Rhapsody in Blue Agave

Daniel Aubry, Matthew Daniel - March 2006

Taking their cue from a chorus of premium Tequila bottlings on their shelves, savvy bar managers are orchestrating drinks programs around this revitalized spirit.

By Salvador Cervantes' reckoning, the billions of yeast devouring the mashed hearts of Agave tequilana Weber are partial to Mozart. "It relaxes them," he explains, standing over huge amber vats of mosto that seem to swirl in time to the music beneath the bright lights of the Cazadores distillery in Amatitán. For this master distiller and others throughout the state of Jalisco in western Mexico, these are good times to be in the business of Tequila.

Their bounty derives from the enormous blue Weber agaves that spike the arid volcanic slopes of Jalisco and designated areas of four adjacent states in neatly packed rows of dusty azure starbursts. After reaching maturity, a process that requires eight to 10 years of basking in the sun, the entire plant is harvested by jimadores, who sever its long sharp spines to reach its heart. These piñas, which often weigh in excess of 150 pounds, are cleaved, roasted, shredded, and crushed to extract their nectar, or mosto, which is then fermented and double distilled. By law, up to 49 percent of the sugars in fermentation can come from other sources, usually glucose syrup, but producers of premium Tequila like Cervantes insist upon using 100 percent agave in their products, despite the higher cost. Their dedication and an expanding American palate is earning Tequila a reputation and following almost as rabid as Wolfgang Amadeus' fans.

All this represents a huge step from 1983 when Robert Denton founded what is widely regarded as the first premium Tequila brand, Chinaco, in the state of Tamaulipas. "We had to go in and create the demand," he recalls, sidling up to bars across the country to buy people drinks and tipping bartenders heftily. Despite selling only 60 cases his first year, Denton found a market soon enough. "It took off with the Hollywood crowd first, then spread to New York City," he says. "Where you would think it would sell, down in Texas and the Southwest, those guys didn't want any of it."

By raising Tequila distillation to an art, Denton and other pioneers began to erase the hangdog rowdy image it once held. Premium distillates now comprise roughly 5 percent of the market and account for most of the current growth. But there's more to it than elevated price tags. Thanks to effective marketing campaigns promoting a casually suave image of Mexico, consumers are becoming increasingly responsive.

Distillers have swooped in to exploit this fully. A glut of agave on the market, the cyclical result of its long maturity, has pushed prices to near record lows and given rise to dozens of new distilleries in the past decade, with an equally broad number of brands being launched in the largest market, the United States. Today Tequila is the fourth best-selling spirit in this country, with sales reaching nearly eight million cases last in 2004.

Tequila aficionados now discerningly seek out the four official incarnations of the spirit permitted by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), the regulatory board that oversees production: blanco denotes a clear Tequila bottled within 60 days of production; reposado signifies one that has "rested" in large oak casks for a minimum of two months, taking on a greenish amber tint; and añejo marks one that has been aged at least a year in oak barrels, developing a bright ruddy hue like fine Cognac. A new designation, extra añejo, was added in May as a pedigree for Tequilas aged for at least three years.

Keeping up with the latest developments and training a knowledgeable staff requires time and commitment. "You can't really find servers who know everything. They mostly start with the basics and learn from there," explains Megan Graham, general manager at El Carmen in Los Angeles. "It's ongoing, and even I'm learning new stuff all the time." Along with others like George Muñoz, general manager at Chicago's Adobo Grill, she brings in distributors and company representatives to run tastings for her staff. To guide guests through a spectrum of flavors, both restaurants have begun organizing popular tasting dinners. Graham aligns her Tequilas with Mexican small plates like tacos de pescado (fish tacos) and flautas de hongos (deep-fried rolled tortillas stuffed with mushrooms), while Muñoz takes things a step further by pairing mixed cocktails with each of four Latin courses and finishing with a vertical tasting of a distiller's creations served neat.

Throughout brunch and dinner service, Muñoz offers flights--half-ounce pours of three select Tequilas--to let customers explore the variety and compare differences in a product that can veer wildly from light and fruity to thick and smoky. With younger Tequilas, Muñoz serves a complimentary sangrita, a house specialty, updating the traditional fiery blend of dried chiles and citrus juices with fresh tomato juice, cupped in a hollowed cucumber. To appreciate the spirit from all angles, customers are asked to sip on both and nibble the cup.

At Diego at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, a shot of vibrant red sangrita is served alongside another of fresh lime juice and a third of crystalline blanco in the house's Bandera Mexicana (Mexican flag), a down-the-hatch homage to Mexico's national colors.

Others disavow shot glasses entirely. "I serve Tequila in a snifter," explains Julio Bermejo, the CRT's ambassador to the United States and a Tequila consultant at Tommy's Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco. "It makes novices step back and say, ‘Whoa, I thought I ordered a shot'. But then they want to know more. They want to learn."

At Treasure Island's Isla in Las Vegas, providing that sort of knowledge is the dedicated mission of Marina Mercer, the Tequila sommelier otherwise known as the "Tequila Goddess." Clad in a black bustier, she greets wheelers and dealers and introduces them to her liquid repertoire. The Goddess Elixir, which she concocts tableside, blends top-shelf spirits with freshly squeezed orange, lemon, and lime juices to make a Margarita with as much bling as the Vegas strip.

Such investments do pay off, as Laurence Kretchmer, co-owner of Bar Americain, Bolo, and Mesa Grill in New York City, has learned. "You've got to know something really well in order to explain it simply," he says. "In most cases my bartenders and waiters will engage the customers and get them to try something new." Kretchmer is finding fewer newcomers to the subject, but plenty with a jaded view of the spirit. "I have to tell them, ‘No, no, no, you haven't had a bad Tequila experience, you've had an experience with a bad Tequila.'"

That sort of talk is winning over customers left and right as batteries of Tequila continue to charm their way onto yanqui shelves. As for Mexican tourism's current "casually suave" promotional approach, agave delights help drive the message home. "Tequila has never said ‘Oh, you can only drink me in a suit and tie,'" says Bermejo, "and people really like that."