TequilaNeat - Flavors Found In Tequila

Because good tequila should be served "neat:"   No ice, no salt, no lime.

Oak casks aging tequila at Rio de Plata in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco

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While there may be 600 distinct flavors in tequila, there are only a handful of natural flavors that human tastebuds can discern. The flavors of earth, smoke, citrus, banana, and black pepper come from distillation of the blue agave plant. Aging the tequila in American oak adds almond, nuts, caramel, and vanilla. Using French oak also adds a dark chocolate flavor. There are a number of tequila makers that age their tequila in used Jack Daniel's or other burbon barrels, sherry, wine or other barrels. Some use these barrels once, some use them over and over. Additionally, barrels can either be used as built, or they can be charred inside to varying degrees. The char adds a smoky, peaty characteristic to the tequila.

You'll see from my tasting notes there are other hints of things that can be picked up. Not just pepper, but differentiation between black, green, and white pepper. Sugar flavors can be of agave, beets, banana, caramel. There's a term called "forest floor" which is a peaty, woody, fern-like taste. Imagine the smell of a redwood forest after a rain. There are other perceptible flavors too: Tobacco, cinnamon, spices, floral notes, vegetable notes, leather, vanilla, oak, etc. Brettanomyces bacteria (also known as "brett") can cause a sweaty socks or "mushroom" aroma and/or flavor. This is not necessarily unpleasant, despite how it sounds. It took me by surprise the first time I ran across it, but I've since learned that it's actually pretty common. When a tequila is distilled in an open-topped manner, brett can get in. While most fermentation is done in open-topped tanks, not all have the bacteria. The intensity of its influence ranges from non-existent to wholly overpowering.
I've even picked up some really odd flavors like latex paint, Windex, "Super elastic bubble plastic," among other things.

Some manufacturers artificially add flavors. While doing so might make the tequilas more interesting, a purist might find the practice to be unethical. In fact, the governing Tequila board in Mexico (The Tequila Regulatory Council, or CRT) used to prohibit the practice. I've heard that the Porfidio brand was shut down for doing just that (though it's now been restarted with a different distiller using the Porfidio name). Apparently the Tequila board is now allowing the addition of flavors up to 1% of the total volume. I heard that Cazadores has lobbied the CRT to be allowed to add flavors. Since Cazadores can do it, they all must be allowed. Being somewhat a purist in some ways, this seems more than a little sad to me. Considering that one barrel is roughly 300 bottles, 1% is roughly three 750ml bottles' worth of flavorings. I personally find that to be appalling. Distillers using additives can still claim "100% agave," as that only refers to the sugars used to make the base tequila. Moises at La Pinata says that even the color of a tequila can indicate whether it's been "enhanced." It takes time for the oak to color the tequila. Yet, how is it that something aged only a few months to a few years can look so deeply yellow?

Augmentations could be one possibility, but another is that the char of the oak barrels could account for it. It imparts other flavors, and is considered "honest" as opposed to simply adding flavorings to the tequila. Some distillers heavily char the barrels for a deep smokiness, some don't char them at all, to give a lighter flavor. Casa Noble performs what they call a "light toast" to the barrels, which adds some smokiness without going too far.
Another possibility is the size of the barrels used. A larger barrel affects its contents less than does a smaller barrel. This is because there's more surface area for the contents with a smaller barrel, and that surface area means more charred oak touches the juice. Use of smaller barrels for the same amount of time will make a product darker, or, in order to get the same amount of aging effect, a smaller barrel needs to be used a shorter amount of time.
I look back on all the tequilas I've tried, and note how many have such a deep color, and wonder which were aged in charred barrels, and which were augmented.
At one time my #1 favorite was Don Julio 1942 (although it's since been surpassed). They changed the bottle, and the flavor also changed. I'd heard that they'd been adding flavors to the original ("blue label" bottle) 1942, and either no longer do it, or use different augmentations with the current version of it. Honestly, I felt cheated when I heard that. Its replacement ("brown bottle") is still excellent, but my tastebuds prefer the original version. I'm torn on how to rank the old one: Do I keep it ranked highly due to taste, or bump it down because it wasn't honest? I've since heard from a Don Julio distributor that flavors hadn't been added. Even their master distiller personally told me that the tequila had not changed at all when going to the new bottle, and that the new cork of the new bottle was solely to account for any flavor differences. It's hard to know what to believe- The "word on the street" is strong. Since I'm not sure of the real story, it keeps its rank. Besides, with so many doing it, can I separate the honest ones from the augmented? It's hard to do, as nobody will EVER admit to having added flavorings.

There are many different kinds of additives. Not all are flavorings, per se. Glycerin is sometimes added to give the product a smooth, slippery, oily, satin kind of "mouth feel" or texture.

While visiting the Tequila area of Jalisco, I heard that augmentations can greatly exceed 1%. While there's frequently a CRT representative (Tequila Regulatory Council) onsite at distillers, it's hard to measure just HOW much goes in. It's been said that some producers actually add up to FIVE percent augmentations! To make matters worse, I've been hearing that many, many tequilas are augmented.

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