A TALE OF TEQUILA
THE RISE AND RISE OF ULTRA-PREMIUM ‘CACTUS JUICE’
BY JON HIGGS
My earliest tequila memory is watching the classic comedy movie Three Amigos! with El Guapo and his banditos swigging intriguing bottles of white spirit and terrorising the villagers of Santa Poco. My second earliest memory involves downing shots of a ghastly liquid as a youth, which we somehow believed was made more bear- able by licking table salt and chomping down on a wedge of lime. That particular tequila brand is still instantly recognisable thanks to a small, plastic red sombrero adorning the cap of the bottle… and is not something I am in a hurry to ever drink again.
I will also admit that I have had the dubious pleasure of eating a worm from a glass of tequila’s parent spirit, mezcal (well, not a worm exactly, but the insect larvae of a moth found in the agave plant) but again, it’s not on my radar to repeat. It is worth noting before we go any further that mezcal is the name for any spirit made from the agave cactus, which includes tequila, but tequila must be made exclusively from the Weber Blue agave species.
Thankfully, tequila has come a very long way since the rough and ready 90’s; no longer is this a simple yet powerful distillate of cactus juice and the spirit of choice for marauding bandits and rampaging students alike, but instead an ultra-premium spirit with a rapidly growing fan base amongst fine alcohol aficionados worldwide.
“IN THE ARTISAN CATEGORY, NOBODY STANDS OUT FOR ME MORE THAN GERMAN GONZALEZ, A ‘MAESTRO TEQUILERO’ REGARDED BY MANY AFICIONADOS AS THE GREATEST DISTILLER ALIVE. ”
The Renaissance It is fair to say that most spirits have had a renaissance in style and quality in recent years, with more brands of gin, rum, vodka and whisky on the market than ever before. When I first worked in a cocktail bar in the late 90’s we listed a maximum of four types of gin on our list (almost always Gordon’s, Bombay Sapphire, Plymouth and Finsbury) but today, even your local pub will have at least ten or twenty gin brands available, with more appearing every week. This massive growth has been fuelled by an ever-increasing demand for wider consumer choice and increased focus on ar- tisan, small batch and designer products across almost all spirit categories.
It appears that tequila and mezcal are some of the last spirits to join this revolution – but the numbers speak for themselves. The global tequila market is booming, with worldwide consumption increasing by over 40% in the last five years to achieve a current total market value of around $10 billion. Predictions suggest that for the first time ever, spirit- loving Americans will spend more on mezcal and tequila in 2023 than they will on US-made whiskey. Further still, given the current meteoric rise in demand, it looks increasingly likely that tequila will also supplant vodka in this race by the end of the year – no mean feat in a market currently worth over $100 billion! There is nothing wrong with being a lit- tle late to the party, of course, but how have the agave amigos become so successful in such a short space of time?
Firstly, as the tequila market increases in size and value, considerably more attention is being paid to production and quality at all levels. In terms of tequila, this starts with selecting the finest Weber Blue Agave cactus plants and the best places to grow them – agave plants love a dry southerly or Mediterranean climate and prefer a bit of altitude thrown in if they can get it, making parts of the southern USA and Mexico the perfect spot for some cacti cultivation. The demand for increased quality also means that we are seeing many more tequilas comprising 100% agave juice; the higher quality agave was historically mixed in bulk with lesser spirits, as a buffer against high production costs and low demand. When considering that it takes seven kilos of agave to produce just one litre of tequila, this really does show us how much extra care is going into our bottles.
Believe it or not, in an increasingly health-conscious society, tequila also fits the trend as a healthier alternative to many other spirits – much lower in calories and sugar and with zero carbs. To be honest, I’ve never considered tequila as the healthy option, but there you go! Whilst on the subject of health, the legendary fear that tequila is stronger than other spirits and causes considerably worse hangovers has been proven as a myth. Tequila in fact has no worse side effects than any other drinks in the 40%+ alcohol category. Trust me, anything that is consumed by gulping down a shooter or two will inevitably make the morning after considerably more difficult! Fortunately, tequila is outgrowing its bad reputation and no longer needs to be washed down instantly in shots or mixed in sugary cocktails. This spirit is now considered on a par with many fine wines, Cognacs and single malt whiskies, offering luxurious depth, complexity and flavour profiles which can be sipped slowly and dissected as intensely as any fine Bordeaux.
