Despite all the recent attention paid to low-proof drinking, there's been an equal amount of focus on spirits that provide more boozy bang. Every category's got 'em, and in the last couple of years, a slew of high-proof tequilas have made their way to market. Now, it’s time to celebrate them, from spirits that give agave a little extra push, to delicate cask-strength sippers, to overproof mixing monsters—and everything in between.
Simon Ford's The 86 Co. has quickly become a go-to brand for bartenders in-the-know. Not only has the company built a small but growing portfolio of mixology-friendly spirits, but they've also designed an ergonomic bottle for easy handling, pouring and reusing. Ultimately, it's the juice inside that counts. The 86-proof Tequila Cabeza is an agave-forward spirit that serves up the light slap in the face that a Margarita or Paloma sometimes needs. It's got a sweet bouquet of caramelized agave and almond, but its drier characteristics give it a perfectly mixable balance. It's pretty damn pleasing on its own, as well.
It wasn't until a couple of years ago that master distiller Carlos Camarena finally brought his family's beloved 75-year-old Tequila Tapatio to the U.S. Along with the company’s blanco, reposado and añejo expressions came a 55-percent ABV offering, which is a marvel of sweet cooked agave and fruity, floral fragrance. It's distilled to 114-proof and then bottled at 110, so what you're getting is pretty darn close to exactly what you'd taste right out of the still. The flavors are monstrously rich and pure, changing from gently sweet to dry and tingly. This stuff is pure excitement at comparatively bargain pricing—big all over, deliciously agave-forward, and particularly hard to beat for its liter-size bottling. It's also the go-to bottle for Houston bar The Pastry War's over-proof Margarita because it cuts so beautifully through citrus, says proprietor Bobby Heugel.
Camarena is a living legend in the tequila world, and along with Tapatio, he also crafts El Tesoro de Don Felipe, Excellia and Ocho, a brand he started with the official tequila ambassador to Europe, Tomas Estes. Ocho is an equally special line, which looks to the wine world for inspiration, distinguishing its bottles based on vintage and regional terroir. Along with the 80-proof line, Ocho also produces a special single-barrel añejo at cask strength (in this case, an exacting 54.57 percent), and it too is a thing of beauty. There's a lot of agave upfront that's set off with caramel, sweet fruit, and a hint of port wine. The Ocho Añejo Single Barrel does show its cask strength with some gentle heat, but it's keenly eclipsed by a round mix of spice, citrus and pepper that finishes long and strong.
Building on the success of his all-organic 123 Tequila line, David Ravandi recently made his first foray into the overproof spirits world with the distilled-to-proof, 55-percent-ABV El Luchador. It's got a brightly herbaceous nose and an intense mix of flavors. The tequila is vegetal with a bit of salinity, piny with some earthy, medicinal elements and has a pleasant peppery finish. Unique and punchy, El Luchador does amazing things as a cocktail base.
Enrique Fonseca didn't get into distilling until the 1980s, when, as a farmer, he had a glut of agave on his hands. Rather than sell it off at firesale prices, Fonseca bought a distillery and saved his harvest by making it into tequila. Decades later, we're now the beneficiaries of that difficult time, with Fuenteseca, pretty much the longest-aged line of tequilas available anywhere on the planet. Some of the Fuenteseca tequilas, which are bottled between 84- and 90-proof, have been sitting in casks for more than 20 years.
Fonseca's upcoming releases are blends of column- and copper alembic–distilled tequila aged in a range of barrels: American white oak that formerly housed California red wine, dark French oak, Canadian white oak used by Canadian rye producers and... you get the picture. The seven-year-old expression has an aroma of dark chocolate and port that turns spicy and dry across the palate. The 15-year is nuttier, with more vanilla and wood notes and a touch more alcohol. While you'd think that after spending 21 years in wood, the oldest of the bunch might be overwhelmed by oak, it's not. Instead, it complements the still-shining agave with a dry, hearty finish.
If you're not ready to drop a couple Benjamins on a bottle, Fonseca also makes the 100-proof Don Fulano Fuerte with his nephews at the same distillery, La Tequileña. This blanco has some pretty intense agave upfront, and zips and zings its way across the tastebuds to a minty finish with a fairly spicy bite throughout.
