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Almost Famous: Tequila Rising

Have you ever really tasted tequila? Chances are, you’ve inhaled it with some combination of salt and lime, or drowned it in orange juice, but have you ever savored it? Rolled it around in your mouth like you would a fine cognac or single-malt scotch and let the flavors hang around for a while? Relished each earthy-sweet or mildly spicy, citrusy nuance before finally swallowing, letting it warm your throat, then exhaling gently through your mouth? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t—you’re in the majority. But that’s changing. For decades, tequila was banished to party-fuel status and downed with such speed so as not to taste it at all. But its tawdry reputation belies the proud Mexican spirit’s ancient, sacred roots, complex flavor and often meticulous quality.

Like cognac, champagne and whisky, tequila is protected by appellation-of-origin status, which means it can be made in only one region of the world. All 900 brands of tequila are produced in just five Mexican states, most of them in Jalisco, near the central Pacific Coast, in a rural area that hugs Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city.

Tequila is one of the most regulated spirits in the world. An industry watchdog group, the Tequila Regulatory Council, monitors every drop that’s made, holding producers to strict standards. The TRC’s multi-tiered, mildly Orwellian program includes random quality checks, satellite surveillance of agave fields—where tequila’s unique artichoke-like main ingredient is grown—and even a debit card-like plant-monitoring system. With all that attention to quality, it’s no coincidence that tequila’s one of the fastest-growing spirits in the world. Tequila consumption has doubled three times over since 1995, with premium brands leading the pack. High-end tequila outsold single-malt scotch for the past two years in the U.S., according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

So has tequila changed since the stuff you downed in college? Not really—the production methods enforced by the TRC are remarkably similar to those practiced more than 200 years ago. But there are more premium, artisan-crafted sipping tequilas on the market these days.

There are two categories of tequila. Mixto, or value tequila, the kind found on the lower shelves of most bars in the U.S. and served in those neon-green, pre-blended margaritas, can be made with as little as 51 percent agave and supplemented with other sweeteners, colors and flavors.

Premium tequila is made using only the region’s prized, blue-hued Weber agave. No flavors, no caramel coloring. This 100 percent blue-agave tequila is made in a staggeringly labor-intensive, low-yield process that takes eight to 14 years or more from planting to bottling. This spirit can display fruity, spicy, smoky, earthy, vegetal and herbal flavors. When aged up to five years in oak barrels, it can take on rich copper and amber hues. Like cognac, it’s a drink to sip and savor, and it sells for up to $350 a bottle (though you can find good ones for under $40—see our tasting notes in the March/April issue).

Need more proof that tequila’s leaving its rowdy days behind? Austrian wine-glass maker Riedel has introduced an elegant, stemmed tequila glass ($9.75, Tall and slim, like a champagne flute, it’s designed to show off tequila’s nuanced aromas and flavors.

Pueblo MagicoTequila shares its name with a sun-washed, pastel-hued town near the Rio Grande River, about 30 miles northwest of Guadalajara. Nestled in a long valley in the foothills of the 9,650-foot Tequila volcano, this is the birthplace of Mexico’s national spirit. Here, the people’s connection to tequila is spiritual and cultural but also immediate and real, as most of the 40,000 residents are involved in agave farming, tequila production or sales. Teenagers advertise distillery tours in homemade wooden booths, perched in the shadows of the 16th century cathedral that reigns over the town’s central square. The main streets are lined with modest liquor shops and market stalls, where old men and children peddle agave candies, barrel-shaped tequila souvenirs, fresh juices and meats. Tequila looks like Hollywood’s interpretation of a biblical village, with its flood of pale-yellow afternoon light and its narrow, cobblestone streets, busy with cars, pushcarts and families on foot, headed into town for work or market. Beyond the brick-and-adobe buildings, the threadlike highway into town weaves through sloping fields of wildflowers, golden corn and endless stripes of blue-spiked agave plants growing side by side in neat, even rows. Bony horses and cows graze roadside, and hand-painted billboards—some shaped like tequila bottles—assure thirsty travelers that they’re headed in the right direction.

