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Tequila's Rise

Once the Liquor of Machismo and Margaritas, Tequila has Gone Decidedly Upscale
Jean T. Barrett
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

It is cocktail hour at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the Mexican resort town of Cancún. In a corner of the lobby bar, several well-dressed men and women are engaged in a serious tasting of some type of spirit, which they swirl in snifters. Drawing near, a listener can overhear comments on bouquet, flavor and finish. Getting even closer, it becomes evident that these connoisseurs are tasting tequila.

Once drowned in pitchers of Margaritas or gulped in shots, tequila is shedding its bad-boy image and turning up in some pretty sophisticated company. Many leading U.S. restaurants and bars now offer a list of 10, 20, even 25 fine tequilas to complement their array of single-malt Scotches, Cognacs and other high-end spirits.

In Mexico, the Ritz-Carlton, Cancún, has become a sort of Mecca for tequila aficionados. There, a special area of the bar is reserved for tequila tasting, and a slim black folder trimmed in gold lists the 120 tequilas that the hotel offers by the glass.

"Our guests love tequila, and they buy expensive tequilas," says Ricardo Cisneros, beverage manager and tequilier (tequila sommelier) for the hotel, who assembled the impressive collection. Cisneros says that some guests are so captivated with certain rare tequilas that they buy bottles from the hotel to take home. "We used to sell one or two bottles per month of Don Julio, which is one of the best tequilas that we have. Now, I am selling ten cases per month to guests," Cisneros says with a disbelieving laugh. Price, apparently, is no object; the hotel sells a bottle of Reserva de la Casa Don Julio, Añejo for the equivalent of about $90.

Stateside, the interest in upscale tequilas has led to a proliferation of high-end bottlings, in addition to well-established brands such as Cuervo 1800, Sauza Conmemorativo, Tres Generaciones and Herradura. Now, to offer a good tequila selection, a retailer or bar manager must devote several feet of shelf space to showcase bottlings such as Chinaco, Dos Reales, Patrón, Porfidio, El Tesoro de Don Felipe and Centinela.

"Interest in premium tequilas is going up, there's no question," says Val Huffman, manager of Cilantros, a popular Southwestern-style restaurant in Del Mar, California. "People are much more knowledgeable about how tequila is made and aged. Instead of ordering just a plain tequila drink, now people are specifying a brand: 'I want a Tres straight up;' 'I want an El Tesoro and tonic.' It's definitely changed."

Notwithstanding all this interest in upscale tequilas, many myths persist about the spirit, so let's dispel a few of them right off. First, tequila is not made from cactus; rather, it is distilled from the heart of the blue agave (tequilana Weber, variedad azul), a spiny succulent that looks a bit like an aloe plant and is cultivated specifically for tequila production. Second, tequila contains no worm; certain brands of mescal, a kindred but harsher spirit, are bottled with a worm. Third, tequila isn't firewater; at 80 proof, it has exactly as much alcohol as most gins and vodkas.

In addition to the widespread misperceptions about tequila, the spirit is also saddled with a macho image left over from the days when tequila was a rougher tipple best consumed in a quick swallow. "Many years ago, let's say 20, 30 years ago, tequila was considered a low-class drink," acknowledges Francisco Gonzalez, president of Tequila Tres Magueyes, which produces moderately priced tequila, such as Montezuma, as well as the highly regarded Reserva de la Casa Don Julio, Añejo, available only in Mexico. "Now, people's attitudes have changed a lot. In all the best restaurants and hotels, and all the nicest homes in Mexico, you will find a selection of fine, aged tequilas."

An appreciation of fine tequila begins with an understanding of how and where it is made. Most tequila is produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco, although tequila is also made in certain areas of four nearby states: Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.

Many types of agave, a low-to-the-ground, spiked plant, grow wild in Mexico's desert areas, but only the blue variety may be used in tequila production. Unlike grapes or grain, which reach maturity to yield fermentable sugars in a matter of months, the blue agave takes its time, about eight to 12 years, before it is ready to harvest. To harvest the agave, experienced workers use sharp spadelike implements to quickly dispatch the plant, cutting it off at the base and cropping its spiny leaves. The result is a bulbous object, weighing an average of 40 to 80 pounds (with some weighing up to 175 pounds), that resembles a pineapple on steroids and is in fact called a piña.

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