We recently reviewed the plata version Olmeca Altos tequila, which had some flavors in it that made me suspicious that it spent some time in an oak barrel before bottling. That’s not a bad thing in my opinion — while atypical of a white tequila, I love oak barrel aging on just about anything and they executed it well with that bottle. After that review, I was naturally excited to try out the proper anejo version of their tequila, which spent a good year in a barrel and comes in this beautiful amber color.
The Seagram company started as a Canadian distillery in 1857 and grew to become one of the biggest spirits companies in Canada. During prohibition in the United States, the owners of the company reportedly participated in bootlegging operations to bring their product into the US, and as a result paid $1.5 million in fines in 1930 (significantly less than the $60 million the US government asked for).
In 1967, Seagram was looking to expand into the world of tequila and purchased a distillery in Jalisco, Mexico to start producing its own version. Branded as “Olmeca Tequila”, this was a ‘mixto’ tequila (which uses not only agave sugars, but also raw added sugar and other added materials during the distillation process) and may have inadvertently contributed to the historically negative impression many American drinkers had of Mexican tequila.
In 1992, Seagram began distributing Patron Tequila for St. Maarten Spirits in the United States and quickly found success with that new, higher quality product. To help keep up with this new premium demand, Seagram built a brand new distillery using experts from their Kentucky bourbon distilling facilities in Los Altos, Jalisco and dubbed “Destileria Colonial de Jalisco” (NOM 1111). The facility was finished in 1997, but just months later the distribution deal for Patron fell apart and left Seagram without a product.
The Olmeca brand, along with its distillery, was transferred to Pernod Ricard as the old Seagram company was divided and sold off, and they realized the potential of this brand of tequila. More recently, they have made an effort to improve the quality and the marketing of Olmeca, making it one of the more well known brands overseas.
The new Olmeca Altos brand specifically started with two bartending mixologists from London, England named Henry Besant and Dre Masso (who were more knowledgeable about the European audience that is more familiar with this specific brand). Together with master tequila distiller Jesús Hernandez, they worked to design a sub-brand for Olmeca that not only produced the more modern 100% agave tequila that consumers wanted, but also worked well specifically in cocktails and mixed drinks. The spirit is still produced at Destileria Colonial de Jalisco.
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This tequila seems to be trying to make up for the modern mass production sins of its older brand origins by taking tequila production back to its traditional roots.
The first big change is the fact that this uses 100% blue weber agave plants as the source for the raw materials in the tequila. Previous versions used processed sugar and other additives, but in this case the only source for the alcohol is natural agave plants. These plants are grown for about eight years in the high altitude regions of Jalisco around 2,100 meters (6,889 feet) in elevation before they are harvested by hand and delivered to the distillery.
Once at the distillery, the hard and fibrous agave cores are placed into traditional brick ovens for a period of three days. This process not only converts some of the starchy agave fibers into fermentable sugars, but it also allows those fibers to add some unique flavors to the end product that aren’t possible using modern sterile techniques. After those three days, the agave cores are removed and crushed using a traditional “tahona” or stone roller mill that extracts the sugary liquid from the agave plants. That liquid is then fermented using a proprietary strain of yeast to create the raw alcohol for the tequila.
This is where the Kentucky distilling expertise seems to have entered the process, as the newly created alcoholic liquid is then batch distilled in copper pot stills to concentrate and selectively capture the alcohol and create just the right flavor profile. More commonly in Mexico and in tequilas, the distillation either takes place in a column still or a stainless steel still, but the use of copper (as is common in Kentucky) removes some of the sulfur and other unpleasant components during the distillation process.
For this anejo version, the resulting spirit is matured in 200 liter previously-used American bourbon barrels for a period of 12 months before being proofed down and shipped for sale.
The bottle design is subtle but effective. There’s a square cross-section body that flatly angles towards a medium length neck, and the bottle is capped off with a wood and plastic screw-on cap. In this case that wooden cap is dyed black, in contrast with the natural wood of the plata version of this spirit. It seems specifically designed to sit neatly in the speed well of a cocktail bar — which is exactly where the original founders of this sub-brand intended to use their tequila.
