Consider if the only beers in American bars were Schlitz and Old Milwaukee. Or if wine shops stocked only Boone’s Farm and Night Train. What place would these beverages have in American culture?
Tequila, this is your lot.
For decades, the bulk of the tequila sold in the U.S. has been bottom-shelf dreck, a hangover-waiting-to-happen that’s made from inferior ingredients and marketed as a lowbrow party drug.
“Back in the ’80s, that’s all we were exposed to,” says Kim Haasarud, Los Angeles mixologist and co-author of “101 Margaritas.” “There were cheap tequilas on the market, and we thought, ’Well, that’s tequila.”’
It’s not like that anymore.
Forget everything you think you know about tequila, then commit this simple phrase to memory: “100 percent agave.” Dozens of labels are carrying those magic words these days, the result of a production renaissance in Mexico more than a decade in the making.
And it seems that the awareness of tequila’s place among the most mouthwatering and versatile of the world’s fine spirits is finally starting to spread.
From 2002-2005, U.S. tequila imports grew nearly 30 percent, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade association representing liquor producers and marketers. And while “value” tequila imports grew only slightly in that span, the volume of “premium” and “super premium” imports nearly doubled, averaging more than 20 percent annual growth since 2002, according to DISCUS figures.
As choices have flourished with growing demand, there’s never been a better time to rediscover the national spirit of Mexico. Still, that news has been slow to penetrate mainstream American preconceptions. Perhaps for good reason.
Laurence Kretchmer tells story of a woman who asked for a Cosmopolitan at New York’s Mesa Grill, one of several restaurants he owns with celebrity chef Bobby Flay. Like any good tequila connoisseur, he jumped at the opportunity to win a convert.
“She looks at me and goes, ‘Oh, no. I had a very bad tequila experience once,”’ Kretchmer says. “And I explained to her that she didn’t have a bad tequila experience — she had an experience with bad tequila.”
And who hasn’t?
The lion’s share of tequila sold in the U.S. is what’s known, somewhat disparagingly, as “mixto,” meaning rougly half of it is made from agave, the unique foundation of all tequila, while the other half comes from added sugar. To give mixtos their “gold” color (and euphemistic moniker) caramel or coloring is often added.
It’s the equivalent of padding your mom’s meatloaf with dog chow. That’s a shame, because pure agave tequila tastes like nothing else in the world: It’s bright and bracing, with racy citrus and vegetal overtones and a hint of sweetness — not the kind of characteristics your typical grain alcohol can equal. And not the kind of flavor that’s easily described.
Finding one of these is simpler than you might think: If the words “100 percent agave” appear on the bottle, then it’s so, by law. Agave is a water-retaining plant — known as a “succulent,” like aloe — that grows chiefly in the dry climates of Mexico. To be labeled “tequila,” it must be made from the blue agave that grows in and around Tequila, a town near Guadalajara, the capital of the western Mexican state of Jalisco.
There’s plenty of choice from there, and you’ll have to spend upwards of $40 for a 750ml bottle, but you’re already way ahead of the average hangover sufferer, who unwittingly bought a mixto at half that price.
As the world began to discover premium tequila in the 1990s, growers scrambled to meet demand. But agave plants take as much as 10 years to mature.
Lucky for us, that wave of plantings of those tall, spiky plants with their washtub-sized pineapples are ready now, and the results are evident in a dizzying selection of new brands and styles, with more than 40 premium brands available in the United States last year, and several hundred throughout Mexico.
All this competition, of course, has also brought about a leveling of prices.
“If you go down to Mexico, now is the time to stock up on the pure agave tequilas,” Haasarud says. “With more on the market, the pricing is pretty good.”
All the same, mixtos — priced significantly lower than the roughly $50 a bottle for entry-level premium tequilas — continue to rule the American market, says Kretchmer. “The trend in food and beverage in general is toward better things, but people aren’t going to order what they don’t know about. It’s taking awhile to educate people.”
Another tip for the uninitiated: Unlike finicky wine grapes from special vineyards and vintages that can dictate soaring prices, agave is a hearty, desert-based plant with little variation in quality from one field to the next. There’s a premium for tequila that’s aged in wood casks; “reposado” (up to 1 year) and “anejo” (more than 1 year) tequilas are darker in color and deeper in complexity than “blanco,” or unaged.
But while some premium tequilas are sold for upward of $400, all you’re really getting for spending hundreds more is a lot of fancy packaging and production fuss.
“The agave is the agave,” Kretchmer says. “The only thing they can say about the agave is that they’re hand-selecting it, and there’s no way the cost of doing that is going to be 10 times as much.”
If spotting a “100 percent agave” label is half the battle, the other is getting people to rethink their drinking habits.
Most folks drinking straight tequila do it by the shot, though usually only after a flavor-killing salt lick, and followed by a flavor-killing wedge of lime.
But premium tequila, like the finest cognac or scotch, is something to be sipped, savored, and enjoyed in moderation, often with nothing more than a tiny squirt of lime to draw out the natural flavors. “Salt is often used to make a really bad tequila taste better,” says Haasarud. “A really good, pure agave tequila already has a natural salinity.”
Kretchmer says the best way to start a tequila deprogramming is by gently sipping an inexpensive, unaged, 100 percent agave tequila in a shot glass. “Agave has got a nice bright profile, it’s a little peppery, it’s a little citrusy, but you’re not going to get it until you taste it in its simplest form,” he says.
Source: San Mateo Daily Journal, by Josh L. Dickey