However, I think that the thing which truly elevates tequila above most other spirits is how delightful great tequila can be on its own, neat, as a sipping drink which appeals to all ages (above the legal drinking age, of course). Vodka and gin are of course far from appealing on their own – unless you have particu- larly strong taste buds! – and brandy and whisky are more powerful, favoured by older generations with more expe- rienced taste buds. Premium sipping tequila is enjoyable and accessible for all palates and preferences. Trust me, there is a sipping tequila out there for you no matter how much moonshine you knocked back as a bleary-eyed undergrad.
The Evolution As spirit aficionados look outside whiskies and vodkas for the latest new frontier to explore, demand has also increased for finer, aged tequilas in addition to the original three styles.
Of the three classic iterations, Blanco is earthy and sweet (distilled straight to bottle), Reposado is mellow and oaky (aged 2-11 months in barrel), and Anejo is amber-coloured, smooth and oaky (aged 1-3 years in barrel). Two new ultra-premium categories have also emerged in recent years – the rich and aromatic Extra Anejo is consid- ered the finest style that money can buy and requires a minimum of three years in barrel in a very similar vein to some bourbons, cognacs and Scotch whis- kies. This has proven to be the most popular category for tequila lovers so far, requiring the most skill and patience from experienced, artisan tequileros to produce the very best bottles available on the market today. Fifth and finally, the most recent and trendiest style is Cristalino, in which aged Tequila is fil- tered through charcoal, returning the spirit to its original transparent colour and softening the mouthfeel. (Cristalino tequila is currently all the rage in the VIP club scene… or so I’m told!)
Futhermore, we mustn’t forget the mas- sive influence of the numerous celeb- rities who have jumped on the tequila bandwagon with countless endorse- ments and ownerships of tequila brands of all shapes and sizes. Whilst celebrity- owned drinks are not a new trend (we are all familiar with everything from Brangelina’s Miraval rosé to Jay-Z’s Armand de Brignac champagnes) the sudden surge of stars who have been tempted by tequila is immense. The list of celebrity tequila brands is a real the who’s who of Hollywood royalty – some of the most famous names include George Clooney’s Casamigos (recently purchased by drinks giant Diageo in a deal rumoured to be worth as much as $1 billion) Teremana from Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Cincoro from Michael Jordan and Mark Wahlberg’s Flecha Azul, with many, many more besides. Even Elon Musk has attempted to join the party with a tequila brand that he hoped to call ‘Teslaquila’… fortunately, the Tequila Authority Council stood firmly in his way.
The Best of the Best So, the big question now is what are the finest premium tequila brands on the market today?
Casa Dragones, founded in 2009, was a pioneer in the rise of ultra-premium Tequila. Their ‘Joven’, a blend of Blanco and Anejo, remains one of the finest sipping tequilas to be found anywhere on earth. What’s more, this brand is made by Bertha Gonzalez Nieves, the first ever woman to be certified as a ‘Maestra Tequilera’.
Clase Azul is another powerhouse with a slightly longer history (founded in 1997) which has emerged as perhaps the most iconic brand worldwide in recent years. This is not just for their stunning spirits, but for their distinctive hand-painted ceramic bottles – no matter how deep or otherwise your tequila knowledge may be, these beautiful bottles are instantly recognisable and just as iconic as their contents. The Clase Azul Reposado is simply delicious, offering a fantastically pure expression of tequila’s natural earthy and vegetal flavours supported by smooth oak and vanilla notes.
In the artisan category, nobody stands out for me more than German Gonzalez, a ‘Maestro Tequilero’ regard- ed by many aficionados as the great- est distiller alive. The Gonzalez family’s incredible history goes back for many generations in Mexico; one of German’s direct ancestors, General Manuel Gonzalez, was instrumental in leading Mexican forces to victory against the French on the 5th of May 1862. Today, this date is known by the more familiar title of ‘Cinco de Mayo’ and represents the largest celebration of Mexican cul- ture on earth. I think it’s highly likely that more tequila is consumed on 5th May than any other day of the year! German’s small batch ‘Tears of Llorona’ is a sensational Extra Anejo aged in sin- gle malt, sherry and cognac barrels, only produced for personal consumption un- til friends begged him to release to mar- ket. Arriving in the UK for the first time in 2022, this unique bottling has gone down a storm, with many buyers coming back for more before their first bottle has run out. This really is the ultimate in aged sipping tequila, with caramel, dried fruit and dark chocolate aromas and a heady spiciness that wraps up your pal- ate like a warm scarf on a cold day.
I have had the fortune of tasting many of the best premium tequilas and mezcals over the last few years and can safely say there will be no more shooters or slammers for me (other than perhaps the occasional Margarita!). These days, I enjoy my tequila in a more classic style – delicately sipping whilst watching the sun go down, preferably with a Hoyo de Monterrey cigar clasped firmly in the other hand. Arriba!
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