We don’t need no maturation

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Location: Mexico, South America

As any agave anorak will tell you, unaged expressions are where it’s at. Clinton Cawood joins an eager panel for an epic tasting of blanco tequilas



Its crazy, smoky ancestor mezcal might be getting all the love recently, but tequila continues to flourish in the UK on-trade, proving that there’s more to a successful category than an endless procession of product launches.

PANEL

Kristian Breivik, Casa Negra;
Nick Caputo, Opium Cocktail & Dim Sum Parlour;
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe;
Alex Fitzsimons, consultant;
Richard Lopes, Wahaca;
Nathan O’Neill, Milk & Honey;
Jorge O Romero, Café Pacifico;
Damian Williams, Casa Negra;
Alex Wolpert, Barworks

In fact, judging by reports from our panel at this monster round-up of blanco tequila, the category seems to be crossing the great mahogany divide between bartender and consumer, with more punters showing some education, refinement and good taste when it comes to Mexico’s most important export [are you sure about this? – Ed].

The category’s not been entirely static, with some brands changing hands, a few new products hitting our shores, and the interesting addition of a few high-strength examples – more than enough reasons for us to justify a tasting of nearly all the blanco tequilas available to the UK on-trade – all 26 of ‘em. Since we didn’t want to kill off any of our readers, the flight was split into two, with each taster only having to tackle half that number. We can assure you, no bartenders were hurt in the making of this tasting.

The results contained a few surprises, with several bartender favourites sliding down the ranks, and some big brands drawing lavish praise. There’s never a dull moment when there’s tequila involved…

HOW IT WORKS

We called in all of the blanco tequilas that we could get hold of, provided they were available in the UK and were 100% agave. These were blind tasted by a panel of bartenders, in ascending order of price, and each scored out of 20, as well as rated on a few other flavour criteria so that we could produce a flavour map of blanco tequila. Tasters were only aware of each sample’s abv and an equivalent 70cl bottle price. Scores were collated to give a total rating out of 100 for each. Prices given are all RRPs.


RESULTS

87 Don Julio
First past the post, our panel heaped praise on Don Julio’s predominantly creamy yet peppery flavour profile. A green, vegetal note added some complexity – aubergine in particular – while a sweet, impeccably balanced palate secured its pole position. This led to a good, long finish with a touch
more peppery spice. A contender for a Tequila Martini, some thought.
38% abv. £42/70cl. Diageo Reserve Brands, 020 8978 6000

85 Maracame
Hot on Don Julio’s heels was beautifully presented (but not cheap) Maracame. This was the whole package, with some pretty potpourri characters, as well as a vegetal note. The palate showed a fine balance between cooked-agave sweetness, bitterness and acidity, with some dark chocolate and toasted almond notes, plus a hint of lemon, with more nuttiness to finish. Tasters described this as a good all-rounder.
38% abv. £50.39/70cl. Emporia Brands, 01483 458700

84 La Cava de Don Agustin
A favourite with our panellists, and a particularly complex and interesting tequila if their tasting notes were anything to go by. Black pepper, wet cement and parma violets were among the notes identified on the nose, leading into a palate one taster described as ‘like licking a good Mexican road’ – a good thing, presumably, in spite of how unsanitary that sounds. The palate was full and rounded, with some good balance between sweetness and spice.
38% abv. £38.49/70cl. Emporia Brands, 01483 458700

83 Ambar
Our panel praised the complex aroma, with distinct earthy and herbaceous notes, joined by saffron spice and a plum-like note. This proved fruitier on the palate, with some mild sweetness, as well as light agave notes, leading into a long, fruity finish. ‘One that deserves its price tag,’ summarised one taster.
38% abv. £39.99/70cl. Casa Ambar, info@ambartequila.com

83 Jose Cuervo Platino Reserva de la Familia
The highest-scoring of the Cuervo stable, this super-premium blanco earned the respect of our panel, in spite of the eye-watering price tag. There were full fruit flavours on the nose and palate, including fig and apricot, as well as a Muscat-like fruit/floral element. A peppery note finished things off nicely. ‘Very delicious,’ said one panellist.
40% abv. £80/70cl. Proximo Spirits, 020 7489 6410

