Why Tequila Is Your New Favorite Spirit
A vintage jukebox stands against the wall in La Capilla, the oldest bar in the magical city of Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico, the birthplace of tequila and a city named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2006. An American tourist drops his coins and makes his selection—a classic by famed mariachi singer Javier Solis. Above the strains of Solis’s recording of “Sombras Nada Mas,” Don Javier Delgado Corona, the white-haired proprietor of La Capilla, smiles broadly as he prepares a fresh batch of his signature cocktail, the Batanga, which he first concocted in the early 1960s.
The corner bar is modest, decorated mostly with black-and-white photos of famous celebrities, paintings of beautiful women, mismatched bar stools and a careful selection of tequilas from the region, most from tequileros (tequila producers) and their families whom Don Javier has known personally for decades. Meanwhile, on a drizzly February afternoon in the heart of downtown Santa Monica, Calif., Marco Antonio Ramos Monterrubio, the dapper and energetic manager of Mercado tequila bar, and head mixologist Gilbert Marquez discuss their next tequila acquisitions for a new cocktail menu.
Arranged fresh-cut flowers and flatware are already placed on long, wooden, communal tables, where strangers—sitting elbow-to-elbow on bustling evenings—become quick friends over a few rounds. Mercado, recently voted Best New Restaurant of 2013 by Los Angeles Magazine, has rapidly become a go-to destination to try the latest in tequila trends and cocktails. While on the surface its atmosphere is far removed from that of cantinas like La Capilla, its tequila philosophy is strikingly similar at its core in terms of tradition and quality.
Know Your Tequila Styles
Unaged tequila usually bottled straight from the still. Flavors and scents range from floral and spices to fruits and herbs. Baked and raw agave flavors, along with a hint of smoke, are a plus.
Reposadao: Typically aged between two and 11 months. Flavors and scents include whiskey, oak, toasted almonds, nuts, vanilla and honey.
Anejo: Must be aged in wooden barrels between one and three years. Flavors and scents are never-ending: nuts, whiskey, oak, Cognac, bourbon, vanilla, cinnamon, chocolate, coffee and slight agave.
Extra Anejo: These gems are aged for three or more years and/or blended. Flavors and scents are dessert-like: rich vanilla, dark chocolate, raisins, dried cherries, sherry, coffee, plus smoke, leather and tobacco.
Demand on the Rise
There are 1,300 brands of tequila in production worldwide, of which more than 1,000 are exported to the United States. In 2011 alone, 12 million cases of tequila were sold in the States. Americans, it seems, can’t get enough of Mexico’s native spirit. One of the keys to tequila’s recent popularity has been the distillers’ ability to offer a tequila for every budget and occasion. According to the latest statistics from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), the largest growth has been in the High End Premium and Super Premium segments of the market, both of which are composed of 100 percent blue agave tequilas, as opposed to mixto tequilas made from a combination of at least 51 percent blue weber agave and 49 percent “other sugars.” While the mixto market still pays the bills for most of the mass-produced brands, it’s the 100 percent agave tequilas that discerning drinkers love.
“Jose Cuervo was founded in 1795, and Mexico’s independence was in 1810. That’s how far back tequila goes,” explains Monterrubio. “Jose Cuervo, the man, was a good man. It’s not his fault that you met him during your college years with a really bad product.” Thankfully, choking down tequila shots with lime and salt is a thing of the past. Pure agave tequilas have enjoyed an astonishing renaissance in the past decade as American consumers have become much more interested in and savvy about the product. They’re seeking education through tequila tastings at restaurants such as Mercado— which pairs tequilas with its specialty menu items—and by attending popular tequila events around the country. It also helps that the art and science of mixology has evolved beyond a few standard tequila cocktails thanks to creative bartenders who are reshaping the spirits industry in the U.S. “When people start to learn about tequila, they have to go through cocktails first,” explains Marquez. “They first order a margarita and then start easing their way into tequila.”
Quenching America’s substantial thirst is an ongoing challenge for the tequila industry, since the spirit is arguably the most highly regulated in the world. Global demand from countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China is also on the rise. Major producers like Casa Herradura, Sauza and Jose Cuervo have adopted more modern techniques and equipment within industry guidelines to make the tequila making process more efficient and to help keep up with the demand.
