Yes, Jose Cuervo makes tequila that you might actually want to drink

The tequila brand popular with spring breakers and country singers has a more complicated side

Casks of Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia tequila stacked in a cellar

Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia is pricey, but reconciling its “effortless grace and brooding power” with the name on the label is disorienting. (Jose Cuervo)

It turns out that when the people who own and run Jose Cuervo get together for a celebration, they do not model the occasion on the spring break gatherings from which they reap so much profit. No one passes around plastic jugs of Jose Cuervo pre-blended margarita mix, and the men do not greet women by chanting, “Muéstrame tus tetas!” Rather, they conduct themselves with dignity and sip on the special stuff, aged in oak barrels in the Beckmann family cellar and served in stemmed Riedel tequila tasting glasses.

It was at such an occasion in 1995—the 200th anniversary of a Spanish royal decree that made Cuervo the first legitimate producer of “mezcal wine”—that the company directors stumbled upon the idea to share their secret stash with the rest of us.

Every year since, Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia has been made available in a limited run of hand-sealed, numbered bottles. The Beverage Testing Institute—a reliable American tasting resource—describes it as tequila of “effortless grace and brooding power.” I found it smooth, rich and delightfully complex—but reconciling its quality with the name on its label is as disorienting as discovering McDonald’s suddenly sells a 48-day aged Argentinian McRib-Eye steak for $45.95.

Jose Cuervo Maestro Dobel bottleThe handful of bottles of Reserva de la Familia that make it here to Ontario are available by private order for $180. Which is dear. But tequila is a spirit category very much on the make, and its largest, oldest producer is obviously not going to be left behind—even if Jose Cuervo is sometimes burdened by the baggage of its past success. In the ’60s, Cuervo sold only palate-scorching young silver tequila. In the ’70s and ’80s, they peddled Cuervo Gold as something smoother and more refined, even though its amber hue was not the product of a long and expensive liaison with a charred oak bourbon cask, but a cheap infusion of caramelized sugar. Nowadays, we have legislated age categories that eliminate such confusion: blanco (young and white), reposado (aged in oak up to a year), añejo (a greater aging of one to three years) and extra añejo (three years plus).

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Alas, just when I got a grip on all that, Jose Cuervo introduced Maestro Dobel, a new ultra-premium spirit that is a blend of reposado, añejo and extra añejo tequilas. It’s named for and owned by Juan-Domingo “Dobel” Beckmann, the sixth-generation head of the company. It is not technically a Cuervo tequila, since it is produced by Proximo, Cuervo’s distributor. Where things get even stranger is that while the tequila would have earned its aged amber colour honestly, filtration has rendered it as clear as Evian.

It is equally intriguing in the glass. The nose packs lots of citrus: lemon, lime, grapefruit and toasted citrus peel, with a whisper of wood and spice. In the mouth it is sweet, supple and viscous. It is elegant—to a feminine degree. I prefer the grand, majestic punch of the Family Reserve, but then the Dobel sells for less than $80. What can you do? Same as always: Pay more or drink less.

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