How the Tequila Landscape is Getting More Sophisticated

December 14, 2018

It’s not you imagination: Tequila has been expanding its claim on the shelves of your liquor store. The familiar troika of Jose Cuervo, Sauza and Patrón has spawned a lot of progeny—albeit well-bred—of late. “You don’t have to drink it in a shot,” says Chantal Martineau, author of the 2015 book that follows tequila’s ascension in America from “frat-house firewater” to a connoisseur’s sipping spirit, How the Gringos Stole Tequila. “In the last decade there’s been a shift toward drinking better tequila.”

This latest boost in popularity is tequila’s— the spirit must be produced in certain parts of central Mexico to bear that name—third life in this country. Its first was during Prohibition, when the spirit slipped over the border undercover. Most of this tequila was wretched; it was during this period that the custom of tasting salt and lime before downing a shot started. The salt and lime stunned taste buds and made the tequila taste less horrible. Once Prohibition ended and tequila had to compete against other spirits, it mostly faded away until the 1970s. That decade, its second life, marketers went crazy promoting frozen margaritas and the cocktail Tequila Sunrise on billboards and in magazine ads. It was sugar, rather than lime and salt, that masked the bad taste of this tequila.

While there’s still plenty of the frat-party kind, the growth you’re seeing is of tequilas with a sophisticated character
and look. These are sold in elegant bottles and priced like a single-malt scotch. Business icons and celebrities—John Paul DeJoria, George Clooney, Justin Timberlake, P. Diddy and Ken Austin (see “Aiming for the Sky,” page 38)—produce and import their own labels. Tequila has come of age, in every aspect of its production, from the agave used to the way it’s aged.

Early imported tequila was what’s called mixto—a hybrid liquor that could be made from as little as 51 percent blue agave. The rest of the alcohol could be distilled from any other source. Most often this other source was sugar cane, making mixto essentially a tequila-rum combo.

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Tequila made from 100 percent blue agave allows the subtle, vegetal agave flavor through. Mexicans have long known of the superiority of pure agave tequila. A very few Americans did, too. In the early 1950s, crooner Bing Crosby discovered Herradura all-agave tequila while on a trip to Mexico. With his bandleader, Crosby decided to import it, becoming one of the first celebrity tequila mavens, even if on a small scale. For three decades, Herradura was the only 100 percent agave tequila available in the United States.

All-agave tequila went mainstream in 1989, when a pair
of entrepreneurs backed by a hair care products fortune launched Patrón Tequila. The bright, supple 100 percent blue agave tequila from Jalisco was sold in a hand-blown, hand- numbered bottle, and priced at an unheard-of $50. Drinkers were surprised at the price tag until they tasted the tequila. Patrón showed tequila could be every bit as luxurious as other high-end spirits. Soon after, other well-crafted, all-agave tequilas showed up at the party.

Among these: Chinaco, which was first distilled in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas in the 1960s but not imported into the United States until the 1990s. Quality had always been part of the plan of Guillermo Gonzalez, the lawyer who planted agave on his family’s farm and started this brand, which is an all-agave tequila.

Following changes in company ownership, Guillermo’s son, Germán, launched his own brand in 2007, with the goal of taking tequila up yet another notch. The younger Gonzalez believed there was a market for even finer tequila than existed, and he created Tears of Llorona (a name borrowed from Mexican lore), a limited-release, aged tequila. It sells for upwards of $200 a bottle. One critic referred to it as the “Pappy Van Winkle of tequila.” “One of the things that I love about Tears of Llorona is that it has so many layers of flavor, and it’s so delicate,” Germán Gonzalez says. “It has a lot of wood but it doesn’t lose the sense of agave.”

While cognac and whiskey are familiar with the inside of a barrel, it’s a new experience for tequila. Whether from pure agave or a blend, tequila was traditionally bottled fresh off the still, resulting in a clear product called “blanco.”

