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How to Find Premium Tequila in a Saturated Market

Reprinted by JASON O'BRYAN

The agave-based spirit may be shaking off its dive-bar reputation, but the industry is still awash with inferior brands. Here’s how to find the real deal—and why it matters.

premium tequila in a saturated market

Twenty years ago, tequila was considered the basest of spirits, relegated to dives and college bars. Most of what you’d see were mixtos, cheap versions made of 51 percent agave and 49 percent corn or sugar syrup, resulting in the type of low-quality swill that demanded not only a chaser but also a sort of pre-chaser. You may recall the ritual: Lick a pile of pure salt, choke down the shot, then bite into a lime wedge as your throat burns, your eyes water, and the regrets begin.

Today’s tequila landscape is unrecognizable. The growth has been profound. Tequila consumption in America has roughly doubled in the past seven years, recently overtaking whiskey and set to pass vodka. What’s more, the majority of the ascent has left mixtos behind: In 2022, for the first time ever, 7 of every 10 bottles of tequila consumed in America were 100 percent agave. Tequila is so popular, agave distillates have begun to pop up all over the world, including in South Africa, India, Australia, Peru, and New Zealand—where there’s a distillery making a limited-edition Blue Weber agave that sells for nearly $600 a bottle. The spirit cannot be labeled “tequila,” unless it’s made with Blue Weber agaves in one of five designated states in Mexico, the most famous of which is Jalisco. (That New Zealand bottle is known as TeKiwi.)

Arguably more dramatically, there has been a radical transformation of tequila’s reputation. Since George Clooney and his partners Rande Gerber and Mike Meldman famously sold their Casamigos tequila brand in 2017 for a billion, a tequila company has practically become a lifestyle accessory for Hollywood royalty, TV stars, NBA heavyweights, musicians, comedians, socialites, influencers, and whichever one(s) of these Kendall Jenner is (hers is called 818). Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson’s Teremana tequila, launched in 2020, is already the industry’s 10th-largest brand and the fastest growing in the spirit’s history.

But listen closely enough and you hear a heavy sigh from distillers and aficionados alike. The rapid proliferation of tequilas—there are currently almost 3,000, a full third of which were created in the past five years—means that while consumption has never been higher, it has also never been harder to separate the signal from the noise. With no shortage of folk eager to sell you their $100 blancos, it’s no surprise that many of these products are built more on marketing than on quality. There’s a code of honor in tequila; no one publicly insults anyone else’s brand. But as distillers and professionals will tell you, there are basic universal principles of good tequila making. And if you’re hoping to find a truly premium version, it helps to know what those tenets are.

Complexity From the Ground

Tequila and its cousin, mezcal (a spirit made in Mexico from any type of agave plant), have a superpower: They are the only spirits in the world for which the standard way to enjoy them is neat, at room temperature, and unaged—at least, not the way we tend to think about aging. Blancos, by far the most popular variety, never see the inside of oak barrels.

“With tequila, it’s very important to understand that maturation begins in the fields,” says Sergio Mendoza, who produces Don Fulano and Fuenteseca, among other premium brands. As part of a long line of agave farmers, he’s one of the few tequila producers to own his own plants. “When you talk about maturation, people expect you to start talking about barrel aging,” he says. “But we’re talking about a raw material that is way more complex than most raw materials used to make spirits.”

Agaves take a long time to grow. You’ll almost never hear anyone talk about where the corn or wheat for their whiskey comes from, because those grains are harvested every fall and don’t express much of a sense of place. Blue Weber agaves, on the other hand, take an average of seven years to reach maturity. Agaves have terroir, like wine grapes, and when fully ripe have an inherent complexity. “You can literally put a glass up to the still and you’re drinking a product that has a maturation of seven or eight years,” says Mendoza.

Agriculture is one aspect of the industry damaged by the recent surge of interest in tequila. The agaves that are becoming ripe this year were planted when demand was half of what it is today, inflating their price. Rather than pay the premium, unscrupulous distillers will harvest immature agaves in the name of higher margins. “Harvesting young sacrifices all the richness of flavor, the complexity, the depth, everything we identify with tequila,” Mendoza laments. “There’s nothing you can do in the process to make up for that mistake. That’s why so many of them use additives, to make up for everything they’ve lost.”

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