It’s become fairly easy to release a bourbon that will appeal to the taters — those silly, often misguided, and almost always online, collectors of aged American distillates.
You can put your bourbon in a fancy bottle. You can make it an allocated release. You can charge a lot of money for it. But perhaps most important these days is making the product cask strength, released straight out of the barrel, without any water added for dilution.
As bourbon drinkers seem more willing to venture toward other spirits categories, who in turn are happy to pursue such free-spending consumers, brandy, rum, and even vodka have taken to following these guidelines. For tequila, this current state of affairs has meant the fairly recent introduction of something known as “still strength” releases.
On online spirits seller Seelbach’s, which mostly focuses on craft whiskey, PM Spirits’ Project Tequila Blanco Still Strength outsells the label’s standard 80-proof blanco by a rate of 6 to 1 on its retail site. Says Blake Riber, Seelbach’s owner: “Whiskey taters definitely chase the still strength.”
This trend isn’t necessarily as new as it might seem.
The revered brand now known as Fortaleza was launched as “Los Abuelos” in 2005 by Guillermo Erickson Sauza, who wanted to make tequila the old-fashioned way and in the manner his family had once produced it. That involved cooking mature agave in brick ovens, crushing the plant with a volcanic stone tahona, fermenting in wood tanks, and distilling in small, copper pot stills.
This process created an extremely flavorful tequila that came off the still at a mere 92 proof, far less than the 100-something proof you might see from more industrial producers that had already taken to using column stills. Ninety-two proof, or 46 percent ABV, was also the strength supposedly favored by Sauza’s great-great-grandfather, the “Father of Tequila” Don Cenobio, nearly 150 years ago.
By the mid-2010s, Americans in the know — many of them in the bar industry — had fallen for Fortaleza, whose flagship blanco checked in at 80 proof. Eventually, some of these individuals ventured down to Jalisco and tasted the tequila as it came off the still. Most were blown away by the intense flavors of baked agave, fruit, earthiness, and other vegetal qualities present.
“People from the bar and restaurant industry began asking for it,” says Billy Erickson, Sauza’s son and Fortaleza’s sales and marketing manager. So the brand said, “Why not?” and submitted Fortaleza Blanco (Still Strength) to the TTB for label approval in 2016; it arrived in off-premise spots by early 2017. “We kind of initially brought it out thinking that it was going to be mostly sold to bars and restaurants as a kind of, like, cheers at the end of the night to celebrate making it through an eight-hour bartending shift or whatever,” Erickson says.
“As long as we’ve been in business, people who really appreciate good tequila, they taste our blanco and they immediately love it. And then they turn to me and say, ‘Oh, when are you going to do a still strength?”
That’s not to say it was the first higher-proof tequila to ever hit the market.
“The first one I can remember being released in the U.S.A., back when it was still a relatively new concept for us gringos, was Tapatio 110,” says Grover Sanschagrin, creator of Tequila Matchmaker, an online database that catalogs over 5,000 tequilas. Tapatio 110 Proof — the highest legal proof tequila can be released at — had been out since 2013 and had likewise found a cult audience. Fortaleza, by contrast, seems to be just the first brand that used the term “still strength” — Erickson says they labeled it that because that’s simply what it was.
“I had no idea that a bunch of other brands would copy this,” he says.
Tequila Matchmaker currently lists 10 other still-strength blancos, from brands like Código 1530, Volans, Cazcanes, and Paladar. They’re all generally well reviewed. (That list inherently precludes higher-proof bottlings like Tapatio 110 Proof and Cascahuín Plata 48 percent, which are not labeled still strength, but might very well be.)
“It’s just a fanciful name. It’s not an official category,” Erickson says.
And yet, it’s a term that has come to capture many drinkers’ imaginations.
This summer, it seemed every week there was a brand announcing a new still-strength release.
In August, Suerte Tequila began offering a limited-edition Blanco Still Strength. The mere 1,530 bottles were mostly released through a proprietary commerce site. Despite retailing for $69.99, over twice the price of the brand’s standard blanco, and even more than its añejo, it sold out in under a week. This release had been a longtime coming for Suerte, which was co-founded by entrepreneur Laurence Spiewak in 2012.
“As long as we’ve been in business, people who really appreciate good tequila, they taste our blanco and they immediately love it,” Spiewak says. “And then they turn to me and say, ‘Oh, when are you going to do a still strength?”
Spiewak had first become aware of the “still strength” term through Fortaleza — so much so that he even initially wanted to replicate a 92-proof release. Suerte’s, though, would ultimately be bottled at 104 proof.
In the meantime, Fortaleza has become perhaps the hottest tequila among enthusiasts today (especially unicorn seekers). It’s nearly impossible to find the Still Strength bottling at retail, and if it is available, it’s typically priced at triple or quadruple the recommended retail price of $55.
That lack of availability has opened the door for brands like Suerte, Wild Common, and Pasote, which also recently launched a still-strength bottling at the maximum 110 proof.
“It is a much larger feat to produce still-strength blanco tequila that is balanced and flavorful the same way that high-ABV whiskey is produced,” says August Sebastiani, the founder of Pasote.
That’s one reason Spiewak finds it interesting that bourbon enthusiasts have moved toward still strength. For so long, tequila brands tried to lure these same whiskey drinkers into the fold via aged tequila — añejos if not extra añejos that offered more of the sweet, oaky barrel notes these drinkers were accustomed to.
As bourbon drinkers now enter the category, however, it seems that it wasn’t the wood influence they craved but simply the more potent proofs. (For the most part, there are currently no barrel-proof añejos available on the U.S. market.)
This is not just a bourbon lovers’ phenomenon, though, and more of an American sensation at large. When Spiewak approached his master distiller, Pedro Hernandez Barba, and asked him if he could produce a still-strength tequila, the man was confused.
“He was like, ‘You want a bottle of tequila that strong and you’re going to try to sell it?’” Spiewak recalls of the conversation. “‘Why would you do that?’”
“The enjoyment of higher-proof tequila is definitely an American desire.”
Likewise, Spiewak finds that when he goes around to Mexican-owned bars and restaurants to taste them on his bottlings, they often find it too strong. Many, it seems, are most used to the 35 percent or 38 percent tequila that can legally be sold in in its homeland.
For still-strength tequila lovers, though, it’s not purely about proof — not just about some boozy arms race like college kids trying to up the ABV of their BORGs. The style often has more intense flavors of roasted agave, not to mention a more robust, if not creamy, mouthfeel. Though it seems like it would be favored by cocktail makers at top bars, still strength mostly remains a neat-drinking spirit.
“The enjoyment of higher-proof tequila is definitely an American desire,” says Erickson, who has recently noticed more bourbon journalists venturing down to visit Fortaleza, something that never happened a decade ago.
“Whiskey drinkers have been drinking high-proof stuff forever,” Spiewak says. “And as new tequila consumers now they’re starting to look and ask for still strength.”
The article ABV Over Añejo: ‘Still Strength’ Blancos Are Luring Bourbon Drinkers to Tequila appeared first on VinePair.