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Fortaleza is made by fifth-generation tequilero Guillermo Sauza (yes, that Sauza, though the family sold off its eponymous brand decades ago), who in the 1990s sought to re-create the tequila his great-great-grandfather made a century before. The agave is crushed by a traditional tahona (or stone wheel), fermented in small wooden vats, and distilled in tiny copper-pot stills for maximum quality control. Notably, Fortaleza is a “lowlands” tequila, which is made from agave that takes longer to ripen than highlands versions and typically has a sweeter flavor. Sure enough, Fortaleza is silky smooth, coming on sweet and a little spicy – like coconut candy with a touch of cinnamon – but leaves you with a briny finish, almost like a salted glass rim. Most of our other picks in this roundup are of the highlands variety, but Fortaleza is, to us, perfection – especially with a dash of lime on the side.
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Casa Noble makes a range of tasty handcrafted (and certified organic) lowlands tequilas. All are superb, but Casa Noble’s limited-production Jóven recently captured the attention of our tastebuds. Bottled at 102 proof for a fuller flavor, it sits in oak for just six weeks, which would technically make it a blanco, but it’s distinct from Casa Noble’s no-oak blanco, which it calls Crystal (and is itself a powerfully rustic, almost salty spirit). As a result, it has a richness and roundness that suggests dark chocolate, without the cloying vanilla and butter flavors that oak can impart.
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Aside from excellent agave sourcing, one of the keys to the clean, rustic flavor of Siete Leguas is the complex process used to produce the liquor – some of the agave hearts are crushed using the ancient donkey-pulled tahonas or stone-wheel mills, some using modern sugar cane shredders. The secret is the mix, and it varies from batch to batch, depending on any number of factors. The result is wildly complex: You might smell or taste spearmint, pine, earth, and cinnamon – but it’s always smooth and perfectly balanced.
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Carlos Camarena comes from a venerable family of the tequila trade that has been in the business since the 1800s. He distills many top-shelf tequilas, but Tapatio Añejo, a 75-year-old Mexican brand only recently available in the United States, is our favorite. In crafting Tapatio, Camarena allows the piñas, or sugar-rich hearts, to ferment slowly along with the bagazo, or residual pulp, and then lets the finished blanco sit in steel tanks for six months. The result is a distinctive tequila that is full-bodied and spicy. The company’s recently introduced Tapatio Blanco 110 (110 proof) is also surprisingly sippable, with a big floral aroma and herbal flavors that’s perfect for classic cocktails like the margarita.
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Herradura has continuously produced tequila since 1870, and the roughly 25 million agaves it maintains are propagated from the original plants of that era. More than any other huge-scale producer, Herradura has found a way, though, to maintain quality while scaling up. (Way, way up – its fermentation tanks hold more than a million gallons.) Rather than rely on commercial yeasts to hasten fermentation, the company uses only naturally occurring airborne yeasts and lets the juice ferment for up to a week. The hacienda has a knack for aging: Herradura introduced the reposado category in 1974, and it remains one of the best examples of the style, with classic vanilla and butterscotch elements that come from a long (for reposado) 11 months in American oak. Its Silver spends 45 days in oak, giving it a bit of color and smoothness, though without overpowering the base agave flavor.
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Casa Dragones Tequila Joven
Headed by Bertha González Nieves – the first woman afforded Maestra Tequilera status by the Mexican government – Casa Dragones Tequila Joven clearly isn’t afraid of breaking with convention. So unlike most of our favorite brands, which embrace every aspect of traditional production in all its primitive charm, the company developed an elaborate and modern multiple-distillation process to eliminate impurities and harsh flavors. It then added a tiny bit of extra-añejo for complexity and put it in handblown bottles with hand-numbered, signed labels – all to reiterate that this tequila is meant to be the premium to end all premiums. A careful savor – at this price you’d better savor it – uncovers a stunning array of aromas and flavors, and all the softness that Casa Dragones’s process promises.
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Master sommelier Richard Betts‘s first foray into agave distillation was the acclaimed Sombra mezcal, which helps explain his quest for a tequila that evoked a similarly pre-industrialized spirit. As with many of our favorite tequilas, Astral roasts its sugar-rich agave hearts in traditional stone ovens and uses only wild yeasts, but two key differences in its production process stand out. The first is that its agaves are grown on mountainous slopes (the vast majority are farmed on flats) to give them more character from having to work harder to grow. Secondly, after the roasted piñas are crushed, the juice is fermented with the bagazo (the residual pulp) – most producers ferment the juice only – which explains Astral’s especially pungent aromas and flavors. Astral is distilled to 92 proof, which Betts calls “a more honest proof,” and, for now, hasn’t released any aged bottles.
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A partnership between famed tequilero Carlos Camarena (of Tequila Tapatio, also on our list) and Tomas Estes, dubbed Europe’s “ambassador of Tequila” by the government of Jalisco, Ocho is the rare brand that asserts the importance of terroir. The idea is that, as with wine, the unique natural characteristics of different ranchos in the same general area produce tequilas with very different flavor profiles. Thus, each bottling (or so-called vintage) features agaves sourced from a different rancho, with the precise location and year of manufacture noted on each bottle. The reposado and añejo are aged in barrels that have already held several tequila batches, to minimize the oak’s effects.
