Cinco de Mayo commemorates the victory of a badly outnumbered Mexican army against the invading French in an obscure 19th century battle. It’s a day that is more closely observed in the U.S. than it is in Mexico, where it generally passes unnoticed, and which, through some clever marketing, has become an American celebration of tequila.
It’s a good occasion then to delve into Cristalino tequila, a new category of tequila that is taking the U.S. by storm. Tequila is the fastest growing spirit category in the U.S., and Cristalino is the fastest growing type of tequila.
Cristalino tequila is typically an añejo or extra añejo tequila that has been filtered with activated charcoal in order to remove its color and enhance its fruity and floral character. The result is a clear tequila, similar to a blanco, which also retains the taste and aroma profile of a tequila that has been barrel aged.
The typical Cristalino offers the barrel aged flavors of an añejo or extra añejo, such as caramel, vanilla and oak, and the fruity and floral elements of a blanco. It also offers up a rounded, silky mouth feel, with a notable palate weight and smooth texture.
Just as every añejo or extra añejo has its own unique aroma and flavor profile, the same is true of Cristalino Tequilas. Some Cristalinos are sweet, with a very pronounced aroma of vanilla and caramel other less so. In some cases, these flavors are so pronounced that they seem artificial; like a Chardonnay whose vanilla flavors have been overly enhanced with oak chips.
Stylistically, Cristalinos can vary from dry to sweet. Some producers add agave syrup to their Cristalino to enhance the sweetness and smoothness. The Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) allows the addition of certain additives to tequila, provided they do not exceed 1% of the volume. If you find a Cristalino a touch too sweet, try it with a slice of lime.
The CRT requires Cristalinos to show the influence of barrel aging, but does not specify a minimum aging period or that they need to be crystal clear.
Octavio Reposado Cristalino and Partida Roble Fino Cristalino Tequila Reposado, for example, are both Reposado Tequila and are aged in oak barrels for approximately six months. They retain the silky smoothness typical of Cristalinos, but the vanilla and caramel notes are subtler.
Volcan de mi Terra’s Cristalino is a blend of añejo and extra añejo tequilas that have been aged in either ex-bourbon casks or Cognac barrels. Each Tequila is filtered separately before being blended together. After being allowed to marry, the Cristalino is bottled. Unlike the crystal-clear expressions, however, Volcan’s Cristalino has a light golden sheen.
Cristalino is the fastest growing tequila category in Mexico, and has had a profound impact on that market. It is responsible for making Tequila the largest spirit category in Mexico, and for shifting its consumption to more than 50% female. It has also broadened Tequila’s appeal to younger millennials, especially millennial women.
There are currently around 50 brands of Cristalino tequila in Mexico, around forty of them are available in the U.S. or have announced plans to begin U.S. distribution.
Below are tasting notes from six of the top rated Cristalinos currently available in the U.S. All six are made from 100% blue agave. They represent a range of finishing techniques and a broad array of aroma and flavor profiles.
Herradura Ultra, Tequila Añejo, 40% ABV, 750 ml
Ultra is a Cristalino-style tequila, even though it does not use the name. It’s a blend of the distillery’s Selection Suprema extra añejo Tequila, which spends up to 49 months in oak barrels, and 25-month-old añejo tequila.
The two tequilas are blended together and allowed to marry before the resulting blend is filtered. Herradura adds a small amount of agave syrup to Ultra before bottling, giving it a slightly sweeter taste than the regular Herradura añejo or extra añejo.
On the nose there are notes of fresh agave, followed by a wet stone minerality. As the tequila opens up aromas of buttery popcorn and fruit emerge, especially crisp pear, along with some subtle notes of red fruits and a bit of caramel. There are also some cinnamon and vanilla notes, although the vanilla is quite subtle for a tequila that has spent four plus years in oak. There is also a very faint note of sandalwood.
On the palate, Ultra has a candied sweetness, and is very fruity. It’s very smooth, with an obvious palate weight and a silky, mouth coating texture. The vanilla notes are more pronounced on the palate and the fruit tends to be more tropical, with hints of coconut and pineapple, than on the nose.
The finish is long, silky, cotton candy sweet and fruity, with lingering vanilla and some clove notes and just a hint of pepperiness.
This is a very easy drinking Tequila, especially chilled or on the rocks. Keep a bottle in the refrigerator for a perfect accompaniment to a lazy summer day.
1800, Tequila Cristalino Añejo, 40% ABV, 750 ml
The 1800 Cristalino Añejo Tequila is a rich, full-bodied Tequila. The tequila is aged in a combination of ex-bourbon and new French oak barrels for a minimum of 16 months before being finished in port wine casks for an additional six months. It is then filtered and bottled.
On the nose, it has some cooked agave notes, along with a marshmallow-like sweetness. Its buttery, accompanied by fruit notes of cooked apple, a little cherry and a hint of licorice. There are additional notes of vanilla, a little caramel and some black pepper.
On the palate its sweet, with a buttery, oily, mouth coating quality and an obvious palate weight. The cooked agave flavors are more pronounced, along with notes of vanilla and caramel. It’s very fruity, with subtle tropical fruit notes of pineapple and mango and a hint of orange zest. There is a bit of cinnamon and a mild but noticeable pepperiness that builds steadily.
