The San Francisco World Spirits Competition (SFWSC) is an annual judging of over 3,000 different spirits. The SFWSC is the oldest spirits competition in the US, dating back to 1980, and the second oldest in the world. It has an unrivaled reputation for the quality of its judging, many of whom are among the world’s leading experts on spirits, as well as the scope of the categories of spirits that it judges.
In the case of agave-based spirits, the SFWSC has seven different subcategories. Four of those categories cover Tequila. One category covers mezcal. A second category covers regional agave spirits like Sotol or Bacanora, and the remaining category is a catch all for any other agave-based spirits. The SFWSC has the broadest judging category of agave-based spirits of any major international spirits competition.
The winner of the Best in Category Mezcal is Mezcal Amarás. It was also picked as the Best in Show White Spirit, the highest accolade a white spirit can receive. Amarás is an artisanal mezcal producer based in Oaxaca.
In the ancient Nahuatl language of Meso-America the word mexcalli meant cooked agave. Both Mexico and mezcal were derived from that Nahuatl word.
Historically, any agave-based spirit was a mezcal. In the 19th century, for example, Tequila used to be called Vino de Mescal de Tequila. The name was progressively shortened to Mescal de Tequila and eventually just Tequila.
Following the example of the Tequila industry, mezcal producers have restricted the zone where it can be legally made to only nine Mexican states: Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacán, Puebla and Oaxaca. Producers and their mezcal must be certified by the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM).
Tequila must be made with the piñas of the blue agave, technically Agave tequilana Weber var. azul. In the case of mezcal there are five designated species of agave which are preferred: Agave angustifolia (espadin), A. asperrima (maguey de cerro), A. weberi (maguey de mezcal), A. petatorum (tobala) and A. salmiana (maguey verde o mezcalero). Espadin is increasingly the variety of agave that is being cultivated for mezcal production.
However, any agave with sufficiently high starch content that grows in the designated nine state- mezcal production zone can be used. Amarás, for example, is growing more than 18 different types of agave to use in its mezcal production. More than 200 different species of agave grow in Mexico. Roughly 30 to 50 of them can be used to produce mezcal.
Agave piñas intended for mezcal production are traditionally cooked in open air, in-ground stone ovens. It takes roughly three to five days to cook the agave. Each 10 pounds of piñas require 2.5 pounds of wood to cook. The smoke from the wood fires is absorbed by the piñas and imparts mezcal’s signature smokiness.
Milling is done using a traditional stone wheel, a tahona. Water is then added to the crushed agave and the mixture is fermented using wild yeasts. Amarás uses copper stills for artisanal distillation and clay stills for what it calls “ancestral distillation.” Mezcal is typically unaged, although aged varieties are starting to appear.
According to the official SFWSC tasting notes, the mezcal is described as “a superb non-smoky example of the great complexity, elegance and finesse possible from this exciting and newly popular category.”
The Best Silver/Gold Tequila is the Calle 23, Tequila Blanco Criollo produced by Capacha. The Tequila is manufactured at Tequila Quiote (NOM 1433) in San Francisco de Asís, in the Los Altos region of Jalisco, using small piñas from a variety of blue agave called Criollo. These piñas are about one-quarter to one-half the size of regular piñas and are sometimes referred to as “baby piñas.” The Tequila is bottled at an unusually high 49.3% ABV.
The official SFWSC tasting notes describe the Tequila as having a “cooked agave and herbaceous nose; pepper, baking spice and earth on the palate; rich mouthfeel, long and spicy finish.”
The Best in Category Reposado Tequila is Cierto, Reposado Tequila, Private Collection. Cierto, made by Enrique Fonseca and Sergio Mendoza, 4th and 5th generation agaveros, is one of the most awarded Tequilas in Mexico. At last count, the company has won 278 international awards across its Tequila range. The Fonseca and Mendoza families have been producing Tequila since the 1800s, and are now among the largest growers of agave in the world. The Tequila is crafted at La Tequileña distillery in the heart of the town of Tequila.
