Tequila, North America’s oldest spirit, traces its roots all the way back to the 16th century, when indigenous people began producing a fermented beverage from the agave plant known as pulque. After the Spanish conquistadors arrived, they started distilling the agave, giving birth to the modernized tequila we all know and love today. But despite its long-standing history, the tequila industry is more relevant than ever, and still finding new ways to innovate—namely with a brand new expression that’s on track to take the world by storm.
Of course the most common categories available today include blanco (clear, unaged, and bottled immediately after fermentation); reposado (“rested” after being aged for more than two months, but less than 12 in oak barrels); añejo (aged between one and three years in small oak barrels); and extra añejo (which must be aged at least three years). Each brings something unique to the table, with blanco typically expressing bolder up-front characteristics and reposado and añejo varieties providing a smoother, more complex palate due to the wood, which infuses flavors while toning down harshness.
But now, an emerging category has officially entered the space, and it’s reenergizing the industry. It’s called cristalino, and if you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed it popping up at your favorite bars, restaurants, and liquor stores across North America.
So what exactly is cristalino tequila, and how does it differ from its predecessors?
“Quite simply, it’s an añejo presented in a clear format,” says Trent Fraser, president and CEO of Volcan De Mi Tierra.
After the aging process is complete, cristalino tequilas carefully go through a filtration process, typically using charcoal’s cleansing properties. This extra step removes the naturally occurring golden-brown hues, but protects the rich flavors imparted from the months to years spent barrel aging. The result is a nearly crystal clear spirit that presents all of the complex, herbaceous notes of the highest-quality tequilas, but extracts some of the stronger, woodier notes.
Consider it a Goldilocks compromise between blanco and añejo that blends the best of both worlds into one bottle.
“Not all consumers like the idea of drinking a dark-brown spirit,” said Fraser. “Cristalino however, is able to introduce them to añejo tequila in a clever and innovative way to overcome this obstacle, because they’re open to trialing a clear liquid and find they actually enjoy the rich chocolate, vanilla, and caramel flavors of an añejo.”
Although the burgeoning expression has been gaining momentum in Mexico for the past couple of years, cristalino is still widely flying under the radar north of the border. Don Julio was the first label to commercially produce a clear añejo in commemoration of the brand’s 70th anniversary. It became a staple in their lineup and is still on the market today. Maestro Doble followed suit, releasing Diamante; a smooth blend of double-distilled reposado, añejo, and extra añejo tequila. And Herradura joined in shortly after, launching their version of cristalino called Herradura Ultra, using añejo and extra añejo tequila.
Volcan De Mi Tierra, introduced last year, is one of the most buzzed about newcomers because of its artisanal approach, which differentiates their cristalino from its juggernaut competitors. The brand is housed within the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy family of brands, which includes iconic names like Dom Pérignon, Glenmorangie, and Belvedere vodka. Volcan De Mi Tierra marks the conglomerate’s first venture into the tequila space, and was conceptualized as a partnership with Don Juan Gallardo, a Mexican businessman with deep ties in the Tequila region.
Their small distillery is nestled at the base of Volcan Tequila (or Tequila Volcano) in the lowlands of Jalisco, Mexico—an area especially revered for their premium blue agave. The volcano erupted approximately 200,000 years ago, infusing the soil with a rich combination of ash and minerals, like basalt and iron. A team of local jimadores, or agave harvesters, uses plants from both the high and lowlands, lending a multifaceted combination of flavors (unlike most tequila producers who harvest blue agave solely from the highlands).
Every step in the tequila production takes place on-site at their private facility. They slow-roast the agave piñas for more than 30 hours; crush the piñas with a massive volcanic stone; go through the meticulous distillation process; age the spirit in Hennessy and Glenmorangie barrels; complete filtration; and even bottle and hand-label the end result.
Save the salt and lime—this tequila is best served neat or poured over a single large ice cube.
Needless to say, cristalino is a far cry from the dirt-cheap shots you may (or may not) remember from your college years. It’s slowly carving out its rightful place in the ever-evolving world of spirits—one that deserves more respect than simply being mixed into your next batch of margaritas.
So for the adventurous imbibers who love keeping up with industry trends to the people who really don’t consider themselves tequila drinkers, cristalino is a clear choice for anybody looking to mix things up this holiday season.