Repo men: Tasting & matching reposado tequila

06 June 2016

What happens when you take three classic cocktails and substitute their base ingredient with reposado tequila? Clinton Cawood joined up with a crack team of agave-loving bartenders to find out


Jack-of-all-trades, master of none. That seems to be the fate of reposado tequila, trapped between blanco and añejo. Making a Paloma? Probably blanco. Sipping tequila after dinner? Undoubtedly añejo.

‘Rested’ tequila gets between two and 12 months of ageing in oak barrels, tempering the agave character somewhat, and probably adding some soft oak and vanilla notes, but not quite giving it the full cognac treatment that añejo gets. This puts it in no man’s land, exacerbated by the fact that serious tequila drinkers will almost always go for blanco for its unadulterated agave character.

But we’re missing a trick. There’s untapped potential in the realm of reposado and, as it turns out, it’s a pretty broad realm. Reposados vary widely from one producer to the other, with that oak character more or less prominent.

This makes the category something of a Swiss Army knife in the hands of a bartender. There’s the oak, vanilla and fruit of whisky and cognac, with the herbal, floral notes of gin, ready to give new life to any number of classics.

But which ones, and how do you pick the right one for the job? We placed a flight of reposado tequilas in front of a panel of bartenders, who then put them to use in a number of non-tequila classics.

HOW IT WORKS
We called in nine reposados, old and new, that would demonstrate the breadth of flavour profiles in this category. After blind tasting each one neat, our panel suggested three classic non-tequila cocktails of varying styles, and tested three of the tequilas in each. Each panellist then ranked these three either first, second or third, and these results were averaged out to obtain our final results.

PANEL
Sophie Bratt, Oxo Tower Bar; Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Massimiliano Favaretto, El Nivel; Alex Fitzsimons, consultant; Alastair Fraser, Little Bat; Rasa Gaidelyte, Ekcovision; Josh Powell, 68 and Boston; Rob Worsley, MeatLiquor


RICKEY
Glass: Highball
Garnish: Lime wedge
Method: Build over ice then top with soda water.
50ml reposado tequila
25ml lime juice
15ml sugar syrup (1:1)
Soda water

RICKEY

The first cocktail of the day was all set to be a Tequila Negroni (Tegroni, Negronita, Negringo… whatever you like). But after a few questionable experiments, some tweaking of the spec, and an attempt to substitute Aperol for Campari, our panel concluded that we wouldn’t be seeing a passable Negroni today. Maybe start with blanco tequila if you’re determined to put a Mexican spin on this Italian classic.

The Gin Rickey turned out to be a much more suitable drink to road test these reposados, giving the spirits a chance to shine in a long, refreshing cocktail. These would presumably work best with those tequilas that were showing more subtle signs of ageing.

1 Casamigos
On its own, George Clooney’s reposado was already doing well, scoring second overall. Crowd-pleasing caramel, cacao and vanilla were joined by some spicy pepperiness. Tasters praised its good agave character and overall complexity.

Lengthened in this Collins-style drink, these characteristics only worked in its favour. There was abundant agave sweetness, with the lime interacting beautifully. More than one taster commented on the excellent balance. ‘This has everything,’ said one taster. ‘Customers would love it,’ added another.

40% abv, £53.25/70cl, Cellar Trends, 01283 217703

2 Don Julio
While this reposado opened with some sweet aromas – vanilla, toffee, caramel and chocolate – the palate was significantly lighter and drier than expected. There was a characteristic pepperiness here, alongside a vegetal note, and some gentle yet evident tannins. Interestingly, this nevertheless made for a smooth and creamy Rickey. Some thought the citrus was somewhat dialled back, but it somehow resulted in a drink that was still very refreshing.
‘A healthy alternative to tequila and Ting,’ suggested one panellist.

38% abv, £52/70cl, Diageo Reserve, 020 8978 6000

3 Aquariva
Tasters were generous in their praise of this tequila, with vegetal earthiness a primary characteristic, joined by some sweeter, nuttier notes from its oak ageing. There was some generous caramel and honey on the palate, along with an appealing peppery finish. And there was an abundance of agave character throughout. The resultant cocktail was refreshing and summery, but it wasn’t enough of a showcase for the base spirit, which was, in the words of one panellist, ‘elegantly lost’.

