I’ll be the Judge of That – Tasting Tequila in Albuquerque

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!

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New Mexican Hot Chocolate Pie – Tequila, Chocolate and a Taste of New Mexico

One of the side benefits of being married to a “foodie” is that I get an opportunity to tag along to many of the events that she participates in. Taking that a step further, it also exposes me to people and groups that I might not normally be aware of. It also exposes them to me and, naturally, tequila. One of those groups is the recently formed Austin Food Blogger Alliance, of which I am now a member. The group held an event this past weekend in which members were invited to make a pie and bring it to share with other attendees – a Pie-Luck, if you will. To add interest, members could also bring a second pie and enter it in a contest, judged by 5 local chefs and food industry people. In addition to gaining bragging rights amongst this savvy group, the winner also would get their pie included on the menu at the Alamo Drafthouse, a local group of theaters that serve a full menu of food and drinks while you watch a movie. As a fundraiser, the theater has teamed up with the AFBA to present a special screening of the movie Waitress and all proceeds from the movie and pie sales will benefit SafePlace, a shelter and resource for victims of domestic violence. (If you’re in the Austin area and would like to support this event, you can purchase your tickets here for this August 21st screening.)

So that’s all well and good, but what does all that have to do with tequila? Pretty simple, actually. One of the things that I have been trying to do more of recently is to incorporate tequila into more recipes. In this case, I wanted to take a pie that I’ve been making for a few years now and tweak it to be something unique. Honestly, it’s the ONLY pie I make, so I didn’t really have a lot of options! Having just returned from a weekend in New Mexico (more on that trip in an upcoming post) the flavors were still fresh and seemed to be a perfect fit with my base pie. Essentually, chocolate, chili powder, cinnamon and tequila – the New Mexican Hot Chocolate Pie. The flavors should hit the palate in waves, from the creamy tequila notes followed by the chocolate and cinnamon and then, moments later, the peppery heat makes its entrance. Thinking I had something fairly unique, I made 2 pies, entered 1 into the contest and of the 10 entries, I took 2nd place, losing out to a pecan pie – not bad for a one-pie tequila hack like me! I’ve included the easy recipe below and hope that you enjoy it as much as I do!

New Mexican Hot Chocolate Pie

(You can use a pre-made graham cracker crust, but for this event, I had to make it from scratch)

1 1/4 cups Crushed Graham Crackers
1/3 cup Butter
3 tbls Sugar
1 tsp Chili Powder

Combine the Graham Crackers, sugar and chili powder in a bowl. Melt the butter and slowly pour it into the bowl, mixing until the entire mixture is evenly coated. Press the mixture evenly into a 9″ pie pan and bake for 8 minutes in a 350-degree oven. Remove and let cool before adding filling.
*If you opt for a pre-made crust, take the chili powder and sprinkle it evenly around the crust prior to adding the filling.

2 cups Semi-sweet Chocolate Chips
1/4 cup Butter
1 cup Milk
1/4 cup Powdered Sugar
1/4 tsp Cinnamon
1/2 tsp Chili Powder

Place chocolate chips, powdered sugar, cinnamon and chili powder into blender and set aside. Combine milk and butter in a saucepan over low heat, stirring regularly. When butter is melted and before milk boils, remove from heat and slowly pour into blender. Mix at a low speed to combine all ingredients. Pour into crust and refrigerate until filling solidifies.

1 cup Heavy Whipping Cream
2 tbsp Powdered Sugar
2 tbsp 1921 Tequila Crema

In a mixing bowl, whip the cream at a medium speed, adding the sugar a tablespoon at a time. Once incorporated, increase speed until cream begins to thicken, then add the Tequila Crema. Continue until evenly incorporated and soft peaks form, but take care to stop before the cream turns into butter.

Decorate the top of the pie with the cream prior to serving or add to each slice after cutting.

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The Return of Fina Estampa

It was almost 1 year ago that I posted a note about Fina Estampa and the “close-out” sale my local superstore was having at the time. There was even a sign posted saying that Fina Estampa was no longer in production and that no more would ever be delivered. This was also the story making its way though the tequila forums, to many an enthusiast’s chagrin. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw a stack of bottles on the shelf of that same superstore a couple weeks back. I quickly bought a bottle of each expression thinking that someone, somewhere, had found a “missing” pallet at the distribution warehouse. Upon further inspection, it appears that there is a new import company now handling Fina Estampa for the Texas market. I made a call to the new import company, listed as Dorian, LLC out of Houston, and they confirmed that they were indeed the new importer of the brand and that it was indeed still being produced. An email to the address listed on the Fina Estampa website was returned with the same news. The bottles have new backside labels listing the new importer, in some cases placed over the old labels. (Note – I attempted to contact the former importers via email but as yet have had no response) The date codes on some of the blanco and reposado bottles that I looked at had lot number codes that read 2005 (Reposado) and 2006 (blanco) – great to see that some of the tasty “old stock” is still out there. The bottle of añejo, on the other hand, is in a newly designed black box and the bottling code reads March of 2011 which suggests it was produced nearly 2 years ago and just recently bottled. On a return trip to the store, some blanco bottles had been added to the shelf that also have this new 2011 bottling code, further confirmation that they are still in operation and actually distilling new product. For those that are wondering whether the new stuff is as good as the old, these will be the tell-tale bottles. I plan to pick one up and see for myself soon!

