Casa Noble

The Facts:

Distillery: Cofradía
NOM: 1137
Origin: Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico, since 1996
ABV: 40% for their standard offerings, some cask-strength (51%+) special releases
Distinguishing characteristics: dusty/sweet chocolate; vanilla; cinnamon; pepper; baked agave

The Preamble:

There are too many tequila brands in this world.

While it’s certainly not unprecedented for a single distillery to put out more than one brand, no one’s run away with it quite like they have in Mexico. There are roughly 140 active distilleries in Mexico putting out, as of March 19th, 1633 different brands, most of which come in a set of blanco, reposado, and añejo, and a weighty proportion of which are bad. There’s an embarrassing amount of celebrity brands, there are the slickly marketed giants and the bottom scraping mixtos and a bewildering array of products that come in oversized glass firearms… so the question, “what makes this bottle special?,” for tequila, can be a particularly difficult one.

I say that to say this: one of the nice things about Casa Noble, out of the Cofradía distillery just outside the town of Tequila, is that they make that question extremely easy to answer.

The Story:

Casa Noble has history stretching back to the 1770s, but has existed in its current form since 1996. Jose “Pepe” Hermosillo’s family has been in the tequila business for seven generations and affiliated with Cofradía for 70 years — it’s all a bit vague as to exactly what and who and how — but what’s important is that almost 20 years ago he co-founded Casa Noble as we know it today.

Whether in response to the colorful homogeneity of the tequila aisle or in anticipation of it, Casa Noble takes great care to set themselves apart, claiming not one but five unusual or unique distinctions:  it is a (1) triple distilled, (2) kosher (3) organic tequila that’s been (4) certified Green by the Mexican government, and (5) aged in new French oak.

Points #1, #3, and #5 have significant flavor ramifications, #4 is just cool, and #2 doesn’t matter at all. But let’s unpack it:

(1) triple distillation:

Most tequila is only double distilled, which is, for the most part, a good thing. Very generally speaking, the more distillations, the higher alcohol proof, and the more flavor is stripped out of the product. So the designation of triple distillation is a strange one because it is simultaneously attracts novices and repels aficionados.  However. The speed and quality of the distillations is exponentially more important than their number, and Casa Noble’s three passes take the spirit only up to 57% or so, which is industry standard. They take three runs to get to where most people get in two.

(2) kosher:

The kosher rules for spirits are predictably silly but don’t dictate any big change in their methodology. I think they have something to do with the lunar cycle, but the “this is stupid” voice in my head actually drowned out Dave’s explanation, and I lost the salient details. What it really means is that production in the entire Cofradía distillery has to shut down and wait for rabbis to come poke around and give it their OK.

(3) organic:

Casa Noble began pursuing an organic certification about 10 years ago, and finally got it in 2009. They are one of only a few organic tequilas, and this is more significant than it may at first seem. They court USDA certification through the stringent California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) organization, which includes all the normal rules in addition to a tedious litany of their own (your fields must be >1km away from major highways, lest an errant inorganic seed fly off a truck and plant itself in your land, etc.). Why does this matter? Because of the care they are forced to take with their fields. When you can’t apply the hammer of modern biochemical science, you really need to look after your plants. The agaves are stressed and the yield is smaller, but Casa Noble believes this makes a more complex, dynamic spirit.

(4) certified green by the Mexican government

This doesn’t mean so much for flavor, but it gives an indication of where their priorities are: they have a modern water treatment plant on the grounds, so all the waste water from distillation, all the otherwise toxic fusel alcohols, and all the compost agave fibers get treated and returned safe to the land. Which is… you know… nice.

(5) aged in new French oak

Almost all tequila, when aged, is aged in used bourbon barrels, because the bourbon industry gluts the market. Bourbon, by law, must be aged in a brand new white oak barrel each and every time, which is wasteful on a uniquely American scale, but has a fringe benefit in that tequila, scotch, rum, and everyone else gets once-used barrels at absurdly low prices (think somewhere around $50, compared to somewhere around $1000 for new French oak). French “Limosin” oak is toasted instead of charred and has a tighter wood grain, and after time, this expresses itself through the tequila with flavors of bitter chocolate, cinnamon, and vanilla. While I generally prefer the reposado of most brands, Casa Noble is one of the few tequilas I think, for the most part, gets better as it gets older.

