My memories of tequila, hazy as they may be (for obvious reasons), involve partying it up, old school hip-hop music, copious amounts of salt and lime, and maybe too much skin (i.e., tequila body shots).
It’s something that I reminisced with Justin Tan, Director of Código 1530 Tequila, while rapping (singing? Not quite sure) to Snoop Dogg’s 1993 hit song, Gin & Juice.
Not that Código is something I could imagine in a college party… In fact, Código is serious, award-winning stuff that’s meant for sipping (preferably with a cognac glass to get all the little nuances out) and a good conversation.
Lesson one: Not all tequilas should be shot down the hatch.
Lesson two, a little 411 on tequila: As a rule, tequila should be made in the delimited area of Jalisco, Tequila Mexico, and must be made of at least 51% blue agave (which, despite looking a little like the love child of a pineapple head and a cactus, is actually a succulent). They can be classified as Mixto (which adheres to the minimum 51% blue agave rule, and has other sugar additives to the mix), and 100% Agave (which, naturally, is made from nothing but blue agave, and is a little more costly to produce).
The labels are further classified according to the amount of time it was aged:
- Blanco/Silver – Typically unaged, “most authentic” because minimal process is allowed after distillation, and colorless
- Joven/Oro/Gold – Typically unaged, but with caramel that softens the flavour and adds colour
- Reposado – “Rested”, aged in oak for a minimum amount of time
- Añejo – “Aged”, aged in oak for a significantly longer time than a Reposado
During our conversation, Tan took me through a history of the label. “Código is Spanish for “code”, (which pertains to) the code and customs of the town, the people, and the community of how tequila is supposed to taste, and how tequila is supposed to be made… The authenticity of tequila,” said Tan. The 1530 on the labels indicate the year the state of Jalisco – now famous for being the area where 99% of blue agave comes from – gained its independence from Spain. The labels also show that it is from the town of Amatitán, whose primary economic source is tequila production. There is a Jerusalem Cross on the bottles, which is also found on the coat of arms of Jalisco. According to Tan, “The whole brand is kind of like a homage to the town, the community, and the land of where the tequila is from.”
The origin story of Código involves two business partners (and subsequently Código’s co-founders), Ron Snyder and Federico “Fede” Vaughan. During Vaughan’s 10-year stay in the area, he found himself enjoying an “unlabelled tequila” that he got from “his wife’s father’s friends.” He would get it by the barrel, bottle it, and consume it in social situations or give them away to friends. Having no name at the time, they simply called it “El Tequila Privado” and it became popular for its impeccable quality.
Understanding that they stumbled upon something really special, Snyder and Vaughan saw an opportunity not just for business but also a reason to share this wonderful tequila to people outside their community. They sought out the makers, the three brothers of the Perez-Ocampo family – a family that has been making quality tequila for five generations. Their initial intent was to see if they could make a little more of the tequila… And by more, I mean a mere two barrels at a time.
This fascinated me, and Tan further explained why Snyder and Vaughan didn’t expect to make huge quantities of the stuff. When the two got to the place, they found out that the three brothers made that distillery from the “ground up”. In fact, everything in it was hand-made, including the “fermentation tanks and still pots… They didn’t even have a bottling machine.”
It’s a charming story (and truth be told, some of the best drinks come with a good story), but as Tan put it, “It’s an inefficient process in making tequila”.
To make things even more difficult, Snyder and Vaughan found out that the secret to the quality of the Perez-Ocampo brothers’ tequila is their refusal to “cut corners” on four fronts: The agave used, the water source, the choice of yeast, and the barrels for ageing.
The Perez-Ocampo brothers are particular about choosing “sugar-rich agave”, which can only happen if they select agave that is about to over ripen. They insist that this heavily impacts the taste, but one can imagine how tedious this is (as anyone who’s ever tried to wait for bananas to ripen just at that point for optimum flavours in baking banana cake would know). They are not only picky about this; they also decided to use 2-3 times more than the regular amount of agave in their tequila, which translates to a richer, chewier texture.
Additionally, Tan told me that the distillers use a hand-built rolling machine called a chopper. The chopper guarantees that it would only extract the juice without damaging the fibres. The machine rolls over the steamed, hand-sized agave and extracts only the first press, which is about 25-30% of the plant (as opposed to most tequila makers, who would use about 99%). “(Our) distillers believe that that’s what gives you the best tequila,” explained Tan. The remainder is used for their own brand of agave nectar commonly used for cocktails, but that’s another conversation.
The brothers also told Snyder and Vaughan that the secret to their tequila is the water source. As a principle, some of the best distilleries, regardless of the spirit they’re making, puts emphasis in using good quality water. Here’s where the brothers got lucky: Their distillery, located in the lowlands of Los Bajos is called “Tequila Las Juntas”, or “the joining.” The reason for being called Las Juntas is that the three streams from the Volcán Tequila meet in the area of the distillery, giving them access to pristine water filtered by volcanic rocks.
