There was a time when slamming back Jose Cuervo tequila shots defined my notion of drinking socially and irresponsibly. When attending college mixers and parties, it was the perfect way to act cool and behave stupidly at the same time. The time-honored tradition of licking salt before swallowing a rim-topped shooter glass and finishing with a limon bite was a pattern of behavior that I remember clearly, but can’t recall with any accuracy.
It was also my surrender to the fiery pepper that typically accompanied the alcohol. While the raspa would rocket through my gastric canal, I often wondered how I survived the taste of jet fuel laced with vanilla extract. But those negative thoughts always melted away after the third shot. That’s the magic of tequila; sometimes it makes you question your own sense of reality.
As we aged, so did our palettes. Drinking buddies flush with more disposable income succumbed to the lure of unblended Scotch or reveled in the crisp bite of French vodka. But not me. I saw no reason to search for a better bitter. It seems I was too emotionally attached to tequila to switch to a competing liquor.
My mission was to find a tequila that didn’t taste so nasty. Move over Jose Cuervo, and say hello to Patrón.
Apart from all the trusted distilleries in Jalisco, Mexico, the one tequila that resonated in America debuted in 1989, and soon captured a coveted 30% market share–not because of Patrón’s unique flavor profile or quality control standards, but because shampoo mogul and co-founder, John Paul DeJoria positioned Patrón’s top-shelf status through its hand-numbered bottles, silk ribbons, and round-top corks. Late-show tequila was now dressed up and ready for prime-time.
It wasn’t long before other celebrities jumped on the brand-wagon to use their cache to cash in. While Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo supported the aging baby boomer sub-culture, George Clooney’s Casamigos courted the endless summer sect, and P. Diddy’s DeLéon catered to the crowd behind the velvet rope.
Tequila’s makeover has generated record-breaking sales since 2012. According to the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS):
…tequila volumes [in the U.S.] have grown by 121%, at an average rate of 5.8%. In 2016 alone, 15.9 million 9-liter cases were sold. What is even more impressive is that while the volumes of value and premium tequila grew by 93% and 72% during the aforementioned time frame, those of high-end premium and super-premium shot up by 292% and 706%, respectively.
And spirit producers are betting big that the current wave continues. Last year, DeJoria released his remaining 70% of Patrón shares to Bacardi for $5.1bn, and Diageo secured Casamigos from Clooney for $1bn to stand beside its Don Julio brand acquired from Jose Cuervo in 2014.
With my head spinning from all the stats, I needed a drink…or more. And I needed clarification and historical perspective to make sense of it all. Fortunately, when at our resort South of the Border, Leah and I were introduced to Socrates, our waiter at Vidanta’s La Cantina on the Riviera Maya, who was eager to share information about his culture, and the connection between tequila and Guadalajara, his family’s home for the past 200 years.
Ordinarily I’d order a margarita before my meal, like so many times before…
but on this night, Socrates offered me a turn at the tasting table…
and a briefing on the distillation process of tequila and its significance to the Mexican economy.
“Tequila has been produced in Mexico since 1726, but mezcal has been distilled by the Toltecs in clay pots for special ceremonies since the year 600. My family has been growing blue agave and producing spirits before my abuelo was walking,” stated Socrates, “so it is my honor to present you with our wonderful heritage and the drink of my people tonight.”
He continued, “Tequila is a very special drink that requires lots of patience–from the ten years the agave tequilana plant grows to maturity in the sandy hills of my country–until it is harvested. Once all the leaves are stripped from the agave plant, the piña is roasted, and the juice is released by running the tahona over the piña. This is true for all the varieties of tequila you will sample tonight.”
“What makes it clear and what makes it golden-colored?” I asked.
“Ah, that is all about the aging,” replied Socrates. “Silver tequila or blanco is tequila in the purest form with the most natural taste after the distilling process–a little bit of sweet with a taste of citrus and pepper. It is preferred when making margaritas.
“And the golden color?…” I reiterated.
“That is the color from the barrels to age the tequila. Usually 6 months resting in an oak barrel, sometimes already flavored from bourbon or wine, and we call it tequila reposado. The taste is a balance between the agave and the wood–more smooth with hints of caramel and spice,” Socrates continued.
“But for me, the real tequila is the sipping tequila called tequila añejo. This is tequila aged for at least one year in the barrel, which now darkens the tequila to an amber color. It is very smooth like fine wine or whisky, and is to be enjoyed at room temperature,” he concluded.
I pointed to the tequila table. “But there are bottles that are marked ultra and extra añejo. What about them?”
“That’s the newest tequila category that’s been added since 2006,” remarked Socrates. “It refers to tequila that’s been aged more than 3 years. So it tends to be darker still, unless the color has been filtered out, and looking like a blanco. But what’s left behind is tequila that is incredibly smooth and complex and rich, with very little alcohol taste.”
“How rich?” I asked.
“This tequila can cost over $300 a bottle,” he exclaimed.
Dinner was served–chicken fajitas for Leah…
and lobster tacos for me.
The food was delicious, but the tequila…
OMG!…and worth every peso!!