Tequila Rising

There are few among us who haven't found ourselves slurping down a margarita at some point or other. At the hotel bar, in the college dorm party, or on someone's backyard deck, the definition of a margarita has as many variations these days as Eskimos have words for snow. It can be the drink we all know with salt and lime. Or it can be a nuevo "ita" involving a rhubarb infusion with salt and sugar mixed on the rim of the glass.

And maybe that's why, up to now, I have not had a lot of respect for tequila. It has always seemed as if it didn't get a lot of respect from too many bartenders, professional and amateur. It is, after all, the drink of spring breakers in Cancún and Myrtle Beach, S.C., who aren't known for their discerning drink palates. You see it clutched in the hands of those coeds in Girls Gone Wild videos more often than the girl with the brain headed for the John F. Kennedy School of Government. I guess I'm more of a Scottish Highlands and Tuscany vacation guy than Fort Lauderdale.

I voiced this opinion once too many times, and so I finally agreed to sit down with Anamaria CeseÑa, Jose Cuervo senior brand development manager, to set me straight and reintroduce me to the tequila I largely left behind in college, or reserved for summer revels at my home bar in between helpings of fruit salad and fresh summer corn. With spring beckoning at my Michigan backdoor, and summer not far behind, I thought I'd go into this season as the year I raised my tequila game.

Slow-Roasted and Double-Distilled

Sure it's Ms. CeseÑa's job to represent Cuervo, but after spending 45 minutes with her tasting and talking tequila, I arrived at a place where I was respecting Mexico's national spirit as much as Scotch or bourbon. Cuervo follows a unique distilling practice. It slow-roasts the agave for three days, makes a honey-like juice from the raw material, turns that into an agave wine, and then double-distills the wine into spirit in copper pots.

Sipping my way through a progression of Cuervo products, from the new Especial Silver, an un-aged white tequila that costs less than $20, to a super-secret, not-yet-released aged tequila costing a lot more, the range of mouth-feels, aromas, tastes, and colors is greater than most casual drinkers realize. And just as with some fine aged whiskeys, she is right to suggest: "Never judge by the first sip. It can be a bit of a shock. With the second sip you can judge much better." Indeed, it is surprising when taking so much care in the tasting what gentle and seductive flavors can be found in even the white tequilas. The blue agave plant, as the source of tequila, has a lot more complexity than grain or potatoes, from which most vodka is derived.

The basics are known to most who drink tequila. The least expensive tequilas need only be distilled from 51% blue agave juice. The rest comes from various other sugars added during fermentation, most often sugarcane spirit. The more expensive—and some argue the best—tequilas are made from 100% blue agave juice.

Tequila's history began almost five centuries ago in the central region of Mexico known as Jalisco, where a small town, valley, and mountain share the spirit's name. Not long after the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the early 1500s, they applied their knowledge of distillation to something known as pulque, a drink made from fermented agave for thousands of years. The result was an early version of mezcal, the "where-am-I-and-what-did-I-do-last-night" rough-hewn spirit made from a variety of agave species and frequently bottled with a worm at the bottom of the bottle. Don't confuse mezcal with tequila, as so many college students do. Just as all bourbons are technically whiskeys, not all American whiskeys can be called bourbon; all tequilas are a form of mezcal, but not all mezcals are tequilas.

White, Gold, and Darker Gold

Some experts compare the differences between mixed and pure tequilas to blended Scotches and single malts. It is a useful comparison for confirmed whiskey drinkers to explore the interesting aspects of tequila. For one thing, the scent and taste of blanco tequilas remind me very much of the un-aged malted barley spirit before it goes into oak barrels for aging.

Generally speaking, there are three hues of tequila: white, gold, and darker gold.

White, marked as "blanco" or "silver" tequila spends no time in oak barrels. Examples of this are Jose Cuervo's new Especial Silver, which is a blend, a "mixto," of greater than 50% un-aged blue agave spirit, with the rest made up of other spirit. Especial Silver is a new product, and its launch coincides with the relabeling of Especial Premium to Especial Gold. The launch of Silver and the renaming of Gold is to capitalize on all the growing interest in white and silver tequilas, and to make the distinctions simpler for Cuervo fans. There are more premium silvers and super-premium and ultra-premium 100% blue agave silvers hitting the shelves every week.

Gold, which gets its color either from short-term aging in barrels or via caramel coloring, is what most people drink, accounting for 44.5% of sales. It pays to read labels and research your brand on the Internet to see if color comes from aging or not. But silver and blanco tequila, which makes up 23.6% of sales, is driving the growth, showing a 29% gain last year. It probably has something to do with the surge in premium and ultra-premium vodka, though for my money the Gold Reposado (literal translation is "rested," and designates blanco tequila that has been rested in white oak barrels for between two months and a year) and aÑejo ("aged") tequilas are the ones that are really worth the bigger price tags.

The New Vodka?

Any tequila that does not state "100% agave" is a blend, usually a blend of agave and sugarcane spirit. It makes sense that these "mixtos" are generally under $20, while the pure agave spirits are more expensive. Agave plants take 10 to 12 years to mature to the point of being harvested. Sugarcane, the source of the blending spirit, comes up every year, so it is cheaper.

In single-malt whiskey, the money is in the aging, barreling, and storage. In 100% blue agave tequila, the money is in the plants, and sometimes the terroir (specific place and micro climate) of where the plants are grown.

I harbor the same doubts about ultra-premium priced silver tequilas being worth fancy prices as I do ultra-premium vodkas. But a trend is a trend.

The U.S. is the leading market for tequila, followed by Mexico. The third-biggest market, surprisingly to me, is Greece, where the locals drink a margarita that substitutes an orange for the lime, and deploys cinnamon and salt or sugar on the rim of the glass. I was heartened to hear CeseÑa say that a tumbler glass is the right glass for a margarita, and not one of those silly wide-mouth margarita glasses most bars use.

There is a fair amount of repackaging and labeling going on in the tequila category, owing to the increasingly crowded U.S. shelves and the desire to justify more premium prices. Casa Noble, for example, a boutique ultra-premium distillery, has just redesigned its bottles and labels. The logo is new, and the bottles are shaped more like perfume bottles than liquor. All the Casa Noble tequilas are 100% agave.

There are signs that tequila may, indeed, be the new vodka. Mega-wine producer E. & J. Gallo, seeing that vodkas may be overproduced, has already branched out into spirits with a gin, and it has planted a large number of acres of agave in Mexico with the idea of introducing its own brand of 100% agave tequila in a few years.

Click here to read about 20 top tequilas.

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