40% abv, £29/70cl, Catalyst Brands, 0844 822 3908

Panel comments

Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘You’d be tempted to reach for the blanco tequila when making this style of cocktail, so it was good to see just how capable – and versatile – these reposados were. They have the necessary flavours to work well in a drink like this, which means structure and balance become the more important considerations. If anything, the gentler character of the reposados put them in danger of fading away in a cocktail.’

Alastair Fraser, Little Bat
‘This was the cocktail that surprised me the most. You don’t always taste the tequila in a drink like the Paloma, so I thought this Rickey/Collins style of drink was a much better way to showcase the spirit. I’d definitely go with a reposado for this, because it’s a bit softer, so the drink has some creaminess. A blanco tequila would shine through more, but it would make a harsher drink.’

  • Sweetness turned out to be an important consideration for this long drink, with the caramel and vanilla notes in reposado tequila a distinct advantage.
  • Tasters were looking for a refreshing cocktail, but one that retained its agave character when lengthened with soda. Vegetal, earthy notes weren’t ideal, whereas fuller-bodied tequilas, with some bold spiciness, shone through.

AVIATION
Glass: Coupe
Garnish: None
Method: Shake and strain.
50ml reposado tequila
20ml lemon juice
15ml Luxardo Maraschino
2.5ml Cartron Parfait Amour

AVIATION

On paper, this gin classic couldn’t be better suited to an agave makeover, with both citrus and floral elements, and an earthiness from the maraschino, ready to interact with the tequila.

This potentially points to blanco tequila though, so what did these reposados have to offer? It was unlikely to be their oaky characteristics, but rather their softer, balanced character.

Those gentler notes proved to be a bit tricky at first, however. What started as a 40ml measure of tequila turned into a more substantial 50ml to allow the spirit to better shine through.

1 Ocho La Latilla 2015

This single vintage, single origin reposado was described by tasters as being quite delicate and elegant,with pink peppercorn and citrus notes joined by some greener notes such as lemongrass. This gave this highland tequila a major advantage here. Every panellist chose this as their pick in this category. While it remained faithful to the original Aviation in some respects, it arguably did an even better job than most gins. Drinkable, refreshing and palate-cleansing, there were also layers of complexity. Not dissimilar to a Corpse Reviver #2, thought one taster.

40% abv, £21.50/50cl, Cask Liquid Marketing, 07944 835 356

2 Herradura

Herradura Reposado’s time in oak was evident. Agave notes of honey, apricot, violets and spice were joined by vanilla, caramel and tea characters, resulting in a rich, sweet yet savoury tequila with many layers of flavour. These elements turned out to be well suited to an Aviation, with the sweetness counterbalanced by some earthy dryness from the maraschino, and the citrus lifting everything nicely. Rounded, balanced and easy to drink – the only criticism was that the tequila’s original character didn’t shine through enough.

40% abv, £38/70cl, Mangrove UK, 020 3409 6565

3 Fortaleza
This was a fascinating reposado on its own, with floral notes identified by a number of our tasters. Spicy vegetal elements such as red pepper, lemongrass and watercress were evident too, along with complex citrus notes of orange and grapefruit. Salted caramel and vanilla rounded things out on the palate. Whether a result of this complexity, or because of certain incompatible flavours in that mix, this didn’t quite work in an Aviation. Some thought the tequila was lost, while others felt the floral notes were excessively emphasised by the cocktail.

40% abv, £75/70cl, Indie Brands, 01474 327056

Panel comments

Sophie Bratt, Oxo Tower Bar
‘Reposado tequilas with citrus notes work better in a cocktail like this, whereas you’d be looking for woody, vanilla notes for whisky cocktails. That might be why bartenders don’t tend to use reposados – we know what blanco is like, whereas there’s more variety in reposado. That gives it more qualities to play with though – qualities the consumer is going to like.’

Josh Powell, 68 and Boston
‘Some reposados have a woody, caramel note, so it might be easier to riff on bourbon classics when using these as a base. That said, some can be quite floral, so gin classics can work too. It’s important for the tequila to stand out. Gin’s botanicals help it to come through more in a drink, so you’re looking for a bit of heat or spice in the tequila to do the same thing.’

