I'd just finished a multi-course lunch at the airy Guadalajara home of Pepe Hermosillo, CEO of Casa Noble Tequila, along with five other writers, Pepe's wife Gina, and Dave Yan, the distillery's marketing director. As we finished our desserts, Pepe mentioned that someone had expressed interest in infused tequila. That would be me. Pepe wheeled around from his chair to a sideboard, and broke out three cut crystal decanters and a fleet of small snifters. He poured a round from one of the decanters, and distributed them. I took a sniff.
"Bell pepper," he said, and sure enough, the tequila had a bright, vegetal aroma. Yet when I sip, it's mellow, faintly sweet on the palate. When he poured the second, an infusion of jalapeños, I braced myself for a searing burn, but instead was met with something far softer and almost earthy. The third, lavender, was intensely perfumed but has taken on depth and complexity that reminds me of a time many years ago when I had the opportunity to dab my wrist with a rare, 30-year-aged rose perfume. I refused to wash that wrist for days.
"How long have these been infusing?" I ask. "About a year, all of them about a year," came Pepe's reply.
I've made a lot of infused spirits over the years -- and I mean a lot. I've taught classes on them. I've advised steeping ingredients into vodka, rum, grappa and tequila for as long as a couple weeks in the case of oil-rich ingredients like citrus zest, to just a few hours in the case of tea. Last year, for a Cinco de Mayo-themed tequila, I pierced a single jalapeño and left it to steep in a bottle of tequila for 24 hours, resulting in a fiery concoction that could only be tamed with a well-sweetened mix of sugar and citrus. I've specifically advised against leaving ingredients in too long, lest you draw out undesirable flavors like bitterness or woodiness. This changed everything.
By the end of my stay in Tequila, on the premises of the La Cofradía distillery, where Casa Noble is made, the infusions began to make sense. Pepe ages his reposado, añejo and extra añejo tequilas longer than necessary to meet the qualifications for the designation, pushing them in fact to the very limits of the aging requirements for each. The net result is more subtlety and complexity.
When you think about it, all aged spirits are simply infusions -- infusions of oak. The longer the spirit remains in contact with the oak, the more compounds it extracts. The same principle applied to these infusions of peppers and lavender. And, as with aged spirits, the extended time added not only complex flavors, but helped to mellow the whole thing out, smoothing the rough edges.
These infusions started out with blanco tequila, but all had golden hues, solely from the ingredients. In the case of the jalapeño, Pepe had carefully trimmed away any ribs and seeds, which helped explain the lack of capsaicin sting, and it left me wondering whether one could leave just a little bit in to leave a lingering tingle, a hint of how it started its journey. In all cases, the infusions were more than the sum of their parts, yet retained the individual characteristics of each.
So, it's time to start a new tequila infusion or two. Check back with me in a year, and we'll see how well it goes.