No longer hangover-inducing swill for the spring-break set, Mexico’s signature spirit has come of age as a drink savored by connoisseurs.
A veteran bartender at the vanguard of America’s cocktail revival, Phil Ward has shaken and stirred drinks at influential New York spots like Flatiron Lounge and Death & Co. For nearly a decade he watched with fascination as more and more customers opted for tequila-based cocktails. Where once it was the drink of choice of the occasional enthusiast, Ward was surprised to see orders ramping up to a quarter or more of each night’s total. Eventually he figured the time was right to open a specialty, tequila-centric venue, and the result was his bar-restaurant Mayahuel, which opened late last year in Manhattan’s East Village. With partner Ravi DeRossi, Ward created a chic but rustic space for serving and sampling the best tequilas on the market; his roster of 100 percent blue-agave varieties (the only kind anyone should drink) now numbers around 60.
That a high-end place like Mayahuel could build a drinks list—and a business—almost entirely around tequila is a telling benchmark of the spirit’s newfound respectability. In fact, until recently, sourcing and stocking a bar like Ward’s would have been almost impossible. Just ask Guadalajara native David Suro-Piñera, who opened his Philadelphia restaurant, Tequilas, in 1986. Back then Suro-Piñera could get his hands on fewer than a dozen 100 percent agave brands. Most tequilas sold stateside were designed for drunkenness: cheap and roughly flavored, made with a mixture of sugar and agave alcohol that guaranteed regret-filled mornings after. Today it’s a different story: Suro-Piñera now offers more than 120 tequilas, all of them high-grade and 100 percent agave, from boutique producers as well as big names. And he rhapsodizes about tequila’s nuances, which can range from bright citrus notes to rich, earthy flavors. Suro-Piñera calls tequila “one of the most complex spirits in the world.” But it isn’t just tequila that’s changed; it’s also the customers, who are bringing a more sophisticated appreciation to the bar. “Now I can put away the shot glasses and bring out the snifters,” Suro-Piñera says. The question is: How, in less than a generation, did tequila come so far?
Even in Mexico, it wasn’t until the eighties that anyone considered tequila worth savoring; it was working-class firewater used as a furtive pick-me-up. “In my grandmother’s day—she would be ninetysomething now—they drank tequila at home before lunch, with Salsa Maggi, which is sort of like Worcestershire sauce,” recalls master sommelier and tequila maven Sandra Fernández. “But in the eighties tequila started a new era because the tequileras, the producers, understood they had to do something new in order to survive.” It wasn’t just the tequila they worked to improve but the labels, bottles, and marketing as well. In 1993 a governing body was established to oversee the industry: The Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) authenticates each brand and settles disputes. It has also GPS-tracked every blue agave plant in the country to monitor output: If annual production of 100 percent agave tequila exceeds the plausible yield of the plants on their map, the CRT knows that one or more producers is adulterating its product with cheap sugar alcohol.
Though tequila’s profile may have risen in Mexico, its image problem persisted in the United States. But as travel to Mexico became more popular, increasing numbers of Americans were exposed to the new tequila movement. “In the mid- to late nineties, people were coming back asking ‘Why aren’t these great tequilas available in the States?’” says Paul Pacult, a veteran drinks writer and founder of the Ultimate Spirits Challenge competition. There were a few brands savvy enough to start marketing 100 percent agave premium product here: Patrón was the first, in 1989, while staples from Mexico, like Herradura and Gran Centenario, crossed the border in the nineties. The equation was simple: As the product improved, so did its reputation. “With the exception of Irish whiskey, tequila is the only spirit that has seen double-digit growth here every year for the last decade,” Pacult notes.