The Process:


Casa Noble is all estate grown, from some 6500 acres hosting about a million plants. Their land is in Uzeta reigon of Nayarit, right on the border of Jalisco, and agaves are harvested between 10 and 14 years for peak ripeness, on the long side of standard (though possibly because of that no-chemical approach).

Baking & Crushing:

Cofradía keeps 5 brick ovens, where they steam-cook the agaves for about 36 hours to release all the juices. There’s a drain in the oven as well, so to not lose any of the precious “oven-honey” that sags out of the hearts when they’re cooked.

Piñas may keep the precious sugary nectar but they are still essentially wood, so they need to be crushed. Casa Noble has an unusual crusher, a long narrow 800rpm combination screw/spike – the agaves are broken apart with the screw, then fibers separated by the small narrow fan-like blades, which was designed to extract the juice without pulverizing the wood grains. Less overall violence means less methanol, which means less blindness.

Left to right, top to bottom: (1) the agave crusher, (2) fermentation tanks, (3) stills, (4) their combination barrel room/tequila church.

Fermentation & Distillation:

They keep eighteen 18,000L fermentation tanks, and like almost everyone else, they ferment using a proprietary yeast. It takes some five days before the low-alcohol agave brew shipped to the stills.

Cofradía has five total stills but only Casa Noble is only distilled in three passes – the first run through what they charmingly refer to as “the destroyers” gets the spirit up to somewhere around 25%, then the second pass and third pass on smaller stills, ultimately capping out around 57% ABV. Again, not only is it unusual for a tequila to be distilled three times, it’s unusual for a triple distilled product to only be distilled to 56% — usually people distill higher than that, as the whole idea is to further purify (read: remove flavor from) the spirit.

I’d be intensely interested to taste a twice-distilled Casa Noble, but we don’t get everything we want.

Aging & Tasting:

The blanco – they call it “Crystal,” because they know how to market as well as anyone – is unaged. There’s some vanilla, but most sweetness is distinctly baked agave sweetness. Mint and herbs (thyme?) and a stronger note of black pepper. It’s not very showy and my least favorite of the lot — a great (if expensive) mixing tequila, it’s certainly not bad, but I get the sense that it was built to be aged.

The reposado is aged 364 days, exactly one day short of it being a technical añejo, in some of their used barrels. The French oak influence sets itself apart here – you get bitter chocolate, baking cinnamon and faint vanilla notes to compliment the sweet baked agave flavor. The reposado is phenomenal.

The añejo sleeps two years in brand new French oak barrels, and is both sweeter and darker/richer than the reposado. Here, it’s bittersweet chocolate that shifts beneath firm oak presence. The wood mutes it a bit, turns the volume down: it coaxes more vegetal notes out of the agave. Bitter cinnamon. Not much left of the vanilla, but it’s there. Long chocolate finish.

The five-year añejo is a single barrel, extra aged gem. Mine was the barrel selected by Hi-Time liquors in Costa Mesa, and it’s utterly decadent. The bitter chocolate turns sweet, along with rich, buttery oak and vanilla flavors weaving in and out. Rich rich rich, like buttery 80 proof agave chocolate. Remarkable.

And bonus: Casa Noble Joven, *EDIT*: a blanco aged for a scant 8 weeks in French oak (thanks, Dave, for correcting me on this point): 51% ABV. The heat helps the overall intensity of flavor. Chocolate and earth. Grassy spice, mace and maybe nutmeg. Sensation is a very dry, herbal chocolate.

This was my second time visiting Casa Noble, and the hospitality they showed us I can only describe as legendary. Thank God they make such a good product. It would be very difficult to be unkind to them.

[cn] hospitality

Thanks again.

The Bourbon Trail (1 of 6): Buffalo Trace

The Facts:

Distillery: Buffalo Trace Distillery
Location: Frankfort, Kentucky
Owned By: Sazerac Company
Major Products produced: Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Van Winkle, W.L. Weller, Blanton’s, Elmer T. Lee, Sazerac, Rock Hill Farms, Ancient Age
Origin: Continued distillation since 1787; rechristened Buffalo Trace in 1999.

