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Tequila Sunrise

How a New Upscale Day Dawned for Mexico's Ancient Firewater
Jonathan Kandell
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

It's Saturday night at Isadora, a restaurant with a pedigreed clientele in Mexico City's tony Polanco district. In the ground-floor cigar parlor, every banker and entrepreneur seems to be holding a Partagas or Montecristo in one hand, and a snifter of what looks like Cognac in the other. "That's Tequila--Reserva de la Familia," the maître d', Rigoberto Buenrostro, says. "The José Cuervo people insist that we serve it in Cognac glasses." At 80 pesos ($10) a shot, he adds, which is steep for Mexico.

Don Rigoberto notices my eyebrows lifting. "Amazing, huh?" he says. "I also used to think Tequila was for construction laborers." Then, three or four years ago, Isadora's affluent clients began ordering top-of-the-line Cuervo, Sauza and Herradura. Now, Tequila outsells Scotch here and at many other upscale restaurants in the Mexican capital. "See those drinks," says Don Rigoberto, pointing to a row of six thin elongated crystal shot glasses lined up at the bar ready to be taken to a dining table upstairs. "Tequila--all of them."

When I was growing up in Mexico during the 1950s, the preferred drink of sophisticated society was the highball, a tall glass of whiskey with soda of some sort. There were exceptions, like the Guadalajara crowd, who had the temerity to dress up as charros--dandified Mexican cowboys with broad-brimmed sombreros, dark bolero jackets and tight trousers spangled with silver buttons--and drink Tequila.

On trips to Guadalajara with my father, an American ex-pat businessman based in Mexico City, we would occasionally dine with these would-be charros at homes and restaurants, where they would prep themselves for a meal with a few Tequilas, expertly licking grains of salt off their fists, tossing back a shot of the fiery alcohol, sucking on a lime and finishing the ritual with a gulp of spicy tomato juice called sangrita. But Guadalajara society notwithstanding, Tequila back then was low-class quaff. Cheap and powerfully inebriating, it was the drink of the poor--or of the politicians and mariachi balladeers who considered them their constituency.

Only one other alcohol was lower on the social ladder--mescal. It was distilled from different species of agave plants (maguey) than Tequila, and was usually sold with a drowned agave worm (actually, a caterpillar) at the bottom of the bottle. But nowadays, even mescal--minus the caterpillar--is being marketed in Mexico, the United States and elsewhere as a pricey digestif. (See sidebar on page 285.)

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is to encounter the man generally credited with persuading imbibers to shell out $40, $80, $100, even several hundred dollars for a single bottle of Tequila. His name is Martin Grassl, a tall, mop-haired, baby-faced 30-year-old Austrian, who seems more likely to be carded in a bar than credited with giving new direction to a national drink.

Grassl arrived in Mexico in 1990 with a new MBA and a mandate from his employer, an Austrian trading company, to find a Tequila classy enough to sell in Japan. After thorough research, Grassl decided none existed. Instead, he proposed to develop a new brand--"a kind of Tequila eau-de-vie," he called it--for his employers. When they showed no interest, he resigned and embarked on that quixotic quest on his own.

His father, a dentist back in Austria, who was disappointed his son hadn't become a doctor or lawyer, didn't see much merit in Grassl's business plan. Fortunately, his aunt, who owns a small eau-de-vie distillery, decided to back him with a $100,000 loan. "That money saved me," says Grassl.

With the loan, he rented a small Tequila distillery near Guadalajara for a few weeks, and contracted local artisans to fashion a sleek bottle that he had designed with a glass cactus stuck inside on its bottom. In 1991, he produced his first batch of Tequila and called it Porfidio. The name seems a misspelling of "Porfirio," as in Porfirio Díaz, the dictator who presided over turn-of-the-century high society and was overthrown at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. Entrenched Tequila producers snickered that it was impossible to take seriously a foreigner who couldn't even get his brand name right and didn't realize that agave wasn't a cactus.

Grassl, who displays a wry sense of humor, offers his own explanations for the apparent miscues that he says were calculated to draw attention and commentary. Higher-priced Tequilas carry a label with a brief personal historical note signed by the brand's owner. Grassl assumed the pompous pen name of "Ponciano Porfidio"--a dig at the pretentiousness of his competitors and himself. As for the cactus in Porfidio's bottles, "Well, everybody knows the cactus is practically the national symbol of Mexico," says Grassl. "You just look at the bottle and you know where it comes from."

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