82 Sauza Tres Generaciones
The most dominant note in Sauza’s full-bodied top-end blanco was vanilla, identified on nose and palate by almost every taster. This was joined by a banana element, as well as a toffee/caramel sweetness, lifted by distinct citrus notes. A rounded, approachable tequila, this would definitely make a great Paloma, said one taster.
38% abv. £45.12/70cl. Maxxium UK, 01786 430500

81 Don Fulano Fuerte
Don Fulano Fuerte’s 10% higher abv made a difference, winning it a few extra points over the standard 40% abv release, and earning it praise from our panel. ‘The higher abv lifts the flavour – a lovely sipping tequila,’ said one. Melon and mint were predominant flavours, as well as some spicy pepper andarbol chilli on the salty, savoury palate.
50% abv. £48.25/70cl. Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367

80 Patrón Silver
Patrón was shy at first, showing some retiring agave and pepper notes to start off with, leading into a creamy palate with some fresh pear notes and a hint of dark chocolate, as well as some toffee, caramel notes. If there was any criticism of this, it was that it was ‘too delicate’, and might be lost when mixing.
40% abv. £45.99/70cl. Cellar Trends, 01283 217703

79 Ocho Los Fresnos 2013
Spice was the name of the game here, with a chilli-pepper note helping one panellist to correctly identify this. These notes were joined by an earthiness on the nose, as well as a rounded, caramel/honey element. More spice showed on the palate, alongside a slightly salty/savoury element. Definitely a sipping tequila, according to more than one.
40% abv. £19.75/50cl (equivalent to £27.65/70cl). Cask Liquid Marketing, 07944 835356

79 Tapatio 110
Showing admirable consistency, the pair of Tapatios achieved exactly the same score. In fact, with Ocho, all three of these Carlos Camarena tequilas scored 79%. The high alcohol on this one divided opinion, with some finding it too overpowering. For others, the added heat and intensity was balanced, and added interest and complexity. Green fruit, pineapple, orange zest, vanilla, cacao and plenty of agave notes were all identified by tasters. Maybe a bit much for sipping on its own, but definitely a contender for mixed drinks (and possibly for setting fire to).
55% abv. £29.85/50cl (equivalent to £41.79/70cl). Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367

79 Tapatio Blanco
Lemon zest, bitter lemon and grapefruit, along with some sweeter orange, were all predominant notes in the regular-strength Tapatio. These notes were joined by floral aromas, and some
spicy, peppery notes on the palate, never forgetting its distinct agave character throughout. All those citrus notes made this an excellent contender for a Paloma or Margarita.
40% abv. £22.75/50cl (equivalent to £31.85/70cl). Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367

78 Olmeca Altos
Punching well above its weight for the price, Altos impressed our tasters with its overall balance and mixability. More than one was moved to talk about Margaritas in particular. Sweetness and spice on
the nose led to a rounded, earthypalate, with a salty-sweet element adding some savoury complexity.
40% abv. £19.99/75cl (equivalent to £18.66/70cl). Pernod Ricard UK, 020 8538 4484

76 Centinela
A tequila that embodied the best of the Highland region, according to our tasters. Spicy notes were dominant – red pepper and sweet chilli. Balanced sweetness and some fruity green apple and citrus notes continued on the palate, along with some floral elements.
38% abv. £43.50/70cl. Amathus, 020 8951 9840

76 Maestro Dobel
Nothing restrained about this one, with its big fruit flavours – freshly cut pineapple and apple – as
well as big creamy notes. ‘Butter! Caramel! Jam!’ exclaimed one over-stimulated panellist. Some toasted agave notes rounded things off for this characterful, confident tequila.
40% abv. £48/75cl (equivalent to £44.80/70cl). Proximo Spirits, 020 7489 6410

75 1800 Silver
This divided our panel, but its champions won out, describing full agave aromas, as well as some coconut and almond/marzipan notes. Soft pear characters emerged too, as well as some leather and cocoa flavours on the full palate. A punchy and versatile tequila, with a long finish and mature agave character throughout.
38% abv. £35/70cl. Proximo Spirits, 020 7489 6410

75 Don Fulano Blanco
For some this was drinkable, restrained, approachable, while others found it to lean too far into neutral territory. If nothing else, the sweetness was dialled down on this one, with herbal, spicy notes coming to the fore – tarragon and cardamom, for example – along with a honeysuckle and lychee element.
An interesting tequila, if nothing else.
40% abv. £42.45/70cl. Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367

