A growing number of tequila brands are making a point of their regionality, but is there an actual difference in flavour from highland to valley? Clinton Cawood and an expert panel wade through a truckload of blanco tequilas to separate the hype from reality
We’ve seen it in other spirits categories, of course – a rise in popularity resulting in an influx of new entrants, each with a more outlandish way of differentiating themselves from the rest.
In the case of tequila, an increasing number of brands are trying to do this by highlighting whether their agave is sourced from the highland or valley regions, the assumption being that the terroir affects the resulting tequila. Some producers have gone even further, using the concept of terroir to create ‘vintage’ and ‘single-field’ tequilas.
To test just how relevant the concept of regionality in tequila is, we called in 17 (yes 17) blanco tequilas and a panel of hardy tasters to put them to the test.
Panellists began by establishing some common ground in terms of what to expect from each region. Highland tequila is thought to be sweeter, easier, and more floral, while valley tequila is earthier, and more masculine.
With this in mind, tasters set about evaluating each spirit, hazarding guesses as to each one’s origin. There were more than a few surprises…
| Tasting Panel
Leo Besant, Hix; Damien Campos, Roast; Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Jon Anders Fjeldsrud, El Camion Soho; Zdenek Kastanek, Quo Vadis; Ladislav Piljar, Savoy
How it Worked
87 Siete Leguas
The panel’s favourite by a good margin, with pepper aromas identified by every taster, this was also one of the few described as having cooked agave character. Smoke, caramel sweetness, and toasted coconut completed this superlative blanco. Not a typical highland tequila though – only half identified its origins correctly.
40% abv, £64.99, Boutique Brands, 020 7371 2620
Produced at La Alteña distillery, this was another favourite, and another with prevalent agave character. This was praised by some for its straightforward nature, and was described as a soft, elegant tequila, with some herbal and citrus notes. An earthy mustiness suggested, misleadingly, that the agave for this was sourced in the Tequila valley.
40% abv, £21.29/50cl, Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367
74 El Tesoro de Don Felipe
Also produced at La Alteña, and also mistaken for a valley tequila, El Tesoro nevertheless garnered significant praise from the panel, who found this to be soft, floral and elegant, with gentle spice and some more interesting leather and rubber aromas too.
40% abv, £37.49, Bibendum, 0845 263 6926
Cazadores not only scored highly, but also conformed more to the panel’s pre-conceived notion of what a highland tequila should be. This was fresh and zesty on the nose, with some green, vegetal aromas too. On the palate, it was soft and easy-drinking, with some herbal, nutty and peppery notes.
40% abv, £26.95, Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands, 01962 762 100
71 Ocho (Los Mangos 2010)
The third tequila in the top five from La Alteña, this latest blanco from Ocho is produced from the 2010 harvest of agave from the Los Mangos fields in Los Altos. An array of aromas including white chocolate, celery and vanilla led many to suspect, however, that this was a valley tequila. A herbal, white pepper character on the palate endeared this to the majority of the panel.
40% abv, £15/50cl, Inspirit Brands, 020 7739 1333
70 Olmeca Altos
This may have split panellists when it came to its provenance, but most were united in praising it. Restraint on the nose, with only some gentle floral and green apple, but with far more character on the palate. Decidedly on the sweet side, this showed cooked agave character, along with more fruit – gooseberry, according to one taster.
38% abv, £23.99, Pernod Ricard, 020 8538 4484
69 Don Julio
Unanimously thought to originate in the tequila valley, mainly owing to a predominately vanilla character on the nose, as well as an overall earthiness. Not that this stopped the praise for this sweet but peppery blanco, with its drinkability and good mouthfeel.
38% abv, £40, Diageo, 0845 7515 101
69 El Tequileño
A significant degree of sweetness led a number of panellists to correctly spot this as a tequila from the highlands. There was decidedly more to this tequila, however, with tasters identifying fresh green apple, pepper, vanilla, an array of herbal notes, and a lemon-cream citrus freshness.
38% abv, £22.95, Barrio Brands, 07956 699 820
Inspiring some of the most interesting descriptions of the tasting, including apricot, yoghurt, dill and fennel, panellists appreciated the journey this blanco took them on, with one describing this as a good introductory product, as well as ‘a good daytime tequila’.
38% abv, £35, Distillnation, 07858 885 988
Generally considered to be a typical valley tequila, Arette actually showed the characteristics of one sourced in the highlands, with toffee and vanilla sweetness, supported by floral notes (lavender). Other descriptors included pink peppercorns, summer fruits, and liquorice.
38% abv, £20, Blavod, 020 7352 2096
Despite sourcing agave from both highland and valley regions, Herradura is regarded as embodying the characteristics of a valley tequila, and this was borne out in this tasting – earthy notes combining with appealing vinegar aromas. Tasters identified the 45 days of oak-ageing that this receives before bottling. One panellist summarised: ‘Very drinkable, very mixable – best flavour for a speed rail tequila.’
40% abv, £29.99, Mangrove, 020 8551 4966
67 Jose Cuervo Platino Reserva de la Familia
A panel-divider, with some appreciating its full, round agave flavours, combined with a smokiness and raisin character, while others thought this bitter and lacking in body. It received further praise for earthy and vegetal notes, making this easily identifiable to the entire panel as a valley tequila.
