Tequila is the latest beverage to undergo ‘premiumisation’, with a new wave of high-quality brands raising the spirit’s profile and transforming it into a sophisticated, handcrafted drink to be sipped and savoured.
The elevation of tequila has been strengthened by recent high-end business and celebrity endorsements. Actor George Clooney, for instance, co-founded the successful company Casamigos with businessmen Rande Gerber and Mike Meldman; they recently sold it to Diageo for US$1 billion. And French luxury conglomerate Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) has released its own tequila brand, Volcán De Mi Tierra, in a partnership with Mexico’s Gallardo family. As Andrea Delvo, Head Barman at the Renaissance Bar, Badrutt’s Palace Hotel, says: “Tequila is the new gin.”
“The world of spirits is exactly like the fashion world,” explains Andrea. “Every product has a two- or three-year cycle. Gin has been fashionable for much longer than usual because you can produce gin in every part of the world and it’s one of the easier products to mix. Tequila is the hero of the next cycle.”
“Tequila’s subtle but complex flavours, and its more than 100 different aromas, makes it a natural partner to be enjoyed with food”
The Mexican spirit is even making its mark on the restaurant scene. Tequila’s subtle but complex flavours, and its more than 100 different aromas, makes it a natural partner to be enjoyed with food. Reposado tequila, aged for between two months and one year, for example, goes well with ceviches or vegetable dishes, while añejo tequila, aged for one to three years, suits more cream-based recipes. To celebrate tequila’s versatility, an increasing number of top chefs, including Rick Bayless at his Michelin-starred Topolobampo in Chicago or Angelo Sosa at Añejo Tribeca in New York, are pairing tequila with exclusive tasting menus.
Made from the agave tequilana weber plant, also known as blue agave, tequila was first produced in Mexico in the 16th century. By 1600, Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle, the Marquis of Altamira, had opened the first tequila factory in modern-day Jalisco. The drink didn’t make it to the US – now the largest tequila consumer in the world – until the late 1800s.
“The terroir of the agave can influence the flavour of the tequila – the Mexican highlands produce sweeter character notes, while lowland tequilas tend to be earthier”
Most tequila is made in the state of Jalisco, where its 35,000 hectares (86,000 acres) of agave are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mexican law also allows it to be produced in limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.
Similar to wine, the terroir of the agave can influence the flavour of the tequila – the Mexican highlands produce sweeter character notes, while lowland tequilas tend to be earthier.
Blue agave takes between eight and 12 years to harvest, growing up to two metres (seven feet) in height. The men who harvest it, known as jimadores, use a special knife (a circular blade on a long pole) to cut out the piña (the heart of the plant), which can weigh anything between 70 to 110 kilograms (154 to 243 pounds). This is slowly baked and the juice extracted. After fermenting for several days in wooden or stainless steel vats, the resulting fluid, or mosto, is distilled once to produce ordinario and then a second time to produce clear ‘silver’ or blanco tequila. Two distillations are required by law to carry the tequila name.
Tequila brands and producers
Tequila producers are a combination of family-owned companies, who have been distilling for generations, and contemporary tequila brands that are putting a fresh spin on a classic.
Andrea Delvo explains: “Tequila is a unique product. Brands can’t alter the botanicals or aromas very much; agave and ageing are the factors to play with. The best ‘big’ tequila brands are Clase Azul, Don Julio and Patrón, but there are many good smaller tequila producers that aren’t so well known yet.”
And many tequila producers are pushing the boundaries of production and presentation to create truly exclusive products. Gran Patrón has been triple-distilled and aged, with each bottle wrapped in velvet and packaged in a handmade maple wood box. Clase Azul Extra Añejo, produced in a limited edition of just 100 bottles per year, is aged for five years in sherry oak barrels and bottled in handcrafted ceramic decanters adorned with platinum, silver and 24-carat gold. Ultra-Premium Ley.925 Pasión Azteca Tequila, which claims to be the world’s most expensive tequila, is aged for six years and comes in a bottle embellished with diamonds, platinum or white gold.
Try for yourself
So what is the best way to drink tequila? “It can be enjoyed in many different ways,” explains Andrea Delvo. “In my opinion, if you have something that has been carefully prepared in traditional ways and aged for years, it’s a shame to mix it with anything else. However, when I do mix tequila, I find citrus is perfect with tequila. Lots of drinks complement tequilas with spices, such as chilli or cinnamon. I like to play with the smokiness and bubbles by adding champagne.”
“I find citrus is perfect with tequila. Lots of drinks complement tequilas with spices, such as chilli or cinnamon. I like to play with the smokiness and bubbles by adding champagne”
Though an unadulterated tequila experience is recommended by the experts, some brands are experimenting with flavoured versions. Patrón Citrónge Pineapple blends its silver tequila with sweet pineapples for a tropical spin on the spirit; award-winning Sesión Mocha Tequila adds chocolate and coffee flavour notes; while 1800 Reserva Coconut Tequila is infused with similarly fashionable coconut water
However one chooses to enjoy tequila, the good news is that it is one of the healthiest alcohol choices, says José Martínez, Senior Director of Brand Marketing and Communications at Clase Azul. “It’s lower in calories [around 60 calories per 1.5 fl oz shot, as opposed to 100 calories for vodka] and gluten-free, so suitable for those who need to avoid grains.”
Tequila is a drink to be celebrated. So much so that in 2018 the Mexican government declared that the third Saturday of March would be National Tequila Day. So, when Saturday 21 March 2020 comes around make sure you savour tequila the right way. After all, agave means illustrious, admirable and noble in Latin – not something to be rushed.
Make your own tequila cocktails
Try making one of these delicious tequila cocktails by Andrea Delvo, Head Barman at the Rennaissance Bar, Badrutt’s Palace Hotel…
Fairy From The Tower
- 1cl Absinthe Green Velvet 275
- 3cl Mezcal Ilegal
- 1cl Monin passion fruit syrup
- 10cl pineapple juice
- 5cl Ruinart Brut Champagne
Pour the Absinthe into a tall glass with ice. Shake all the ingredients, except the champagne. Strain the Absinthe out of the ice and then strain the ingredients into the glass. Top up with champagne.
- 4cl Don Julio Reposado tequila
- 20cl tomato juice
- 0.3cl fresh lemon juice
- 3 drops of Tabasco
- 5 drops of Worcestershire Sauce
- Mixed spices (salt, celery salt, black pepper, white pepper, mild paprika)
Pour all of the ingredients into a mixing glass and strain into a tall glass with ice. Garnish with a celery stick.
Sorbet Yuzu Margarita
- 3cl Patrón Silver tequila
- 1.5cl Cointreau liqueur
- 3 scoops of yuzu sorbet
Pour all ingredients into a blender and mix at medium speed until creamy. Pour into a cold champagne coupe and garnish with a slice of yuzu or lime.