The agaves, typically between 7 to 10 years in age, used to produce Cierto are grown in the Jalisco Highlands in the deep, rich, red soil around the town of Atotonilco. After being cooked and crushed, the juice is fermented using a proprietary yeast strain. The spirit is then distilled and matured. Cierto oxygenates the spirit before bottling. This is a common technique among distillers, and is used to make a spirit smoother and more satiny on the palate.
Cierto describes its Reposado Tequila as having a light aroma:
… with hints of butterscotch and cooked agave. The expression is smooth and rich, with flavors that begin with agave and then turn to caramel and finish with a rich cinnamon spice.
El Tesoro, a Tequila produced at the La Alteña distillery in the Jalisco Highlands, won the Best in category awards for both its Añejo and Extra Añejo Tequila. It is one of the few brands that uses exclusively tahona crushed agaves in its production. The distillery, founded in 1937 by Don Felipe Camarena, is still run by his grandson, Master Distiller Carlos Camarena and his family. The El Tesoro brand is marketed and distributed in the US by Bean Suntory.
The El Tesoro Añejo is matured for two to three years in ex-bourbon barrels of America oak. The official SFWSC tasting notes described it as having:
Roasted agave and sweet oak aromatics (vanilla, maple), sweeter notes transition to palate with citrusy floral additions; light herbal finish with hints of vanilla.
The El Tesoro Extra Añejo is aged in ex-bourbon barrels for four to five years. According to Carlos Camarena, the brand honors his father Felipe J Camarena with whom he shares a passion for extra aged Tequilas. According to Camarena, the extra aging adds flavors of chocolate and coffee to the Tequila.
The official SFWSC tasting notes describe the Extra Añejo as having a
rich bouquet of butterscotch, mocha and caramelized agave; dried fruit, cinnamon and herbs on the palate; semisweet chocolatey finish.
The SFWSC also awards Best in Category/Bacanora/Comiteca and Best Other Agave Spirit.
Agave spirits are closely associated with Mexico. Agave, however, grows all over the Americas – from the desert southwest of the US to the Andean highlands of South America.
Already, distillers from Texas to Peru are crafting agave-based spirits from locally grown agave. Aqará, for example, is a Peruvian agave spirit produced from agave grown in the Peruvian highlands. The Square Peg Distillery in Leander, Texas produces an agave-based spirit from locally grown blue agave called TexAgave Blue Agave Spirits. Look for more, non-Mexican based, agave-based spirits to emerge over the next few years.
The Best in Category Sotol/Bacanora/Comiteca is the Izo, Bacanora Silver. Bacanora is an agave-based spirit produced exclusively in the Mexican state of Sonora. It is based on the Agave durangensis. It’s commonly known as Cenizo. Other regionally indigenous varieties of agave that can be used to make Bacanora include Lamparillo, Masparillo, Castilla, Verge, Tepemete and Angustifolia Haw. It typically takes 8 to 12 years, or longer, to produce a marketable size piña.
The Izo distillery draws its agave from highland, desert like areas of Sonora, Durango and Jalisco. The piñas are cooked in open air, stone pit ovens and then crushed. Fermentation lasts three to four days, utilizing naturally occurring yeast. The fermented juice is double distilled using both copper and stainless-steel stills.
The distillery’s official tasting notes describe the Bacanora as robust and aggressive, exhibiting bold smoke with vibrant pops of lime and fresh black pepper and a lingering smoke.
The Best Other Agave Spirit is the Perra Suerte, Raicilla. It’s produced in Jalisco from 100% Agave maximiliana. Raicilla undergoes a much longer fermentation than Tequila. It can last as much as 30 days. In general, it is more fragrant than Tequila, and typically lacks the overt smokiness of mezcal.
It can be cooked in either open pit, stone lined ovens, or traditional, enclosed stone ovens called hornos. Terroir differences can be quite pronounced, depending on the type of agave used. There are also noticeable differences between Raicilla produced in the coastal regions versus that produced inland.
Agave-based spirits is one of the fastest growing spirit categories in the world today. Although the category is dominated by Tequila, other agave-based spirits, both based in Mexico and elsewhere, are becoming increasingly prominent and are an excellent area for the Tequila enthusiast to explore.
Article By Forbes