The Tequila & Mezcal Masters 2018 results

7th February, 2018 by Amy Hopkins

Tequila is the drink of the moment, with big companies buying up smaller brands for billions of dollars. In our latest Masters, we find out if producers in a booming market are cutting corners or if quality is the watchword.

The incredible progress of the Tequila industry over the past five years is undeniable – not only in terms of sales, but with regards to the quality, diversity and reputation of brands available on the market. Simply take a look at some write­-ups of our earlier Tequila Masters blind-tasting competitions, when judges’ discussions largely revolved around premiumisation and the need for the category to shed its cheap image as a shot-­slamming spirit. Of course, Tequila still has a firm place beside a thimble of salt and a wedge of lime, but both educated spirits consumers and bartenders now want to know more about innovation in production, the quality of ingredients, heritage and terroir. The broader Tequila conversation is moving on.

Interest in Tequila’s agave cousin, mezcal, is also booming, as its exotic allure, craft credentials and unusual flavour profiles perfectly complement current drinks trends. And its appeal is set to continue in the long run, judging by the number of acquisitions that have been made in the category over the past year alone. According to predicted Euromonitor figures, Tequila and mezcal will grow joint global volumes by more than 10 million litres in 2017 – a clear sign of the number of new players on the market today.But with such rapid growth, is there a risk that some producers will cut corners and produce a lower-­quality spirit? Will some use a surplus of sweeteners or an over-­influence of wood to force what they see as desirable qualities? Commentators have been sceptical, and, now more than ever, judges in our Tequila & Mezcal Masters were looking to reward the very best examples in the agave category.

Gathering at Cantina Laredo in London to take on the task were two panels of experienced tasters. On the first team was: Carlos Londoño, co-­owner of Café Pacifico; Tony Valdez, bar manager of Café Pacifico; Dean Ginsberg, director of Cantina Laredo; and Nicola Thomson, director of Fifteen71, who were chaired by me, Amy Hopkins, editor of The Spirits Business. On the second panel was: Antony Moss, director of strategic planning at the WSET; Paola Bridge-­Collyns, head of marketing at Tequila & Mezcal Fest; Matthew Neal, cocktail bartender and consultant; and Jon Anders Fjeldsrud, brand champion for Mexico and the Nordics at Amathus Drinks; they were chaired by Melita Kiely, deputy editor of The Spirits Business.

First, both panels examined the 100% agave contingent, and my team started with Premium Blanco, awarding a Silver medal to Luxco’s Exotico Tequila Blanco. Judges praised its balance of hot pepper and agave sweetness. “I liked the lightness and the spiciness,” said Thomson. “It had a saline quality, and reminded me of being by the sea.”

Inching up the price ladder and into Super Premium Blanco, we discovered a Gold medalist in Corralejo Los Arango Blanco. The expression was deemed to have a wonderful balance of “minerality and spiciness”. “I could drink this for hours,” enthused Londoño. “It could suit both a broader market and someone who is looking for something more complex.”

ROSE PETALS

We then turned our attention to the Ultra Premium Blanco entrants, and to our delight, we discovered the first Master medal of the day: Herradura Plata, which was praised for its “many layers”. “I thought this was incredibly well balanced,” said Thomson, who likened the expression’s flavour to a “cherry brioche”. Ginsberg said: “I found this unique, with notes of rose petals and cooked agave.”

The round yielded a further two Golds and three Silvers. Gold medallist Gran Reserva de Don Alberto Joven was praised for its “green apple nose” and “oily texture”, while judges also enjoyed the unusual “brine-­like nose” of fellow Gold recipient UWA Tequila Blanco.

Looking back on the Blanco entries, judges said they were impressed by the diversity of flavour profiles on display.

“This was a very versatile representation,” observed Thomson. “Producers are clearly trying to play with different methods of production, providing an array of flavour profiles. I was really impressed with the wide diversity.” Londoño added: “Blanco is the closest you can get to agave in its purest form, and it lets me go back to why I love Tequila.”

Over on Kiely’s team, judges tackled the Premium Reposado round, tasting Tequilas that have been rested in oak for more than two months, but less than a year. They awarded four Silver medals, to Rooster Rojo Tequila Reposado, Cazcabel Reposado, Tequila Blu and Exotico Tequila Reposado.

They then moved on to Super Premium Reposado and discovered two entrants worthy of Gold in Olmeca Altos Reposado and KAH Reposado. “I found cooked agave, and it has a silky, clean smell with a floral hint – it had a little bit of everything,” Bridge-­Collyns said of the Altos expression. Neal, meanwhile, enjoyed KAH’s “vanilla nose” and “chilli spice finish”.

The high standard continued in the Ultra Premium Reposado leg, where Cenote Reposado walked away with the Gold accolade. Neal noted that the expression had a “balanced green and woody flavour”, while others described it as “very pleasant” and “welcoming”.

Of the total Reposado offering, Moss said: “Within this category, the thing that has most opportunity to be explored is the different characters of agave with a gentle frame of oak, but not oak dominant.” Kiely said that while some flights were a “mixed bag” in terms of quality, the category showed that there are “good, solid reposados for consumers to choose at different price points”.