40% abv, £50, Diageo, 0845 751 5101
65 Gran Centenario
Another overtly valley tequila, Centenario’s champions described it as smooth, with pepper, vanilla and oak, as well as some boiled sweet flavours, and a mezcal character too. Counting against it, according to some panellists, was too much sweetness, contributing to artificial fruit flavours.
38% abv, £23, Diageo, 0845 751 5101
Another one that split the panel, not only in terms of its origin, but in terms of overall flavour too. Spearmint, tropical fruit such as pineapple, floral notes and some agave character all contributed to make this ‘a nice all-rounder’, according to one taster. Others were less convinced.
38% abv, £22, Diageo, 0845 751 5101
61 Calle 23
A soft and restrained nose, with toffee and peach aromas, along with a sweet hazelnut palate, meant that panellists had little to complain about with this one, aside from, according to one, it ‘lacking something to hold on to’.
40% abv, £18.50/50cl, Amathus, 020 8808 4181
Also tasted: Don Alvaro, Sauza Hornitos
Many thanks to Cafe Pacifico in London for hosting the tasting, and for all their help on the day.
On the ground
Tequila ambassador Tomas Estes on terroir
The commonly agreed opinion of those who are paying attention is that in the state of Jalisco – where more than 95% of all agaves are grown and tequila made – there are two regions which produce two different taste profiles of tequila. The first is Tequila Valley where the tequila is said to be masculine [using a wine term], earthy and herbaceous. In the second region, Los Altos de Jalisco [the Highlands of Jalisco]the tequila is described as feminine, round and fruity. These descriptors are understood as generalities, as not all tequilas from both regions fit neatly into the word boxes.
The terroir in Tequila Valley is volcanic soil with hot days and nearly equal night temperatures. In Los Altos the soil has a high degree of iron oxide – giving it a red color – with warm days and cooler nights. The agaves in Los Altos take longer to mature and have a higher residual sugar content. Are there signs of terroir and its influence within these two large regions? If one believes in terroir in general, then the answer becomes pretty evident upon reflection.
Carlos Rosales of Tequila Cascahuín told me in 2003 that more and more attention is being given to terroir in tequila. The zones that produce the highest quality agaves are Tequila Valley, the oldest, and Los Altos which has red earth with minerals and natural nutrients. Plants grown in the coastal zone grow bigger in less time but the sugar is lacking which creates tequila with less flavour.
Sofia Partida – whose family farms agave in the Tequila Valley – from an interview in the Dallas Morning News: ‘She invokes “terroir”, the word vintners use to describe the environs where their grapes are grown.’ ‘Because we are farmers, we make our tequila from a farming point of view,’ she said during a recent stopover to introduce the brand. ‘Our tequilas are indicative of our land. The land is number one. The land is everything.’
Tequila 4 Copas of Tequila Valley says the most important part of tequila is the soil where the agaves are grown. Manuel Garcia of Tequilas del Señor uses agaves from Los Altos. He says: ‘The altitude in Tequila Valley is around 1300 metres, while in Los Altos the altitude is 1600-1700m. Besides the altitude, the soil and weather are different. In the highlands the temperature is more extreme.’
Excerpt from Estes’ upcoming book on tequila.
‘Some of these were quite sweet on the nose, while others had a chemical character, but there were some I really liked. I think the distinction between regions is useful – if one’s lighter, and if people are only ever used to shooting mixto tequila, then you can use it to introduce them to better tequila. There were some here that I wasn’t able to recognise as being from a particular area, but some were at least more approachable than others – more delicate, or didn’t have the burn.’
‘The differences between highland and valley aren’t nearly as clear-cut as producers would have you believe, and there are clearly a number of other factors at play here. That said, there was some really great variety here in terms of flavour profile. There was quite a spread in terms of quality too, though, so while there were some outstanding spirits here, they certainly weren’t all of this standard.
‘The concept of estate agave isn’t a new one, but producers in general are starting to go more into where their agave comes from. We’re even seeing more single-barrel tequila – some that are amazing, and some that aren’t. I think these concepts work with some producers, who have the understanding, but I think there are also too many amateurs, and a lot of brands that don’t really know what they’re doing.’
‘I thought some of these tasted like neutral spirit flavoured with agave. I think in general I was expecting the highland tequilas to be sweeter, on average. The distinction is useful, though. I’d use a highland tequila for a normal Margarita, because it’s generally sweeter, and you’re going to have salt there, and other flavours. With a Tommy’s Margarita, you’ve got one less ingredient, probably a more experienced drinker that wants that tequila punch, so I’d probably use a valley tequila for that.’
‘There’s some difference in flavour profile, but I think the distinction between highland and valley has a lot to do with marketing as well. However, regionality is something that we’d use to talk to customers. They love to hear about it. If they see you have knowledge, and are recommending based on that – they end up trying three or four. I also find that with some customers, you can’t give them something too easy, that doesn’t take them on the journey they want to go on. They want a challenge. There’s big potential there.’