The Tour:

Nestled up next to the Kentucky River, the Buffalo Trace compound is an expansive mix of tended grounds, antique warehouses and modern factory equipment. They keep the oldest aging warehouse in Kentucky and all that, but the surprising things are the niceties, flowering trees and gardens and such, which blend well with the structures and were installed in the early 20th century by Colonel Albert Blanton, who decreed that fine bourbon should have fine surroundings.

Everyone who works there places a premium on history and tradition, and are visibly proud of the distillery heritage. The buildings themselves, particularly the warehouses, wear their age with dignity. Like John Huston said in Chinatown, “politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

Our tour opened with a delightfully hokey, completely unironic video of actors in cheap synthetic pelts aiming prop rifles at off-screen buffalo. The bearded frontiersman on screen then stopped to sip from a bubbling creek at his feet before righting himself for some stoic squinting off-camera left. It’s the type of video that they showed 3rd graders in the early 90s, and it betrays a charming void where slick marketing prowess would otherwise be.

We found this to be a constant, especially when compared to other distilleries. Buffalo Trace is a big distillery owned by an even bigger company, and yet they maintain a homey, oh-put-that-anywhere nature that pervaded every minute of the 2.5 hours we spent there. They are, in other words, unassuming — especially so when considering that they make what is arguably the best bourbon in the world.

The history of the distillery is incredibly long. First this, pioneers in that. They’ll say things like “this is the oldest freestanding house in Franklin County!,” and we dutifully pretended to care. We were much more interested in the process, so from here on out I’m going to completely ignore history, as much as a favor to you as to myself.


Buffalo Trace produces three mashbills for their bourbon: Mash#1 is higher corn, and makes Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, and George T. Stagg. Mash#2 is a bit more rye-heavy, and makes Blantons, Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms, and others. There’s additionally a wheated bourbon, which uses wheat instead of rye, and makes W.L. Weller and the whole Van Winkle line, and yet another recipe for their Sazerac ryes.

The far right picture is the texture of the final mill, ready to be cooked.

Bourbon by law has to be 51% corn, and Buffalo Trace (indeed, all the distilleries we spoke to) gets their corn locally. It’s no mystery why Kentucky’s native spirit is a corn-based one, as it grows voraciously in this part of the world and is delivered here daily on 18 wheels, along with Dakota rye and Dakota/Minnasota barley. It is inspected, and if passed, pumped into the milling room where it’s ground via hammer mill into a fine, flour-like powder before entering one of their enormous, 10,000 gallon pressure cookers that rattle the brick walls and sound like a brewing catastrophe.

One of the ways to control the final taste is to monitor exactly how the mill cooks: when to add the corn, barley, and malt. Buffalo Trace pressure cooks the corn separately from the rye, at 240 degrees for about 45 minutes. They’re then combined, and barley is added after it all cools a bit — barley is already malted, so there’s no need to render the sugars quite so violently.


Like all the others, Buffalo Trace is fermented by sour mash process. Some of the old mash (about 2% of the total) is added to the new to catalyze the process of fermentation. They have a proprietary yeast that is made off site, and it takes 66lbs of yeast to complete fermentation in Buffalo Trace’s gargantuan 92,000 gallon stainless steel tanks. There are 12 of these massive things, and they’ll typically fill two/day.

The little tube is the sour mash back from the still.

It takes 3 to 5 days for the bubbling mash to reach 9% alcohol. At the distillery, they let you stick your finger in the fermentation tanks and taste the brew, called “distiller’s beer.” We saw different tanks at different stages of the process: sometimes there’s a deep red oil (I assume corn oil) hovering on top that tastes terrible, sometimes it’s wrinkled and teeming and looks like a living cerebral cortex, and sometimes it’s a milder yellow brew that tastes like a sweet corn beer. I’ve never really tasted the corn in bourbon before — it’s definitely there, but not prevalent for me — and it wasn’t until trying this missing link that I really got it.


The distillation room in Buffalo Trace is loud and busy, wires and pipes everywhere, with everything clear made musty opaque with liquor and heat. The mash is pumped into a 40′, 60,000 gallon column still which roars away and drains off a product that’s about 120 proof but yet unfinished. That goes to a pot still which double distills it up to between 130-144 proof.

Lower left is the ≈135 proof alcohol spewing out of the pot still, and on the right is that tap out of which you can drink cups of it.