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Tequila Don Pilar – A Modern Artisanal Classic

One of the beautiful things about social media is the direct access that everyday people now have to brands large and small. That works both ways, of course, as brands have the ability to communicate directly with potential consumers at a level that is quick and responsive. I was recently reminded of this relationship when I was invited to meet and visit with Tequila Don Pilar based on a tweet about a trip I was planning to the Northern California area. Naturally, I took them up on the offer and a few weeks later I found myself walking into Amigos Grill in Portola Valley, set in the scenic foothills above the hustle and bustle of Silicon Valley and one of four Bay Area restaurants owned by Jose Pilar Contreras – better known as Don Pilar.

The meeting itself was set-up by Pilar’s son, Juan Carlos, who handles much of the marketing of the brand and with whom I had a chance to speak with sometime later by phone. Since he was unable to not join us that day, Juan gave pretty simple instructions for when I arrived: “Just look for Don Pilar, you’ll recognize him.” Lucky for me I’d seen enough event photos and shots from the website that I felt comfortable with that as my guide. Sure enough, within a moment of sitting down at the bar, Don Pilar appeared from the back and started making one of the establishment’s signature margaritas. After eye contact, I introduced myself and with a pleasant smile he motioned to his creation and we both understood that he’d be back once he had taken care of this order.

Drinks delivered he was again behind the bar and we were quickly talking tequila. He offered and poured me a glass of both his blanco and añejo. I should note here that the pride in his product comes through with the simple act of pouring a glass. He was eager to talk about his tequila and the industry in general, as well as his personal history which starts with being raised on his family ranch in San José de Gracia, located in the Highland region of Jalisco. Like most of their neighbors in the region, the family was hard-working and entrepreneurial and he, along with his 11 siblings, worked the family’s land growing corn and wheat as well as raising livestock. There was also the agaves, grown and cultivated on their estate going back three generations. At age 15, Pilar’s father gave him a small bit of land to tend himself, upon which he planted the first agaves of his own and thus carrying on the family tradition.

At 18 he left the family farm to work the farmland of Central California as part of the guest worker program, but always returned home each year to help with the agave harvest and planting. In doing this he found himself traversing most of California and finally landed for good in Half Moon Bay where he opened his first restaurant in the early 1980’s. It was then that he began to purchase additional land in Jalisco upon which he cultivated agaves to sell to the big tequila producers.

In 1993 he got a taste of the tequila business first hand when he started importing a handful of tequilas to California, including Cazadores and Pueblo Viejo. The growth that these brands experienced was strong and by 1997, had outgrown his company’s small operation and they each moved on to larger distributors.

Importing was a great introduction to the business but Don Pilar had always desired to create his very own tequila. In 2000, he partnered with a group and built La Trasquila, a co-op distillery (NOM 1443) built in the highlands not far from where he was raised. This is where Tequila Don Pilar is created today, using his best highlands-based agaves from his over 1000 acres spread across six ranches.

Juan Carlos calls Tequila Don Pilar a “modern artisanal” tequila noting their small-batch, additive-free, and craftsman-style approach to using some of the more efficient and modern machinery in place at the distillery. This includes the autoclave, where the quartered and pressure-washed agaves are cooked for 24 hours, then cooled for another 24 hours before being shredded and pressed in a mill. Champagne yeast is the choice for fermentation which generally lasts eight days and during which, selections of Baroque music are played. “Studies have proven the music makes the yeast more active,” states Don Pilar, “resulting in a more complete fermentation and a richer mosto.” It is then double distilled in stainless pot stills, overseen by master distillers Leopolda Solis Tinoco and Gabriel Espindola.

Interestingly, Don Pilar did not make the blanco style tequila at the start. Juan Carlos noted that this was due to Pilar’s love of other aged spirits and wanting to create something comparable that he could call his own. Aging for the añejo is done in lightly toasted virgin white oak for a duration of 16-18 months, resulting in a rich, amber-colored final product that can generally be found for under $40. He has recently added a blanco ($30-$33) to compliment the añejo, and expects to be bottling an extra añejo within the next year. Does this mean that there may be a reposado in their future as well? “Possibly, but not anytime soon” remarked Juan Carlos.

That’s fine with me because I’m perfectly content sipping the two styles that are currently being made. The first thing that I noticed with the blanco was the very slow development of the tears after giving the glass a quick swirl. It’s also very approachable with almost no alcohol on the nose and I picked up a slightly sweet, almost tropical fruit aroma. The taste is a nice balance of agave up front wrapped in a warm, coating mouthfeel that develops into a crisp and tangy finish that compliments the sweetness and leaves your mouth tingling. The añejo starts out with equally slow tears in the glass and again the light touch on the alcohol. While not overpowering, the addition of oak is pronounced in both the nose and the taste but it is kept in check nicely by the sweet hints of agave and vanilla which keeps it from going to far over to the Scotch/Bourbon side of the fence. The finish was not as spicy as the blanco but equally long, starting out very soft and rounded and fooling me into thinking it would be over too quickly only to return and linger for an extended time.

Before I knew it, two hours had flown by and it was time for me to be on my way and time for Don Pilar to return to running his restaurant. Our conversation had touched on numerous subjects, all of which provided a glimpse of this man’s character and work ethic, and it’s no surprise to me that the tequila that bears his name is winning awards and accolades throughout the tequila industry. I finished the last remnants of the tasty añejo-based margarita that he had made me – Pilar’s personal favorite – and I was on my way, a new fan of both the tequila and Don Pilar himself.

Tequila Don Pilar is also Kosher-certified and is currently available in California with distribution to additional states expected by the end of 2011. For additional information, visit www.donpilar.com

Samples were provided for this review.