Another thing the brothers make use of is baker’s yeast (for perspective, other distilleries commonly use synthetic yeast). Baker’s yeast allows a less aggressive, slower fermentation than its synthetic counterpart. Scientifically speaking, I’m not quite sure how this affects the drink (people are welcome to let me know what it is!), but the brothers are certain that this improves the quality of the tequila.
Lastly, they’re very specific about the types of barrels they use in ageing the tequila, and the effects of these are illustrated through their variants. Tan was cool enough to conduct a one-on-one guided tasting for me.
My first reaction when I took a whiff of the Blanco was that it was different… I was certain that it was a far cry from the notorious, cheap, industrial tequila we used for shots from the follies of my youth. Tan said that the Blanco is a result of their “purest efforts.”
On a more sensory perspective, it was minty, herby, earthy, grassy, and had mineral notes… And it had enough robust, chewy texture in it, owing to the quantity of agave used. To further substantiate their claim of making use of agave that is at its peak of ripeness, the notes I was provided with said that it made use of “fully mature agaves over seven years.”
“I like to drink it on the rocks… Or neat, even, if it’s chilled,” said Tan.
When I saw the bottle I thought, “Ooh, I’ve never seen pink tequila before!” People who have been to my home office know about my obsession with pink, so this is a huge deal.
Tan mentioned that Código was the first to come up with the style, so naturally, I was curious.
When I started sipping it, my next thought was, “This might be the result of red wine and tequila having sex and producing a child.” Seriously. Made by ageing the Blanco for a month in rested, award-winning Napa French white oak barrels that once upon a time housed Cabernet Sauvignon, the tequila picked up the colour, tannin, and flavour from the wine. Rosa ended up becoming tequila that has unusual notes of dark berries and vanilla, something I would typically put on Cabernet Sauvignon tasting notes.
Tan also told me that the distillers brought down the ABV to 35% (from the usual 40%) to allow the wine’s notes to shine through.
As for enjoying Rosa, I can imagine myself drinking it with fellow alcohol geeks as a “conversation tequila”.
At this point, Tan showed me a video of one of their coopers charring an oak barrel. The barrels, of course, are meant to oak age tequila (as I’ve discussed in the tequila 411).
I should have taken it as a warning that I was about to expect wooden characteristics from the next few tequilas we would be having, because boy, did I get surprised by the Reposado.
Here we go again with love children: This one seems like the accidental child of an Islay whisky and a tequila. While it still retained those clean characteristics of the Blanco, oak ageing for six months introduced an oaky, burnt caramel, spicy element to the Reposado.
We left off Reposado telling Tan (and my friend Chester, who was present during the interview) that I was starting to take back what I said about being a relatively cheap alcohol date, content with wine that’s just a couple of rungs above a house pour (versus my husband, who prefers whisky that has been aged for at least 18 years to enjoy it).
Then, the Añejo happened.
Tan not only gave me a sample of the Código Añejo, he gave me the multi-awarded 2016. Aged for 18 months in the barrel, it allowed for the oak characteristics to develop into something more refined and elegant. I have a few drinks that I would classify as “something I could sniff all day,” and this was definitely one of them. In fact, after sniffing it, conversing, and coming back to the Añejo, I found that it started to give way to some savoury notes. It sounds unpleasant, but to me, it added another dimension to the tequila.
The Añejo officially made me an expensive date, at least with tequila.
Here’s the other fun thing about it: Tan actually recommends it for cocktails that don’t typically use tequila as an alcohol base, such as a Negroni or an Old Fashioned.
Ah, the Origen. The final nail in the coffin with me taking back everything I said about being happy with inexpensive alcohol.
I loved this one. Not just because of the packaging – it came in a gorgeous, hand-carved box made from a local wood. It’s got lovely, integrated, elegant notes of the spices, caramel, and sweetness one can expect from something oak aged, but it retained pleasant flavours of preserved dark fruits… Making it one of the most sophisticated tequilas I’ve ever had.
What is it, really? Technically classified as an Extra Añejo (Añejo is only aged up to 36 months, and the Origen has been aged for six years), this thing of beauty is one of the oldest tequilas in the world.
As we wrapped up, I thought… Man, that tasting was a wild ride, a fantastic cerebral experience that was both truly fun and a mindf*ck.
Código is available in boozy.ph, The Booze Shop (Jupiter Street, Makati), and Hacienda (BGC).
Special thanks to Justin Tan (whose kid you’d probably “see strollin'”), Chester, and Sheryll