The San Francisco World Spirits Competition (SFWSC) is an annual assessment of over 3,000 different spirits. The SFWSC is the oldest spirits competition in the United States, dating back to 1980, and the second oldest in the world. It enjoys an unrivaled reputation for the quality of its judgments, many of which are among the world’s foremost spirits experts, as well as for the breadth of the categories of spirits it judges.
In the case of agave-based spirits, the SFWSC includes seven different subcategories. Four of these categories cover tequila. One category covers mezcal. A second category includes regional agave spirits like Sotol or Bacanora, and the remaining category is a catch-all for all other agave-based spirits. The SFWSC has the broadest category of agave-based spirits judges of any major international spirits competition.
The winner of the best of the category Mezcal is Mezcal Amarás. It was also chosen as Best in Show White Spirit, the highest honor a white spirit can receive. Amarás is an artisanal mezcal producer based in Oaxaca.
In the ancient Nahuatl language of Mesoamerica, the word mexcalli meant cooked agave. Both Mexico and mezcal are derived from this Nahuatl word.
Historically, any spirit made from agave was a mezcal. In the 19th century, for example, Tequila was called Vino de Mescal de Tequila. The name was gradually shortened to Mescal from Tequila and eventually just to Tequila.
Like the tequila industry, mezcal producers have limited the legal manufacturing area to just 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 has to be made with blue agave piñas, technically Agave tequilana Weber var. azul. In the case of mezcal, there are five designated species of agave that 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 cultivated for the production of mezcal.
However, any agave with a sufficiently high starch content that grows in the designated nine-state production area can be used. Amarás, for example, grows over 18 different types of agave to use in its mezcal production. Over 200 different species of agave grow in Mexico. About 30 to 50 of these can be used to produce mezcal.
Agave piñas for mezcal production are traditionally cooked in stone ovens buried in the open air. It takes about three to five days to cook the agave. Each 10 pounds of piñas requires 2.5 pounds of wood to cook. The smoke from wood fires is absorbed by the piñas and impart the characteristic smoke of mezcal.
Milling is done using a traditional stone grinding 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 he calls “ancestral distillation”. Mezcal is usually not aged, although older varieties are starting to appear.
According to the official SFWSC tasting notes, mezcal is described as “a superb smokeless example of the great complexity, elegance and finesse of this exciting and newly popular category.”
The best silver / gold tequila is Calle 23, Tequila Blanco Criollo produced by Capacha. Tequila is made at Tequila Quiote (NOM 1433) in San Francisco de Asís, in the Los Altos area of Jalisco, using small piñas from a variety of blue agave called Criollo. These piñas are about a quarter to half the size of regular piñas and are sometimes called “baby piñas.” Tequila is bottled at an unusually high rate of 49.3% ABV.
Official SFWSC tasting notes describe Tequila as having a “nose of cooked and herbaceous agave; pepper, baking spices and earth on the palate; rich palate, long and spicy finish. “
The best of the Reposado Tequila category is Cierto, Reposado Tequila, Private collection. Cierto, made by Enrique Fonseca and Sergio Mendoza, 4th and 5th generations Agaveros, is one of the most awarded Tequilas in Mexico. At last count, the company has won 278 international awards across its Tequila line. The Fonseca and Mendoza families have been producing Tequila since the 1800s and are now among the largest agave producers in the world. Tequila is made at the La Tequileña distillery in the heart of Tequila town.
The agaves, typically 7-10 years old, used to produce Cierto are grown in the highlands of Jalisco in the deep, rich red soil around the town of Atotonilco. After being cooked and crushed, the juice is fermented using a proprietary strain of yeast. The spirit is then distilled and refined. Cierto oxygenates the spirit before bottling. This is a common technique among distillers, and it is used to make a spirit smoother and more satiny in the mouth.
Cierto describes his Reposado Tequila as having a slight aroma:
… With notes of butterscotch and cooked agave. The expression is smooth and rich, with flavors that start with agave, then turn to caramel and end with a rich spice of cinnamon.
El Tesoro, a Tequila produced at the La Alteña distillery in the Jalisco Highlands, won the Best in category award for its two Añejo and Extra Añejo Tequila. It is one of the few brands to exclusively use 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 United States by Bean Suntory.
the El Tesoro Añejo is aged for two to three years in American ex-bourbon oak barrels. Official SFWSC tasting notes described it as having:
Aromas of roasted agave and sweet oak (vanilla, maple), sweeter notes pass to the palate with floral additions of citrus; light herbal finish with hints of vanilla.
the El Tesoro Extra Añejo is aged in bourbon barrels for four to five years. According to Carlos Camarena, the brand pays tribute to his father Felipe J Camarena with whom he shares a passion for very old Tequilas. According to Camarena, the additional aging adds chocolate and coffee flavors to the tequila.
The official SFWSC tasting notes describe Extra Añejo as having a
rich bouquet of toffee, mocha and caramelized agave; dried fruits, cinnamon and herbs on the palate; semi-sweet chocolate finish.
The SFWSC also awards the Best in Category / Bacanora / Comiteca and Best Other Agave Spirit awards.
Agave spirits are closely associated with Mexico. Agave, however, grows all over the Americas – from the desert of the southwestern United States to the Andean highlands of South America.
Already, distillers from Texas to Peru are making agave-based spirits from locally grown agave. Aqará, for example, is a Peruvian agave alcohol produced from agave grown in the Peruvian highlands. The Square Peg Distillery in Leander, Texas produces an agave-based alcohol from locally grown blue agave called TexAgave Blue Agave Spirits. Look for other non-Mexican agave spirits that will emerge in the next few years.
The best of the Sotol / Bacanora / Comiteca category is the Izo, Bacanora Silver. Bacanora is an agave-based spirit produced exclusively in the Mexican state of Sonora. It is based on Agave durangensis. It is commonly referred to as Cenizo. Other varieties of agave native to the area that can be used to make Bacanora include Lamparillo, Masparillo, Castilla, Verge, Tepemete, and Angustifolia Haw. It typically takes 8 to 12 years or more to produce a marketable-sized piña.
The Izo Distillery draws its agave from the mountainous and desert regions of Sonora, Durango and Jalisco. The piñas are cooked in the open, in stone ovens and then crushed. Fermentation lasts three to four days, using natural yeast. The fermented juice is distilled twice using copper and stainless steel stills.
The official distillery tasting notes describe the Bacanora as robust and aggressive, showcasing a bold smoke with vibrant hints of lime and fresh black pepper and lingering smoke.
The best other agave spirit is the Perra Suerte, Raicilla. It is produced in Jalisco from 100% Agave maximiliana. Raicilla undergoes a much longer fermentation than Tequila. This can take up to 30 days. In general, it is more fragrant than tequila and generally does not have the overt smokiness of mezcal.
It can be fired in open-pit ovens covered with stone or in traditional closed stone ovens called hornos. The differences in terroir can be quite pronounced, depending on the type of agave used. There are also notable differences between Raicilla produced in coastal areas and that produced inland.
Agave spirits are one of the fastest growing categories of spirits in the world today. Although the category is dominated by Tequila, other agave-based spirits, based in Mexico and elsewhere, are becoming increasingly important and are a great area for Tequila lovers to explore.