Rob Worsley, MeatLiquor
‘I felt that the Highland reposado tequilas worked best here. These often had some floral notes, which were lifted and complemented by the creme de violette / parfait amour in the Aviation. That said, I think that blanco tequila might stand up better in this drink – I think the influence of the brief oak interaction on reposado gets lost in citrus drinks.’

  • Fascinating, complex spirits, while great to sip on their own, don’t always play nice with complex competing ingredients such as marsaschino liqueur.
  • Highland tequilas work best when replacing gin in a cocktail, with their brighter, gentler notes as opposed to the earthier character of lowland tequilas.
  •  More than one taster said reposado did a better job than gin in an Aviation in some cases.

MANHATTAN
Glass: Coupe
Garnish: Orange peel
Method: Stir on ice and strain.
50ml reposado tequila
12.5ml Carpano Antica Formula
12.5ml Noilly Prat Extra Dry
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

MANHATTAN

As a vehicle to test reposado tequila’s ability to work in cocktails typically made with aged spirits and how it fares with vermouth, there is arguably no better choice than the Manhattan. There was little objection to the suggestion that we use a Perfect Manhattan spec for this. ‘I think a Sweet Manhattan would have overpowered the tequila,’ said one panellist. This was, presumably, a chance for those oakier reposados in the tasting to shine.

1 Villa Lobos
There were already some clues that this reposado would make an excellent rye replacement in a Manhattan, from sweet toffee and vanilla, to cinnamon and a peppery, spicy element. There were other, more unusual notes that would either help or hinder it in this regard, such as chalky lavender, or a rhubarb-like character on the nose. This was our panel’s favourite Manhattan, with gushing tasting notes describing this tequila a ‘perfect match’ that interacted harmoniously with the vermouth, without sacrificing any of its own character. ‘The one!’ summarised one taster.

40% abv, £29.99/70cl, Instil Drinks Co, 020 7449 1685

2 Patrón
Our panellists heaped praise on Patrón Reposado, giving it the highest neat score of the tequilas tasted on the day. It succeeded in striking the right balance between aged and unaged. The nose was bright and fresh, with grapefruit zest, herbs and a floral, candied almond note. Clove and oak notes joined on the palate, lifted by some peppery chilli towards the finish. And, while it made for a perfectly capable Manhattan, much of that unique flavour profile was lost. Some felt the resulting drink was too sweet, while others thought the tequila wasn’t able to stand up to the vermouth.

40% abv, £49.99/70cl, Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands, 01962 762100

3 Olmeca Altos
For many of our tasters, the third-highest scoring reposado here was characterised by peppery and vegetal notes, as well as a distinctive floral element. They praised a gentle, approachable tequila, with sweet agave and vanilla notes on the palate, as well as some rich chocolate, and a black pepper finish. This was unfortunately not enough to shine through in this Manhattan, which lacked much agave character at all, leaving only the vermouths to do all the work.

38% abv, £27.99/70cl, Pernod Ricard UK, 020 8538 4484

Panel comments

Massimiliano Favaretto, El Nivel
‘When I reach for the resposado, I like to go for Old Fashioned- or Manhattan-style drinks. Reposado is right in the middle, flavour-wise. Some have a lot of agave character, whereas some have a lot of oak. I’m still looking for agave character though – I don’t want people saying: “Where’s the tequila?”’

Alex Fitzsimons, consultant
‘The longer-aged repos, with a heavier char in the barrels used, were characterful enough to work with the vermouth and bitters, and made a more intriguing drink than the usual Manhattan. This experiment highlighted tequila’s versatility in most cocktail twists, and nothing was unpalatable – or undrunk by the end!

Rasa Gaidelyte, Ekcovision
‘Reposado, in general, does offer a nice middle ground, showing both dryness and spiciness, depending on the brand. For whisky drinks such as this, I’m always looking for a bigger, spicier tequila. You need to feel the base spirit, and some just died when they were mixed in the cocktail. They just weren’t balanced.’

  • In a spirit-led drink such as the Manhattan, it’s important to choose a reposado that has enough force and character to stand out against the vermouth.
  • Counter-intuitively, the oakiest of reposados weren’t necessarily the best rye replacements in a Manhattan. In fact, the level of sweetness and spiciness from the agave turned out to be more important considerations when it came to this kind of strong, stirred-down drink.

Many thanks to the team at El Nivel for hosting the tasting and for all of their help on the day. Photos by Steve Ryan.

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