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August 19, 2010

Top Tequilas

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.

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Education was crucial, too. The best tequilas are made solely from blue agave and fall into five main categories. Blanco (also known as “plata” or “silver”) is the crispest and usually the cheapest, as it isn’t aged; Fortaleza ($50) and Milagro ($25) are both outstanding examples of this type. Reposado and añejo tequilas are stored in oak barrels. Reposados like the terrific Siete Leguas ($40) spend a few months aging, while añejos sit for at least a year. El Tesoro ($50) is a classic example. The lesser-known joven category designates blanco tequilas that have been blended with aged varieties to deepen the flavor. Traditionally this was a lowbrow category, and it’s taken a brand as smart as Casa Dragones ($275; see “Bob Pittman, Founder of MTV, Launches a New Premium Tequila”) to prove the merit of a first-class joven. Extra añejo is a new classification, formally recognized in 2006, for dark and rich, almost whiskey-like, tequilas. The pick of these is Don Julio Real ($125), made only twice a year in a special set of stills and aged for three to five years.

The next step, according to Suro-Piñera, is to educate drinkers on the differences among premium sipping tequilas. Compared with grapes, which are harvested for wine after just a year, an agave plant can take eight to ten years to mature. Instead of reflecting the climate conditions of one growing season, tequila expresses the fluctuations of an entire decade. And across Mexico’s five tequila-making regions the soils and altitudes vary wildly, much like wine terroirs. “We have special glasses to drink Bordeaux or Rieslings, so imagine what we need to drink tequila,” says Suro-Piñera. Broadly, premium tequilas can be split into two categories: highland, grown at 6,600 feet above sea level, and lowland, produced a few thousand feet lower and closer to the sea. Siete Leguas is a prime highland tequila, and for it Suro-Piñera suggests a special tequila glass made by Riedel and endorsed by the CRT eight years ago. (A Champagne flute is a convenient substitute.) “Tequilas from the highlands have a tendency to be fruity, citrusy, and floral, with a long finish. One of their main characteristics is sweetness, and the narrow top of the glass pours into the front of the mouth where the sweet sensors are,” he explains. For peppery, spicy, lowland tequilas like PaQui ($40), a different glass is needed to bring out the flavor. “They have a very mineral tendency, dry, with a short finish,” Suro-Piñera continues. “Drink them from a snifter—the bigger the glass, the more room for oxidation.”

Today there are more than 150 licensed distilleries producing nearly 1,100 brands of 100 percent agave tequila. Each bottle has a serial number that allows obsessives to track it back to its specific agave field. “Very much like single-malt scotch, the place of origin is a key factor,” says Pacult. “In the future I bet we’ll see labels indicating particular estates and areas. Producers want everyone to know exactly where their tequila comes from.” That GPS map should come in handy. —Mark Ellwood

True Blue: The Spirit of Agave

Like Champagne or Cognac, tequila is an AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée), meaning a spirit can only be called a tequila if it’s produced according to certain rules. One requirement is that it be made primarily from agave, specifically the Weber variety of blue agave grown in designated regions of Mexico. An indigenous plant, agave has long played an important role in local culture. In pre-Columbian times it was considered sacred: Maya shamans and Aztec warriors fortified themselves with pulque, a milky precursor of tequila.

Much has been made about the health benefits of agave nectar. It has fewer carbohydrates and is much lower on the glycemic index than sugar, making it the sweetener of choice for many diabetics and dieters. But does this benefit translate to tequila? Pure distilled spirits—vodka, gin, whiskey—are generally free of carbohydrates and sugars, which are mostly consumed by yeast during fermentation. The distillation process removes any residual elements. So agave’s dietary advantages don’t have much bearing on pure tequila. In some cases producers add caramel coloring and other syrups to their tequilas, which concerned consumers should watch out for. Premium tequilas, made from 100 percent agave, are far less likely to include sugar-laden additives. Not only are they higher in quality, but they are more healthful as well. —Julie Coe