I was checking my email one morning when a subject heading caught my eye: "Cuervo 250 Aniversario Private Tasting - join us." I like to taste things, I thought. Especially things made by companies that make alcoholic spirits. I opened it up. Turned out that Jose Cuervo -- the company, not the long-dead tequila maker himself -- was celebrating its 250th anniversary in the tequila business by releasing a limited edition Extra Añejo tequila. Suggested retail price, a cool $2,250 per 750 ml bottle. Would I possibly like to come by and try some?
Um, was this a trick question? Yes, yes please.
The following Tuesday at 11:00 AM, I found myself in an enormous room in a posh midtown hotel, surrounded by three publicists plus, flown in direct from Mexico, the director of the Cuervo distillery and the Master Tequiliero who had blended the stuff. A fire was crackling in the fireplace, despite the fact that it was a warm, sunny day -- this was just to set the mood. The air conditioning was cranked high enough to negate the heat, natch.
And at the center of the action was the most expensive bottle of tequila I'd ever laid eyes on, a beautiful hand-blown decanter, individually numbered, with a silver band around the neck proclaiming the company's motto: Lineage, Prestige, and Tradition. Frankly, I was surprised that it was Cuervo producing such a monument to wealth and taste. In the States, at least, its best-known brand is Cuervo Gold -- a tequila not to be savored but pounded down as quickly as possible, in rituals involving salt, limes and, quite often, the naked flesh of one's fellow college students (hence the term "body shots"). Would tequila connoisseurs shell out the two grand-and-change for something with the Cuervo name on it, in the middle of a recession, no less?
Turns out that Cuervo has been actively courting more upscale and discerning tequila fans for a while now, with a line that's expanded to include products like their critically acclaimed Platino silver tequila and the Reserva de la Familia ultra-aged brand. If the less educated among us aren't in the know about the Cuervo tequilas that actually taste good, the company is counting on at least 495 people to be hip to the scene and willing to plunk down the bucks, as only 495 bottles of the 250 Aniversario have been made for worldwide consumption.
But before I got to taste bottle number 496, designated for the lucky so-and-sos in the press and the spirits biz, Maestro Tequiliero Francisco Hanal Alfaro walked me through the process of creating what Distillery Director Araceli Ramos called, hyperbolically or not, "the finest tequila ever produced in history."
The idea for a commemorative tequila was hatched in 1995, which was the 200th anniversary of the Cuervo family's selling and distributing tequila -- Cuervo is the oldest tequila distiller in the world, and it's still family-run. At that point, the company planted a fresh batch of blue agave (the cactus-like plant used to make tequila) on the original plot of land granted to Jose Cuervo himself in 1758. The agave was harvested in 2005 and aged in toasted American oak barrels for three years. During the process, the tequilieros blended in select aged tequilas from the family's reserves, ranging in age from five years up to 100 years. The precious booze was then aged for another ten months in used Spanish sherry casks. The process took long enough, in fact, so that the finished product is being released for Jose Cuervo's 251st anniversary, this November, the name notwithstanding.
Resplendent in a lavender shirt and a matching lavender tie with white polka dots, Maestro Alfaro directed me to swirl my specially designed Riedel tequila sipping glass along with him, and together we held them up to the light. In somewhat broken but eloquent English, he explained, "The first part is to see the color. Is important to put in this position the glass, so you can see the color in the middle. The color is an amber color, and in the sides [of the glass] you can see the shinings -- that these are some copper or red shinings, no? This represents the time in the [sherry] casks.
"Now the nose -- a very deep inhalation, to feel all the aromas, OK? You can feel better if you open a little bit your mouth and breathe with your nose, because the alcohol goes out your mouth and you can appreciate very clear, the aromas. Obviously we have complex aromas." Indeed. Pepper, vanilla, honey, and traces of cocoa and chocolate, just to name a few, lingered in my nostrils and made my taste buds water. Was it time to actually taste it, perhaps? Oh yes it was.
"Now," Maestro Alfaro said, "we are going to put a little bit in your mouth.... You feel in your tongue some kind of abrasive sensation? It's because of the wood, both the oak and the sherry casks. Both are white oak, but one comes from America and one comes from Europe, and in Spain they use it to age the sherry. The whole process of solera, you know, in Spain, they use that kind of process. The sherry is a very strong wine, because the palomina grape is strong, and it's extra mature. They even use these methods for brandies."
The whole time he was telling me these factoids, my eyes were rolling in the back of my head and I'm sure I had some kind of ecstatic, post-coital look on my face. I'd have been surprised if a tequila this pricey wasn't good, but seriously, this stuff was really, really good. It's the smoothest tequila I've ever tasted; instead of the familiar fiery flare you'll get from mere mortal tequilas, the 250 Aniversario's heat unfolds in a slow, graceful fashion, intertwining with the unfolding layers of flavor. There are gorgeous agave notes, of course, but lots of honey, butterscotch, traces of dried fruit, oak and dark chocolate, and even a little cognac, thanks to the sherry casks. It's a beautifully balanced tequila with an elegance you'll find in few sipping spirits.
But then there's the $2,250 question -- is Cuervo 250 Aniversario good enough to justify its price tag? My wise and fiscally prudent cousin, when told of the price, said, "Good gravy, Tony!" (Yes, she really talks like that.) "You could buy a car with that kind of money. A car!" Which is absolutely true. I guess it's all in how you see $2,250. If you think of a figure like that as a month's rent, or a trip to the dentist, or even a used car, then you're probably not in the market for this stuff, no matter how much you like tequila.
But if, on the other hand, you're one of the lucky and dwindling few who see it in terms of a dinner for four, or an impulse gift for the spouse, then a bottle of 250 Aniversario may be right up your alley. If you're a tequila connoisseur, isn't the urge to sample it overwhelming? And even if you're not, who wouldn't like to own something so exclusive that it's in only 494 other liquor cabinets in the entire world?