Tequila — good tequila — is made entirely from the fruit of the blue agave, a succulent plant. But tequila is no longer the only agave spirit that’s widely available. In the last decade, the spread of excellent mezcals has offered a fresh perspective on the joys and complexities of agave spirits. In the process, these mezcals have raised questions, at least for me, about what exactly you are getting in a bottle of tequila.
A recent tasting of 20 blanco tequilas did little to settle those
questions. In fact, you could say the results were somewhat disquieting
for the spirits panel, which included Florence Fabricant and me, along
with two guests: Robert Simonson, who writes frequently on drinks for the Dining section, and Jim Meehan, bartender extraordinaire and managing partner of Please Don’t Tell, a cocktail bar in the East Village.
Many people reflexively associate tequila with Mexican restaurants. I
could make a case that this association has held back the growth and
appreciation of Mexican cuisine in this country because the restaurants
are so often seen primarily as vehicles for supplying frozen margaritas.
That perception has evolved, though, in recent years. The cocktail
revival has brought a renewed appreciation of pure tequilas, distilled
100 percent from the sap of the blue agave, as opposed to mixto
tequilas, the fuel of many raucous frat parties and margarita machines,
which need only be 51 percent blue agave.
Demand for 100 percent blue agave tequilas has risen significantly.
In 2012, more than 12 million cases of all types of tequila were shipped
to the United States, about 54 percent more than a decade ago,
according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States,
a trade group. Although super-premium tequilas, the highest-end blue
agave spirits, accounted for just about 15 percent of all tequilas
shipped to the United States in 2012, they were by far the
fastest-growing segment, practically quadrupling to almost 1.9 million
cases in 2012 from about 500,000 in 2003.
The nagging question is whether something has been lost in that rapid
growth. While the panel’s favorites were complex, elemental and
intriguing, we were troubled by a lack of intensity in many of the
bottles as well as by a sense of artificiality in some. As Florence put
it, we found a great divide between those tequilas we liked and those we
didn’t like, without much in the middle.
I couldn’t help contrasting some of these tequilas to mezcals, with
their direct, unmediated expressions of agave in all its nuanced
complexity. Now, tequila by its nature will generally be smoother and
gentler, but still the flavors should have depth.
In the past, I’ve suggested that good tequila tastes like a good
margarita, with all the saline, citrus and vegetal elements of the
cocktail built right into the spirit. Yet, compared with the roughness
and vigor of the mezcals, many of the tequilas seemed wan, as if all
their inherent rusticity had been rasped away in an effort to make them
presentable in polite company.
Jim noted that such a comparison was not entirely fair. Mezcals are
often essentially handmade small-production spirits, while tequila is
generally made in industrial quantities. That’s true, and tequila, of
course, ought not to resemble mezcal too closely. The spirits are made
in different ways, from different types of agave. Yet clearly, something
is being lost when many tequilas seem to be faded chalk outlines of
what they could be.
Partly, that reflects a corporate approach to selling tequila.
Indeed, most of these tequilas are exported, and, as Robert and Jim
pointed out, the corporate tequila producers have rushed to appeal to
the sizable audience for America’s No. 1 selling spirit. “Tequila
producers seem to have taken their cues from the vodka category,” Jim
said. “They’re trying to make neutral tequilas to appeal to the vodka
By their nature, blanco tequilas, also called silver or plata, ought
to offer the purest, most forceful expressions. These are clear,
essentially unaged tequilas, unlike reposados, which spend 2 to 12
months in oak barrels, and añejos, which are generally aged 1 to 4 years
Perhaps we showed our mezcal bias in our rankings of the blancos. Our
favorite, the Casa Noble Crystal, was explosive, with rough, rustic
flavors that, in their intensity, certainly reminded me of mezcal. At
$34, it was also our best value.
Our other top picks were the Select Barrel Reserve from Milagro, a
similarly direct and complex tequila, which got about a month of barrel
aging, and the powerful, elemental Astral. A new and unusual brand,
Astral was introduced by the sommelier Richard Betts,
who also imports Sombra mezcal. It is an effort, he says, to make
tequila using artisanal methods, as before it became an industrialized
product. This was my first taste of Astral, and I was impressed by its
craggy, raw flavors.