For a seasoned spirits writer, it doesn’t take all that long to start generating a certain sense of cynicism about new buzzwords or gimmicks that seem to crop up and gain traction in a short period of time. This is especially true when the rationale for a new gimmick is primarily based around marketability rather than novelty of flavor, and this really feels like the case for “cristalino” tequilas to me at this point.
Granted, I really haven’t tasted many of these tequilas yet, but the first time I came across one in a recent tasting of Severo Tequilas, I was immediately less than impressed. That “cristalino” version of the brand’s anejo tequila felt muddled and stripped of its vitality compared with the base version that hadn’t been filtered to remove color, and the cristalino was $10 more expensive just to add insult to injury. The offered rationale for the surge in cristalino brands on the shelves these days likewise always seems to revolve around the perception that drinkers prefer the appearance of uncolored, blanco tequila, even if they simultaneously enjoy the flavors brought on by oak maturation in reposado or anejo tequilas. Cristalino is therefore pitched as being “light in color, but containing the same aged flavor,” but I’m not convinced that this is the case. In my limited experience, not only does the filtration process not seem to improve the product of its own accord, but it seems to have an undesirable tendency to strip certain flavors out of the finished spirit.
I can’t help but feel that this is the case once again in today’s tasting, a “reposado cristalino” out of Tequila Partida’s ultra-premium Roble Fino line of sherry cask-finished tequilas. Tasting this dram, I’m left wondering what its unaltered version might have been like.
In its original lineup, I’ve enjoyed Tequila Partida’s product in the past, especially their mellow and exceedingly drinkable reposado. This is a pretty standard, high-quality base tequila, made from agave cooked in autoclaves under low pressure and twice distilled in stainless steel pots before it’s aged for six months in ex-bourbon barrels. I was quite curious, in fact, to see how this profile might be modified by then aging in Spanish sherry casks, although those casks are at least one step removed from the sherry already, having apparently previously been used to age single malt whisky. Still, Partida claims that the Roble Fino version of their standard reposado contains plenty of “vanilla, maple syrup, anise quince and dried fruit” flavor after an additional 2 months in those sherry casks, being bottled at 43% ABV (86 proof).
The cristalino version, however, is the one I have available to sample, and this one has been “naturally filtered to remove all color, while retaining its defined body and complex flavors.” Notably, it’s also bottled at a lower 40% ABV (80 proof), which only lends credence to my assumption that these companies view cristalino as a product for those who want less robust flavors. In exchange for giving up some color and a few points of ABV, you get to pay an additional $15, as the MSRP rises from $100 to $115 for the cristalino version. Again, this is not really making a strong argument for me.
So with that said, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, the first passes really feel all about the agave, which isn’t what you’d expect in a reposado that has seen additional maturation in ex-sherry casks. Up front, it’s more fresh than cooked agave, with some resin and some pepper, but subsequent passes see these notes starting to morph and expand to include more vanilla and flashes of cocoa. Despite this, though, there’s not a lot on the nose that particularly puts one in mind of sherry—it lacks for sweetness, the richness, the dark or dried fruits, or the nuttiness one typically associates with drams such as sherry matured single malt whiskies.
It’s hard to say why exactly this is, though, because there are a lot of variables potentially in play here. Is it because the agave spirit is naturally taking precedence, and this was always meant to be a subtle finishing barrel effect? That seems a bit hard to believe for a $115 price tag, as I believe most collectors wouldn’t want to be hunting for the sherry. Is it because the sherry casks are being re-used, and have already contributed much of their sherry influence to a malt whisky that was previously aged in them? Or is it because the filtration process impacted the sherry character? These are all possibilities.
On the palate, I’m getting notes of lightly cooked agave, a decent charge of vanilla, orange citrus and some pepper, amplified by moderate and pleasant sweetness that is nevertheless somewhat on the bland side. There’s more richness here than the nose initially suggests, but it’s still not in a way that really evokes sherry specifically—I rather doubt that anyone tasting this blind, even a tequila expert, would be able to tell you that it had seen a secondary maturation in sherry casks specifically. There are perhaps hints of sultana or lightly dried fruit, and there’s certainly plenty of vanilla, but the notes one might associate with the sherry are ones you really need to hunt for in order to unearth, and even then it’s hard to say whether your brain is simply inventing what you expect to be present. The end result is perfectly pleasant for neat drinking, and the sweetness is likely quite inviting to the average consumer, but it’s lacking the total degree of character you would expect to be here, considering the process it’s gone through.
Ultimately, I find myself wishing that I had a sample of the regular Roble Fino Reposado, or the Roble Fino Anejo to compare this to, if only to determine whether those other brands more vividly deliver on the promise of their secondary aging. The end effect of tasting this cristalino is that it’s only enhanced my reservations about “cristalino” as a tequila sub style, and I’m still waiting for the day when I’ll see one where the justification for filtration is a claim that the product has actually been improved in the process, rather than simply made more marketable.
Distillery: Tequila Partida
Region: Jalisco, Mexico
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $115 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.