The finish is medium length, sweet with lingering caramel and vanilla notes, along with some pepperiness and a bit of a green vegetative note on the end.
Tequila Partida Añejo Cristalino, 40% ABV, 750 ml
Partida’s Añejo Tequila is aged for a minimum of 18 months in ex-bourbon barrels before it is filtered and bottled as a Cristalino.
On the nose, there is a pronounced aroma of cooked agave, along with notes of vanilla and caramel and some cinnamon.
On the palate, there is more caramel, bordering on maple syrup, lemon zest, along with fruit notes of pear, some apple, golden raisin, fresh fig and some tropical fruits, in particular mango, pineapple and some banana. The tequila has an oily, mouth coating quality.
The finish is long, smooth and sweet, with hints of pineapple and a mild but lingering pepperiness.
Partida also has a Roble Fino in a Reposado, an Añejo and as a Cristalino expression. Roble Fino means “fine oak,” and is a reference to the use of Oloroso Sherry butts that were previously used to mature single malt whisky. Only, 7,200 bottles were released across all three ranges.
The casks are obtained from Edrington, the owners of such iconic single malts as The Macallan, Highland Park and the Glenrothes. Edrington Americas handles distribution, marketing and sales for Partida in the U.S.
In the case of the Partida, Roble Fino, Cristalino Tequila Reposado Sherry Oak Finish, 40% ABV, 750 ml, the Tequila is aged in ex-bourbon casks for a minimum of six months, and then undergoes an additional two months of finishing in a “ex-single malt, sherry seasoned casks.” This expression is the first ex-single malt sherry cask finished, reposado Cristalino.
The sherry cask seasoning adds notes of dried fruits and almonds, typical sherry cask influences, to the notes of cooked agave, caramel, vanilla and toasted oak.
On the palate, the Cristalino is candy sweet. The Sherry cask finishing further adds to the tequila’s smooth, silky character. The Cristalino offers up flavors of dried red fruit, lemon zest and marzipan, along with cooked agave notes. There are additional notes of vanilla and caramel, although these are more subtle than in the typical Cristalino, along with some dried herbal notes and a mild chili pepperiness.
The finish is long, sweet, with dried fruit flavors and a lingering vegetative and peppery note.
Maestro Dobel, 50 Cristalino Extra Añejo, 40% ABV, 750 ml
The Maestro Dobel Cristalino spends a minimum of 36 months in a combination of French Oak, ex-bourbon, and sherry casks. The extra añejo tequila casks slated to become a Cristalino are hand selected from the company’s stock of aged tequilas.
The name “Dobel” is an acronym formed from the name of Juan Domingo Beckmann Legorreta. Beckmann Legorreta, the eleventh-generation leader of Jose Cuervo, founded the company in collaboration with master distillers Marco Anguiano and Luis Yerenas. Their first release was in 2008.
The Cristalino commemorates Beckman’s 50th birthday, hence the reference to “50” on the label.
On the nose, there are aromas of cooked agave, along with baked apple, caramel, vanilla and sweet honey notes, followed by sherry-cask-induced dried fruit notes of golden raisin, fig and quince. There are additional notes of milk chocolate, some coffee and a slight dried herbal flavor.
On the palate, the Cristalino is silky smooth, with an oily mouth coating quality. It’s sweet, with dried fruit notes of fig, date and hints of pineapple. There is also a cooked squash/spicy pumpkin pie quality, along with spice notes of cinnamon, clove and a bit of pepper.
The finish is long, silky smooth and sweet, with lingering dried fruit notes, some milk chocolate, a mild pepperiness and a slight hint of bitterness at the end.
Volcan de mi Tierra, Cristalino Añejo, 40% ABV, 750 ml
Unlike other Cristalinos, the Volcan Cristalino has a light gold/straw color. This is a very flavorful, robust Tequila. It’s a blend of añejo Tequila, which has been aged for a year, and extra añejo Tequila that has been aged for 3 years.
The Tequila is matured in a combination of ex-Bourbon and Cognac casks. The distillery uses a combination of high-pressure autoclave and traditional stone ovens (hornos) to cook the agave, and uses a combination of a tahona, a traditional stone wheel and a roller mill to crush the cooked agave. Another unusual feature of Volcan is that it uses a Champagne yeast in fermentation.
On the nose, there is a very pronounced cooked agave aroma, along with distinctive notes of vanilla and caramel. The Tequila is fruity, with dried fruit notes, a bit of dried herbal aromas, as well as some milk chocolate. There is also a distinct wet stone minerality that this typical of Volcan de mi Tierra expressions.
On the palate, there is a notable, sweet, cooked agave flavor, accompanied by caramel and vanilla and a pronounced chili pepperiness. There are additional notes of dried fruit, along with milk chocolate, some dried herbs, a bit of mint and a wet stone/mineral note.
The finish is long, sweet, with dried fruit notes and a distinct lingering pepperiness.
These are all outstanding Cristalino tequilas. They are varied, underscoring the fact that as distillers continue to experiment with different cask finishes and production protocols to create new aroma and flavor profiles in tequila, these changes will ultimately be reflected in a broadening of the styles of Cristalino available to consumers.
Whether straight up, on the rocks or in cocktails, Cristalino tequilas have much of to offer consumers and are well worth exploring.