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Gran Patrón Platinum
It’s tempting to pooh-pooh Patrón, but damned if its triple-distilled blanco doesn’t warm our hearts. It’s only briefly barreled in oak, so rather than going for sweet vanilla flavors, Patrón steered its Platinum top-shelfer toward freshness. It’s smooth almost to the point of disappearing but somehow comes up with a long spicy finish – think of that hint of perfume left behind as a woman exits a room. The price might be a little hard to swallow, but few tequilas go down as easily—especially when served in an expertly crafted glass.
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123 Organic Tequila (Uno Dos Tres)
David Ravandi began planning his vision for 123 in the nineties. So he planted, and then waited – agaves can take more than 10 years to mature, after all, so this is no small feat. The results are certified organic, which gives “a more delicate and refined flavor profile and a cleaner finish,” according to Ravandi, and it doesn’t use commercial yeasts in the fermentation process, either. (As you might expect, the packaging comes from all recycled materials as well.) Ravandi’s attention to authentic, small-scale production results in a complexity that skews more citrus and spice than sweet.
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Siembra Azul‘s founder, David Suro-Piñera, is committed to transparency in tequila production, and so his bottles’ labels detail every aspect of the production process, which begins in the iron-rich soil of the Jalisco highlands. His take on tequila also offers some interesting distinctions: It’s only made in winter, when a slower fermentation produces more complex flavors. And during fermentation, Suro-Piñera says that music by Mozart and Vivaldi is played continuously “to reduce environmental stress” while the yeasts work their magic on the open vats of bubbling juice. Whatever the reasons, the process works, resulting in a tequila that is sweet and floral, extremely smooth, with almost an aged quality to it.
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Don Julio 1942
Don Julio makes an añejo with the color stripped out (see Qui) and an extra-añejo it calls Real, but the bottle we fall hardest for is this two-and-a-half-year-old near extra-añejo. By not giving over to the amber depths of most extra-añejos, the 1942 plays like a fine cognac, with fiery spice balanced by notes of salted caramel and creamy tropical fruit. Not to mention, nobody will miss this bottle on a bar cart.
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Milagro Select Barrel Reserve Silver
Milagro makes ultra-smooth, triple-distilled tequilas, and though it opts for modern, spiffy bottles, its product remains steeped in traditional production methods. Its blanco is one of our top choices for use in margaritas, but we recommend a step up to this special stash (a steal compared with similar offerings from other top-shelf producers), which spends a month in French oak, said to impart spicier and less vanilla-like flavors than American oak does. The results walk the sweeter side of blanco – the spice is clove, not jalapeño – but with a sharp, tangy edge.
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What could have been a mere marketing gimmick – a platinum extra-añejo? – turns out be a worthy innovation for Qui. The company’s debut product ages an extra-añejo, but then redistills it and filters it nine times. This thorough process accentuates smoothness while somehow still retaining the character provided by the oak. It might be our imagination, but the vanilla, butterscotch, and honey qualities feel bright and fresh – and this platinum is great both to sip or added to a light mixed drink.
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Pueblo Viejo has been in the game since 1886 and has better things to do than hire graphic designers or fancy glassblowers. Its product is classic highland tequila: fruity, clean, citrusy, and floral. Its extra-añejo, under the name San Matías Gran Reserve, is aged three years in French oak, and, at veritable well-spirit prices, is among the best bargains we’ve seen.
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Kah’s distinctive, handpainted Day of the Dead skull bottles are collectibles in their own right, but we are tantalized by the sweet caramel flavors they hold. Amazingly, this reposado is distilled at a whopping 110 proof – the maximum allowed by U.S. law – yet somehow goes down as smoothly as Kah’s ultra-sexy, coffee-and-cigarettes-evoking añejo, along with an 80-proof blanco. That blanco, which showcases the sweetness of long-roasted ripe agave, followed by hints of sweet winter spices, makes for a great margarita that barely needs a sweetener.
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Casamigos is one of the few distillers we’ve encountered that takes advantage of its legal right to age its blanco up to two months and still call it blanco. So while the Casamigos Blanco may pour clear, it reveals the influence of oak right away, with pronounced vanilla and cocoa aromas and flavors. Generally, we lean toward more rustic tequilas, but fans of ultra-smoothness will go nuts for its clean, rich flavor and creamy texture – which, besides the oak, may result from the distiller slow-cooking the piñas (the sugar-rich heart of the agaves) for three days instead of the typical 36 hours or less.
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Cuervo Reserva de la Familia
The Cuervo family has been in the tequila game since 1795, and to celebrate the company’s bicentennial, it created a limited “family reserve.” For this special offering, the choicest agaves are distilled and tucked away for at least three years in the family’s private cellar. Then, before being bottled (each one is numbered and dated), every batch is tested by a Cuervo family member. Each new vintage delivers a different and distinct flavor, but you can always count on a velvet texture and deep, masculine flavors – think leather, black licorice, and roasted nuts.
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