Once scorned as a cheap booze designed merely to intoxicate, tequila gained international fame a few years ago when drinkers realized just how sublime a liquor it could be." This opening line from a 2002 Houston Chronicle article tells the standard Cinderella story of the rise of what the tequila industry calls the "premiums"—tequilas that cost 30, 50, even 150 dollars. The "premium" moniker derives not only from the higher cost but also from the makeup of the drink. There are three types of fine tequila—plata, reposado and añejo. As premiums, they are all made entirely of blue agave, unlike the swill that ends up in frozen margarita machines. In my college days (and I bet in yours), tequila was not scorned as a cheap booze designed merely to intoxicate, it was worshiped. Tequila was one of the liquors to benefit when Prohibition gave rise to cross-country bootlegging way back in the 1920s: Its fame is neither recent nor recently international. All this is to say that a lot of mythologizing swirls around this liquor, which in turn makes it tricky for a drinker to sort through the scores of high-end tequilas now flooding the U.S. market (a list I have shows 100-odd registered Mexican distilleries producing 691 tequilas).
Not so long ago, tequila makers, admiring what single malt was doing for the scotch market, did have a problem. Party-heartiness worked brilliantly at the low-end—industrial-grade tequilas whipped up with Kool-Aid mixes into fishbowl margaritas—but on the top shelves, where vodka was heading to $35 a bottle, for God's sake, the drink needed to get fancy. All the more urgent because the price of agave—the lily-cousin plant that is the main ingredient in tequila—was rocketing up because of a shortage. One device the tequila producers liked was what I call the Quasimodo bottle. A lineup of fancy tequilas will include some of the most spectacular, and spectacularly ugly, bottles you'll lay eyes on: grotesque, hunchback handblown bottles; worm-shaped bottles; porcelain and clay vessels; bottles wrapped with leather to convey what one writer called the "bandidos and rancheros" heritage; bottles with glass cacti inside (even though agave is not a cactus); and bottles that come in what look like miniature ammunition crates. Some of these contain very good tequila indeed, but it's hard to get past the feeling that this packaging is aimed at people who might also like Tammy Faye's makeup after a few shots.
You have to get past the make-up and kiss the agave. This is best done in a bar that has a wide tequila selection. Fortunately there are quite a lot of these in the U.S., some new, some old, including El Agave Tequileria in San Diego, Tommy's Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco, Agave Restaurant in Atlanta, Coyote Cafe in Las Vegas, and Dos Caminos and D.B.A. in New York. But beyond the hot centers of tequila enthusiasm, warns a legendary former tequila importer, beware the barman who doesn't actually know his range: "The bartender will go first for one he can pronounce and second for one where a sales rep has really worked on him. Unless he's actually an afficionado himself. So go into the bar and say, 'Which one of you is really a tequila drinker?'" That'll get you started.
Tequila shares with calvados this virtue: concentrated expression of one ingredient (apples in the case of calvados, agave in tequila). The difference, of course, is that the agave flavor is not a common kitchen and fruit bowl taste; it's far less familiar. The elaborate manufacture of tequila involves the hacking up of big, mature plants; the steam-cooking or baking of same for many hours or even days; crushing (traditionally with a stone wheel, now often with a mechanical shredder) to produce a juice or juice-pulp mixture; and then fermentation and distillation. If the tequila is to be a white (blanco) version, it is immediately or soon bottled; if it is to be a reposado, it reposes in oak barrels for two months to a year; if an añejo, the wood slumber lasts a year or longer, to infuse the drink with sweet barrel flavors. Unlike wine or scotch, many tequilas stop improving after four years of aging. This isn't a complicated drink, all mythology aside: agave and wood, or just agave.
When last I tasted a raft of expensive tequilas, I reported an obsession with the clear blancos. I had fallen in love with the agave essence, the white-pepper and straw-grass flavors that sit on top of potent alcohol fire with none of the smoothing, rounding or mediating of wood.
I still favor the blancos but have to concede after recently tasting fifteen new (to me, that is) tequilas that the pale-caramel-colored reposados are also delicious. In the best, the wood lends some smoothness but the robust agave still shines. This is exactly the idea, the legendary importer told me: "The Mexican who truly likes tequila will drink a reposado. That's where he feels it has enough age to take off the agave edge. Just enough to give it tone and roundness."
That said, there are a lot of lousy tequilas out there, even at the high-end: tequilas tasting way too much of column-still spirits, too sweetly of bad wood, too strangely of additives or impurities. There's really only one way to sort the myth from the agave: Belly up to the bar and start drinking—straight from the glass.
These are the standouts from a recent tasting of more than a dozen 100 percent agave tequilas. There is an excellent selection and guide to tequilas at internet wines.com. Click on "spirits" and then on "tequila." The site ships to legal states.
BLANCOS: These are the clear, pure expressions of the agave.
Casa Noble Crystal ($50): Intriguing nose of peppery agave plus a dash of lemon and gunpowder (hey, that's what my notes say). In any case, a big, powerful, rounded tequila in the mouth, very well-balanced. A blockbuster.
Don Julio Blanco ($39): This has an almost fruity nose, as if someone had added a splash of pineapple juice. On the palate, a very sweet-tasting blanco, with less of the agave edge than many of its clear brothers.
Zafarrancho Blanco/Silver ($38): Straightforward peppery nose, and straightforward but aggressive agave in the mouth: a simple, powerful tequila in a simple, stylish bottle.
REPOSADOS: These spend two months to one year in barrels. Pale to medium-caramel color.
XQ Reposado ($59): Where some reposados smell too sweetly of wood, and where others taste not of oak barrels but, say, of old hot tubs, this plays a clear agave tune from first smell to final taste. Yet the wood rounds it all out deliciously—much more impressive than the XQ blanco.
Corralejo Reposado ($35): Sweet wood notes (hints of caramel, even coconut) dominate on the nose more than with the XQ; but as you taste it, the agave arrives. A good place to start for the tequila wary: eminently sippable.