Pop quiz: Name the oldest original North American spirit, a drink that is absolutely booming on the American market and being discovered by waves of new enthusiasts who are enticed by its quality after years of dismissing it as pedestrian.
You could be forgiven if you answered Bourbon. Certainly, that homegrown whiskey category from the United States has shot to prominence after long being written off by Scotch drinkers. But for a far older spirit that hails from this continent, you have to range south of the border to Mexico, where Tequila was first distilled some 200 years earlier than Bourbon.
The four-century-old product, which is made (mainly) in Jalisco, about 300 miles west of Mexico City, has dramatically changed its image. Long ago, it shook its reputation as an alcohol delivery system, downed repeatedly in shots by frat boys, to become a top-tier spirit savored by connoisseurs. And today the demand for high-quality Tequila has never been greater, with aficionados scouring the extra-premium end of the category, seeking out both greater purity and longer aging to improve their experience. Luxury priced brands, many of them with star power behind them are enjoying double-digit growth.
Market figures from Impact Databank (a trade publication from M. Shanken Communications Inc., the publishers of Cigar Aficionado) show a soaring growth in Tequila sales with no signs of slowing. Back in 1987, the category claimed a mere 2 million cases among U.S. liquor imports. In the ensuing 10 years, that figure had tripled, and by 2007 sat at 11 million cases. In 2020, the latest year of data available, Tequila claimed a gawdy 21.2 million cases (or $6.86 billion), up 13.4 percent from 2019. The five biggest premium brands in the segment are Jose Cuervo (nearly 8 million cases), Patrón (3.2 million), 1800 (2.1 million), Don Julio (1.8 million) and Hornitos (1.7 million).
Perhaps most notable is that luxury is leading the charge. Tequila can be split into two categories that are defined by vegetable content. By law, it is an agave-based spirit made from the juice of that plant grown in the Mexican state of Jalisco, as well as a handful of other delineated districts. However, since that plant takes about a decade to mature and there are periodic shortages, there’s also a lesser form of Tequila, called mixto, which can be made using as little as 51 percent agave supplemented by such lesser ingredients as molasses and corn syrups. Mixtos are typically the type of Tequila that many of us, especially from an older generation, first tried, leading to unpleasant, sometimes even downright painful experiences. To truly understand the appeal of Tequila, avoid mixto. You won’t see that term on the bottle, so the way to make sure you’re buying quality Tequila is to look for words like “made from 100 percent pure agave” on the label.
Even as Tequila has surged overall, its gains have come exclusively from the luxury, super-premium and premium segments. In fact, consumption in the sub-premium price segment dropped 17 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to Impact. There are more Tequilas than any other type of spirit on Impact’s Hot Brands list, which recognizes the fastest-growing and most dynamic players in the spirits business. Rising Tequilas include not only new entrants, like The Rock’s Teremana, but also established brands showing eye-popping gains. Herradura was up nearly 60 percent in 2021, while Milagro saw shipments rise by 42.8 percent. Casamigos was up 41.5 percent, Don Julio rose by 35.5 percent, Hornitos 31.4 percent, Espolòn up 27.5 percent and 1800 rose by 17.5 percent.
A growing amount of luxury Tequila is further distinguished by maturation in oak barrels. The council that regulates the spirit recognizes four basic categories of aging. Blanco (or silver) describes an unaged product devoid of color. Tequilas aged 60 to 364 days are reposado (rested), and typically have a touch of color from the oak. Añejo (old) is aged from one to three years, and is darker. Extra añejo Tequilas, a grouping established in 2006, are at least three years old, and quite dark. (You can also find Tequilas marked joven, which could contain a blend of blanco and aged Tequila, but many of these are unaged mixtos that are flavored and colored to look gold.)
Those age distinctions might not seem impressive when compared with single malt Scotch, which often show age statements starting at a decade and swelling to 25, 30 and even 40 years for the most exquisite expressions. But it is important to remember that Tequila aging is done in the much hotter climate of Mexico, so maturation happens considerably faster than what can be achieved in Scotland with its cool summers and chilly winters.
Not only are more aged Tequilas available, but small brands are testing the outer limits of maturation length at nine, 12 and even 18 years. The general trend is a happy development for cigar smokers as they increase the possibilities for pairings with tobacco. Just as other brown spirits—whiskey and brandy—make good smoking marriages, letting Tequila rest in wood barrels creates notes that are apt to find like flavors and/or pleasing contrasts in a cigar.
Another way to distinguish Tequila is by altitude. The highlands region, represented by such brands as El Tesoro and Cazadores, renders agave that tends to be sweet. The valley, with Tequilas such as Casa Noble and Partida, grows agave with a more savory quality. There are differences in production methods as well. For instance, Tres Generaciones is triple-distilled.
Lest we forget, Tequila also makes for a great base for mixed drinks, and not just in oversweetened beach creations that lose their connection with Tequila. The whole point of mixing a drink with Tequila is to taste the flavor of the spirit, not mask it. The Margarita, for instance, when not approached as a blender-made slushy, teases out flavors greater than the sum of its parts. Forget the premade powders and bottled mixers from the convenience store, and fresh-squeeze your lime juice. Lose the generic triple sec in favor of the classic Cointreau. Avoid crushed ice, instead shaking over cubes and straining into a proper cocktail glass (a salt rim is optional). Above all, utilize quality Tequila. While recipes typically call for blanco, aged spirits are a good variation, as they increase the chance for alchemy with the other ingredients. Reposado is a particularly good choice as it contributes savory notes without breaking the bank.
But Tequila drinks needn’t be as serious as all that. The Tequila Sunrise, a layering of the spirit with grenadine and orange juice, fueled the Rolling Stones’ legendary and raucous 1972 U.S. tour. Furthermore, Tequila has become the darling of the mixology set, with bar professionals constantly coming up with new and inventive ways to employ Mexico’s spirit in a mixing glass. We know of one cigarmaker who enjoys his Tequila over a slice of orange, some ice and a splash of soda water, for a refreshing and easy drink.
No matter how you shake it, it is clear that Tequila is making a big splash with its neighbor to the north.