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Trophy tequilas: six to seek out

Want to explore one of the fastest growing spirits categories in the world? Look no further than super-premium tequila – if your wallet can withstand the hit.

There’s no denying it. Tequila is absolutely on fire right now. In fact, the spirit, which probably gave a great deal of us all our first proper hangover (it certainly caused mine), has well and truly become the super-premium drink of choice. That’s if the numbers coming out of the US – where at least 75% of all tequila sales occur – are to be believed.

The NABCA (National Alcohol Beverage Control Association) provides a detailed analysis of the spirits market in the US – and is seen as the bellwether for the rest of the global industry. It reported a hugely positive set of results for the whole tequila category last year, which grew 10.5% in volume. Furthermore, sales by value were up 15.5%, demonstrating an even better state of affairs for the ‘super-premium’ sector.

Scroll down to see six top-flight tequilas to try

This sector generally comprises longer-aged (extra añejo), limited edition and small batch releases, or one-off cask experiments. But what makes a great super-premium tequila? It’s a question I put to some of the sharpest minds in the spirits business recently.

‘There has always been a super-premium category, led by Don Julio/Patrón and Jose Cuervo,’ points out Dawn Davies MW, buying director for online spirits supremos Speciality Drinks. ‘However, this sector has massively opened up and now includes many more brands.’

‘When I’m looking for a super-premium tequila, I’m focusing on three main points,’ explains Maria Modafferi, former bartender and now a tequila educator and ambassador for Proximo Spirits, owner of Jose Cuervo and 1800.

‘The history of the brand is crucial. Tradition influences the production process, and a brand with long history has the experience to provide great tequilas, from entry level to the super-premium variants. Next, consider the raw materials used: a super-premium tequila must be made from the juiciest and sweetest agave plants. This has a big impact on production in terms of quantity, but will increase the quality.

‘Finally, the refinement process. A double-ageing in different casks adds complexity to the liquid and a spectacular combination of flavour.’

A matter of age

The ultra-exclusive Clase Azul Ultra Extra Añejo

In tequila, there tends to be more emphasis on raw materials – namely Weber blue agave. Its provenance, heritage and also growing time (it usually takes about seven to 10 years for a plant to become fully mature) are seen as the indicators of quality. That’s to say, rather than the length of time the spirit has spent in the cask, which, in the case of an extra añejo, is usually three to five years. Is this lack of maturity an obstacle for fans of other dark spirits?

‘In terms of flavour profile, balance and complexity, provenance and production are paramount in tequila,’ says Davies, ‘especially when it comes to ageing. The quality of the oak, the understanding of the cask and its interaction with the liquid are key to producing a balanced product. Too often a distilled spirit is seen as “better when it is older”.’

The wonder of wood

On the subject of ageing, a recent area of innovation has been to integrate experimental or unusual cask finishes into super-premium tequila expressions. When, in single malt whisky or rum, an oak cask contributes as much as 70% of the flavour of the finished spirit, it’s no surprise that tequila producers are exploring some fascinating crossovers in this department. Especially given that Mexico’s hotter climate means maturation time is significantly shorter than, say, Scotland.

In 2021, El Tesoro tequila released an añejo expression (by law, añejo tequilas must be aged at least one year, but are often aged for up to three years), finished in ex-Laphroaig Islay malt whisky casks, its rich smokiness bringing an additional layer of complexity. Hot on its heels were Tequila Partida – ‘matured in ex-single malt Sherry oak casks’ – and Casa Dragones, a reposado (aged for two to 12 months), which is believed to be the first tequila matured in Mizunara oak casks, more commonly used to produce top Japanese whisky.

Beauty show

Carlos Camarena

Expansion in the super-premium tequila category has led a number of producers to start using the kind of luxury cues more commonly used in the worlds of single malt Scotch and Cognac. ‘Tequila is only just starting to jump on the packaging bandwagon,’ comments Davies, ‘with more people buying with their eyes, not only with their palates.’

Perhaps the most extreme example out there, Patrón recently collaborated with French crystal producer extraordinaire Lalique to produce the decanter for its Serie 3 release. Limited to just 299 units globally, it’s priced at a cool $7,500 if you fancy smashing some serious cash.

Although your tequila drinking experience may be enhanced by the vessel it is served from, that should never overshadow the sheer thrill of discovering the array of complex flavours in this highly engaging category.

For Denis Broci, bars manager at the world-famous Claridge’s hotel, now is the time to start exploring. ‘If you have little or no knowledge of spirits, then many “mainstream” tequila brands actually offer real value for money in comparison with other spirits categories,’ he points out.

‘I tend to either drink blanco [silver or unaged tequila] or extra añejo neat, depending on the occasion. Otherwise, the Paloma cocktail* is a super-simple and delicious drink that you can experiment with, to prepare at home or with a group of friends.’ (*In a Collins glass – a salt rim is optional, as you prefer – with ice, combine good blanco or reposado tequila with pink grapefruit juice, lime juice and agave syrup, then top with a grapefruit soda.)

So if, like me, your previous experiences of tequila weren’t the best introduction to the spirit, it might just be worth reconsidering how far the category has come – and what a wonderfully complex and rewarding spirit it is today.

‘Los seis supremos’: six top-range tequilas to seek out

Clase Azul Ultra Extra Añejo

One of the world’s most exclusive tequilas, Clase Azul sets the benchmark for striking packaging, alongside an alluring liquid. Only 100 bottles are produced each year, the tequila being matured for two years in American whiskey casks then three years in Sherry casks for a rich, spicy and complex flavour. Alcohol 40%

Don Fulano Imperial 5 Year Old Extra Añejo

Produced by the legendary Fonseca family, owners of the La Tequileña distillery in Jalisco, this has been aged for five years (in that time also finished in oloroso Sherry casks), making it one of the older extra añejos out there. Rich, powerful and full of dried fruit and swathes of vanilla. Alc 40%

Gran Patrón Piedra Extra Añejo

Patrón has been at the forefront of the premium tequila revolution and this extra añejo, made from 100% blue Weber agave, has been aged for three years in a combination of American and French oak casks. Alc 40%

Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia Extra Añejo

Released annually in limited quantities, this flagship from the well-known Jose Cuervo was one of the first extra añejo tequilas to turn connoisseurs’ heads. Think rich, fresh fruit, butter, caramel and a distinct herbaceous undertone. Alc 38%

Tapatio Excelencia Gran Reserva Extra Añejo

A masterpiece of tequila making from the ‘godfather’ of agave, Carlos Camarena, this extra añejo is rich and buttery, with a wonderful underlying spiced fruitiness, which comes from ageing in new French oak casks. Alc 40%

1800 Cristalino Añejo

An añejo-style tequila matured in American and French oak and finished in Port casks for a further six months, before being filtered to remove its colour. Despite being clear,
it retains a wonderfully smooth, unctuous mouth feel and vibrancy. Alc 35%

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