For reasons passing all understanding, the months of June and July 2017, A.D., have been a startling bonanza of absolutely stupid-great beverages arriving here, at Casa Para Engañar. Not one dissonant “clank” and every box a new occasion to call in the neighbor kids to help pick my disjointed jaw up off the floor. Beers, wines, booze…all of them among the best things I’ve tasted in the past few years. I review maybe, in an average year, about 18% of what I taste. Since I only write about stuff that genuinely knocks me sideways, every time I get to write one of these, it has this joyous aura to it that alleviates the gloom and hissy-fits I pitch when I write about Anheuser Busch, people who sue for contrived copyright/trademark infringement, and mouthy pseudo-experts of every species. I absolutely need to be surprised like this and several of the things I tasted in the past thirty-ish days have not just been revelations but, in fact, totally revised my opinion of what they are and where they came from.
The first box to arrive bore a return address that said “Backbone Media, Carbondale, CO”…
“Backbone Media, Carbondale, CO”…WTF!?!”
Not only did I not recognize the sender, I actually thought somebody was yankin’ my chain…until I opened the box.
Suerte Tequila is a new company, based in Colorado, that’s not making anything at all new. What they are making is a huge and, to my palate, revelatory end-run around every modern “improvement” and/or “innovation” that’s practiced daily in modern Tequila production. Two guys from Boulder, working in the marketing department of a skincare(!) company, (with the rather elves ‘n’ fairies handle of Pangea Organics) spent their off-hours haunting local Denver/Boulder/Longmont/Fort Collins liquor stores, trying to find a Tequila that really spoke to them. Lawrence Spiewak is an East Coast wise-ass from Philly and Lance Sokol, who is not fully Mexican, actually grew up in Mexico City, where he cultivated a lifelong passion for booze made from agave and, farcically, for Pink Floyd. (Go figure) Philly Meets Mexico City in little ol’ Boulder…you just know something bizarre is going to happen and it did. These two geeks got so wrapped up in this fermented Quest that they wound up IN Mexico, waaay the fug up in the mountains of Jalisco, in the picturesque, booze-soaked town of Atotonilco El Alto (which I think translates as “hammered, with Mariachis”) talking to a sort of obsessive guy named Pedro Hernandez Barba, whose obsession just happens to be Tequila.
Spiewak, Barba, and Sokol (L-R)
Pedro is what we in the US might call “retro” or perhaps “crazy”. He was making tequila in ways that threw back to how it was made in the 1800s. No “roasting” agave hearts in autoclaves, no hydraulic, computer-controlled presses. This guy hand cut all his agave by hand, using Jimadors (HE-muh-DOORS; agave pickers) who learned, from their fathers and uncles and family friends, the skill of quickly cutting out the ripe piñas and can remove all the spiky leaves to strip down a mature Blue Weber agave for production in less than a minute. Barba then routes the piñas into actual brick ovens, with sluiced floors to channel out juices released during roasting, giving the roasted agave – some sliced into halves or quarters because of the wild size variation – a caramleized surface that used to be how tequileros added flavor and sweetness to their spirits. Those ancestral Tequila-makers also had the challenge of crushing and pressing the juices out of hundreds of pounds of roasted piñas in bulk, so that one bottle wouldn’t take nine months to produce. Not having any technology to speak of, they went Old School, building an elaborate, if sorta Flintstones-ish, contraption that simply rolled a huge, ton+ stone, attached to a central pole and mounted on a thick wooden axle, over the agave to squeeze out maximum juice and get this Tequila train off and rolling. This stone crusher, called a “Tahona”, was originally pulled around its axis by mules(!), and should not to be confused with my hometown of Tacoma…which is somewhat crushing, in its own way. After that comes fermentation, which begets barreling, which leads to bottling, which usually, in the case of your average Tequila, spawns clusters of drunken American frat boys, their GFs and BFFs, and Arrested Development cases of all types, staggering down beaches in Cabo and Puerto Vallarta and smaller Mexican cities or passed out in bars and cars and hotel lobbies while honest Mexicans are trying to go about their daily business. I saw this first-hand during a recent visit to Cabo san Lucas and it is Not Pretty in any sense.
Fortunately for us all, Suerte Tequilas are emphatically NOT “average Tequilas”. If this is what Tequila tasted like back in the 1800s, I want a friggin’ time machine and I want to do my Baja vacations Back Then. I have tasted some Tequila, in the time I’ve been writing this bloglet, that I dearly loved. Roca Patron Añejo absolutely rocked (joke intended) my world. Papa Bueno Blanco is probably still my favorite Silver to just sip and enjoy. Casamigos, despite gaining most of its cachet from the fact of George Clooney being attached to its origins, lit me up like Christmas with its verve and peppery goodness. But no trio of any Tequila brand got up under my saddle the way Suerte Blanco, Reposado, and Añejo do. It doesn’t exactly hurt, either, that Suerte is a brand which doesn’t take itself all that seriously. The bottles are silk-screened with a jackrabbit graphic, designed by one of my Tacoma homies, graphic artist Adam Jackson, that’s based on the legends of the invention – more precisely, the discovery – of Tequila, involving local tales of a wife of a Jaliscan farmer, who noticed that the native rabbits were eating fermented agave and getting falling-down hammered. This led to humans squeezing agave and drunk citizens and Jalisco as the epicenter or the world’s Tequila Passion. And who doesn’t love a great legend?
