It seems to me that since the dawn of time, man has had a need to test himself against others… to find out who’s the “best” at any given thing. In many cases, such as certain sporting events, determining “the best” is usually fairly easy. In others, the biases of taste, style and perception provide the grounds for what seems to have become a national pastime – the argument over who or what is “best”. This was exactly the position myself and 11 others were in, happily I might add, not long ago as the lot of us converged in Albuquerque, NM, and sat in a room tasting and rating glass after glass of tequila. The event was the New Mexico International Intimate Tequila Tasting (NMIITT) and I had the opportunity to sit as a judge.
The NMIITT was put together in part to celebrate New Mexico’s historical link to tequila – it was where tequila was first imported from Mexico – and brought together a number of industry experts, collectors, writers, aficionados, and certified “catadores” (the official name for a taster). I was truly honored to even be considered as someone worthy of being included as a part of this group. What an opportunity to learn! The chance to meet, talk to, and learn from this group was the deciding factor in accepting the invitation to be a judge back in March. Simply being offered the invitation was a huge surprise and I debated my decision to accept or decline – there are so many others far more qualified than I that should be there. In the end, I reasoned it out this way – how could I pass up an opportunity like this? I knew I’d regret it if I turned down the invitation.
So there I was, having arrived the night before after a two-day drive from Austin, in the tasting room mingling with the other judges, most all of whom I had met, chatted with and shared tequila with the night before. Sitting to my left was Mario Marquez, Certified Tequilier/Catador and president of Magia Azul tequila consulting. To my right was Alex Perez, publisher of Tequila Aficionado. My first thought was “What am I doing here?” as there were people in this room that were absolute experts and I was now judging alongside them! But once the “cata” (tasting) began, that initial fear subsided a bit as I began to focus on the task at hand – tasting tequila! Glass after glass of blanco was brought in to us – 18 in all. After a short break, 23 reposados made their appearance, one after the other and at a pace that allowed each of us to take our time examining and tasting each one without feeling rushed. And that time was necessary to allow us to clense our palates with crackers, black coffee and water after each sample. Twelve añejos and four extra añejos followed and once the tequila tasting was completed, a surprise round of 5 sotols were brought in. Sotol is a distilled spirit made from the Sotol plant (as opposed to the agave from which tequila and mezcal are derived), generally found in Northern Mexico, and is most commonly associated with the state of Chihuahua. One of the characteristics of sotol is its smoky aroma and flavor which is something that would have ruined our palates had we tried it earlier in the day.
As judges, we were scoring each glass on its own merits using the American Tequila Academy’s scoring system, giving points in three areas: visual, aroma and flavor. This scoring system put the most weight on the aroma category, offering half of the possible 20 total points for a perfect score. The tasting took place over eight hours on a Friday afternoon and into the evening, with the winners being announced the next evening at a public tasting event where all of the brands could be sampled. By my tallies, there were a total of 62 samples tasted from 24 tequila brands and 2 sotol brands. Since the tasting was completely blind, we were not made aware of any of the brands that were being rated beforehand, which made for some interesting conversations after the judging was complete and the bottles were revealed. Actually, “interesting” might be a bit tame as there were more than a few audible “Huh?”s after a couple of the winner’s names were called.
The winners, by category, were:
Best Blanco: Corazon
Best Reposado: Herradura
Best Añejo: Antiguo 1870 de Herradura
Best Extra Añejo: Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia
Best Sotol: Don Cuco Tradicional
Probably not what you expected, right?
It was then announced that this would be the first official cata to include a certified organic category, wherein Republic Tequila was awarded best añejo and Tequila Alquimia won the blanco, reposado and extra añejo categories. (The full list of the bottles that we tasted and their overall scores has been posted on the NMIITT website and linked here for convenience: Top Ten by Category and Brands Entered).
Personally, I rated Tequila Alquimia and Nobleza Tequila as my top two blancos; Penacho Azteca and Nobleza as my top reposados; Tequila Alquimia and Corozon as my añejos; and Reserva de la Familia and Sin Rival as my extra añejos. As you can see, my top rated bottles are not necessarily the same as the winners, opening the door to criticism, argument, and most importantly, discussion. Which brings up another topic…
If you have read almost any of my posts here, you know that one of the points I always try to make is that just because I may like a brand doesn’t mean you will. Knowing this, what difference does it make who wins a competition like this? Does an award really matter? Of course, if you’re someone that selects tequilas based on awards, then it certainly makes a difference! That being said, each competition is different and each award should be put into its proper perspective – something the average consumer probably does not take the time to do. A gold medal from one competition will likely not be the same as a gold from another. To be sure, awards like these can be a helpful resource when looking to try something new, but always remember that the gold medal hang-tag is not a guarantee you’ll like what’s inside.
With the event complete, I can now look back and reflect on the weekend as a whole. I originally accepted this invitation for the experience of being able to participate in my first true cata as well as with the expectation that I’d finally get to meet a group of people that I only knew from their posts in the tequila forums or had chatted with on Thursday nights during Lippy’s Tequila Whisperer show. I knew it would be a tremendous learning opportunity and indeed it was. For three nights I sat with this group in the hotel bar discussing tequila, sharing stories and making new friends. Regardless of anything else that took place, that alone was worth the drive. Thank you to Jason, Jay, Chris, Khrys, Z, Tim, Alex, Mario, Jacob, Mike, the Queen of Tequila, and, of course, my wonderful wife for accompanying me and putting up with my frequent liquor store stops along the way. This was a weekend I won’t soon forget and I look forward to raising a glass of tequila or sotol with each of you again soon. ¡Saludos!