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Dulce Vida’s Healthy Roots

Tequila brands can originate from the most interesting places and many of these brand’s owners will tell you that they never imagined themselves as tequila producers and yet, here they are. One of these brands is Dulce Vida. Started in 2007, the company was indirectly formed because of the health attributes of the agave plant. With it’s low glycemic index, agave syrup is a perfect replacement for the refined sugars and high-fructose corn syrups that are found in many of today’s sodas and energy drinks. This was the discovery that started Richard Sorenson and Jeff O’Neal on a path that would end up with them founding Dulce Vida Spirits.

I had the chance to speak with Mr. Sorenson, a co-founder of the company, about how it all began. After spending 25 years in the medical health services profession, Richard made a career change and got into the energy drink market. The product he helped bring to market was unique because it was the first recognized organic product in it’s segment, and more importantly to this story, used agave nectar as its sweetener instead of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. The energy drink was Syzmo and during this period, Richard noted that the group commissioned numerous scientific studies on the agave. One of the things that they learned was that the agave provided significant glycemic benefits to diabetics. As a result of its low glycemic index, Syzmo was the only drink certified as a “low glycemic” product. This was their introduction to the agave. During their research and trips to the agave fields, it was only natural that they would cross paths with the tequila industry. It wasn’t long before Richard and Jeff were working with a local distillery playing with formulations for their own tequila brand.

The group sold their Syzmo energy drink brand in 2007, retaining the rights to all of the tequila-based work that they had already started on and later that year, the Dulce Vida Spirits company was formed. Based in Austin, TX, the company added Charlie Paulette as CEO, after years at the Gambrinus Company and Shiner Bock, and the company’s first bottles hit the shelves in September of 2009. It was quickly recognized as one of the exceptional spirits on the market when the blanco received a double gold medal at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits competition in 2010. The añejo followed on that success with its own double gold medal at the just-completed 2011 competition.

The tequila itself has some distinctive qualities that make it stand out from the pack. The company states that it’s the only “100% Certified Organic, 100˚ Proof” tequila made. The organic agaves are sourced from single estates around the Pacific Coastal Highlands area around Tepic, Nayarit and Richard noted that through agreements, the company has access to 18,000 hectares of agave plants and can legally produce at three different distilleries. This has already been evidenced by the company’s first two batches, the first being produced at Corporacion Ansan distillery (NOM 1360) and the second at Groupo Industrial Tequilero de Los Altos (NOM 1443). The main reason for the change between batches was to achieve the second bottling’s USDA organic certification. The consistency found can be attributed to retaining co-founder Jesus Carlos Jurado Lopez as the master distiller for each batch. Dulce Vida uses a proprietary yeast during fermenting and is then triple-distilled in small batch stainless pot-stills straight to its final bottling proof, without the need to dilute with water. In tasting the tequila, this provides an exceptional brightness to accompany the added heat the higher alcohol content provides.

The change in distilleries for the second batch also brought about a design change to the bottles. Originally packaged in a tall, frosted-glass bottle, the new release is nicely portrayed in the same bottle, sans the frosted treatment as shown to the left, and now adorned with more traditional labeling and a stylish graphic across the back of the bottle highlighting a unique symbol representing each of the expressions. “The new bottle design was put in place to better show off the product inside” Richard noted. “While the frosted bottle was very stylish, it could have just as easily been a vodka bottle and we felt that our tequila deserved a more unique package.”

Regardless of what Dulce Vida is packaged in, the tequila inside is worth tracking down purely for its taste. While I prefer to sip all three expressions, both the blanco and reposado are perfect mixers. The higher proof allows for their flavors to stand out more readily when used in cocktails. (The company also is planning to release a more traditional 80 proof blanco later this year)

The blanco is bright and crisp, with a perfectly clear appearance in the glass and long, slow tears. The group I was tasting with noted aromas of sea-salt and citrus. For an over-proofed tequila, it starts surprisingly smooth on my palate before the heat kicks in with a long, peppery finish. Aged in American Oak previously used for Kentucky whiskey, Dulce VIda’s reposado is aged for 11 months and the añejo for 24. Like the blanco, these also took their time to develop their long and slow tears in the glass. The reposado has an inviting golden-amber color to it and the bottle I have seems to be darker than many añejos currently on my shelf. The añejo was only slightly darker than that of the reposado. So close, in fact, that I nearly confused them when sitting side-by-side in glasses. I found the taste of each to be fairly similar as well, the difference being that the añejo presented a softer edge and more refined flavors. While the color might lead you to think there would be strong wood notes in the flavor, they are surprisingly light. I’m generally not a fan of añejos that taste more like bourbon or scotch than tequila, where the wood notes are so strong that they dominate the flavor profile. In both the reposado and the añejo, Dulce Vida has struck a nice balance of agave sweetness, spicy heat and traditional barrel-aged wood notes. I noted cinnamon and even nutmeg on the nose of the añejo and a long-lasting finish of sweet, spicy heat. Of the three, my preference is with the blanco, even though as I write this, I am staring at a bottle of añejo that is closer to being empty than either of the other two. I may need to pour another round just to confirm that preference.

Priced at $35-$55 depending on your location and retail outlet, all three of these offerings are solid choices in their categories – especially when you factor in the additional alcohol content. As always, I suggest you find a bottle and give it a try to see how it tastes on your palate. And as you’re tasting it, think about what you might be doing in years to come – is there a tequila brand in your future?

With an aggressive expansion planned for 2011, Dulce Vida is currently available in Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia and Pennsylvania. Learn more at www.DulceVidaSpirits.com.

Sample bottles were provided for this review.

