Beyond the ubiquitous margarita and perhaps a tequila sunrise, tequila isn’t really known as a spirit for cocktails. Nor is it necessarily known as a spirit for sipping at room temperature with no mixers or chasers, otherwise known as “neat.”
The fact is that today’s premium tequilas are not only great base spirits for numerous artisan cocktails, but they are also perfectly glorious for sipping neat.
Some of the finest premium tequilas are made by Casa Noble Tequila Company, which has been producing tequila in Jalisco, Mexico, since the days of the American Revolution. Casa Noble is still majority owned by the same family that started the company some 238 years ago.
Known for its commitment to quality, Casa Noble produces tequila using methods few other tequila companies would dare try to mimic because of the added expense, but it is still able to match the price points of other premium brands.
On Feb. 12, Ortanique Restaurant hosted a Casa Noble tequila dinner that featured five different tequila cocktails. On hand to impart his knowledge of the brand was Geoffrey Markle, the regional director of Monarq Drinks, Distribution & Marketing Group, which distributes Casa Noble in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Commitment to quality
Tequila is a spirit distilled from the juice of the blue agave plants that come mainly from the Mexican state of Jalisco.
Often mistaken for a type of cactus, blue agaves are actually succulent plants that are part of the asparagus family and are also closely related to aloe. A blue agave plant can live for 15 years or so. However, once it flowers, it dies, producing a cluster of offspring during the flowering process.
By Mexican law, in order to be called tequila, at least 51 percent of the spirit must be made from blue agave juice; the remainder can be distilled from any sugar source. A tequila made in such a fashion is called “mixtos” and it is the kind of tequila people do in shots with salt and lime or use to mix in basic margaritas. This low-quality tequila is frowned upon by Mexican consumers and is generally sent to export markets. Conversely, Casa Noble is produced from 100 percent blue agave, the starting point for all good quality tequila.
Casa Noble then uses several other methods designed to produce premium tequila.
“We do things very differently than other tequila companies,” said Markle, noting as an example that Casa Noble was the first tequila company to be USDA certified organic.
In addition, Casa Noble sources all of its agave from the 1 million plants it grows on its own 600-acre estate, which not only helps in quality control and consistency, but also in giving its tequila a definitive sense of terroir, similar to wine.
“It’s almost like a Bordeaux estate,” said Markle, explaining that every aspect of the production occurs right on the Casa Noble property.
Agave plants used for tequila production are generally harvested when they are between 8 and 10 years old. Casa Noble harvests them at 10-plus years for all of its brands. Harvesting involves chopping away the spiked leaves until the only thing left is the piña, a bulbous head that looks something like a pineapple and generally weights more than 100 pounds.
The piñas are then roasted in ovens to sweeten the nectar. Another way Casa Noble shows its commitment to quality is that it slow roasts its piñas in stone ovens for 36 hours, much longer than is typically done.
The roasted piñas are then squeezed and the nectar is distilled. Casa Noble distills its tequila three times.
“We’re one of only three tequila companies doing triple distillation,” said Markle.
Unlike other tequila companies that add coloring to their aged tequila to give color consistency, Casa Nobles does not, opting instead to put their aged tequila in colored bottles, Markle said.
“We’re willing to accept some color variation because we don’t want to put anything artificial or non-organic in our tequila.”
Casa Noble aging
There are five official classifications of tequila based on its aging process: blanco (or silver), joven, reposado, añejo and extra añejo. One of the three Casa Noble tequilas used at the Ortanique dinner was “Crystal.” Markle said Casa Noble calls this pure, un-oaked tequila Crystal because the company believes it is superior in quality to other blanco tequilas.
Also served was reposado, which is tequila that is aged in oak barrels for at least 30 days and less than one year. Casa Noble ages its reposado for exactly 364 days. The aging makes the tequila smoother and imparts flavors of vanilla to go with the citrus fruit base found in all Casa Noble tequila.
“People ask, ‘If you only have to age 30 days by law, why age 10 times longer than you have to?’” Markle said. “It’s because we’re not worried about the cost; we’re worried about the quality of the spirit.”
The third tequila served at the Ortanique dinner was añejo, which must be aged at least one year, but less than three years in small oak barrels. Casa Noble’s añejo is aged in oak barrels for two years, twice as long as required. The complex añejo takes on creamy oak and vanilla flavors as well as notes of chocolate, coffee bean and spices like cinnamon.
Perhaps the most distinguishing aspect of Casa Noble’s aging process is that the company uses French oak barrels from the Limousin Forest, where the oak barrels used to make Cognac come from. The other tequila companies use American oak.
Markle said the French oak imparts subtler flavors than American oak, which is why Casa Noble uses them, even though the barrels are much more expensive.
“Casa Noble didn’t want the oak to overpower the fruitiness of the tequila,” he said.
Cocktails and pairings
The dinner at Ortanique started with an outdoor welcome reception featuring passed shrimp ceviche hors d’oeuvres and a cocktail called “Hecho en Ortanique” [Made in Ortanique], which blended Casa Noble Crystal tequila and Aperol with cranberry juice, orange juice, agave syrup and orange bitters. This punch-like cocktail is designed for outdoor drinking and would make a good welcome drink to many different kinds of events.
The first course of dinner featured sorrel-glazed game hen and breadfruit/sweet plantain “mofongo” hash, paired with a cocktail called “El Diablito” [The Little Devil]. Served in a martini glass, this tangy but well-balanced cocktail combined Casa Noble reposado tequila, crème de cassis, lime juice and ginger syrup.
“I think the pairing was excellent,” said Markle.
The second course was pan-seared snapper served in a lemongrass-coconut broth along with jasmine rice. It was paired with a “Toquito” served in a rocks glass. The cocktail combined Casa Noble Crystal tequila with lime juice, lemongrass syrup and fresh cilantro.
“It’s like a mojito with cilantro instead of mint,” Markle said.
The final savory course involved pork, a specialty of Ortanique’s Executive Sous Chef Mike Fischetti. His delicious and ultra-tender oven-roasted pork tenderloin was served with sweet-corn and jalapeno polenta and steamed bok choy. It was paired with a “Texcoco,” which blended Casa Noble añejo tequila, Antica Formula red vermouth, walnut liqueur and Peychaud’s bitters in a rocks glass to create a contemplative sipping cocktail.
Finally, the “Local Mango Two Ways” paired diced mango on a sponge cake with a frozen mango margarita served in a digestif glass. This simple cocktail made with just frozen mango, ice and Casa Noble Crystal tequila showed the spirit remarkably well and really could have been the dessert course all by itself.