READERS OF THIS COLUMN will know I appreciate aged tequilas, and have covered upscale label DeLeon Tequila since its launch two years ago. After much waiting, DeLeon has released DeLeon 51, its high-proof Extra Añejo, scheduled to arrive in New York and California August 1, 2011.
By law, tequila is classified in part based how long it ages (blanco, reposado, añejo) . Extra Añejo, a relatively recent classification, applies to tequilas aged three years or more in oak barrels. Most manufacturers find aging more than about five or seven years doesn’t improve the flavor, and in fact begins to draw in negative, acrid flavors from the wood. Partida, Casa Noble, Jose Cuervo and Herradura all have elegant, desirable Extra Añejo expressions that compete favorably with aged scotches, Cognacs and bourbons.
DeLeon 51 is aged 51 months (about 4.25 years) in Haute Futaie French oak barrels from manufacturer Seguin Moreau (“Haute Futaie” refers to the carefully groomed, sustainable forests in France where the oak is harvested, producing some of the best wine barrels in the world). What makes the spirit particularly intriguing is the fact that it’s bottled at cask strength of 102 proof (51% ABV). And, befitting the rocker-meets-luxury heritage DeLeon has already developed, the packaging on 51 has been tweaked to reflect its status. Where other expressions arrive in black boxes, the custom-designed box for the Extra Añejo boasts a hand-wrapped leather box with a rubbed gold effect. The ornate gold stopper has been aged with a copper green patina for depth.
Because the Extra Añejo is aged using a different process than DeLeon’s Añejo, the two are remarkably different beasts: the “regular” Añejo (aged almost two years) spends part of its time in second-use Sauternes barrels, adding a depth of color and sweetness to the already “sweet” highland agave used for all DeLeon tequilas. the “regular” Añejo is also bottled at a more industry-standard 80 proof, compared with the high-proof Extra Añejo’s.
“The decision to bottle at cask strength was made to demonstrate the purity of DeLeon,” says founder and CEO Brent Hocking. “There are very few, if any, tequilas pure enough to make a cask strength that isn’t buried by a strong alcohol taste overwhelming the product.”
He’s right, at least in the sense that you don’t simply get hit with alcohol here. Like Casa Noble, which uses new oak for its aged tequilas, DeLeon 51 is all about the agave. On the nose, the sweet, grassy notes of agave combine with hints of vanilla, earth and wood from the oak. The burn of alcohol is definitely there, but it is not a dominating force.
On the palate, there is a bite from the alcohol, but again it is not the dominating factor and more closely resembles high-proof scotches with its back-of-the throat warmth and lingering notes of citrus, pepper, faint caramel and grass. The wood is evident, but not overwhelming. It’s a strong drink, but one that will go down easily in VIP rooms and Hollywood poolsides. And though you wouldn’t necessarily mix this sipping spirit into a margarita, the lighter influences of new oak mean it should be quite cocktail friendly.
In color, it is indistinguishable from DeLeon’s Reposado (aged between two months and one year by law, but the company doesn’t give details): A pale, golden yellow that belies the 4-plus years 51 has spent inside a barrel. Comparing the two side-by-side, it seems the 51 has lost some of the broader herbaceousness found in the Reposado. But even at the higher proof is a smoother spirit, having also lost the tannic bite of the Repo. “Creating balance and purity is what we aim to achieve,” says Hocking.
The drink should tantalize (and maybe even convert) scotch drinkers, and intrigue tequila fans with yet another option in the Extra Añejo category. I, for one, have a soft spot for “brown” Extra Añejos, with all the cigar, vanilla and leather a used bourbon barrel can offer up. But puristas will appreciate that, as with Casa Noble’s interpretion, DeLeon has opted to highlight the glorious power of aged tequila without all the conflicting notes provided by second-use barrels.
DeLeon Extra Añejo 51, is available August 1 in New York and California. SRP $250, 51% ABV.
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