Seduced by Tequila

Photographer: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

Blue Agave harvest in Arandas, Mexico. Close

Blue Agave harvest in Arandas, Mexico.

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Photographer: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

Blue Agave harvest in Arandas, Mexico.

If your idea of tequila tasting is Jose Cuervo and margarita mix, that's fine. Just don't drink with these guys.

"We never do shots. After shifts we relax with sipping tequila -- the good stuff," says Javier Perez, 31, a hustling waiter at Toloache Thompson. That's the newest addition to Julian Medina’s little empire of upscale Mexican and Latin restaurants in Manhattan. Perez is a close friend and disciple of Chef Medina, who, along with those at Empellón and Mayahuel, is on a mission to spread the gospel of Mexican as haute cuisine.

Sound like a stretch? Only a little one. Medina's signature meal starts with a black truffle manchego cheese quesadilla that's like being wrapped in a cashmere poncho, moves on to a braised beef short rib and ends with a $25 caramel-y double shot glass of Clase Azul Reposado tequila -- though the $250 extra añejo version is available.

"It’s not about getting drunk. For me, tequila is like wine. Every barrel is very different and unique, depending on how it aged," says Medina, a rugged, soft-spoken man. "That's why I go to Guadalajara every year to taste and hand-pick every barrel."

He makes being an aficionado sound romantic, in the low lantern light of his rustic restaurant. "I have my own Herradura double barrels made for Toloache." His eyes light up dangerously. "My wife came up with the name. It was in a book of Mexican poems we had that captured her. It means deadly in love -- to be crazy for someone."

Lady tequila is making men crazy playing hard to get. Everyone's chasing her (exports have risen 70 percent by volume in the last 10 years, according to the National Chamber for the Tequila Industry), while her beloved agave plant is getting more and more expensive. Medina and his suppliers gripe that prices are up fivefold over the last 8 years.

We're interrupted by a riotous red booth in the corner, where it's all "one more shot!" and smeared mascara. They must not have heard the aficionado sermon. They certainly haven’t heard it from Ken Austin, chairman of Tequila Avión. He’s a Spanish-speaking New Yorker who has earned street cred for his new Avión Reserva 44. He calls this añejo tequila, aged 44 months in oak barrels, "the pinnacle" of his life as a professional tequila aficionado. The $150 bottle is meant for sipping, not shooting.

"It tastes like a fine cognac. At least that’s what the celebrities I was drinking with last night had to say," says Austin. "But I’m not a snob. I don’t tell people what they should be tasting. I just understand the art of making it. That’s the beauty of it." And in case it wasn't clear: "This is my passion." Agave is apparently the stuff of Love Potion No. 9. It has Austin smitten enough to visit his distillery in Jalisco, Mexico, he says, every four to six weeks to taste every barrel and sign every bottle. One-upping Medina. Exciting -- will they duel?

The desert mojo kicks in again at El Toro Blanco, yet another upscale Manhattan tequileria, as I compare a clean, light Avion añejo to a smoky, peppery Herradura añejo. It’s not vanilla or caramel I’m tasting. It's infatuation. Too much? You weren't there.

Avión picked up five awards as the best-tasting tequila at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Wine and spirits supplier Pernod Ricard -- which specializes in "premiumization," the art of luxury branding -- is a minority owner.

Real aficionados aren't impressed. "They don't care about marketing. They come in here all the time asking for tequilas that aren’t very commercial," says Ariel, a Dominican bartender at El Toro Blanco. "They don’t order Patron, which is heavily advertised, because they know better."

In walks a suit named Alex for his regular. He orders Siembra Azul. It’s not a big brand, but it’s "damn good tequila." So I join him, pinky up and palate ready. I'm in love. With the tequila.

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