A diffuser, for instance, is a machine used to chop raw agave much more thoroughly than a traditional shredder would after the plants have been harvested and shaved of their spiky leaves, called pencas. Many large producers also bake the agave in giant autoclaves rather than in traditional stone ovens, and they over-distill the post-fermented juice more than the lawfully required two times in order to achieve a smoother-tasting product. These steps may lead to more efficient and profitable production methods, but the resulting tequila is often stripped of much of its character. And while it may be tempting for smaller brands to employ such time-saving methods to keep pace with growing demand, the quality of the product is paramount, says Ken Austin, founder and chairman of Avión Spirits. The company launched its Avión Tequilas three years ago and has enjoyed rapid growth ever since. “The key is, as you get bigger, you have to stay true to the principles that made you successful in the first place,” Austin says. “We will never shortcut our brand or our customers.”
The New Old School
The influx of more 100 percent agave tequila brands has bolstered the small- to medium-sized producers. These newer brands tend to be small-batched, micro-distilled, handcrafted and are more representative of old-school tequila in terms of style and production methods. And, as Don Javier at La Capilla knows, the age-old art of relationship building between tequila producers and their clientele still helps the best products rise to the top. Mercado’s Monterrubio, for example, is certified as a catador, or tequila taster, from the Mexican Tequila Academy, one of only two such schools in existence. He knows his tequilas and maintains a personal connection with the brand owners he decides to carry at Mercado.
For Monterrubio, there are three main considerations when he’s evaluating a tequila: It has to taste good first and foremost, and it should also be handmade and of very high quality. He also appreciates if the brand has some history behind it—say if the same family has been making this same tequila for hundreds of years—or, in the case of new makers, if they’re innovating within tradition. Whether you visit a historic tequila bar like La Capilla or frequent a modern gem like Mercado, your experience is guaranteed to be memorable thanks to tequila’s proven versatility and the creativity and quality of the burgeoning handcrafted category.
Straight from the Source
Tequila has an appellation of origin like Champagne or Cognac. One hundred percent agave tequila must be grown, distilled and bottled in the Mexican states of Narayit, Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Guanajuato and Jalisco. Blue weber agave, tequila’s primary material, is a plant related to the lily family and may take up to six to eight years to mature. Jalisco, where the majority of tequila is produced, has both highlands and lowlands just like Scotland, where whiskey (Scotch) is produced. There are several different microclimates in between, but as a general rule highlands blue agave produces sweeter and smoother-tasting tequilas, with definite floral and citrus notes, while lowlands blue agave produces robust and spicy tequilas with more earthy tones.
Mescal, tequila’s cousin, is produced from several types of maguey (agave), most notably espadín, tobalá and arroquense. These, too, may take up to eight years to mature. Like tequila, mescal is also protected by an appellation of origin and must be grown, distilled and bottled in the Mexican states of Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Oaxaca, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas. Due to its production process, in which the harvested core of the maguey is roasted underground in fire pits for several hours, mescal acquires a very distinct smoky flavor and aroma.
Four Brands at the Forefront of Small-Batch
Tequila Fortaleza: A brand owned by fifthgeneration tequilero Guillermo Erickson Sauza, still produces its tequila at the last remaining distillery owned by the celebrated Sauza family. A working museum, it uses a tahona, or stone-mill wheel, to crush the agave before it’s fermented and distilled, imparting a distinctive flavor that is unmistakable.
Tapatio: has been a favored brand in Mexico for years and launched in the U.S. in 2012. Manufactured at La Alteña distillery, considered one of the most important tequila factories in the industry, the brand is known for its fearless approach. So daring, in fact, that a 110-proof version will be available soon.
Tequila Ocho: Owned by the UK’s official tequila ambassador, American Tom (Tomás) Estes, is one of only a handful of brands that insist on using single-estate agave. It’s fermented, distilled and bottled as a vintage with the name of the estate from which the agave was harvested on the label.
Alquimia: is a member of an elite group of certified organic tequilas. Owner Dr. Adolfo Murillo harvests blue agave from his family farm using sustainable organic growing protocols.