The tequila industry as a whole seems to be heading in the right direction. The spirit’s gaining popularity and prestige in Japan, London and its top market, the U.S. (last year, for the first time, Americans drank more tequila than Mexicans did), and money from international investors and tourism is pouring in. Rural Jalisco, a corn- and agave-farming area known more for its laid-back charro (cowboy) lifestyle, mariachi music and painstakingly traditional tequila-production methods than for rapid industrial mobilization, is buzzing with excitement and the promise of progress.

“It’s the dawning of a new era,” says Julio Bermejo, one of the top tequila experts in the world, and the chief ambassador of the spirit in the U.S. “It’s no surprise that tequila is gaining in world popularity, but it is a surprise for the farmer who builds a distillery, works for 10 to 15 years, then sells his stuff for $100 million.”

In Tequila, shiny Dodge pickups and European sedans roll past the push carts and bicycles, as a growing number of distillers sell part or all of their operations to international spirits-brand conglomerates and others race to enter the business. In 2002, the Mexican government named Tequila a pueblo magico (magic town) and last year, UNESCO designated the tequila region a World Heritage Site. The area is already being positioned as a major tourism destination, with plans under way for a multimillion-dollar Tequila Trail to include hotels, restaurants, improved highways and a train system linking the area’s distilleries with cultural and historical sites, such as the ancient archaeological ruins at Guachimonton—where excavators have uncovered early figurines depicting an ages-old affinity for agave beverages (agua miel, or “sweet water,” kept fermenting in the body long after it was imbibed, creating a marathon buzz)—making it all accessible from metropolitan Guadalajara and its international airport.

To critical ears, this progress might sound like a recipe for disaster for a spirit with sacred roots. But this is a community that knows the value of tradition. Tequila is the direct descendent of the agave wine made 2,000 years ago by the region’s indigenous populations. A few centuries ago, early tequila makers worked in secret tabernas (taverns) to evade the Spanish authorities, using laborious methods to craft their celebrated spirit. Those same methods are the basis for the strict production regulations enforced today by the TRC, and so the character of tequila remains.

Something’s BrewingDrinkers worldwide are growing accustomed to tangy microbrews and peaty single-malt whiskies, and looking to savor other artisan-made drinks. This is good news for smaller, independent tequila producers and the agave growers who supply them, because it puts them in a position to compete with tequila giants like Cuervo and Sauza, which produce premium, 100 percent blue-agave tequilas in addition to their popular value tequilas. The industry-wide production regulations, which dictate that all premium tequilas must be made in much the same way, help level the playing field.

This is also good for consumers—it means there are a lot of fantastic premium tequilas on the market. What makes each tequila unique is a combination of terroir, or the characteristics of the particular plot of land where the agave was grown; fermentation time; the number of distillations, and the types of stills used; aging time and barrel type; the tequileros’ (master distillers’) chosen blend; and other nuances determined by each producer.

Like other types of agritourism, a visit to tequila’s source is more than just a cultural lesson—it’s an exploration in flavor. A person can appreciate good tequila, but true connoisseurship comes only with firsthand, at-origin experience, says Bermejo, who leads educational trips to the region several times a year—because seeing is tasting. After visiting tequila distilleries, an imbiber can taste the soul of the region in each sip: the peculiar agave—often mistaken for a cactus but actually a giant, flowering succulent—grows for eight to 12 years, often organically, before it’s hand-harvested by a skilled field worker called a jimador. The expert harvester lops off the plant’s dangerously sharp spikes with a hoe-like tool called a coa, to reveal an otherworldly ovoid, starchy white “heart” the size of a beachball.

With a crop that can take a decade or more to mature, agave farmers display the patience of holy men. It’s hard to know when each plant will be ready; every agave has its time, some weighing more than 100 pounds at harvest. Because farmers plant so many years ahead, region-wide agave shortages and gluts are common. Recently, there’s been a glut, with about 360 million agaves growing, which makes it tough for farmers to get a good price. In exploring ways to diversify, the state government built three production facilities for agave nectar—a fructose sweetener that American nutritionists have been touting as a healthy alternative to sugar.

