A Private Tasting with a Master Distiller
Yesterday morning, your Tequila Examiner had the privilege of sitting down to a private tasting with Enrique de Colsa, Master Distiller of Tequila Don Julio. Some of you may be thinking “Really? How the heck do you get to do that?” Well, it seems that, after reading our article about Don Julio’s 70th Anniversary Añejo Claro, Enrique wanted to share some insights and perhaps even set the record straight. In that article, we focused the idea that charcoal-filtering an aged spirit to make it clear would have the unintended consequence of removing flavors – and we asked the relatively pointed question of how this was a good way to celebrate the 70th anniversary of an iconic tequila brand? We also noted that, among aficionados, the idea of altering aged tequilas in this way was regarded with some skepticism.
Enrique, in a gracious and gentlemanly way, happily corrected the above impressions and turned the whole thing on its head. In fact, he said, removing flavors was the goal (!) and the loss of color was the necessary consequence of this process – but was not particularly the end goal of the charcoal filtering process in this case. To understand why anyone would want to do this, we have to take a few steps backward.
Chief Tinkerer and Experimenter
It turns out that Enrique de Colsa was trained as an engineer long before entering the tequila industry and becoming Don Julio González’ hand-picked successor. Thus, he approaches questions with the curious mind of an experimenter, a scientist, or even perhaps a child who “just likes to figure stuff out”. As well, as with many engineers, he struck me very much as a man who values innovation. Keep these things in mind as you read on.
Over the years, Sr. de Colsa observed and remembered guest comments regarding the range of Don Julio’s products. From the Blanco, with its black pepper, citrus, and raw agave burn (OK, those are actually my tasting notes!), to the apples, pears, and mild increase in vanilla of the Reposado, to the honey, sweet aromatic spices, and bigger vanilla tastes of Don Julio Añejo, guests and friends all observed the reduction of the fresh agave heat, burn, prickle, pepper, or whatever we want to call it. Even more so is this observed in Don Julio’s last big anniverary project, Don Julio 1942 – originally intended as a limited edition for the Don Julio’s 60th Anniversary and now widely considered among the top releases in company history. Certainly it has a strong following amid both tequila drinkers and cognac aficianados.
The Burn of the Blanco Returns
However, the strangest thing happens when guests arrive at Don Julio Real, a luxury product among luxury products at $385.99 in British Columbia, and anywhere from $250-$500 elsewhere in the world. A blend of the choicest agaves from their estate, distilled in one particular pot still, and aged from 3-6 years (average age of the blend is 5 years) in once-used bourbon barrels, guests actually perceived a return of the fresh agave pepper, burn, and heat in spite of the increased age of this extra añejo. Now, it’s been some years since I have tasted Don Julio Real ($386 – hello!), so I cannot comment on the above statement.
Let’s Figure out How and Why
Regardless, Enrique found the return of the fresh agave notes intriguing, to say the least. It made him ask some questions. Are those quintessential properties of the blanco really gone, or were they just overpowered by aging? If the latter, can we get them back by somehow removing the newly added oak age-related layers? And so began a process of tinkering, experimenting and generally doing all that neat stuff I used to do in my decade or so working as a biomechanics researcher – basically Enrique was in a position to use his time at work to follow his curiosity and peel back layers of age-related changes to tequila. In the process, he got to learn a few things and craft an interesting product just in time for the 70th Anniversary of of the Don Julio brand. Sounds like a good way to spend a year or two on the job, if you ask me.
So what did that time look like? What was the process that led to Don Julio 70 Añejo Claro? According to Enrique, they experimented with all of the aged varieties of Don Julio – the Reposado, Añejo, 1942, and even Real. He tried charcoal filtering all of these with varying amounts of charcoal, varying types, and different amounts of time exposed, before settling upon the (undisclosed) combination of charcoal type, time, and amount used to filter Don Julio Añejo and thus create Don Julio 70 Añejo Claro. So, what does it taste like? Well, that’s a bit of an interesting question. What Enrique says is that his goal was to achieve the smoothness and complexity of an anejo, but the flavors and aromas of the blanco. In his own words: “the best of the two worlds in one glass”. Well? Is it true? And does your Examiner like the stuff? For the answers, see this article.
What this tequila is not, is traditional. Indeed, innovation was clearly placed above tradition in the creation of this product. What Don Julio 70 Añejo Claro represents to me is more like a blend of art and science, and shows us what happens when another tequila aficionado with a distillery at his command is allowed to experiment and tinker like a curious graduate engineering student, while still using his physical senses of smell and taste to expressing himself creatively. And if anything, it should suggest to us a question “What would I do to challenge myself as a Master Distiller?” That is, after earning the title of Master Distiller in the first place!
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