All the world seems to love tequila right now — global sales hit a record high two years ago, with total shipments of the stuff adding up to almost 24 million cases. In the U.S., which accounts for about half of those shipments, tequila is a favorite ingredient for summer cocktails.
And the quantity doesn’t necessarily trump its quality. Tequilas are getting better — smoother, more flavorful and more complex — every year. The best are 100% agave tequilas from Mexico, the only place the spirit can be legally distilled and bottled.
But it hasn’t always been easy to get artisanal tequila or even any kind of good sipping tequila. For a long time, the only tequilas available outside Mexico were adulterated, “mixto” tequilas that could contain up to 49% non-agave sugars, the kind more likely to give you a nasty headache the next day.
Tequila gold standard: 100% blue agave
Tequila is made from blue agave, a native Mexican plant with ties to the lily that can take six to nine years to grow. It is grown primarily in Jalisco state, although the official tequila region extends into four other adjoining states, including Michoacan.
To make tequila, the piñas (hearts) of the agave plant are harvested by machete, cleaned and cut into pieces. Then they are baked, which extracts the sweet agave juice, converting its starches into sugars that are then mixed with yeast and fermented into alcohol. Water is used again to cut the distillate to about 40 proof.
In 1976 singer-actor Bing Crosby and his buddy Phil Harris, both of whom knew their way around a tequila bottle, started the Bing Crosby-Phil Harris Import Co. to import the Herradura brand. (Crosby said of the partnership, “I’ll do the thinking and he’ll do the drinking.”) It would be the only 100% agave tequila available north of Mexico for the next several decades, positioned as a sipping tequila rather than a cocktail ingredient.
That was just the tip of the lime-squeezed iceberg. Next came giants Cuervo, Patron and Sauza, followed soon after by smaller, family-owned jimadors (agave farmers). Then tequila producers were being discovered, and advocates of growing better agave, sourcing better water and making smaller batches grew more influential. Among the first artisan producers to gain traction was Tequila Fortaleza, started by descendants of the Sauza family.
More recently have come American-based producers such as Tres Agaves and Charbay, both based in Northern California, who have begun making tequila in Mexico, importing it into the U.S. for wider consumption.
“Tequila, to my mind, is really the spirit of the 21st century,” said grand master distiller Miles Karakasevic of California-based artisan distillery Charbay, the only American distiller to hand-distill a 100% blue agave tequila.
Tequilas are classified according to how long they are aged. Blanco, or white, tequila isn’t aged at all; reposado spends a minimum of two months in oak barrels; and añejo is wood-aged a year or longer. They all have a place in mixology, or can be consumed straight. Our recipe this week features Herradura Silver, aged 45 days, giving it a slightly oaky flavor.
Herradura Watermelon Smash
2 ounces Herradura Silver tequila
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
½ ounce Agave Nectar
3 2-inch cubes of watermelon
Wedge of watermelon
1. In a cocktail shaker, muddle the watermelon cubes.
2. Add the remaining ingredients and fill shaker with ice; shake well.
3. Strain through a fine strainer to filter out watermelon seeds in to a highball glass.
4. Garnish with a wedge of watermelon.
Good & Plenty
Created by Dushan Zaric and Jason Kosmas of Employees Only in New York City
2 ounces Charbay Tequila Blanco
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce agave nectar
¼ ounce Pernod Absinthe
1. Shake all the ingredients with ice and strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice.
Photo: Three types of tequila, from left: añejo, blanco and reposado. Credit: istockphoto