Cristalino: Tequila’s Newest CategoryBy Brad Japhe
The Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) is tasked with protecting the integrity of Mexico’s most popular export. Its seal guarantees the quality of what goes into every bottle. Its laws dictate strict production guidelines, and rigidly define subcategories of the spirit — from blanco to extra añejo. In 2018, the CRT is expected to officially recognize another such subcategory: cristalino. What exactly is it? And who, exactly, is it for? It’s time for a clearer look.
THE FIRST “CLEAR” AÑEJO: DON JULIO 70
The first commercially available cristalino debuted near the end of 2011, in the form of Don Julio 70. Released to commemorate the brand’s 70th anniversary, at the time it was labeled ‘Añejo Claro’. This was something of a head-scratcher to the rest of the industry. How can an aged tequila be ‘claro’, or clear?
“Don Julio 70 begins as our Añejo, which is 18 months of aging in American white oak barrels,” explains Master Distiller Enrique de Colsa. “The product then goes through a charcoal filtration process, which strips the liquid of certain compounds in order to restore the crisp agave, citrus and vegetal notes found in our Blanco.” The idea is to retain the reductive benefits of barrel-aging while minimizing the heavy wood it often imparts. That this process removes color from the finished product is merely an unintended side effect, according to de Colsa.
Master Distiller Enrique de Colsa
Despite its appearance, or perhaps BECAUSE of it, 70 became a hit — and a permanent addition to the Don Julio lineup. Not to be outdone, several competing brands soon hopped aboard the filtration train. Each riding its own point of separation. Notable among them was Maestro Dobel with its Diamante bottling. A blend of extra añejo, añejo, and reposado, the release billed itself ‘the world’s first clear, multi-aged tequila.’ A narrowly-defined superlative, to be sure.
In 2015, Herradura entered the fray with Ultra: añejo and extra añejo, filtered, with a touch of agave syrup added for sweetness (and brand distinction).
THE LATEST ADDITION: VOLCAN DE MI TIERRA
This month, Moet Hennessy marks its first foray into tequila with Volcan de Mi Tierra. A premium blend of liquids distilled from both Los Altos (Highlands) and Tequila Valley (Lowlands) agave, the brand comes online with just two labels – Blanco, and Cristalino. How is this one different? Well aside from Glenmorangie and Hennessy-sourced cooperage, a 70/30 marriage of añejo and extra añejo is filtered prior to an ADDITIONAL aging in older, neutral barrels. Master Distiller Ana Maria Romero suggests that this final process is to contribute mouthfeel, rather than color or flavor — although the final product pours a slight hue of straw.
Volcan de Mi Tierra Cristalino
LOSING MORE THAN JUST COLOR?
Each of these examples introduces something slightly different into the glass, and for that, tequila drinkers ought to be curious. Yet, not everyone is buying it. “When you’re aging tequila you are getting the best that you can from the oak — you’re getting the tannins, the colors, the flavors,” explains Carlos Camarena, Master Distiller of El Tesoro. “And after all that you will pass everything through activated charcoal filters? You are shaving everything, not only the color, but the flavors. You [end up] with something that is a very neutral spirit. So my questions is ‘why waste time aging product if then you will shave it?'”
It’s worth noting that Camarena is nothing if not a purist. His agave is 100% tahona-milled, and he crafts the only tequila in the industry distilled to proof. All this is to say, don’t expect to see Crystal Clear El Tesoro anytime soon.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
The controversy surrounding cristalino promises to intensify as 2018 approaches, when the CRT ruling becomes imminent. Some may view the category as a cynical ploy to attract the vodka soda set. But that stance downplays a demonstrable truth: these liquids carry far more character than any neutral grain spirit ever could. “We didn’t have concern about alienating [connoisseurs],” de Colsa recalls, when inventing the style, “We believed that they would be intrigued by the innovation and take interest in a flavor profile that combined the best of both worlds.”
Approach cristalino honestly, with an open-mind (and closed-eyes) and you’ll be surprised at what you see. You might not like it, but after 2018, you’ll have to learn to respect it. Clearly.
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