskey flavors. The mind-meld with the agave nose is enticing: Don Elias has an earthy and herbal edge, balanced with sweet flavors of honey, caramel, and vanilla. Some extra anejos can go a bit too far, drowning out the agave altogether, but Don Elias keeps those barrel flavors in check.

What Don Elias lacks in complexity and depth it makes up for in simple enjoyment. At this price, it’s hard not to be taken in.

By the way, that bottle stopper is not actually a shot glass: It’s permanently filled halfway with a tequila-like liquid, lending the decanter an intriguing optical effect. 80 proof, 100 percent agave.

A- / $75 /

don elias extra anejo tequila Review: Don Elias Tequila Extra Anejo