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The Texas Tequila Throwdown – Judging the Juice

It seems that more often than not, the first question that someone will ask me upon learning that I write this blog is “What’s your favorite tequila?” For some people, that may be an easy question to answer, but not for me. In my case, that question just opens the door to a long conversation. While I certainly have my favorites, picking just one would be an almost impossible task. My answer depends on the mood I’m in, who I’m with, and how I’m drinking it. It’s these variables that make so many different tequilas worthy of being poured at any given time. With that in mind, I found the idea of judging a handful of Texas-based tequila brands very intriguing. While “Tequila” can only be produced in certain designated parts of Mexico, a number of tequila brands are headquartered in Texas and in January 2010, Mike Cortez, founder of BiteMeHouston.com, invited many of these companies to a taste-off. He wanted to find out which brand would reign as the top Texas tequila and dubbed the event the Texas Tequila Throwdown. Ten brands accepted the invitation that first year and judging was done by guests randomly selected through a drawing. Based on the success of the event, another throwdown was organized for 2011. For the 2011 Texas Tequila Throwdown, eleven tequila brands threw their hats in the ring, from respected industry icon Tequila 1921 to relative newcomer Pura Vida, and the judging was done this year by members of the local liquor, food and media industries; that included chefs, writers and mixologists.

WIth this as the backdrop, I was thrilled and honored to receive an invitation to be a judge on one of the ten-member panels. I jumped at the offer, even though it meant making a long three-hour drive from my home to Houston, and a seemingly longer return trip home late that night with my designated driver. If you’ve read my very first post, you know that I don’t consider myself a tequila expert, just an enthusiast trying to learn more everyday, so the opportunity to participate as a judge was ideal for me to experience how comfortable I was at ranking these tequilas in a setting that was serious, but not stuffy, together with like-minded individuals judging alongside me. This indeed was a great chance to not only test the waters, but test myself at the same time.

The event itself was actually a giant fundraiser – this year benefiting the Houston Food Bank – and drew several hundred people through the course of the three hours and most importantly, filled four large boxes with food. For the tequila enthusiast, the benefits of an event like this are numerous. Besides getting to sample over 33 different tequilas from 11 brands, as well as El Perico’s agave spirit, many of the owners, founders and leaders of these brands were at their tables pouring drinks and answering questions. There is no better way to get a question answered than to talk directly to the source!

The judging was conducted throughout the event and I was tagged to be on the reposado panel, which was perfect for me since that is probably the expression that I drink the least amount of. The most difficult part of the evening was visiting the tables and not partaking in any of the samples until my duties as a judge were complete. Once the blanco judging was finished, the reposado group was moved in and glasses of “sample 1” were handed out, followed thereafter by samples two, three, and so on. We were instructed to rate each individual sample on appearance, aroma, and taste, using a ten-point scale. Throughout the process, I kept notes on each sample in my own notebook in addition to the official scorecard. I wanted to be able to refer back to those notes to compare my ratings of each sample to the tequila brands they represented once they were made known several days later.

Once all 11 samples had been distributed, tasted, and the scoresheets turned in, it was time for me to revisit the tequila tables while the añejo group worked through their samples. Some of my highlights included: meeting Juan Gomez-Region, founder of Tequila Toro de Lidia, who also had his band in-tow and entertained the crowd when he was not pouring tequila; being introduced to a spicy new sangrita made by Pura Vida that should now be on store shelves; learning about the cochineal extract that makes Pasion tequila a bright pink; being introduced to Railean, a agave spirit made in San Leon, Texas by El Perico; and of course, getting to visit with friends that I’ve made over the past year at companies like Riazul, Republic, El Gran Jubileo and Dulce Vida.

Once all of the blind judging was completed, the results were announced with Ambhar Tequila winning both the blanco and añejo categories, and Toro de Lidia winning the reposado category. I was glad that I’d kept my notes so that I could compare my personal scores with how the brands ultimately finished in my category. Upon reviewing my scores, I had a tie for first place between Toro de Lidia and Dulce Vida. When taking only the taste scores into consideration, El Gran Jubileo also made that list.

Being involved in this process taught me a few things. Most importantly, I need to trust my instincts and palate more. My overall rankings generally fell in line with the final results. That said, my lowest-ranked brand in taste ended up in my top third overall due to having great color and an above average aroma. I drink a tequila for its taste and because of that, I should have given the taste score component more overall weight, in comparison to the other categories, to more accurately reflect this. If I had done that as a judge, the overall reposado winner would not have changed, but my personal rankings surely would have. Appearance and aroma, in particular, are certainly important and help make the complete tequila drinking experience what it is, but to give them equal weight with the taste of a tequila is not a true reflection of why I drink it.

The real winners of the evening were the people who attended the event and the Houston Food Bank. I throw myself into that group as well, because for me to have been given the chance to blind taste 11 brands in such a forum was an incredible experience. I’d like to think that given the same 11 samples I would rate them the same today as I did that night, but in reality, I’m sure that there would be some juggling of my rankings simply because it’s a different day, a different mood and a different environment.

So what is your favorite tequila?

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From Tour Bus to Toro de Lidia

It’s no secret that alcohol and musicians have had a lasting, if not stormy, relationship throughout the years. So it should be no surprise to see some famous musicians as owners, investors and spokesman of different spirits companies. Just in the tequila segment some of the big names include Justin Timberlake and 901 Tequila, Vince Neil and Tres Rios and, until his recent sale to Campari, Sammy Hagar and Cabo Wabo. Then there are the musicians that you may not be familiar with.

