Large corporations tend to be reviled by connoisseurs of cool spirits. "They only care about the bottom line!" "They bully small producers out of the marketplace!" "They stifle innovation!" Yeah! I mean... wait a minute. While it may be true that some leading spirits companies care more about market share than they do about what they put in their bottles, spirits nerds are becoming an increasingly vocal portion of the market. Some companies are just starting to take notice, and others have been leading the way toward innovation for some time.
You can tell that Sazerac is not exactly a mom and pop shop from their extensive holdings of whiskey (American, Canadian, Scotch), gin, brandy, vodka, etc., but they have been consistently pushing innovation for many years. Their annual release of the Antique Collection of bourbons and ryes is always at the top of aficionados' wish lists. And with the Single Oak Project, they've embarked on a crowd-tasted whiskey making experiment of immense proportions. But all this is old news.
Today they're pushing the envelope by milking their deep portfolio to its fullest, and using resources that would be almost impossible to come by if they didn't own them already. Corazón, one of their tequila brands, acquired bourbon and rye barrels from some of the Sazerac Company's star products to experiment with: barrels from George T. Stagg, Sazerac Rye, Old Rip Van Winkle, and Buffalo Trace bourbon. And the results, known as Expresiones del Corazón, are intriguing.
Not content to use the standard Corazón blanco as the base for these brand new spirits, they crafted a special edition blanco from scratch. They harvested two sets of agave, one with a lower sugar content, and one with a higher sugar content, and blended for balance. Sounds like as good a time as any to start tasting!
Corazón Artisanal Edition Blanco Tequila
Rested for 60 days in stainless steel bins, the scent of the blanco is spicy, yet mild. While it won't burn your nose, it does have an impressive amount of agave bite. There's a distinct fruitiness, with blossoming apple, and white pepper spice. One sip reveals a creamy spirit that's a little bit thin. It's balanced almost to the point of being mild, but delicate floral notes and lemon peel add some welcome complexity. It finishes short, a little sweet, and with just a little bit of fire. It's definitely a more sophisticated and refined blanco than Corazón's standard offering. (80 proof, $60)
Corazón Buffalo Trace Reposado Tequila
The youngest of the aged tequilas, this spirit spent 10.5 months in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels, and the results are quite impressive, starting with a novel aroma. Peppered oak, with just a hint of more typical agave scents. The flavor is sweet at first, with agave fruitiness growing to hot white pepper. After awhile the oak returns with just a hint of vanilla and cinnamon. It offers a long and briny finish, with just a hint of smoke. This is almost like infused tequila, with the bourbon trappings framing the blanco very nicely. (80 proof, $70)
Corazón George T Stagg Añejo Tequila
Aged 22 months in George T Stagg barrels, this tequila smells of green agave, oak, and caramel, and is quite hot. The taste offers more caramel and sweetness, with an almost bitter undercurrent. Bourbon notes start to dominate the longer you linger. Finishing woody and sweet, it's almost as if you've taken a journey from tequila, through bourbon, and ending up at white dog. (80 proof, $80)
Corazón Sazerac Rye Añejo Tequila
The only rye whiskey-influenced spirit of the bunch, this tequila is aged for two years in Sazerac Rye barrels. It has a surprising scent for a tequila, with oak followed by spearmint, pepper, and a hint of berries. The flavor is a bit thin, but spicy, with a lot of dry oak. The higher alcohol content of this one definitely translates into a higher burn. Finishing salty and green, yet slightly nutty, it's a wild ride that yanks you in many different directions at once. (90 proof, $80)
Corazón Old Rip Van Winkle Añejo Tequila
Probably our favorite of the bunch, this one is really a love child of bourbon and tequila. It spent 23 months in the barrel before bottling and came out with a scent that's a little musky, in a good way. The flavor is vegetal and oaky, with cinnamon and sweet corny bourbon making an appearance. The flavors of the agave blend quite well with the wood and bourbon notes. Though not terribly complex, the finish is pleasant, well balanced, and lingering. (80 proof, $80)
Aging tequila in a whiskey barrel is quite an interesting concept, and the execution of this lineup is top notch. My hat is off to Sazerac for continuing to roll the dice with new products and expressions. However, at the end of the day the flavor profiles feel like well-crafted novelties, and have been released in quantities (and at prices) reflective of that fact. While I'd recommend them without hesitation to spirits geeks who love trying new things, especially if they spot a favorite whiskey in the mix, the average drinker's money is probably better spent on either an excellent tequila or bourbon (or both! just not in the same bottle).
What other cross-breed booze would you be interested in?
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distilleries and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films for an independent production company in Brooklyn.
Samples provided for review consideration.