That said, the bottle isn’t terrible to look at on the back bar either. The only labels on the bottle are a small front and back label with the basic information on it, the rest of the bottle has round indentations in it that make it look like a rough-cut ice cube. The design reflects the light in subtly pleasing ways, and gives the bottle some character and dimension. The brand name is also embossed into the bottle as well, which is a plus in my book.
I like that the bottle allows for clearly visibility of the spirit inside without any distortion in the color. The black touches on the label is also a nice touch, as it really helps to evoke that idea of a charred barrel.
There’s a beautiful amber color to this spirit, almost like a lightly aged bourbon whiskey. But coming off the glass are some aromas that let you know this is definitely a tequila, not a bourbon: herbaceous fresh cut grass, lemon citrus, and black pepper take the lead ahead of some barrel-aging flavors like vanilla, brown sugar, and toasted caramel.
Things seem to swap a bit in terms of positioning and importance when taking a sip. Rather than the tequila components taking the lead, the barrel-aging, bourbon-esque notes are large and in charge. Vanilla, brown sugar, and caramel are the first notes, combined with a wonderful agave sweetness that supports the flavors and adds a layer of smoothness to the drink. Then there’s just a flash of herbal fresh cut grass, enough to give the impression of a tequila without being too insistent. From there, as the flavors develop, the baking spices that we saw with the plata version of this tequila start appearing (namely, the black pepper, cinnamon, and clove).
That flavor profile lasts to the finish of the experience, where a bit more of that black pepper spice lingers on the tongue and adds a peppery kick to the end.
Normally, the addition of a bit of ice results in some fairly drastic changes to the flavor profile. Ice doesn’t tend to be very forgiving to spirits, covering up the lighter components and greatly reducing the strength of the stronger ones. But in this case, for the most part, the flavor profile seems to be in tact.
I’m still getting that vanilla, brown sugar, and caramel combination up front, but with a bit more emphasis on the charred caramel. It’s almost as if you took a torch to the top of a creme brulee for just a hair too long. It has a tiny bit of bitterness associated with it, but that seems to be balanced out nicely by the other components. There’s a touch of herbal fresh cut grass that peeks in, but then the rest of the flavor profile is fairly smooth and boring. The black pepper and baking spices are only a minor contributing factor compared to the large part they previously played.
This is a legitimately delicious drink, but I don’t know if it qualifies as a margarita.
All of the flavors here are surprisingly in balance. Often, a margarita will be significantly more bitter and acidic, which gives it some of its trademark characteristics. In this case, though, the vanilla and brown sugar in the tequila seem to be doing a great job balancing out the bitterness from the lime and Cointreau, which makes for something that tastes great, but lacks that typical bite. I enjoy it, but it doesn’t really feel like it’s a traditional margarita.
Other things that are missing from the drink are the herbaceous fresh cut grass flavors, which usually add a bit of levity and lightness to the components. I don’t really see them in the mix, and that’s a bit disappointing for the cocktail.
I think this is a good version of an anejo tequila. A little better than average, even. There are some good flavors in here, the baking spices are a nice touch, and the whole package is smooth and delicious.
That said, there are some areas for improvement still. The flavors are good, but they could be a bit better saturated. Some extra time in the barrel might be useful to really accentuate those characteristics and make them even bolder. And there’s also room here for a bit more of that herbaceous fresh cut grass note to come through and make an appearance, helping differentiate it from other barrel aged spirits. It’s there, but it tends to disappear in cocktails.
In the end, you’ve got a bottle of spirits that is delicious and gets the job done for the right price point. Well worth the price of admission. Others do a better job, but this is worth a try at least once.
|Olmeca Altos Anejo Tequila|
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $31.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3.5/5
I put this on par with a high rye bourbon, just with a little less character and a bit more herbaceousness.