From 184,000 gallons of mash, distillation yields only 1,800 gallons of product  — about 1% — which gets diluted to a maximum of 125 proof (Bourbon Law) and put into barrel.


All bourbon must be aged in charred, new, 53 gallon white oak barrels. The level of char, source of barrels, method of drying wood, and pretty much everything else is up to the individual distillery. Buffalo Trace insists all their barrel staves get air-dried for at least 6 months before giving them an “alligator char,” very heavy, 3.5 or 3.8 out of 4.

The barrels are rolled into the brick aging warehouses, stacked 3 or 6 tall into ricks, and left to contemplate the passage of time. The barrels do not move until it’s time to be bottled. Buffalo Trace has over a dozen different warehouses, each with its own distinct personality. Some have better air flow than others, some concrete floors, some wooden, some 9 stories others 6, etc., as which part of which warehouse each barrel is in will dramatically influence aging and therefore final taste.

What they do all share is steam heating, which is significant for the following reason: Kentucky’s seasons are what hasten bourbon aging. The liquid soaks up into the wood in the warm summer and comes out of the wood in the cold winter, again and again, over and over (or, as we experienced, 80-degree Wednesday and 45-degree Thursday) As it leaves the wood grains, the spirit keeps some of the barrel’s color and flavor as a souvenir, which is essentially the whole significance of aging. Heated warehouses simulate this phenomenon, so in the winter, they oscillate the temperature between 40 and 68, up and down, in and out, creating mini-seasons and making the whiskey mature beyond its years. So by the time Buffalo Trace is bottled, at between just 8 and 11 years old, it’s already taking classes at the local community college.

That dark line in the wood is where the whiskey took the barrel’s own char and color, before taking it back.

Touring the warehouses is a quiet experience. All that wood reminds me of an old church, as if the hot, immature spirit goes there for years of silent reflection. There’s something about it: the endless rows of solemn barrels, the darkness, and the still thickness of the air that is, literally and otherwise, intoxicating. Oak is semi-porous, so about 3-5% of the spirit will evaporate out of each barrel every year. This is called the “angel’s share” and it’s like breathing true love.


For their namesake whiskey, they select somewhere between 20 and 120 barrels to blend together to achieve the desired taste. The less excellent barrels will find their way into the less excellent products, and the single barrel selections speak for themselves.

The nicer, single barrel products are hand bottled, and the more mass produced stuff is done by machine. And one last thing: all Buffalo Trace’s whiskey is chill-filtered. In the world of Scotch, these are dirty words, and yet our tour guide said it with a measure of pride. Chill filtering ensures the bourbon doesn’t cloud up in transit or storage, and is purely cosmetic. Purists cry blasphemy, and others just shrug.

For what it’s worth, I haven’t personally tasted a difference in chill-filtering, though I’ve never tasted two otherwise identical whiskies side by side. I can’t imagine it wouldn’t effect the flavor, but that’s just a guess. I can only speak to the finished product, which is fantastic.


It’s hard to say what exactly Buffalo Trace does to produce such a phenomenal product. At Fortaleza in Mexico, the differences were clear as day. Not so here. All Scotch buzzwords are more or less uniformly ignored: high-malt, pot-still, small production, low-proof distillation, chill filtration… it could be that they make more substantial cuts in the distillation, choosing quality over cost. Or maybe their proprietary yeast strain is extra good. I don’t know. Aside from aging their barrel staves (as opposed to kiln-drying them) and that steam-heating business, they seem to do the same shit everyone else does. They just do it better.

I claimed in my Fortaleza post that industrial processes make an inferior product, and I don’t extend that truth to bourbon. This is an example of mass-production done very, very right.