Suerte Tequila Blanco is complex and – as is the prime virtue of all these fascinating bottles – transparent, allowing the uber-fresh agave flavors to come bursting through in a way that is best described as “wholesome“, if a beverage that’ll straight-up knock you on your fat Americano ass can be called such a thing. Peppery vegetal energy comes roaring out on the nose and then doubles down on the tongue. It tastes lively in your mouth, as though all those tiny agave molecules were darting around, searching for the best way to dazzle you. That pepper and vegetal impression accelerates into a full-throttle gusher of sweet herbs, vibrant citrus fruits, melons, white grapes, gooseberries, and blonde caramel hints, all in a texture that is the very essence of that slightly oily, tongue-washing enchantment that makes Tequila so compelling for a lot of us fervent beverage geeks.
For all the palate painting, it finishes so cleanly that my mouth tasted as if I had just gargled with some fresh-squeezed citrus homeopathic mouthwash. No off-flavors of any kind, which is a stunning discovery considering that the type of techniques that Barba employs used to make old-school Tequila a real crapshoot when it came to wrong notes and the chance of Montezuma’s Revenge. This stuff is almost surgically, NASA Clean-Room pure. I cannot fathom any fan of the grand traditions of real Jaliscan Tequila tasting this and not thinking, as I absolutely do, that Suerte Blanco is, as the foppish Brits say, Bang On. 96 Points
The Suerte Tequila Reposado may just be my favorite of the three, with its own lovely, transparent agave flavors, enhanced judiciously with 7 months in charred American white oak whiskey barrels that give it a woodsy, lightly smoky framework for a clutch of pretty melon, mint, herb, butterscotch, white plums, and a flattering hint of vanilla. The texture, again, is classic Tequila viscosity that coats the tongue but dissolves quickly, leaving the finish light and crisp but lively with residual flavors. The faint gold color just screams “Drink me!” and the aromas may just be the best aspect of the whole shebang, a clean, pure bouquet of fresh-cut agave that suggests cucumbers and lemons and cantaloupe. The cocktail possibilities for this have to be off the charts, as even a non-cocktail type like me can easily see, in its clarity and subtlety and smoothness of flavors. This is a great Reposado and an absolute essential for any true Tequila lover’s journey of discovery. 97 Points
Suerte Tequila Añejo is a literal throwback. I’ve tasted a couple of bottles that came from cellars and had considerable age on them. One was a 1947 and the other a staggering 1934. What both had in common was the golden, burnished patina that, at first, registers as sweet but comes to reveal a rich depth and texture that is not at all about sugar. Suerte Añejo suggests that character now, in its almost virgin state, after just 24 months in those charred American white oak whiskey barrels. The wood and faint smoke notes come roaring our of the bottle, upon pulling the cork, and follow up strongly on the palate. Fat flavors of Rainier cherries, cocoa, apple butter, honeydew, vanilla, pepper, hay, and herb tea dance across the palate and the finish is dense and resinous and decays slowly into intimations of nutmeg, cloves, and jasmine. This is a gorgeously transparent window into what Tequila used to be. Barba may be practicing 21st Century distillery sanitation (and Thank God for that!) but his Tequila aesthetic comes straight out of the pre-technological age and the time when Tequila had not yet become corporate and soulless and more concerned with Bottom Line Profit than Bottom Line Flavor. You can taste the stone of the Tahona, the oak of the barrel, the terroir notes of the blazing, sandy, mineral-soaked Mexican soil that spawns these miraculous, rich, complex Blue Weber agave, and the sheer, undeniable soul of what this magical liquid is capable, in the right hands. This is a Fine and Worthy Tequila that may well, depending on your experience level with Tequila, taste very different but will, I promise you, eventually steal your heart. 98 Points
Trimmed Blue Weber agave piñas
Spiewak and Sokol may have been just a couple of Coloradan booze-freaks when they started out but they had the moxie and the awareness of what the Tequilas they were drinking lacked that they literally dreamed (and scratched and clawed) their way into what should, if there is any justice, become a landmark brand of real, authentic Tequila of the type that will make true tequileros all over Jalisco proud and American Tequila fans a bit less willing to settle for stuff that’s had so many corners cut that it should be packaged like pantyhose, in a container shaped like an egg. Suerte is going to be a Big Damned Deal in the Tequila Universe. How big depends on you and me and others who really love tha Nectar of the Agave.