74 AquaRiva
Given its excellent price, Cleo Rocos’s relatively new entrant put in a solid performance here. Some moderate sweetness defined things, balanced by some citrus notes, and some floral elements both on the nose and at the finish. In short, a well balanced, approachable and mixable tequila. ‘Best used in a Paloma,’ said one panellist.
38% abv. £21/70cl. Marblehead Brand Development, 0141 955 9091

71 901
Rather like the man himself, Justin Timberlake’s tequila had its fans and its critics. For some, restraint on the nose and a brisk finish were deal breakers. But for others this complex tequila showed fruity and floral aromas, along with a real creaminess. Apricot and soft, ripe citrus dominated both nose and palate, leading to some real agave character too.
40% abv. £32.99/70cl. Hi-Spirits, 01932 252100

69 Arette
An elegant, restrained tequila, Arette opened with soft herbaceous and vegetal notes, lifted by some red pepper, alongside some floral, potpourri notes and citrus zest. That same red pepper made a return to the palate, leading into even more citrus and spice. ‘One taster described it as ‘a grown-up tequila for gin fans.’ A compliment, we think.
38% abv, £24.99/70cl, Indie Brands, 01474 327056

69 Jose Cuervo Tradicional Silver
Marzipan was the dominant note in this, Proximo’s affordable entrant into the tasting. This implied some sweetness overall, and also accompanied some dried fruit aromas, and even candied cherries. The palate was described as sweet and earthy, with some coffee, chocolate and chilli notes, and even a hint of smoke. An ideal candidate, according to one taster, for a Tequila Espresso.
40% abv, £27/75cl (equivalent to £25.20/70cl), Proximo Spirits, 020 7489 6410

66 Chamucos
A proper panel divider – even Chamucos’ grassy, earthy aromas were described in both positive and negative terms by different panellists. Its champions were passionate though. ‘A savoury, complex tequila. Grown-up and delicious,’ said one. An overall bitterness was described by more than one taster too, alongside, interestingly, some agave aromas.
40% abv, £44/70cl, Distillnation, 020 7129 8108

63 Calle 23
Definitely on the sweeter side of things, our panel identified honey, vanilla and fudge notes alongside, crucially, some distinct agave notes. Things continued in this vein on the palate, with white chocolate and other sweet notes, as well as more agave and a citrus-pith note towards the finish.
40% abv, £20/50cl (equivalent to £28/70cl), Amathus, 020 8951 9840

61 Herradura
A fascinating tequila, judging by our panel’s notes. More than one described an oiliness, while others tried to pin down a varnish, putty or Play-Doh aroma, as well as a chalkiness. These notes developed into attractive floral aromas, lifted by some citrus elements. On the palate, a fruitiness emerged, as well as some of the most distinct agave flavours of the tasting.
40% abv, £35/70cl, Mangrove, 020 8551 4966

60 Gran Centenario Plata
Some spice and honeyed notes on the nose on this one led into dried fruit – fig or prune – on the palate, leading right to the finish, along with some deeper coffee notes. Some questioned the rather brief finish, while others remarked on what they felt was too high a price.
38% abv, £30/70cl, Proximo Spirits, 020 7489 6410

59 Casco Viejo
In spite of scoring it quite strictly, marking it down for a lack of substance on the palate, tasters were actually quite complimentary about Casco Viejo. They liked an earthiness on the nose, with some hints of green pepper and apricot, as well as some earthy, liquorice notes on the palate. ‘Would stand out in a cocktail, like a Margarita,’ said one taster.
38% abv, £23.19/70cl, Emporia Brands, 01483 458700

Also tasted: Patron Gran Platinum



Conclusions

  • Scores were remarkably high for this tasting. For the middle of the field to have scores in the 70s, and only one to score below 50%, is no small achievement.
  • ABV wasn’t much of a predictor, with 38% abv examples taking the top four spots. That said, the two high-abv entrants (50% and 55%) did particularly well. They also offered a real point of difference. As one taster put it: ‘The higher abv tequilas are a selling point, as there aren’t many of them.’
  • Tasters were asked to take price into account, and this played a major factor here. This not only detrimentally affected some of the highest priced tequilas that didn’t stack up in terms of taste, but it was an even greater compliment to those that still scored highly.
  • If nothing else, this tasting proved that it pays to know your tequila, as there’s such a vast array of styles and flavours out there. Some were definitely more suited to certain applications than others.

Many thanks to the team at Casa Negra for hosting the tasting, and for all of their help on the day.

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