FRESHNESS, CLEANNESS

In the añejo section of the competition we judged Tequilas aged for at least a year, but less than three years. The round got off to a solid start with one Gold and two Silvers for the Premium Añejo entrants. For Londoño, Gold medalist Olmeca Altos Añejo had a “Christmas pudding character” that was offset by a “freshness and cleanness”. Thomson added: “It’s a fine example of what this category is.”

As we pushed into pricier terrain, my panel discovered the second Master expression of the day in the Super Premium Añejo category: Herradura Añejo. Ginsberg said: “It felt very natural, like it has been made with very pure processes”, while Londoño detected notes of “ginger, white chocolate and mandarin peel”, adding that the expression had an “amazing dry finish”. In the same flight, “buttery and biscuity” KAH Añejo swiped Gold.

Overall, judges found that the best examples of the añejo category were those that balanced rich oaky notes with a fresh agave flavour, showing clever use of wood that didn’t overpower the base ingredient. “A stunning añejo starts with a stunning blanco,” observed Neal, as Kiely’s panel tackled the Ultra Premium Añejo flight. “Wood shouldn’t be used to hide anything; instead it should accentuate the raw flavours of Tequila.” Such skill was evident in the flight, where “soft and elegant” Cenote Añejo and “woody and dry” Tequila Corralejo 99,000 Horas walked away with Gold accolades.

My panel, meanwhile, awarded two Gold medals to Sierra Milenario Tequila Extra Añejo and Gran Reserva de Don Alberto Extra Añejo in the Ultra Premium Extra Añejo flight, where Tequilas aged in oak for at least three years were assessed. “I liked the barbecued carrot flavour of this Tequila,” Thomson said of the Sierra expression. “I also got some notes of dried sweetcorn husk, and I thought the acidity was really balanced.” The Don Alberto entrant was praised for its flavour of “hazelnuts, praline, dark chocolate, nutmeg and cinnamon”.

Mixto Tequilas – those that are not made with 100% agave – have historically had a bad reputation because of their association with shots­-slamming students. However, well-crafted expressions have done wonders for Tequila’s growing prevalence in the cocktail world. “There are loads of good mixtos, but it’s cheaper Tequila, and when you make cheap Tequila you tend to add sugar to it,” said Anders Fjeldsrud.

Kiely’s panel searched for stand­out examples of the category, starting with the Mixto Blanco round, where “fruity” Big Moustache and “mineral” Sierra Silver Tequila were awarded Silver. In the Mixto Reposado and Mixto Añejo rounds, Sierra Reposado Tequila and Olmeca Extra Aged were also awarded Silver.

(L­R): Tony Valdez, Paola Bridge­Collyns, Antony Moss, Dean Ginsberg, Amy Hopkins, Nicola Thomson, Melita Kiely, Jon Anders Fjeldsrud and Matthew Neal. Not pictured: Carlos Londoño

(L­-R): Tony Valdez, Paola Bridge­Collyns, Antony Moss, Dean Ginsberg, Amy Hopkins, Nicola Thomson, Melita Kiely, Jon Anders Fjeldsrud and Matthew Neal. Not pictured: Carlos Londoño

Looking across the Mixto entrants, Kiely noted that producers could be bolder when it comes to flavour. “I feel like this category tried to mask the Tequila flavour by adding sweetness, and too much at times,” she said. “I don’t think mixto producers should be scared of allowing more of the agave flavours to come through and create bolder Tequila flavours.” Kiely’s team then turned their attention to Tequila’s trendy agave cousin: mezcal. Judges were delighted to discovered another Master­-worthy recipient in Pensador Mezcal, which was assessed in the Mezcal Blanco round. Moss loved the entrant’s “gorgeous multi-­layered finish”. He said: “There’s smoothness and smokiness present, but there’s so much other complexity and balance.” In the same flight, “wild white blanco” Lajita Mezcal Blanco 100% Agave was awarded Gold, and its stablemate, Lajita Mezcal Reposado 100% Agave also bagged Gold in the Mezcal Reposado flight.

Moss summed up the judges’ excitement for the burgeoning mezcal category: “When smokiness is balanced with agave, the possibility of making something exquisite is huge. The astonishing layered complexity that’s possible from that raw material makes mezcal very special in the spirits world.”

TEQUILA SHINES THROUGH

To round off the day’s tasting, my panel assessed the Flavoured Tequila contingent, which also included Tequila liqueurs. Cazcabel Coffee and El Diezmo Chocolate both secured Gold. “The best ones we tasted were the ones that let the Tequila shine through,” Ginsberg said of the flight.

While some categories were stronger than others, both panels were largely impressed by the breadth of flavours on display throughout the competition. “This year’s Masters proved that Tequila is anything but boring,” concluded Kiely. “This is an incredibly versatile category that still has huge scope to innovate and expand. The majority of Tequilas we tasted today were flavoursome, well balanced and sure to sate any Tequila­-lover’s palate. And the smoky complexity we uncovered in today’s mezcal entrants proves just why this small­-yet-dynamic category is so hyped in the industry. It’s an exciting one to watch.”

Click through the following pages for the full list of medal winners in this year’s The Tequila & Mezcal Masters 2018.

Leave a Reply