A FORENSIC TASTING OF TEQUILA WITH THE CREATOR OF CASA NOBLE
by Andrew Chalk
I met Jose “Pepe” Hermosillo, founder of Casa Noble Tequila, for lunch recently. He founded Casa Noble in 1993 (first sales in 1997) although his family had founded and owned other tequila distilleries for seven generations. Constellation Brands, looking to expand its presence in spirits, came shopping for a tequila producer a decade later. That led to the purchase of Casa Noble in 2014. Far from riding off into sunset, Pepe stayed on as the CEO of the Mexican operations, and kept up an ambassadorial role as well.
I asked him, given that he was doing what he was doing before, why sell? “Resources”, was his reply. The United States was Casa Noble’s largest market by far (75% prior to the acquisition, 85% now). Constellation could put more salespeople behind the brand than Casa Noble alone could ever hope to do. It could employ a fleet of ‘brand ambassadors’ to work with bartenders and beverage managers on training and customized programs. It could afford a regular supply of the best French Tronçais oak barrels to age Casa Noble before release. Given that French oak ageing (90% of cases in 100% new oak) was one of the USPs of Casa Noble, that was important.
The French oak ageing is the best known specialty of Casa Noble, but it is by no means the only difference. The brand also uses coconut-charcoal filtering. Triple, not double, distillation in pot stills. And a break with the traditional bottle and label design. Pepe described when he started the brand. He was in his 20s and self-certified indestructible. At that time most tequila in the market was mixto (51% blue agave/49% other sugars), not the 100% blue agave expected today. Tequila was an anonymous base for margaritas. It took a certain cojones to make what he was making, and then target the U.S. as the primary market.
Over time, Casa Noble acquired a following in the super-premium tequila category. That record made Pepe the ideal person to take me through a tasting of tequila with the forensic detail that I had done many times for wines. Here is the regimen:
Step 1: Foreplay: Prepare The Palate
With the first tequila to be tasted...
1) Place a little on the lips and run them together;
2) Put a little on the palate and swish;
3) Place a little on top of the tongue and let it slide down the throat;
4) Take a little water (optional);
This eliminates other odor/flavor components from the mouth and tongue.
Step 2: Appearance
Clarity. With tequila it should be clear. It shows, in Pepe’s words “we have treated the tequila well” ;
Color: A range is possible. Note, with blanco (aka silver or plata) a green tinge is acceptable;
Body: Observe the weight of the liquid in the glass. Also, the persistence of the ‘legs’ (also called ‘tears’) on the glass. These are caused by ethanol and glycerol (the most abundant byproduct of yeast fermentation after ethanol and carbon dioxide), the alcohols in the spirit;
Step 3: The Nose
The most important step in the tasting process. Guadalajara-based sommelier Ana Maria Romero has identified 600 aromas in tequila.
Sniff without swirling. Write down the aromas and bouquet components you detect;
Swirl vigorously and then sniff. Agitation releases some of the less volatile components of the spirit. They are typically more subtle and delicate than those spontaneously released;
Step 4: Taste
Hold a little in the mouth and swish it around. Aromas and flavors are released. They evolve over a period of many seconds in the mouth;
Step 5: Swallow
Swallow a little to examine the finish, its essences and its heat.
With these steps down we tasted through a selection of Casa Noble tequilas.
Blanco: No ageing. Appearance: Clear with a hint of green. Viscosity is clearly greater than water.
Reposado: Aged 364 days (the maximum permitted for the category) so that the congeners can develop. The spirit can acquire French oak character. A blend of multiple barrel sizes.
The appearance is shiny bright. The color straw gold;
The body is thicker than the body of the blanco;
The complex nose has orange peel, nuts, vanilla, baking spices, lemon grass.
Reposado. Single Barrel: Aged in Troncais oak. Created in 2005-2006 unique to a single barrel. Single Barrel is a term of art. One barrel. 364 days. Many layers, delicate, subtle sweet aromas: caramel, flowers, berries. Difference from blend (above), more closed in -- Pepe thinks this is a facet of that single barrel. Tears hardly move on the glass.
Extra Añejo. Single Barrel: One barrel made. Aged 5 years in that barrel. Color: Orange tint from French oak (American oak would give a more golden tint as new American oak gives a deeper color). However, a lot of distillers use neutral American oak, making it more just a container, tending to lessen the oak character. Nose: Hand cream bouquet (Nivea!). Lot of spices. On the palate it is like licking the barrel. Flavor of concentrated rind of oranges.
Joven: 102 degrees proof. Six weeks ageing in oak. Single barrel (48 cases). Nose: Spicy, pepper. Add a drop of water. Swirl. Immediate release of aromas. Flower notes and fruit notes explode (don't do this with the añejo as it is already at 40% alcohol). Not burning. Just a little hot. Pepe considers that Joven is good for cocktails. Especially fruit/citrus/ginger base. Or classics: Old fashioned, Negroni, etc. using Tequila in lieu of the usual alcohol base.
I used to think ageing was just about the type and age of oak and the length of time in barrel. However there are two other important considerations. Pepe uses three sizes of oak barrel: 225L, 300L, and 114L. Think of the 225L barrels (Bordeaux barriques, and ubiquitous in California) establishing the base character. The large 300L barrels (an Australian Hogshead) offer a more delicate oak effect, and the small 114L barrels (a Burgundy, Côte d’Or, Feuilette) a more intensely oaky character. In each case it comes down to the surface to volume ratio changing inversely to the barrel size. This size option adds an extra complexity to the ageing decision. Not only can the distiller choose the length of ageing, but also the blend of barrel sizes.
Second, how is the age of a spirit arrived at? I used to think that you racked the spirit into a barrel and then started the ageing clock. However, with tequila, while that option can be used, blending can be used. For example, an añejo can be created with a blend of one half of a six-month old tequila, and one half of a one and half year old tequila. Pepe points out that the organoleptic results are not the same with blending versus ageing, but the tequila regulatory body, the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT) does not recognize a difference.
A final point on ageing. The oldest tequila sold by Casa Noble is aged 8 years (they have a 9-year old tequila sold only at the distillery). The issue is not a time limit on ageings effects, but the effect of heat on the barrels. The large temperature variation causes daily expansion and contraction of the wooden barrel staves resulting in product loss (greedy angels). Maybe someone could store some barrels in a whisky cellar on Islay for a decade (or more) to test the effect of long ageing.
Sustainability is important to Casa Noble and, in this respect, they have Kosher certification to confirm that they only have agave and water in their tequila, and ‘Clean Industry Certification’ from the Mexican government.
There is a lot more to to the nose and palate of tequila than many people give credit for. Consider the structured approach above the next time you explore a ‘sipping’ tequila.