Before there was Patrón, there was Chinaco, ostensibly, the first "premium tequila" to enter the US market. The man behind it was master distiller Germán González. He's since gone on to produce a pair of his own beautifully crafted brands with t1 Tequila Uno and Tears of Llorona. Both spirits start with the same high-quality highland agave, cooked in the same fashion, but it's his distilling and aging processes that distinguish them from each other.
While the t1 line consists primarily of 80-proof tequilas, Gonzalez's Selecto 86-proof expression is where he finds the best balance of agave flavor and alcohol. "Selecto is more like my memory of old-fashioned Mexican tequila," says Gonzalez. "I sort of created it for myself, because that is the way I like my tequila.” It's beautifully light-on-its-feet with a scent of buttery almond and vanilla that turns to creamy, sweet agave and a hint of citrus when it hits your tongue.
Gonzalez's latest release, the 86-proof Tears of Llorona, however, is what many people are calling the "Pappy of tequila"—a robust agave expression of cognac caliber, elevated by unique aging and blending experimentation. Where t1's reposado and añejo expressions exclusively see used Scotch barrels, the five-year-old Tears uses multiple barrels. "I wanted the dryness of Scotch, the fruitiness of sherry, and the sweetness of the brandy," says Gonzalez of his mixed barrel choices. The end result is something to behold: It's deliciously agave-forward with a touch of smoke, citrus and pepper that finishes smooth and clean.
The Patrón you're probably used to drinking is a blend of tequila distilled from two different agave-mashing processes: Some is run through a modern industrial roller mill, and the rest is crushed by a circular volcanic rock (or "roca," in Spanish) called a tahona. Roca Patrón is made purely from the latter, age-old traditional process, which also involves fermenting and distilling the combined agave fibers and extracted juices. And yes, it makes a huge difference when it comes to flavor.
The 90-proof Silver expression has a mild scent of cooked agave and citrus peel, and settles gently on the tongue with a light vegetality, some pepper and licorice. It's all around a more subtle take on Patrón's flagship offerings, but one that's imbued with a deeper character.
Roca Reposado (84-proof) spends five months in used bourbon barrels, and takes on a pleasantly silky viscosity with a sweetness that's not quite there in the silver. The agave still comes through, but it's got a creaminess that really rounds out in the mouth. The 88-proof añejo starts off with a characteristically caramelly scent and the barrel's oak and vanilla playing pretty big on bouquet. It's all heat the moment it hits your tongue, but that's when its complexity comes through, mixing the wood's sweeter qualities with some light acidity.
Expresiones Del Corazón is a line of tequilas that highlights the aging process through barrel pedigree. Using casks selected from the Buffalo Trace distillery, each of these expressions is named according to the whiskey that influenced its character. Of these four, however, only one hits 90-proof: The añejo aged in former Sazerac Rye barrels. It's got a nice nutty scent up front that's kissed with toasted oats. The light amber spirit is buttery on the tastebuds at first, but it's that elegant rye spice that helps maintain its balance through a dry finish.
Looking for something considerably cheaper from the same distillery? Casa San Matias' Mario Echanove also oversees the mix-friendly Pueblo Viejo brand, which counts a 104-proof blanco among its ranks. While it's not to be considered a replacement for the barrel-centric Expresiones, at 30 bucks a liter, Pueblo Viejo 104 is a handy high-octane addition behind the bar. It's boozy, sure, but it's vegetal and peppery enough to give cocktails some solid body.
If you're looking for something affordable for the well, Herradura also makes a decent-enough 92-proof tequila that's lighter in character than the Pueblo Viejo 104, but still has enough agave presence to make a full-throttle Margarita.
Dulce Vida is an Austin-based company that makes 100 percent organic tequila bottled at 100-proof across the spectrum (blanco, reposado, etc.). The highland-grown agave has lots of bright florality in the blanco expression—a lemony, minty nose with hints of green olive that gives way to a fair amount of alcohol and grassiness on the palate. It's spicy to say the least, but its complex character really jumps out when it's mixed in classic tequila cocktails.
Dulce Vida’s recent extra-añejo release starts with a brilliant amber color in the bottle, and smells of sweet vanilla, nut, apple and baking spice. It, too, is pretty hot on the tongue, but when that dissipates, it concludes with a pleasantly dry note.