You’ll be forgiven if the thought of an infused spirit seems gustatorily questionable at best, bringing to mind incongruent flavor combinations like peanut butter and crab-flavored whiskey (not in the same bottle, thankfully) or glazed donut vodka. In the world of agave spirits, infusion usually leads to things like the egregiously orange Les Paul guitar-shaped bottle that is Rock N Roll Mango Tequila, or something (thankfully) less aggressive like hibiscus-grapefruit or pineapple-jalapeno concoctions.
This isn’t about drink shaming, because people can and should consume whatever type of booze they want. But most of the time, infused spirits are overly sweet and dominated by artificial flavors, turning the base spirit’s complexity and nuance into something one dimensional. All of which makes it especially interesting when well-respected industry professionals decide to release an infused product that is nothing like the aforementioned examples.
The people in question are the Estes and Camarena families, who are affiliated with well-regarded tequila brands like Ocho, El Tesoro, and Tapatio. Tequila fans are familiar with these names as being bastions of traditional production practices, made without the use of industrial diffusers or relying on additives to augment the flavor or color of the spirit.
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The families’ new tequila is called Curado, which launched as an extension of the Ocho brand in 2013 before joining forces with Spanish drinks brand incubator and distributor Vantguard a few years later for a rollout in Mexico, the U.K., and Spain (it’s a relative newcomer here in the U.S.). To be clear, Curado isn’t like the infused spirits mentioned above. On the contrary, it is more like a whiskey that’s been finished by adding oak staves directly into the liquid, or a gin macerated with botanicals. In this case, the process involves infusing blanco, or unaged tequila, with different types of roasted agave by submerging the plant in the spirit.
This is an uncommon practice in the tequila world, albeit one that is based on historical precedence (more about this later). Typically, the ways of differentiating a tequila brand come down to production methods (e.g. cooking agave piñas in an autoclave versus a stone oven), extraction of the juice (tahona stone or shredder), and distillation. This infusion technique, however, is an attempt to influence the spirit’s character after all of these steps have taken place, as opposed to aging it in seasoned French oak barrels or filtering it down to a cristalino.
What’s New is Old
Tequila can only be made from Blue Weber agave, per Mexican CRT regulations, and the first Curado expression was indeed infused with that species. But subsequent releases have drawn flavor from other types of agave which, according to the brand, is all above board. I spoke with Curado global brand ambassador Jorge Balbontin via email, and he explained that the idea for the brand originated with the late Tomas Estes, founder of Tequila Ocho along with Carlos Camarena. Estes was inspired by pulque infused with fruit, also known as pulque curado.
Pulque, which predates tequila by centuries, is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented agave that has a milky texture and appearance. “Most tequila and agave aficionados will agree that a great tequila should always circle back to the natural profile of its raw material,” Balbontin said. “Tomas dreamt of a tequila that was naturally and lightly sweetened by the fructose contained in the fibers of cooked agave, with which less added sugar would be needed to produce a cocktail or a drink.”
According to Balbontin, Estes and Camarena got permission from the CRT to infuse the spirit with agave and still label it as a blanco tequila. He described production as being relatively simple. About 21 kilograms of agave are put into bags made of natural fiber (kind of like large tea bags), and these are placed into 1,000 liters of blanco tequila for five days. Lastly, the liquid is filtered to remove any solid fibers.
“The blanco tequila is produced in exactly the same way for every batch,” said Balbontin. “The only thing that changes is the variety, growing region, and cooking method used for the different agaves used to infuse the tequila.” So far, three expressions of Curado have been released: Blue Weber, Espadín, and Cupreata (both of the latter two are often used for making mezcal, with Espadín being the most common variety).
A Trend in the Making?
There is at least one other brand using a production technique similar to Curado. San Francisco-based Kokoro Spirits was founded by Howard Cao in 2017. Cao’s background is in the advertising world, but he fell in love with tequila and decided to start a company dedicated to sourcing high-quality spirits which could be sold directly to consumers. One of its first limited releases is called Limitada, a tequila that was “rested” with cooked Blue Weber agave for 10 days before bottling. “To me, it’s a great alternative to a reposado or añejo [tequila], without imparting additional wood or whiskey flavors and keeping it agave forward,” Cao told me in an email. He also experimented with infusing the tequila with some non-agave ingredients, and hopes to bring those expressions to market at some point in the future.
While plenty of people are happy to down shots of Jose Cuervo, tequila aficionados are curious about the authenticity and history of any new expression, particularly one they may not have come across before. To get some perspective I talked to Lou Bank, executive director of the not-for-profit group SACRED that is dedicated to supporting rural communities in Mexico where agave spirits are made. While he has not actually tried Curado, he has sampled other brands that have included a post-distillation element, and there is some history behind this. “It would be easy to dismiss these brands as veering away from the cultural heritage of tequila,” he says. “While I wouldn’t suggest that what Curado Tequila is doing is trying to recapture a lost element of tequila’s history, I will say that you don’t have to look hard to find evidence of this same thing — a mezcal with cooked agave added to the bottle — from the 1800s.”
Bank’s broader take is that as the tequila market continues to rapidly expand, new brands feel the need to set themselves apart from the pack — especially given that many are produced at the same distilleries. This type of infusion could be an indicator of that. “I’m… surprised that, in a climate where people are buying a lot more tequila that is a lot more expensive,” he says, “you don’t see more brands reverting back to pre-industrial processes for making tequila by hand, in a manner that looks more like the 1820s than the 2020s.”
Infusing tequila with different varieties of agave is still a niche trend within the greater agave spirits category and cheaper shortcuts, it should be noted, are also an option. Infusions such as this may or may not have a future, and the continuing rollout of Curado could determine whether people are interested in this type of product.
Tequila continues to dominate all other spirits categories in terms of growth, with predictions that it will outpace American whiskey sales here in the U.S. in the next year or two. So perhaps innovations like Curado will become more common, and maybe even necessary to make a product stand out in an oversaturated market. Of course, there will also be plenty of naysayers who view this type of infusion as an unnecessary gimmick. Fortunately, there’s more than enough tequila to go around for everyone, no matter where you stand.
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