Did you know Jim Beam makes a tequila? Neither did I, until I started researching Hornitos. But this isn’t some side project from a big distilling company — this is a brand that has a legitimate history and lineage, with a perspective and story of its own to tell.
Don Cenobio Sauza was born in 1842 in Jalisco, Mexico. The third child of a farming family, in 1858 he decided to strike out on his own and found a job working at the Jose Cuervo distillery where he learned the art and the science of tequila distillation and production.
Don Cenobio would eventually use what he had learned to open his own business exporting wine and spirits, including the tequila of his former employer. Not long after going into business, he decided to expand into production as well and, in 1873, he leased a distillery to make his own brand of spirits. He later purchased La Antigua Cruz distillery (founded in 1805, the oldest registered tequila distillery in Mexico) and renamed it to La Perseverancia. At the same time, he became the first business to export tequila to the United States. It was reportedly Don Cenobio who made the decision that blue agave was the superior variety of plant for making tequila.
The Sauza tequila distilling business would pass through the family from father to son over the next two generations, expanding their operations and becoming one of the biggest tequila distillers in the world. That third generation, Don Francisco Javier Sauza, led the campaign in the 1970’s to have tequila recognized and protected as a regional appellation just like French Champagne or Tennessee Whiskey.
Don Francisco would also create a number of sub-brands of his tequila, one of which was founded in the 1950’s and called Hornitos. Translated as “little ovens”, the name is an allusion to the small brick ovens where the blue agave plants are roasted as the first part of the distillation process.
With the booming popularity of tequila and other clear spirits in the 1970’s, the Sauza family partnered with another Mexican company to expand production and distribution of their spirits. That partnership would eventually lead to a complete purchase of the family business in 1988, and through a series of changes in ownership the products eventually were purchased by Beam Suntory in 2011.
The spirits produced by the Sauza family of brands are still distilled at the La Perseverancia distillery to this day.
- Learn More: What Is Tequila?
The Hornitos brand of tequila is produced pretty much identically to the way Sauza makes their house brand original version.
The tequila starts with a crop of 100% blue agave plants, the same variety of plants that founder Don Cenobio decided were the superior source for tequila all those years ago. The plants are mechanically shredded and then a diffuser separates the water and agave sugars from the plant material. This is very different from the typical process, where the plants are first roasted (usually whole) and then crushed to extract the juice.
Once the juice is extracted, it is cooked for about 6 hours to convert the complex sugars into simpler and more readily fermentable compounds. Once the sugars are broken down, the mixture is added to closed stainless steel tanks where a proprietary brand of yeast consumes the sugars and releases alcohol. The tanks are cleaned using an automated process after every fermentation.
After fermentation, the liquid is distilled twice to achieve the correct alcohol concentration. That newly made spirit is then chill-filtered through carbon filters to remove fatty compounds and impurities.
The plata edition of this tequila is reportedly intended to be a pure expression of the tequila, and does not experience any aging or other flavor-altering processes.
This is a bit of a departure from the norm, but I really like it.
The typical tequila bottle I’m used to seeing is a relatively long and slender affair — the height presumably helps the bottle stand out on the shelves or be seen on the back of a bar. Short, plump, square bottles aren’t really all that common for tequila, but that’s exactly what we have here. I like when a brand’s style matches its price point — I don’t need a $10 whiskey packaged like a finely aged scotch. And that’s what we have here: an unassuming bottle that absolutely fits the brand.
One thing I also like about this specific design is that, besides the neck, I don’t think there’s a straight line to be seen here. The bottle looks like a melted block of ice, smooth and round on the corners with some warps and imperfections. It’s a cool effect.
As for the labels, I appreciate that the design is shaped like an agave leaf (actually tying the branding and design with the product is always a win) and I appreciate even more that it is centered on the bottle. That allows us to see the contents of the bottle all the way around the label, really showing off the spirit within.
The bottle is topped with a nice cork and wood stopper.
The liquid is crystal clear both in the bottle and in the glass, which is a great look. Once you’ve got a glass full, you’ll notice the very pleasant aroma — there’s the herbal agave aspects that are predominant, some light citrus, a touch of black pepper — but there’s also something else going here. It’s a mineral aroma that I haven’t seen before, almost like granite or stale cigarette smoke. That specific component of the aroma isn’t overly powerful, and it isn’t detracting from anything for me. It’s just more of a curiosity at this point.
Taking a sip, I have to admit this is not what I was expecting when I poured a glass of tequila. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing… just that it was unexpected.
Specifically, the very first flavor I get here is black pepper and maybe a bit of cinnamon. It’s a big hit of spice up front, which is not typical of a tequila. The more traditional herbal agave and citrus notes do creep in once the initial shock has worn off, but that pepper remains large and in charge throughout, only tapering off well into the aftertaste.
Despite all that pepper, there isn’t any bitterness to the liquid or unpleasantness I could detect. It’s just very… spicy.
Black pepper is usually one of those components that survives ice pretty well. Some lighter flavors tend to be washed out by some added cubes, but pepper and darker compounds stick around. And that is exactly what’s happening here.
With the added ice, the black pepper isn’t quite as pronounced at first; rather, it is a little more solitary now. That shade of cinnamon I saw has disappeared, as has the herbal agave note. What’s left is that black pepper spice and a little bit of citrus for color.
What I’m looking for in a margarita is a well-balanced drink (actually, slightly acidic, because that’s a margarita) where the tequila adds some unique flavors that wouldn’t otherwise be seen. And in general, this succeeds. The black pepper spice is something that absolutely shines through and makes itself readily known, even against the bold flavors of the lime juice and Cointreau.
The problem is that this is still a bit too much on the acidic side. Normally, you’d expect the herbal aspects from the agave to blend in and lend a hand in tempering the acidity of the lime juice, but that isn’t the case here. The ice cubes pretty much eliminated the herbal agave notes and so that aspect isn’t there to contribute to the effort. It’s not wildly off-balance, its just off enough to be a mildly annoying.
In general, this isn’t a bad showing. It’s a perfectly drinkable tequila, and in fact I think the intensity of the black pepper is actually a selling point. That flavor isn’t something you see in other tequilas, at least not at as prominently as you do here. It’s unique and doing something different, which I always applaud.
That said, judging it as a tequila, there are some areas where it is a bit lacking. And, at this price point, there’s some fierce competition that is going to cost this a couple stars in the rankings.
|Hornitos Plata Tequila|
Produced By: HornitosProduction Location: Jalisco, Mexico
Owned By: Beam Suntory
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $19.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 2/5
If you like a peppery tequila, and practically nothing else, then this might be your best bet.