Go back about ten years or so and you’d likely find Julio Gomez Rejon sitting behind a drumset keeping time for his band as it toured throughout Mexico. It was about this time on one of those tours that this accomplished musician was introduced to a woman that, unknowingly at the time, changed his life. The woman lived in an area that was losing it’s farm labor to larger cities as the workers left looking for better jobs. She was the owner of a small farm planted with different varieties of agave and was now left without enough help to tend her plants. After being introduced to Julio, the two struck up a conversation that ended with her offering him the agaves so long as he tended to them. Having already had an interest in agaves, he took the plants in that field, made mezcal and sold it from his bus at stops along the tour route. Inevitably, the topic of tequila came up with a friend who, after learning Julio was actually an American citizen, suggested that he apply for an import permit which would allow him to bring tequila into the United States on behalf of various Mexican distilleries. Once obtained, he began to do just that, importing various small tequila brands. During this time, he was also becoming more and more interested in starting his own brand and experimented with different tequila “recipes” when he had the chance, always trying to reproduce the flavor of the morning seepage of raw agave sap from the flower stalks before natural fermentation had a chance to set in – perfectly sweet, refreshing and light.

He finally made the leap in 2008, partnering with Fernando del Toro and the Rivesca distillery (NOM 1531) to officially start making his brand – Toro de Lidia. Working with the distillery and pulling from his previous tests and trials, he was able to get the flavor he wanted by oxygenating the tequila. This is accomplished by running it through a water pump before chilling it to 4º centigrade. Once chilled, it gets active carbon filtered and bottled. The interesting thing about this process is that the reduced temperature forces some of the natural oils to coagulate, allowing them to be easily removed during the filtering process. Julio claims that this makes for a cleaner and more refreshing taste, more reminiscent of the natural agave sap.

All four expressions of Toro de Lidia go through this same process just before being bottled. That includes the añejo and extra añejo, which are interesting in themselves. The añejo is aged 1-5 years and the extra añejo anywhere from 6-12 years. That’s a pretty wide spread and if you’re doing the math, you know these had to have been barreled before Toro de Lidia had become a company. Julio was very up-front about this and told me those first batches were indeed processed and barreled before he came along. He did, however, put his mark on the proceedings by running both expressions through his oxygenation and cold-filter process prior to bottling, resulting in the flavor profile he desired. In addition, the recipe used to make those expressions is now his.

The sourced agaves are estate grown from pesticide-free highland fields that also have no run-off from other fields in the area. This was important to Julio because it keeps pesticide and fertilizer residue from neighboring fields from ending up on his plants. The agaves are then cooked in traditional stone ovens and distilled in stainless pot stills. The first bottles began hitting shelves in September of 2009 and the line includes a blanco, reposado (6-12 months), añejo (1-5 years), and extra añejo (6-12 years), with all of the aged expressions coming from uncharred new White American Oak. What makes these tequilas even more interesting is the price. The blanco can be found for under $20 while at the other end of the spectrum, the extra añejo comes in at $30. (Yes, $30!) Julio’s goal is to make a wonderfully light and refreshing line of tequilas that are affordable to all. There’s no secret to how he keeps costs down either – no overhead. The company has three employees, counting Julio himself. Once the tequila is bottled and ready to ship, he drives the trailer truck to the company’s main office in Laredo, TX, where it is then loaded into a smaller trailer pulled by a Hummer, for delivery to each account. Minimal advertising and simple, clean packaging also help to keep costs down. To Julio, it’s all about the juice inside. To that end, he’s hit the mark. The blanco has the sweet agave flavors one would expect and while smooth, still has enough bite to make you take notice. The reposado is light and approachable and carries the sweet tones of the blanco through a medium length finish. The añejo is equally approachable with hints of licorice on the nose, stronger wood notes and again, a sweetness that carries into a nice, slightly spicy finish. But the star of this lineup is the extra añejo and easily my favorite of the bunch. It comes across with a slightly thick and warm mouth feel without being too oily and its time in oak has added a nice complexity and balance to it. To me, the quality of these tequilas match or surpass many brands at twice the price.

While the majority of his time and focus has shifted to running this new tequila company, Julio still makes time for his musical interests. His passion as a musician is what helped make him successful in that field and it’s that same passion for the agave that has made Toro de Lidia an affordable and tasty choice for tequila drinkers. There’s no doubt that tequilas will continue to roll out with celebrity owners and spokesman, but I doubt that many will have as interesting of a story about how they got there.

Currently available in Texas, New York, Nevada and Colorado, with Arkansas in the works. Expansion will be slow and based on demand and production capabilities.

Tequilas reviewed for this post were purchased.

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Treasure or Trash – Was That Tequila Worth Buying?

On a recent business trip, as with most all trips I take now-a-days, I ran a search of local liquor stores to find a couple that might be close to where I would be. The plan is always the same – stop in, find the tequila section and scan the shelves looking for brands and bottles that have been passed over for the big names you all recognize. The visit usually ends up with me walking out empty-handed, or, with a bottled water or soda if the clerk has been exceptionally helpful in trying to find something that wasn’t there.