Some producers claim to have dabbled with barrels in the 19th century (Cuervo among them), but it wasn’t until the past couple of decades that aged tequilas became widely available, when producers began buying used bourbon barrels. They’d fill these with tequila and the spirit oxidized and developed some oaky flavor through steeping. This aged tequila found
an eager market in the United States, where drinkers have traditionally preferred brown spirits. Herradura and others started selling tequila that was “rested” (reposado), along
with variants aged in wood for at least a year (añejo) and a minimum of three years (extra añejo). It’s a good time for those who enjoy sipping tequilas, or for those interested in trying it. Like scotch and bourbon, fine tequila can be nursed neat, or with a single ice cube.

Sippers should beware, however: Age doesn’t always equal quality. It’s not uncommon to taste a remarkable, balanced scotch that’s been aged 20 years or longer. The cool, damp climate of Scotland conspires with oak to make art out of these simple elements. But in the heat of Mexico, longer aging can quickly over-oak the agave spirit, which tends to be more subtle and fragile than distillate from barley or corn. Some early expressions of aged tequila were unbalanced—all oak and no agave.

“Aging is craft—and when you’re talking about cognac, aging is an art,” says Martineau. “It’s all about the barrel, and that’s not easy to do when you’re in
 a place as hot as Mexico.” But the tequila industry has evolved, she adds. “Some
of the distillers are getting far more experienced with aging.”

Still, Martineau warns
aspiring tequila aficionados
not to overlook the best of the unaged tequilas, which offer subtle tastes of the soil where the agave was grown, the Mexican climate and even the history behind it. “I’m a blanco girl,” Martineau admits. “It’s such a delicate spirit, and I do believe that tequila can communicate a sense of terroir. Why would you want to cover that up with barrels from America that have had bourbon in them?”

“My mantra for Avión is that I want to
be the most inefficient tequila company in the world,” says Ken Austin, founder and chairman of Avión Tequila (and an Inspirato Member). “Inefficiency wins in premium products.”

So it’s a somewhat counterintuitive approach. But quality comes slowly,
and Austin’s way works. Avión, which launched in 2010, has attracted widespread notice among sophisticated tequila drinkers, and has made solid
gains closing the gap on the number one premium tequila, Patrón. This is thanks in part to Austin’s clever marketing,
but, more importantly, Austin avoided shortcuts. He makes tequila his way. “This was more about passion,” Austin says. “There are no celebrities, no fancy bottles. To me it was really about doing it right.”

In his early career Austin was an executive with both Gallo and Seagram— two major players in the wine and spirits world. “I’ve been a tequila guy for more than 25 years,” says Austin, who recently turned 50. Branching out, he went on to co- found Marquis Jet, in which card-holding members purchased blocks of time on a fleet of private jets. Along the way—and with prodding from Warren Buffett, who owned the fleet and later bought the company—Austin decided to follow his dream: launching his own tequila. He traveled to Mexico in 2007 to visit small distilleries. He searched for a partner—or what he calls “a kitchen where they’d let me come in and cook with them rather than cook for me.”

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In the town of Jesús María, 7,000 feet above sea level and about two hours from Guadalajara, he hit pay dirt: a family owned distillery that invited him in to work alongside them in concocting a refined tequila. “I didn’t want something off the shelf,” Austin says.

Austin and his distilling partners experimented with agave from various fields, and refined the fermentation
and distilling process (Austin says he uses roughly 30 percent more agave than usual to add depth of flavor). He developed a proprietary slow-filtering method to soften some of the distillate’s sharp edges. The quality comes through in his unaged white tequila, as well as in his aged products, which spend more time mellowing in barrels than Mexican law requires. “Avión was made to be a sipping tequila,” Austin says.

The brand’s name is a nod to his aviation startup, and he got an early boost when Avión found its way into a plot line of the HBO series Entourage. (A friend of Austin’s is the series creator.) Still, that brought complications. He had to correct a mis- impression among many—“People at first thought it was a made-for-TV tequila, and it couldn’t be very good,” he says—and then hustle to meet demand when they discovered it was real.

Since Austin dove into the tequila market, the premium sector has gotten far more crowded—P. Diddy, George Clooney and Justin Timberlake have all jumped into the tequila pool. But Austin says he welcomes the company. “It’s bringing more attention to tequila,” he says, which will encourage more people to sip their way toward the upper shelves.

Above all, Avión remains a labor of love. Austin still spends about a week out of every six in Mexico, overseeing the production process. “I taste every batch,” he says. “This is my baby.”