The legend of the sommelier, sitting in the cellar to taste and rate wines by candlelight, is alive and well in Mexico. Except here the cherished spirit is tequila and the expert tasters are known as “catadores.”
We recently had the opportunity to sit in with a group of catadores in downtown Guadalajara for an official “cata,” or tasting. We visited the Academia Mexicana de Catadores de Tequila, Vino Mezcal A. C. during one of their monthly tastings, and they were kind enough to let us taste along with them.
As soon as we entered the conference room where the tasting was being held—at 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning—we knew we were over our heads. Setup in front of each chair was 10 glasses of tequila labeled only by number, and a small glass of vodka, a bottle of water and a plate of crackers, all to cleanse the palate. There were also spittoons (11 a.m. is awfully early to drink all 10 glasses of tequila) and candles placed around the room, presumably to represent the tradition of the sommelier.
In front of the glasses were tasting sheets that asked you to rate each tequila according to a variety of qualities such as color, body, nose, flavor and finish. The tastings are blind and the brands are not revealed until all of the scores are tabulated.
This particular group of catadores has three different chapters — in México City, Aguascaliente & Guadalajara — and they all to go through this same process. The scores for each tequila are then combined and averaged. Each year, the academy gives out awards for the highest scoring tequila in each category (blanco, repo, añejo, extra añejo.)
At this cata we were trying a variety of extra añejos, with one or two añejos thrown into the mix.
The group was social and friendly and spent time chatting as the meeting began. Francisco Hajnal, the group’s leader, claimed the tasting officially underway and everyone immediately went to work, examining and sipping from the first glass.
I stared at my tasting chart, trying to grasp the complicated rating system (we ranked some qualities from 1-7, and others from 1-5 or 1-3) and make sure I was familiar with all the Spanish terms.
Tequila tasting can be daunting. I’m always surprised and impressed when people identify flavors such as wet cement, pineapple, and clove. But I found over time that the more tequilas you try and the more you think about the flavors, the better you get at detecting the different elements in a tequila.
Although I’ve gotten a little better at tasting, my palate was really put to the test during the cata.
Extra añejos have some of the most complicated flavor profiles because they age in the barrel at least 3 years, in which time they soak up a wide variety of tastes and aromas.
Luckily, Grover and I had a pretty extensive collection of extra añejos when we lived in San Francisco so I was familiar with the flavor profiles, even if I could not say for sure which brand made the tequila.
It took about two hours for us to taste, rate, and re-taste each sample, and then tabulate our individual results. Finally, a group representative collected the tasting charts and entered the scores into a computer. (Our results were collected but not added with the others since we are not official members of the group.)
Next up was the truly exciting part—the reveal. Bottles of tequila were placed on a table in the order that the group rated them. There were audible awes and moans; some wondered how they managed not to recognize a favorite, while others were surprised they gave a high rating to something they had previously disliked.
We felt the same. All but two of the brands on display had been in our private collection at some point, but we did not recognize them in the blind tasting. For instance, Don Julio 1942 had long been one of Grover’s favorites, but he rated it in the middle of the pack, while Gran Centenario Leyenda was one of my top-shelf favorites and I placed it third, after what I previously thought was a good, but not as good añejo (Maestro).
What an enlightening experience! It just goes to show how your tastes and palate can change when you are comparing brands that you normally enjoy individually.
We also learned a lot about how the Mexican palate and expectations for tequila differ from our own. In general, the Mexicans gave qualities such as strong agave flavor, burn, and finish higher ratings than we did as Americans since we usually prefer smoothness and somewhat more subtle aromas and flavors.
Of course, all ratings are subjective and what makes a tequila good is whether you like it or not. The incredible thing about a cata is that all preconceived notions are stripped away and you are only left with your senses, enabling you define what you truly like.
(Unfortunately, we cannot reveal how the catadores ranked the extra añejos. You’ll have to wait until the awards ceremony this summer to find out what brands won!)