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A Toast to Tequila, No Lime Required

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New top-shelf varieties are meant to be savored

Like a brash fraternity kid who graduated, filled his closet with designer suits, and got a job on Wall Street, tequila has gotten an image makeover in the past few years. And thanks to an improved reputation, it has rapidly found its place next to other top-shelf spirits.

"People are interested in exploring and trading up and looking for new tequilas," says Greg Neises, bartender at Masa in the South End. The Southwestern-style eatery has more than quadrupled its super-premium tequila selection and now offers about 95 options. "There's an awareness that different styles of tequila have different characteristics."

Translation: Tequila has come a long way from the rot-gut stuff that made you wince back in college.

"They want high-end, well-aged stuff," Patrick Sullivan, owner of the B-Side Lounge, says of his customers. Demand has spiked so much, Sullivan says, that brands he used to buy by the bottle he now orders by the case.

New industry regulations, an increase in art isanal production, and UNESCO's recognition of Mexico's tequila-producing Jalisco region as a World Heritage Site have burnished the drink's reputation. Add a bit of pop-culture buzz and -- voila -- instant phenomenon.

Since last April, tequila sales in Boston have shot up by almost 12 percent, according to Neils en Tracking, and the super-premium category is driving that growth. Unlike mixtos -- less expensive varieties that are blended with sugar and other additives -- premium tequilas are double-distilled from the juice of a cooked blue agave. Most brands come in three styles: blanco, or silver, which is not aged; reposado, which is "rested" in oak barrels for at least two months; and añejo , aged a minimum of one year in oak.

Dawn Lamendola, beverage manager for the Commonwealth Restaurant Group, says she's added several more super-premium tequilas at Mistral in the past two years, bringing its selection up to 15. Guests are becoming as particular about their choice of tequila, she says, as they are about their vodka. That's because people aren't just throwing back tequila shots and biting a lime to mask the taste. Top-shelf tequilas are meant to be sipped and savored.

So many would-be connoisseurs are sampling high-end tequilas that two new restaurants are practically dedicated to the spirit. The InterContinental Hotel's concept bar Sushi-Teq offers about 70 premium tequilas, and La Verdad, Ken Oringer's taqueria on Lansdowne Street, has about 50.

"I want to bring true tequila that not everybody understands yet to Boston," Oringer says. Having traveled extensively in Mexico, he suggests drinking tequila with sangrita, a thick tomato/citrus juice. A shot is served with each pour at La Verdad.

So where does all this leave that summer staple, the margarita? It has gone arti sanal, with many restaurants using premium tequilas and fresh citrus juices.

The house margarita at La Verdad is sweetened with agave nectar. At Rendezvous in Cambridge, they use rosemary-infused tequila.

Meanwhile, mixologists all over town are proving that the spirit works well in other cocktails, too. Ole co-owner Ivan Torres has taken to making gimlets, mojitos, and caipirinhas with blancos. San Francisco cocktail expert Jacques Bezuidenhout, who's consulting on the drink list at Oringer's new steakhouse, KO Prime, says replacing whiskey with an oaky añejo makes an "elegant and complex" Manhattan.

Then there's Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli, a bartender at Eastern Standard in Kenmore Square, who captures tequila's versatility. He's whipping up a cocktail he calls the Jaguar: a blanco mixed with herbaceous Green Chartreuse, Amer Picon, and Fee Brothers Orange Bitters and garnished with a flaming orange rind. Talk about getting fired up over tequila.

Liza Weisstuch, Globe Correspondent - The Boston Globe

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