Tequila to be sipped, not slammed

by Nicholas Coldicott

I won ¥1 million last week, betting on the botanical classification of the blue agave — the key ingredient of tequila. Early on Thursday morning in a Roppongi bar, an overconfident drinker called the plant a cactus; my money said lily.

The foot-high spiky succulent sure looks like a cactus, and several tequila brands exploit the misconception by printing cactuses on their labels. But it’s from the liliopsida class, making it a cousin of the lily.

The cactus juice fallacy is one of myriad misconceptions that dog Mexico’s most famous export. Other classics include:

* The worm. You wouldn’t put a maggot in a malt whiskey, would you? Around the 1940s, the bug was added to bottles of mezcal — a less feted cousin of tequila — to market the drink to the gullible gringo market to the north.

* It’s incredibly strong. Most tequilas are 40 percent alcohol, like many fellow spirits.

* The older the better. Reposado (rested), añejo (aged) and the new classification of extra añejo tequilas are darker and richer from soaking in wooden barrels. They also give bigger hangovers. Some aficionados pick the young blancos (white tequila) for the cleanest agave flavor and a clearer head the next day.

* Gold means old. A gold tint doesn’t necessarily mean the tequila has aged; it might be a white with caramel coloring.

* It’ll make you sick. This one’s true, if you shotgun it straight into your bloodstream. But there’s a new breed of tequila drinkers who sip and savor the spirit. According to William Achury, brand manager for premium tequila Patron, “Cocktail bars in Ginza are serving Patron in Reidel snifters, and people don’t shoot it because it’s simply too expensive.”

Like champagne and cognac, tequila is defined by its area of origin. Production is limited to a small area of mid-Mexico, where the climate and soil are deemed most congenial to the blue agave. But while champagne became the drink of weddings and winners’ podiums, and cognac became the aristocrat’s digestif, tequila headed for rowdy bars and frat parties.

A combination of factors turned the drink’s fortunes around. The collapse of the peso in the 1990s put pricey import spirits beyond the pockets of many Mexicans, sending them back to their native grog. Booming emigration then carried the alcohol north.

By 1999 tequila’s popularity had taken off, but the industry couldn’t keep up. The agave plant takes up to 10 years to mature, leaving suppliers behind when demand skyrocketed. A killer fungus added to their woes, wiping out an estimated 25 percent of agave crops. Suddenly the succulent was a hot commodity. There were reports of agave poaching, and even murders.

Some distillers went bankrupt; others cut their agave content to the legal minimum 51 percent. Still others took the opposite approach, turning out small quantities of artisanal tequilas in eye-catching bottles, developing the connoisseur’s market.

Hollywood lent a hand too. When John Paul DeJoria, one of the founders of the Paul Mitchell hair-product range, launched the Patron brand, he had influential friends such as Hollywood heavyweight Clint Eastwood and comedian and legendary pleasure-monger Cheech Marin to help spread the word. Then Tom Cruise ordered Patron in his 2001 movie “Vanilla Sky,” and Jay-Z, Kanye West, 50 Cent and Sean “Diddy” Combs all name-checked the spirit in song. Patron is now easily America’s most popular premium tequila, selling 900,000 cases in 2006, and predicting a rise to 1.6 million this year.

The glitterati’s favorite tequila launched in Japan in April this year, joining a small but impressive range of imports. Of an estimated 700-plus brands in production, only around 250 make it overseas, and just 22 of those reach Japanese shelves.

But import figures for 2006 were almost 20 percent up on the previous year, and all the action recently has been with the luxury end. Jose Cuervo’s ultra-premium Reserva de la Familia arrived two years ago, selling at around 10 times the price of its bestselling Especial “gold” brand. Last year 250 bottles of the artisanal Esperanto, a tequila targeted at collectors, hit stores and sold out within a week. And next month the world’s most expensive blanco — the Gran Patron Platinum — is set to debut, priced at around ¥40,000 per bottle. The crystal-clear liquid is distilled three times, once more than the traditional method, to remove all trace of the fiery bite associated with the whites.

Patron’s importer, Lead-Off Japan, also runs Agave ([03] 3497-0229), a replica cantina in Tokyo’s Roppongi district that offers around 400 varieties of the drink at prices of up to ¥9,400 per glass. The bar was established a decade ago in the hope of persuading Tokyo to sip rather than slam.

Manager Ferri Khadem says it’s working. “Ten percent of the people who visit Agave come for shots,” he says, “but other customers know how to drink it.”

Tequila is still the drink of choice for high-speed intoxication, but it’s also a high-quality sipper. The nation known for its luxury tastes is learning to love the lily.