Some products are better than others, but I’d recommend at least trying anything coming out of this distillery. Their portfolio is too broad to go into the specifics of everything, but a couple highlights:

  • Buffalo Trace is one of my favorite bourbons, and the price ($25) just makes it even more so. It’s sweet but not too sweet, the predictable caramel and vanilla with corn graininess and fully textured oak, which takes over the finish with a layer of rye. Elegant, powerful, and with complexity that belies its age and price.
  • Eagle Rare is a 10-year, single barrel Buffalo Trace, and as it’s single barrel will vary bottle to bottle. I must say though that on the whole, I like it a bit less than the other.
  • W.L. Weller 12-year is one of the better wheat bourbons on the market, again for an incredibly low price. A good side-by-side with Buffalo Trace to see how wheated bourbons compare.
  • The Antique Collection (Sazerac 18, Eagle Rare 17, William Larue Weller, George T. Stagg, and Thomas Handy Sazerac) are vintage, put out every fall, rarer than they are expensive, and better than they are both. Excellent whiskeys all, with the Sazerac, Stagg, and Weller frequently cited every year among the world’s best whiskeys.
  • The Van Winkle line needs to introduction from me. Wheated bourbons, they are exceptional and extremely rare. Bourbon aficionados look on the Van Winkle products with almost sexual glee, and bourbon message boards will frequently devolve into an orgiastic litany of photographs of Pappy Van Winkle products, with captions like “look what I had last night! :-}}}!!!”

Fortaleza Tequila

Disclosure: I recently returned from a trip to Tequila, Mexico, hosted by the good people at Fortaleza Tequila. They don’t advertise; instead, they sponsor biannual groups of industry professionals to come down and see how their tequila is made. Their bet is that when we see the quality of the product they’re producing, we’ll feel compelled to proselytize. They’re not wrong.

The Facts:

Name: Fortaleza Blanco, —Reposado, and —Añejo
Category: Tequila
Proof: 80 (40% ABV)
Origin: Tequila, Jalisco Mexico, since 2002
Distinguishing characteristics: buttery mouthfeel; vanilla cream, minerality, spice; smoothness; elegance

The Story:

I’m going to do my best to keep this brief:

In the 1860s, a man named Don Cenobio Sauza moved to Tequila, Mexico and started distilling.  While sugars rendered from the agave plant have been getting people drunk since before Cortez and his rats showed up, Don Cenobio was the first to name it after the town of Tequila, and the first to export to the U.S. His son Eladio Sauza joined the family business and expanded, but it was Eladio’s son, Francisco Javier Sauza, that took the brand international. Don Javier was the real businessman in the lineage: he’s the one who got John Wayne drinking tequila, the main force in elevating its international perception to a refined spirit, and the reason anyone outside of Jalisco knows the name Sauza.

Sauza tequila is of course still made today, albeit in wildly different form. In 1976, Don Javier sold his eponymous tequila brand, ultimately ending up in the multinational hands of [Jim] Beam, Inc. Beam continues to run it today with capitalistic efficiency, bulldozing agave hearts into atomizing shredders, powering a diffuser the size of a small church, storing distillate in 500,000 liter drums and pumping out products that range from decent to hideous. This is to say, that is what the Sauza name currently means.

But in 2002, Guillermo Sauza — the fifth generation, whose grandfather Don Javier sold the company when he was 20 — resurrected the family business under the name “Los Abuelos” meaning “The Grandfathers,” in homage to the way his family used to make tequila (“Fortaleza,” meaning “Fortitude” on this side of the border due to a copyright complaint). The family still owned a bunch of dusty distillation equipment from one of Cenobio’s original aquisitions, and Guillermo kicked it back into production. Aside from the fact that they finally retired their donkey in favor of a tractor, Guillermo still makes tequila the way his family did 100 years ago.

Now, it’s important to note that industrialization does not axiomatically produce an inferior product. I have little interest in hand-made paper or an artisan television. But in the world of tequila, yes, industrial processes produce an inferior product. To explain:

The Process:

The Agave: Like all good tequilas, Fortaleza is 100% blue agave. The cheaper brands are allowed to throw 49% corn-syrup or sugar into the fermenting tanks and still call themselves tequila, but cannot claim “100% agave” on the bottle. Always look for this. If it doesn’t say “100% de agave,” I advise against buying it. It’s literally filler.

Because Fortaleza’s processes limit them to a maximum of three tons of agave/day, they can afford to know where all their plants come from. Their agave is a mixture of small local farmers and their own estate.

The Rendering: The agave hearts — called “piñas” (pee-nyas) — are hard as wood, and the sugars need to be rendered. So they are tossed into a brick oven with meter-thick walls, stacked up, and steam cooked for 33 hours.

Then, the soft, sweet hearts are placed in a waist-high circular pit to face-off against several thousand pound stone called a “tahona.”