On this particular trip, there were three stores within a block or two of each other that I could easily visit. Upon entering the first, I saw a number of old bottles on a top shelf – not tequila, but old and dusty bottles none-the-less. That’s usually a good sign. After a few moments of scanning the shelves, the clerk inquired about my needs and instinctively pointed to the big brands on the shelf as soon as I said the word “tequila”. I further clarified what I was looking for and the clerk happily pointed behind the counter at a bookshelf in a “private” area. Upon walking back there, I quickly realized that the area was private due to a couple of bookshelves of magazines and DVD’s not fit for family viewing. Regardless, there were four or five shelves of dusty bottles strewn about and I had the opportunity to rummage through them. I could feel the adrenalin that this opportunity brought – there HAD to be at least ONE treasure bottle here! But after checking and rechecking, I gave in. Nothing. I stepped back and again looked at the main shelf of spirits and at the top was a bottle similar to Oro Azul, but the label read “Tequila Tazón”. Hmmm… I pulled the bottle down and looked it over as I’d never seen or heard of this brand. I’ve had Tezón, but this was obviously a different brand altogether. The price was right, so I bought it thinking I’d research it later. Worst case, it was a nice looking bottle for the collection. It turns out that Tazón was a pretty good find and for now, it’s on the shelf waiting to be tasted. That’s treasure enough for me. (You can read more about Tazón at Joe Horrigan’s Collection website)

Walking into the second store, I again quickly scanned the spirits aisle for the tequila section, noticed it at the far end, and started walking that way. Immediately I recognized a new bottle of Casa Noble on the top shelf – a sign that they carry more than just the basic brand names. As I walked up to look at the bottle, slowly revealing itself next to and behind the new bottle of Casa Noble was a bottle of their Special Reserve Añejo. Even better, it was a black ceramic bottle, with the easily identifiable gold leaf markings that just screamed out “basketweave!” I think I levitated for a moment. I quickly grabbed the bottle and instantly that euphoria I was feeling disappeared. The bottle seemed too light. A quick shake and the sloshing that I heard reinforced my initial fears – the bottle wasn’t full. Evaporation. The amount of time that this bottle had probably spent sitting on that shelf had likely dried the cork stopper, causing it to shrink just enough for Mother Nature to slowly siphon off some of the alcohol from inside. But how much? Hard to tell with a bottle you can’t see through. I looked for another bottle but this was the only one. My guess is that hunters smarter than I have run across this bottle before and left it on the shelf for exactly that reason. I’m not one of those smart people. I took the bottle to the cashier to explain to him the problem as I perceived it. He tried holding it to the light to see through it, even as I explained to him the non-translucent properties of ceramics. I told him I was interested, but not at the asking price. He noted that he’d return it to the distributor to get another, not realizing that those bottles are long out of production and general availability. After spending a fair amount of time haggling, I was able to get what I thought was a significant discount – possibly still more than an experienced buyer would pay, but the impulse side of my brain convinced me that I may never come across this bottle again… and besides, it’s a beautiful bottle! I walked out of there with the bottle in hand, a lighter wallet, and an uneasy feeling knowing I’d probably regret my decision later.

The third store provided nothing and I finished my trip, packed the 2 bottles for the flight home and off I went. The Casa Noble was packed in a zip-lock freezer bag and upon unpacking at home, my fears were confirmed… seepage from the bottle. Indeed, while the stopper was still fully in place and tight with the shrink-wrap plastic in place, the seal between the cork and the bottle provided enough of an opening to allow more than a few drops of that precious juice to escape. Evaporation indeed appeared to be the thief in the night. So now what to do? That’s easy – I bought it to drink, so let’s open it up and drink it! And that’s exactly what I did to celebrate the New Year.

In the time between getting it home and New Year’s Eve, I did some research and found out that the bottle that I had purchased (Lot 2250212, #7400) is described as a “Flower Weave” bottle. (example) Based on the painted “weave” patterns on the neck and shoulders of the bottle, these fall into one of five categories: Star, Spiral, Flower, Mesh or Grid. Casa Noble stopped painting the necks and bases of the bottles with the gold leaf weave as production increased, which is one of the reasons they are a sought-after edition.

Finally, New Year’s Eve was upon us and I opened the bottle with anticipation. First and foremost, the aromas that came with the uncorking were a good sign. No mustiness or “old cork” smell. Comparing it to another Casa Noble product, the hints of chocolate and fudge that came with the Medallion Reposado were not as intense here, but they were still present. I was instantly feeling better about my purchase. Pouring it unveiled the wonderfully golden color of this tequila. A few swirls in the glass and then straight to the first taste. Triple distilled and aged five years in French white oak, this añejo was smooth, perfectly sweet and nicely balanced. My concerns about lost alcohol disappeared as the juice provided a warm tingle throughout my mouth and had a nice, lasting finish. This is the type of tequila that makes me want to relax and enjoy it in front of a fire, which I did that night. I really thought this was going to be an expensive mistake, but instead, my New Year was brought in with the sweet taste of some Casa Noble Special Reserve Añejo. Mark this one up in the treasure column!

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Republic Tequila – More Than Just A Fancy Bottle

Walk down the tequila aisle of your favorite big-name liquor store and you’ll likely notice the wide variety of bottle shapes, designs and gimmicks that companies use to catch your eye – I’m guessing that by now, pretty much everyone has come across the glass pistol filled with tequila. While often interesting to look at, the bottle design usually has no direct correlation to the tequila inside. Some bottles are beautiful and elegant to command a higher price even though the tequila inside is less-than-stellar. On the other hand, some of the simplest bottles hold the most amazing juices. Then there’s the brands that get everything right.

Republic Tequila is one of those brands. Like so many things, it all started with an idea. A concept based around a bottle design put together in the halls of a well-known Austin-based ad agency. It’s at this point that so many great concepts fail. This easily could have become just another knock-off tequila brand with a gimmick bottle, but instead, the right people were brought to the table to take this “concept” and make it a reality. People that knew what it took to create both a quality tequila as well as a brand around it. Two of those people are Tom Nall and Ken MacKenzie. I had a chance to talk with both recently about the making of this brand and what makes it stand out in a rapidly expanding and highly competitive field.

