Top-shelf tequila is changing not just what we drink, but how we drink this exulted Mexican spirit
Tequila is a misunderstood spirit. It has a sadly unshakable frat boy, bruh, stag night reputation, and the image of salt, lemon and cheap tequila as a party shot is a potent one. But there is cheap tequila, and there is premium tequila, the latter an entirely different category in itself.
“When I travelled around Mexico, I realised that the consumption of tequila there is almost like a religion,” says Eli Atias, who distributes the premium El Optimista Tequila in Asia. “They don’t drink it in a shot glass. Frankly, if you serve anything in a shot glass, people are going to treat it like a cheap shot.” Atias is but one of many (including bartenders and chefs) who are spreading the premium tequila gospel.
“Consumers are more discerning, and they are learning about agave spirits. We are all becoming more conscious and interested about the provenance of the things we consume,” explains Mexican native Mauricio Allende, bar manager at Singapore’s La Maison du Whisky. “Consumers are also more interested in drinking less but better. The bad reputation of tequila is slowly disappearing and I believe that as Mexican culture and gastronomy spread around the world, global consumers are embracing it with pleasure.”
When it comes to premium tequila, Patron is the pioneer, the gold standard and the world’s second biggest-selling tequila brand behind Sauza. Worldwide, the spirit’s volume sales are expected to grow at an annual rate of three percent according to analyst ReportLinker. Much of this is in the luxury end of the market. The reason for this is agave, the plant cultivated to make tequila and mezcal.
An agave plant is unique in the spirit world in that it barrel-ages itself as it would have been sitting in the sun for 10 years before it is harvested. Agaves take up to a decade to mature, but each piña—the usable core, without its fearsome spikes—yields only about 10 bottles of spirit. Once harvested, it is used up, which means it can only be produced in limited quantity and is an expensive affair. It also means that it rarely has a vintage (except for Tequila Ocho, but more on that later).
These days, more luxury tequila is made from the agaves. Premium tequila is 100 percent agave and usually priced from US$40 or more. Other bottom-shelf tequilas—yes, the ones for the shots—are called mixtos and have sugar added to them (which would explain those hangovers).
“I always tell my guests to forget about brands, but rather to make sure they always consume 100 percent agave tequila,” says Allende, whose favourite, the aforementioned Tequila Ocho, is worth a punt.
What makes Ocho’s handcrafted tequila different is that the distillery follows a similar process to most wineries. All of the agaves they use come from just one plot of land and they only take the plants that are 100 percent ready. Every year, the agave comes from a different patch of land or rancho (estate), consequently yielding vintages. “Every batch is unique and this is, in my opinion, unheard of in the tequila industry,” he adds.
Tequila, like Scotch in Scotland, is so entrenched culturally in Mexico that it is part of the national identity. So the way you drink and where you drink it is all very important.
“When I was in Mexico, what impressed me most was how they served the tequila—in a thick champagne-looking glass. From there, I learned to appreciate it better and really got to know more about the premium category,” adds Atias. Now, whenever he serves it to his customers in cognac or whisky glasses, he observes that their behaviour changes. “People want to appreciate it, and they want the knowledge.”
These converts are what Patron calls the “knows,” customers who are interested in product and quality. And these so-called knows are growing by the day. While Patron is far and away the leader in the premium category, these are other brands you should name-drop to be considered one of the “real knows”: Tequila Tapatio, produced by the Camarena Family in Los Altos of Jalisco (The Highlands); Tears of Llorona (extra, extra anejo, or aged); Tequila Avion (featured in the television series Entourage), Purasangre Añejo (which means ‘thoroughbred’); and Fuenteseca 9 Year Tequila (an ultra-aged sipping tequila).
Now leave the salt and lime to the bros.
By David Fuhrmann-Lim