Sauza, by comparison (and not to jump all over Sauza, who were very gracious and welcoming, but that’s the industrial comparison), pulverizes the raw agave hearts to dust in a shredder before pumping them into a machine called a diffuser that pressure-cooks in 45 minutes what it takes Fortaleza 36 hours to do. The analogous reference is like a crock pot vs. a microwave: different process, different result.

Any time one is attempting to get the juice out of a plant, the less violently it is squeezed, higher quality the juice will be. This is the idea behind extra virgin olive oil and gravity press on wine, and it’s what they try to do with the mash of Fortaleza. In the pit, the piñas are crushed three times with a giant stone before separating the pulp from the juice. This fairly laborious task is accomplished over about 5 hours by four guys with pitchforks.

It’s not done this way merely because of tradition, or a punishment of some kind, but rather to not pulverize the tiny fibers of the agave. While the yield could be dramatically increased by machine pressing all the juice out of the pulp, that machine would also crush the smallest veins of the plant, out of which would come bitter & astringent compounds, like methanol, that would remain in the finished product.

Fermentation & Distillation:

From there, the agave juice is pumped into 3000L pinewood tanks, and fermentation is started with a bit of the sour mash from the last run. It takes a couple days for the yeast to work its magic until the brew reaches around 5% ABV, at which point it’s time for distillation.

The tequila is twice distilled in just the cutest little copper pot-stills I’ve ever seen. Because their production methods are so laborious, they have less “heads” (harmful methyl) than most – about a liter, I was told (which is insanely low, and I’m now wondering if I heard it wrong. But it’s unusually small, regardless). The first distillation runs the liquid to about 25%, and the second to about 45%. And here they stop.

45% is an uncommonly low ABV to distil to, but a desirable one. All three incarnations of Fortaleza are bottled at 40%, which means it requires merely 10% water to cut it back to bottle proof. The significance of this fairly obvious. The cutting water has nothing whatsoever to do with agave, mash, fermentation, or distillation, so water is just an inert mixer. The less water is required, the more one tastes the actual heart of the spirit.

One more important note: for some bizarre reason, the Tequila Regulatory Council of Mexico allows that even if the bottle says 100% agave, it only needs to be 99% agave. Yes, really. This leaves each distillery 1% wiggle room to add one or more of the following permitted mixers: oak-essence, caramel, sugar syrup, or glycerin. And if that sounds like a bunch of bullshit to you, well, you’re not alone. It is apparently taboo to mention it, but this is why Clase Azul Reposado tastes like soft caramels and as far as I’m concerned, the entire thing is stupid from top to bottom. Fortaleza, along with Casa Noble, Siete Leguas, and many other high-end brands, participates in no such assholery.

The blanco is unaged, straight into the bottle. The reposado (“rested”) is permitted between 2 and 12 months, and Guillermo ages his for at least six (each batch is different). The añejo (“old”) can be aged for 1-3 years. He ages his for 2, all in used whiskey barrels he picks up from Jim Beam and Jack Daniels.


Whenever possible.

The Uses:

I’d be intensely interested to find out just how much each factor effects taste, but it’s unfortunately not possible. All I know is that taken in conjunction, Fortaleza is a remarkable spirit. It’s full bodied and creamy (probably due to the adorableness of the stills — though Adam Stemmler believes it’s from fermenting in pine, a byproduct of how the liquid reacts with the wood), and even the blanco has bright vanilla, almost cream soda notes, complementing pepper, sweet agave, citrus and minerals. The reposado (my favorite of the three) introduces wood and baking spices and is softer, more elegant. In the añejo, the softness of the wood takes over and the creamyness becomes buttery, with cinnamon, oak, and vanilla.

The blanco is the only of the three I’ll mix without reservation. It makes a killer margarita of course, as well as great paloma, but it really shines in stirred, citrus-less drinks. The only time I wouldn’t use it is when I want something a little more powerful, like if I’m setting the tequila up against huge flavors and want the spirit to shine. In cases like that, smoothness works against you.

The reposado and the añejo are good mixers as well. Down at Syrah, Stemmler made a reposado play on an Aviation that I hear is delicious, and they both can make decent stand-ins for whiskey — particularly as the base of a Oaxacan Old Fashioned, which is transcendent with either.