By Rob Holbrook
To the vast majority in this country, the distilled blue agave spirit from our neighbors to the south conjures onlyblurred memories. This perception, however, is slowly changing in America, and specifically Las Vegas.
“Tequila is finally getting respect”, notes Robert Ansara, President of Ricardo’s Mexican Restaurant, a Las Vegas institution since the nineteen-seventies. “As recently as thirty years ago, there were five brands of tequila imported into this country.”
A quick lesson:
Tequila takes its name from the specific city and region in Mexico where the blue agave plant is legally allowed to be grown and harvested.
A surplus of agave from a boom in cultivation some years ago created a growing number of “bang and bust” tequila brands.1500 brands of tequila are made in that region of Mexico, with only 150 distilleries legally allotted to produce it. And the market is steadily growing.
“All these George Clooney tequilas, the Justin Timberlake tequilas- they’re all being made at very similar houses,” muses Kevin Vanegas, the Master of Tequila(that’s literally his title) with Wirtz Beverage Nevada. “To discern, you look at the CRT distillery number on any bottle of tequila. You know when it’s something like 1122, Casa Cuervo- the biggest tequila maker in the world- they have the capability and resources to make amazing tequilas.”
The official regulatory body in Mexico,the CRT,allows two classes of tequila. One is a minimum 51% agave sugars and 49% sugar cane juices. In the United States, this is considered a mixto, or blend, and is the most common type of Tequila found in North American stores and homes.
The other class has 99% agave sugars, with small amounts of oak essence, infusion, and glycerinefor texture and body. Both of these classes are stated clearly on each bottle of tequila distributed.
Within these classes, five styles are recognized, based on the aging process.
Plata, or Silver or Blanco, is bottled within sixty days of distilling. Its flavor is strong and alcohol is pronounced due to the nearly non-existent aging.
Reposado, or “rested”, is required by law to age in barrels a minimum of two months, and are known for their earthy, herbaceous notes imparted from the oak they have been aged in.
Joven, or young- or Gold as determined by its amber hue- is not to be confused with a mixto (though it is a blend of tequilas, but not sugars). Joven tequila is ordinarily a large percentage Silver tequila blended with a small percentage of Reposado- often for flavor or color. Some of the most purchased tequilas in the world are jovens- Cuervo Gold and Sauza Gold being the most popular.
Anejo is aged a minimum of twelve months, up to three years, which accounts for its smooth texture, soft flavors, and easy drinking. The anejo leads the current zeitgeist in North America toward slow drinking, no chaser, fully appreciated tequila. While the Extra Anejo is for the high rollers of the spirit drinking world, it is the Anejo that changes the mindset of tequila from simply a party shot with your bros to a full-bodied, nuanced and flavorful beverage you can appreciate with your boss or father-in-law.
Extra Anejo, aged at least five years, is tequila to be properly appreciated, fawned over, loved and adored by individuals with a little bit of liquid and, hopefully, a deeper understanding and admiration for the process, labor and distinction of tequila. Most bottles don’t go for less than $150 in stores, and some have sold for as much as $10,000.
So, why is tequila suddenly charging the market here in Las Vegas and the country? Not so fast.
“Tequila isn’t an overnight success,” points out Ansara.
“Cuervo started distilling tequila in 1795”, adds Vanegas. “We drink more tequila in this country than in Mexico. You have brands that are the standard of tequila and then you have the bandwagoners.”
So the sudden appreciation isn’t so sudden?
Branding and marketing plays a major role (perhaps more than other factors) in educating the masses, and on the influx of tequila brands to North American homes. The amount of dollars spent to brandany tequila as“quality”is the first, and possibly most important, step to increasing knowledge, appreciation and, in the end, sales.This branding imparts anideal of sophistication in the consumer- as if they are a certain level of social and financial standing when they drink it. Like anything “high end” in this country, if it is branded as “quality”, we are more apt to buy it. Once the marketing works, however, the work isn’t done. That quality being marketed must follow through on its promise. Some brands will pass the litmus test and some will not.
Vanegas imparts without naming names, “Some brands jumped on the niche of upscale tequila- marketed themselves that way. And now, that’s how they’re sold- feeding back into their identities.”
Those successful brands marketing quality and filling a niche, but not necessarily following through on the promise, are few. Most go under very quickly.
“The concept many tequila companies don’t grasp,” says Vanegas, “it takes a lot of hard work and time to producing and selling quality tequila. A tequila companyshould plan on making no money, actually, losing money, for at least the first five years.”
Perhaps thisis the long overdue tipping point for tequila. Whether through marketing or legitimate education, more people are getting to know itand appreciate it. With a growing appreciation of the finer qualities of the blue agave, distilleries arechallenged toproduce the best quality tequila, and createand market successful brands. This can only mean good things for tequila drinkers and makers.
So, what’s next for tequila?
“As long as it’s quality. Standing up to that promise,” deadpans Ansara, “I’ll put it in my bar.”
“Strictly tequila tasting bars,” adds Vanegas. “And Mezcal.”
That’s for another day. Right now, a snifter of Don Julio 1942 to expand this Writer’s palette…