Tequila sales quadrupled in a decade, prompting more than 120 Mexican distilleries to offer some 900 brands, with four out of five bottles ending up in the U.S., usually in a margarita.
With sales growth slowing in the past couple of years, especially among the cheaper brands, it's time to take stock of this distinctive spirit from the blue agave.
During the boom years, some tequilas achieved questionable cult status, with a few, like Gran Patron Burdeos, selling for $600 a bottle. With sales leveling off, a big part of marketing the drink has become the quirky bottles, from the Aztec pyramid of Sol Dios and folkloric Day-of-the-Dead skull of KAH to the heart-shaped Corazon Maya and squatting bandito ceramic jug of Pancho Pistolas.
Mexican regulations allow a spirit to be called tequila if it contains a minimum of 51 percent agave-derived sugar. Premium tequilas, made with 100 percent agave, are showing modest growth, with a 1.3 percent increase in 2009 to 11.2 million cases, according to industry publication StateWays.
I assembled a range of reposados, that is, tequilas aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two months but less than a year. They fall between the entry-level blancos, which aren't aged at all, and the richly flavorful anejos that spend one-to-three years in the barrel.
On their own, reposados make for a delightful aperitif and add considerably more flavor to a margarita than a blanco, though if you insist on drinking diluted frozen margaritas, it doesn't much matter what kind of tequila you use. Anejos certainly add their distinctive flavors to a margarita but are best sipped on their own like cognac or single malt Scotch. Almost all tequilas, including anejos, are bottled at 80 proof (40 percent alcohol).
Sipping reposados, at room temperature or on the rocks, also reveals layers of flavor, a little oakiness, and fruitiness. Some are, perhaps, a bit more expensive than I expected but certainly no more than a premium vodka or bourbon. Here are some reposados, all made from 100 percent blue agave, I found particularly distinctive.
This one comes in an elegant, slender blue bottle, and I liked the subtle flavors and the perfume scent of its bouquet. There's also a nice blast of heat I got on the tip of my tongue, followed by a warming sensation throughout.
Chinaco's "Legacy of the Warrior Spirit" is, according to the label, based on the heroic endeavors of Guillermo Gonzalez, great-grandson of General Manuel Gonzalez, who battled against the larger distillers and successfully lobbied the Mexican government for an amendment that would allow tequila production outside of Jalisco.
Made in the region of Tamaulipas, Chinaco has garnered something of a cult status. It is pale yellow and very fruity, with a distinct black peppercorn flavor on the mid-palate and a sweetness on the edge of the tongue.
Pancho Pistolas ($60)
This is the one in the bottle shaped like a squatting Mexican bandit, which I've actually seen offered, unopened, on e-auctions as objets d'art. I didn't expect much from such gimmickry, but this is a very good tequila, with plenty of fruity flavors and an honest bite on the back of the palate.
1800 Reposado ($23)
I've always liked 1800's anejo, and its reposado delivers a good amount of flavor for a very decent price. If you've never had a reposado, get this one and compare it with the lighter- weight blancos.
4 Copas ($60)
The name supposedly derives from an old Mexican song with the line "we shall drink four cups," although it's also the number of cups traditionally drunk at the Jewish Seder. Labeled as "organic," it is aged in charred American oak, which gives it a smokiness to go with its honey-like smoothness. This is one of the most highly regarded reposados in competitions, and it deserves its medals.
This company's blanco and anejo came on the market at the end of 2008 and the reposado, aged nine months, a year later. It is a very tasty tequila, fresh with citrus and pineapple notes and good perfume in the nose, making it a fine choice for a margarita straight up.