Meeting in 2008 for the first time at the agency as they listened to the concept, both realized after that initial meeting that there was something special in what they saw, but neither would sign on without a commitment from the other. The CEO and resident cowboy of the company, Tom’s background was in chili and branding and knew the Texas market as well as anyone. Ken spent 10 years in Guadalajara working in the tequila industry and was originally brought in as a consultant. Together, they share a passion for tequila and went to work putting together a brand that they could be proud of, a tequila made specifically for Texas first. This is where Republic Tequila was truly born. Before the first bottles hit the market in July of 2009, this group had to create a tequila that fit the image of the bottle, Texas proud. As Tom noted, “I can get you to buy anything once, but I have to have a quality product for you to buy it again.”

They started with selecting La Quemada (NOM 1457) as their distillery and Sabastian Melendrez as the master distiller. La Quemada is a boutique distillery and, together with Melendrez, is probably best known for the elegant 4 Copas tequilas. Before La Quemada, Melendrez was at Herradura, leaving after the sale to Brown-Forman. With production in place, they created a recipe and taste profile that would become Republic. The lowland-based agaves are sourced from an estate owned by Melendrez and his sister and Republic Tequilas are certified organic by both the USDA and CertAgri, the first such tequila to be imported to Texas and a point of pride with the company. After being slow-cooking in traditional stone ovens, the agaves are run through a mechanical shredder before being naturally fermented and distilled in stainless pot stills. Republic then allows the distillate to rest for 5 days before bottling or barrel-aging. The claim is that this produces a smoother and cleaner finished product. Based on the taste, I can’t really argue against that claim either. The plata’s smooth introduction gives way to a pleasant spicy tingle and lasting finish – with enough sweet agave to please the palate. For my tastes, this is a nicely balanced and enjoyable tequila, both to sip as well as a mixer.

Speaking of mixers, the company has followed up on their tequilas with the release of Republic Spirit Blends, four all-natural, fresh juice mixers. Made without preservatives, the blends are simply water, agave nectar and cane sugar, along with natural flavors that make up each bottle’s flavor. And these are more than just “margarita mixers”, with flavors like Basil-Pineapple, Jalapeño-Lime, Prickly Pear and Classic Lime, they lend themselves to non-tequila based cocktails as well as culinary delights (check out some recipes here at GirlGoneGrits.com)

In addition to the plata ($30-$35), Republic also makes a reposado (8 months – $35-$40) and an añejo (20 months – $40-$50) which are both aged in used Jack Daniel’s American oak barrels. The addition of the oak in the reposado naturally adds some complexity to the tequila. While not overpowering, I found that the the wood removed some of the nicely-balanced sweetness that I enjoyed in the plata and replaces it with some heat. Not harsh or bitter, the barrel aging does give this juice a bit of a punch and it left my mouth tingling longer than I expected on the finish. If you prefer aged tequilas that are not super-sweet or super-peppery, then I suggest you give this a try. I also really like this version in a Paloma because of the extra flavor it adds. For sipping, however, I’ve found that the añejo is my favorite and I continue to return to that bottle again and again. The juice itself has a thicker, chewier mouthfeel and some of the sweetness that I perceived to be missing in the reposado is back in the form of toasty, buttery carmel, bringing back a nice balance between the flavors. The long-lasting finish allows one to take some time between sips and enjoy the residual flavors. Tasting these side-by-side links the two at their core, but it also clearly defines the maturity of the añejo. I’ve found that the more of this añejo I drink, the more I like it! And don’t just take my word for it. While all three of these expressions were award-winners at the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the añejo took home gold. With that in mind, my fingers are crossed that an extra añejo will soon round out the Republic line.

In the time I’ve spent with Tom and Ken, it’s obvious to me that they have a passion for both their product, their community and their company. They run it in a stand-up, old fashioned and community-oriented way and that attitude is displayed in everyone I’ve met over the last year. It’s that passion that has helped create not only a quality product, but a brand that any Texan should be proud of. So the next time you’re walking down the tequila aisle and a little image of Texas catches your eye, stop and take a look – it’s more than just a fancy bottle. It’s also an excellent tequila – what a concept!

Republic Tequilas are now available in Texas, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana. Distribution in California begins in January. For more information on Republic Tequila and their line of Spirit Blends, please visit www.republictequila.com.

Tequilas reviewed in this post were purchased (reposado, añejo) and provided (plata).

REPUBLIC UPDATE – If you’ve purchased a bottle of Republic Tequila lately, you may have noticed that the stopper has been changed. The new ones are now wood and should be much easier on your hands when trying to open the bottle. That’s not the only change to Republic. The brand also quietly changed distilleries and started making new product about 18 months ago, long enough to get juice into barrels to rest for the reposado and añejo lines to be on the market today. The new distillery is Agave Conquista (NOM 1577), which also makes Tequila 1519. An interesting note about this change is that the brand received special permission from the CRT to bottle juice from NOM 1577 in bottles that still read NOM 1457. If you’re interested in getting one of these “mis-marked” bottles, look for the new caps and then check the NOM. The new caps signify the new distillery. As for the juice inside, it’s a bit sweeter, with the aged expressions displaying a touch of cinnamon that I never detected before. The agave source has changed as well and while still lowlands-based, the fields are more coastal now than they were before. Overall, still a worthy brand and if you are a fan, especially of the original version, stock up…

JULY 2013 UPDATE – Republic Tequila has once again changed distilleries, with new juice already hitting the retail shelves. The rumors about the company being sold appear to be true as the once busy Austin-based headquarters is now an empty building. The new juice is coming from Destileria Leyros, S.A. de C.V. (NOM 1489), which is probably best known for producing Casa Dragones. It appears the new ownership has kept the iconic but sometimes troublesome Texas-shaped bottle, however, the brand is no longer certified USDA organic or kosher. It also appears that all three expressions are hitting the market together, as I’ve already seen the new blanco and añejo on retail shelves in the last week.

