Learning to drink tequila like a fine cognac or whisky

In January liquor conglomerate Bacardi acquired the high-end tequila brand Patron for US$5.1 billion (S$6.69 billion).
In January liquor conglomerate Bacardi acquired the high-end tequila brand Patron for US$5.1 billion (S$6.69 billion).PHOTO: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

(NYTIMES) - What did actress Helen Mirren drink a shot of on the Oscars red carpet Sunday?


What did Sarah Jessica Parker's character and her tennis-playing friend have on the rocks with extra lime on the recent season finale of Divorce?


What did Kelly LeVeque, a Los Angeles nutritionist, recently advise her famous client Jennifer Garner to try instead of wine?


Sixty years after the Champs' song of that name went gold, the blue agave-based drink is having a renaissance as a beverage to sip and savour on its own, rather than disguise with Ecto Cooler coloured margarita mix or shoot, eyes closed, nostrils pinched, in the back of a bar.

Other famous Jennifers (Aniston, Lawrence) also drink it. Justin Timberlake and P. Diddy (who have their own brands) drink it. And so, apparently, does everyone.

Since 2002, sales of tequila have risen 121 per cent, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade organisation. Sales of vodka, which filled Cosmopolitans and appletinis in the early aughts, rose by only 2.4 per cent.

In January the liquor conglomerate Bacardi acquired the high-end tequila brand Patron for US$5.1 billion (S$6.69 billion), and last year Diageo, another conglomerate, paid US$1 billion for Casamigos, the tequila concocted by George Clooney and Rande Gerber.

Connoisseurs discuss tequila's tasting notes and aromas - the citrusy bite of an unaged blanco, the mellow spice of five-year-old anejo - and more than 600 others that are cataloged in the Mexican Academy of Tequila. Wellness enthusiasts like Gwyneth Paltrow tout its lack of gluten, relatively few calories (around 65 per shot) and agavins, said to lower triglycerides.

"Not a lot of people think, what was the alcohol first? Was it a potato, a grape, an agave plant?" LeVeque said. "Because it's hard alcohol and you're sipping it slow, you're getting that buzz effect but you're not getting the elevated blood sugar that can come with drinking."

For some people, drinking tequila, a type of mezcal made from the blue agave plant in specific regions of Mexico - as well as other kinds of mezcal - is even a way to signal dissent from the presidency of Donald Trump, who has made a border wall between the United States and Mexico a priority.

When Trump announced his intention to run for office, John Rexer, founder of Ilegal Mezcal, a company based in Oaxaca, Mexico, started a line of merchandise denigrating Trump's character. The company hosts concerts with Planned Parenthood in New York at an unmarked theater in Manhattan's West Village and only makes mezcal "with espadin agave because it's sustainable," said Kaylan Rexer, 29, Ilegal's brand director and John Rexer's niece.

Bertha Gonzalez, 47, a founder of the top-shelf tequila Casa Dragones (a bottle of its smoothest version, Joven, costs about US$300; Oprah Winfrey is a fan), believes she is in a growth industry that could further enrich her country culturally and economically. "Mexico today has around 15 appellations of origin, but hopefully tomorrow, with 197 different types of agave, we'll have 20 or 30 appellations, because if we're smart about creating the foundation of production processes, we can learn about the terroir in different regions of Mexico, and we can grow agave distillates in an incredible way."

Terroir? Of tequila?

When Gonzales and her colleagues opened a Casa Dragones bar in the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, "we wanted to bring the terroir in, so we took huge obsidian rocks from our field and with a designer, created 4,000 tiles. That's the wall of the tasting room," Gonzalez said. It can accommodate up to six guests at a time who prepay for a 45-minute guided tasting.

"That's what people are looking for," she said. "It's not a bar where you go and have multiple drinks." Gonzalez is working with upmarket Mexican restaurants like Empellon in Midtown Manhattan, which charges US$68 for a sipper of Joven, but also with Providence, a temple of American seafood in Los Angeles. There on a recent night the chef "paired" (to use fine-dining parlance) room temperature Joven with fanciful dishes like Santa Barbara sea urchin in yuzu Jell-O and grilled wild Spanish octopus with fennel pollen.

"For the proof it has, it's remarkably silky and creamy," said Kim Stodel, the restaurant's bar manager. He serves Joven in Riedel tequila glasses, which look like Champagne flutes.

"The attention paid to this bottle," he said - each comes with a unique serial number, like a pair of Common Projects sneakers - "is like the attention the chef pays to the food in the kitchen."

Savvy producers have found other ways to tap the trend. For Valentine's Day, the Oaxaca-based mezcal company Gem & Bolt hosted a "heart and hip opening" party at a Los Angeles yoga studio where women sipped mezcal between asanas and crystal readings.

"We want to rewrite the conversation around spirits and alcohol, the way people imbibe, the way people celebrate," said Elliott Coon, 36, a Gem & Bolt founder.

Among American servers, tequila has had to overcome a reputation as a party drink consumed in shots or slurped in fruity margaritas.

"When I started giving trainings in the U.S. in 2007, it was very common to see facial expressions of surprise or fear when I asked my trainees to drink the tequila neat," said Tania Oseguera, 36, the maestra tequilera (this industry's version of a master sommelier) for Tequila Cazadores. "These expressions are less and less common. People understand that there are different qualities of tequila. There are tequilas that could be compared to the most fine cognacs and scotches in the world."

Casa Noble, which ages its agave distillate in French white oak, has found fans in millennial and Generation X urban dwellers. "A lot of them didn't have a bad experience with tequilas, like the baby boomers," said Jose Hermosillo, known as Pepe, the CEO of Casa Noble. "They're more willing to experiment."

Before a recent talk on female empowerment, entrepreneurship and tequila that Gonzalez gave at Neuehouse, a members-only club in Hollywood, waiters passed out flutes of Casa Dragones grassier blanco tequila, which guests regarded with curiosity.

"The first sip was a little strong, the second was really smooth," said Jennifer Floyd, 44, a film producer. "I think the key is getting past that first sip."

Jenae Owen, 27, a founder of In Flow Style, an online shop selling active wear, was more practised. "Tequila is my go-to drink," she said. "I've been sipping it since I was legal. I like the blancos. I think people are getting more interested in the sipping and realising it's not good to shoot it."

Her older sister and co-founder, Meghan Owen, 29, said she had been learning to savour tequila over the past year. "Before it was, 'Cool, we'll have a margarita,' or I'd take a shot and regret it the next day. Now, it's like a whole art form."