Premium tequila is increasingly popular among American drinkers. Mexican distilleries cannot produce the agave spirit fast enough to meet consumer demand.
This has led some tequila-makers to harvest the heart (or piña) of their blue agave plants too early, according to Brennan Adams, Brand Ambassador for Santera, a new small-batch, premium tequila.
“The blue agave plant takes about fourteen years to fully ripen,” Adams explained to me during a Santera tasting yesterday in NYC. “Because the demand is so high, a lot of brands are harvesting after five to six years. This brings a lot of bitterness, because the agave hearts are not yet ripe enough. So they add agave nectar into the mash during distilling.”
Santera takes a different approach. The brand is small by design, favoring sustainable farming.
“Everybody else is farming tilapia, but we’re trying to wild catch,” Adams explained. “We’re just trying to make good tequila. It’s soft, and highly nuanced. It’s designed for the knowledgeable palate, but also approachable enough for the novice and the adventurous drinker.”
Launched four years ago, Santera’s production blends historic techniques with modernity. After a lengthy roasting process, the cooked tequila hearts are crushed in a mechanized mill rather than by the traditional mule and stone. The collected juice ferments for five days, open top. Distillation follows — double, in alembic stills — before a proprietary filtration process.
The brand includes an unaged Blanco ($41.99 per 750-ml. bottle), plus a Reposado ($46.99) aged six-to-seven months in American oak, and an Añejo ($54.99) aged in identical barrels for up to 16 months. Aging length depends on when Master Distiller Sebastian Melendrez determines that the flavors are right for bottling.
I sampled all three tequilas during the tasting. They shared a soft mouthfeel, spicy qualities, and a pleasantly grassy flavor. The colors progressed from clear to amber, depending on how much time each liquid spent in wood.
The Blanco had a big body with long legs. Sweet up front, it turned dryly spicy mid-palate. Adams attributed notes of light fruit to Satera’s use of ripe hearts rather than rushing into harvesting.
The Reposado exhibited floral and vanilla flavors on the nose. More woody than sweet, it contained notes of baking spices, with an oaky astringency. Light fruit were again present.
Unlike how some other añejos switch barrels during aging, Santera’s remained in the same wood throughout. The Añejo was whiskey-like upfront, with butter on the nose, high oakiness, astringency, and notes of vanilla and caramel. On the mid-to-back end it reverted to tequila, with a grassy spiciness. The transition was smooth like the mouthfeel.
Santera is named after a priestess from the Caribbean religion Santería. This belief system blends Catholic practices with West African mysticism, occultism, and spirituality in nature. On the back label of each bottle is the image of a Santera.
All three tequilas are kosher certified. They first hit shelves in June. Santera is available in limited supplies in California (the country’s largest Tequila market), and is closing in on distribution deals for New York and Washington D.C., with an eye towards adding Miami.