Correction: The company itself was not sold. A management group has taken an equity share in the business and is now running it. While the corporate office is still in Austin, the new management has offices in Atlanta and Dallas and it’s assumed the day-to-day operations are being run from there.

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El Viejo Luis – The Biggest Tequila Company You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

NOTE-Sept 24, 2013: The DEA announced today that the El Viejo Luis brand was designated as one of six companies to be tied to Mexican drug cartels. The designation effectively shuts the business down in the US. Read the full release here. In addition, Luis Abundis, with whom I spoke for this post back in 2010, left the company to pursue other interests.

El Viejo Luis. Does that name ring a bell? If it doesn’t, don’t feel bad – you’re not alone! This tequila company may be the biggest producer that you’ve never heard of. El Viejo Luis (literally translated into “The Old Luis”) has been available in Texas now for just over a year and to get here, it took a somewhat unconventional route. I had a chance to sit down and speak with Luis Abundis, Central Texas Regional Manager for Rool-USA, the importer and distributor for El Viejo Luis, about this company and it’s relatively unknown history.

While their tequila is fairly new (first bottled in 2005, first imported to the US in 2009) Casa Viejo Luis has a rich and long-standing heritage that started in the 1920’s when Luis Sanchez first began growing agaves and selling them on the open market. He took the proceeds of those sales and continuously reinvested, purchasing more and more land on which he planted more agaves. His sons and grandsons continued the family business and today they have more than 1.5 million agaves in the ground on their assorted plantations, all of which are highlands-based, making Casa Viejo Luis the country’s third largest agave producer.

With control of that much agave, it was only a matter of time before someone decided that making and bottling their own brand might be a worthwhile venture. That happened in 2005 when the company began production under the Tequilera Las Americas, S.A. De C.V. (NOM 1480) license with a distillery that features traditional brick ovens alongside stainless steel stills. The company now keeps the agaves that grow in their highest altitude fields to use for their own brand and continues to sell the remainder on the open market. After only five years, a new distillery is in the works that will drastically expand the company’s production capabilities (Luis noted that the new facility will be able to produce 30-40 times more tequila when it comes online sometime in mid-2011). This will allow for future expansion of the El Viejo Luis brand as well as the introduction of additional labels and taking on the production of estate-grown contract tequilas.

As I mentioned at the outset, the introduction of the brand itself to the US market has taken a very non-traditional route. After initially being released in Mexico, they bypassed the economic temptations just over the northern border and took the tequila to Europe. This was done because the necessary contacts were already in place and the process was much easier and faster than to bring the brand to the US market. Then, through a partnership with Mexican television, El Viejo Luis went to South Africa for the World Cup to help build its brand identity back home in Mexico. An unexpected benefit is that it also opened up the South African market where strong sales continue today. Expansion into the US market was next and has been slow and methodical. Texas was identified in 2009 as the first market for distribution and the import company – Rool-USA – is the first and only company completely owned by Mexican investors with a license to import and distribute tequila in Texas. (Expanded distribution is in the works with California and Florida as initial target areas with national distribution planned at a later date.) Even with it’s introduction to the Texas market, the product took the road less travelled to get shelf space in retail stores. To get there, the company first targeted restaurants and bars. This strategy built enough consumer demand that stores slowly started to carry it. Solid initial sales has led to widespread availability today and Abundis credits willing restaurant owners, strong community involvement by the company and a great product for the initial success and solid growth.

Currently, El Viejo Luis produces a silver and a reposado (titled as “aged” on the label) and will have an añejo on store shelves by Christmas (an extra añejo is currently in barrels and could be available within 18-24 months). With control of so many plants and specifically using only agaves from their highest altitude fields, one would expect a sweet and mineral flavored product. The silver is just that showing a nice balance of the two. The thick and viscous nature of this tequila gives it an interesting mouthfeel. With a smooth and mellow introduction, the juice warms and tickles the palette before melting into a pleasingly sweet and slightly spicy finish. This is a silver that will mix nicely into cocktails as well as be taken as shots, giving the Patron-drinking crowd another quality option with less of a hit to the wallet – suggested retail under $35.

The reposado is rested in new american oak barrels from anywhere between 2-6 months. In the glass, some classic reposado flavors and aromas are presented, from cooked agave and carmel to the distinct addition of oak. Although not as thick and viscous as the silver, the reposado still introduces itself politely before letting it’s flavors out to play. The hint of oak is strong enough to be noticed, but nowhere near overpowering and allows a lasting, peppery sweet finish. Although I enjoy this as a sipper, it would also work well in mixed drinks that need a bit more of a spicy punch. With a suggested retail of $37-38, this is another quality tequila in an increasingly crowded demographic.

As always, I suggest you find this brand and taste it for yourselves. Personally, I enjoyed both of these styles and I’m looking forward to the release of the añejo to see how it stacks up. More importantly, I’m glad I live in Texas where this brand is easily available. With their history and a quality product, I wouldn’t be surprised to see El Viejo Luis on a shelf near you very soon. Then maybe the rest of the country will get to know and enjoy what we here in Texas already can.

Visit the El Viejo Luis website here.

Tequilas reviewed in this post were purchased (silver) and provided (reposado).

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