But tequila is still the jewel of Jalisco, and after walking through the red-brown clay soil of Los Altos, the agave-growing highlands east of the Tequila valley, visitors who take in a mouthful of fruity-spicy-citrusy highland tequila might taste the iron- and magnesium-rich earth, and even a hint of the deliciously sweet-tart pink grapefruits that grow near the agave farms. They can swirl it around on their palates and imagine the distilleries, with their Spanish-style haciendas and lush, paradisiacal grounds, and how all the factories smell the same inside—musty, yeasty and cloyingly sweet—and share the same sounds: the industrial whirs, conveyor-belt clicks, and steam-pipe clanks, the unforgettable scrape of shovel on asphalt, or the crisp stab of machete in fruit as workers scoop freshly harvested agave into charring kilns, 24 hours a day, every day.

When you’ve seen all this, you can taste the labor of the stout, copper pot stills; feel the cool, cavernous barrel rooms, with used bourbon barrels or new French-oak casks piled 20 high and 60 deep; the deliberation of the tequileros as they taste and blend each batch; the solemn rhythm of the bottling rooms, where workers hand-label each glass bottle; the freshly landscaped cobblestone driveways ending at newly built, lavish onsite tasting rooms, where tour groups and individual visitors—just off of 50-peso distillery tours—gather to taste the wares.

Beyond the Margarita: How to Drink TequilaWhen tasting tequila, locals start by looking for and smelling what Francisco Quijano, director of operations at Sauza, calls its “promise”: its color, texture and aroma (“There’s a promise in every bottle,” he says). Then they taste it to see if the promise holds true; if it does, it’s a good tequila.

Most Jaliscan households keep a bottle of tequila in the refrigerator to sip when friends drop in. To showcase tequilas, bars and restaurants often serve what’s called a bandera (flag), because it represents the colors of the Mexican flag: a snifter or caballito (tall, narrow 2-ounce glass) of tequila, a caballito filled with lime wheels and a third with sangrita, a spicy, tomato-red palate cleanser. The tequila is sipped—never shot.

Jaliscan cuisine is rich, spicy and soulful, and almost always accompanied by tequila. Well-made margaritas are omnipresent, usually with blanco or reposado tequilas). Other popular local cocktails include the Poloma, which combines tequila with grapefruit soda; the Vampiro, which mixes tequila with sangrita; and the Mayahuel, which pairs tequila with fresh-squeezed, highlands-grown grapefruit juice. It’s named for the 400-breasted Aztec goddess of agave and fertility. Legend says that when she died, an agave sprouted from the tears of her lover, and its juice comforted his soul.

If you can’t make it to Mexico, you can follow the advice of Cirilo Oropeza, master distiller at Corazon, when tasting tequila at home: “When you taste a tequila, you use your five senses; you see, you smell the agave,” he says. “With the tip of your tongue you can taste a little sweetness, then take a sip and roll it around your mouth and you can detect the acid, the bitter and the very good tastes, and then the last step is when you say, ‘salud’ (cheers to your health).”

The next best way to learn about tequila is to taste lots of it. Tequila bars like Tommy’s, the Bermejo family’s restaurant in San Francisco, and others around the country and in London, Tokyo and Singapore are a great place to start. Tommy’s has a 6,000-member tequila-appreciation club that facilitates side-by-side tastings and tequila dinners. Restaurants in New York City, Chicago, Baltimore and other cities also host multi-course tequila-pairing dinners, sometimes with tequila producers flown in for the event. The annual Spirits of Mexico festival in San Diego is a good spot for discovering boutique tequila brands. At these venues, tequila is as much about its heart and soul as its flavor. “We’re not just interested in teaching people about tequila,” says Bermejo. “The story is more about people, geography, terroir, sacrifice and tradition—my god, it’s a beautiful story.”

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