A Gulp of Agave

T Updated

Early this year, Mexicans took to the streets, aggrieved at the high price of tortillas. Costs had soared as ethanol makers bought up corn to turn it into fuel-alcohol. It isn't the first time that alcohol-production in Mexico has pushed up the cost of tortillas. In 1914 the Mexican government responded to high corn prices by forcing distillers to stop making corn liquor. The Compañia Alcoholera Nacional inked a deal with the government agreeing not to make any distilled spirits from grain for 10 years. No wonder tequila -- which is distilled from the fermented juices of a spiny succulent, the agave -- solidified its place as the essential Mexican drink.

For some time, tequila had a tawdry reputation in the States. A 1912 article in the Lincoln, Nebraska Evening News took up the subject of "American Bums in Foreign Lands" (an archetype later embodied by Humphrey Bogart in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"). The reporter declared, "Ninety percent of the American tramps in Mexico are victims of tequila."

Very Good
• Fina Estampa $27.59
Beautiful balance of the agave sugars and earthy, vegetable flavors. Reminiscent of the citrus-juniper collaboration that gives good gin its twang.
• El Diamante del Cielo $31.95
An interesting mix of sweet and spice: the smell of apples and brown sugar, followed by a peppery, cinnamon taste.
Good/Very Good
• Partida $41.99
An elegant bottle containing a tequila made with the timid taste buds of vodka drinkers in mind.
• Trago $49.99
A whiff of smoke on the nose, with a sour vegetal taste that hints of well-boiled Brussels sprouts (but in a good way).
Tequila would see its first real success among Americans during prohibition, when a trip to Nogales, Juarez or Tijuana was a chance to indulge in some legal drinking (not to mention the opportunities for smuggling). As a headline in the Lima News & Times-Democrat put it, "U.S. Prohibition Helps Mexico: Supplying America With Booze Is Great Industry." But it was World War II that made a real market for the drink in the States, where distillers had turned to war work, making industrial alcohol. French, U.K. and American spirits became scarce, and many of the substitutes were vile. "Sensitive Martini-boys and Gibson-girls still shudder" at the thought of wartime gin from Argentina, M.F.K. Fisher once wrote. "They took to tequila and vodka in desperation."

Now tequila and vodka are staples, and hardly out of desperation. Though bargain tequila revenues have hit the skids, the pricey artisanal stuff has enjoyed solid growth. The number of cases of high-end tequila sold grew by 5% from 2005 to 2006. That's nothing like the explosion (as inexorable as it has been inexplicable) of the highest-end vodkas -- 39% growth in one year. But the upscale tequila market has still been robust enough to encourage the entry of plenty of new competitors. In 2002, just five new brands of tequila were floated in the U.S. By contrast, according to the Adams Beverage Group, some 40 tequilas were introduced to the American market in 2006.

One reason this tremendous expansion of brands is possible is that Mexico enjoys a healthy diversity of distilleries, with scores of independent producers. Many of them are now concentrating on producing a full range of high-end tequilas, from the fresh and limpid blancos, to the woody and amber añejos. I decided to give four of the newest blanco tequilas in the U.S. a try. I found that the competition for the premium drinker's dollar has led to a raft of excellent choices.

Trago, introduced in November, is from a relatively new distillery, and it presents the tequila in an all-too modern package -- a bottle with the shape (and all the charm) of an International Style skyscraper. The tequila had a whiff of smoke, and was not without flavor. But I thought the agave expressed itself in the kind of sour taste that reminded me of well-boiled Brussels sprouts. That may sound less than appealing, but I don't mean it that way. Vegetable notes are desirable in tequila. They were just a little out of balance in the Trago.

Partida Blanco is produced by the well-established David Partida distillery, which makes a slew of tequila brands, mostly for the Mexican market. The best feature of the Partida is its elegant bottle, polished enough for perfume but with a vaguely canteen-like shape in harmony with ranchero life. The tequila itself leaned toward the bland, and I wonder if the idea was to distill the spirit with as neutral a flavor as possible, with the timid taste buds of vodka drinkers in mind.

El Diamante del Cielo provided more for the senses, with an interesting mix of sweet and spice. The sweet was delivered to the nose -- a smell of apples and brown sugar. The spice was on the tongue -- refreshingly peppery, with a cinnamon bite. In a way, the taste of El Diamante del Cielo is fitting, given that the brand was devised by an entrepreneur, Jeff Hopmayer, whose previous enterprise was making scones for Starbucks.

My favorite of the lot, though, was the Fina Estampa. The tequila wasn't afraid to let one taste the agave sugars, balancing that sweetness perfectly with earthy, vegetal flavors. The combination evoked the citrus-juniper collaboration that gives good gin its twang.

How to drink these tequilas? They make for first-rate Margaritas, but really warrant drinking neat, preferably in the small, narrow glasses called caballitos. You can indulge in the salt-and-lime ritual, which is well enough known in the U.S. Though it is certainly a traditional Mexican way to drink tequila, I'm not that enamored of the routine. I find it distracts from the more delicate flavors of a good tequila; it also encourages gulping, tied as it is for many people to memories of tequila bacchanals in college.

Somewhat more civilized, and civilizing, I think, is the Mexican habit of keeping tequila company with Sangrita, a drink of orange, tomato and lime juices spiked with chilies. One drinks a shot of Sangrita as a chaser; it both soothes and jolts the palate, and it functions as a well-advised breather between glasses of tequila.

Make a batch of Sangrita ahead of time so that you can let it chill in the fridge. Sangrita can be an elaborate affair requiring jalapeños in a blender, but for starters, try this recipe: 10 ounces of tomato juice, 8 ounces orange juice, 2 ounces lime juice and an ounce and a half of Cointreau. Spice it to taste with a dash, more or less, of Tabasco, and some salt and pepper.

The Wall Street Journal Online

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