post-title Tequila for Grownups Forbes May 2002

Tequila for Grownups Forbes May 2002

Tequila for Grownups Forbes May 2002

Tequila for Grownups

Article from Forbes FYI Magazine, May 2002

Tequila for Grownups
By: Richard Nalley, May 13, 2002

Way down south where the agaves grow, exotic drinks cost lots of dough.

Connoisseurship–wading up to your elbows in anything and rooting around ’til you get the good stuff–can take a person on some strange turns. It can, for example, make him anxious to snap up rare, $60 bottles of single-village mescal, or $45 bottles of tequila from obscure farms in the Jalisco highlands. A drinker with real afíción can even come around to the opinion, cold sober, that these transportingly exotic, languid-sipping spirits are no-brainer cheap at the price.

Above photos by Joseph A. Tyson – We’re not talking about worm-in-the-bottle, college-hell-night, wire-the-bail-money cactus juice. Or even about the bar-pour brands that disappear into frozen margaritas or get served up as shooters with salt and lime. Perfumed, high-end tequilas like El Tesoro, Chinaco and El Patrón are literally different drinks. It’s something like the contrast between single malts and blended scotches–an easy comparison, since inexpensive tequila, like blended scotch, contains a hefty portion of characterless “neutral spirits.”

But tequila is, as they say just north of the border, a whole ‘nother story. As it’s gotten more expensive, tequila has, perversely, taken drinkers back to its primitive roots–400 years ago, when the Spanish, with their Moorish distilling technology, showed folks around here how to arrange a proper booze-up. The next wave of aficionados is going even farther, roaming the hills down south to scent out gems among the mescals, tequila’s country cousin. Safe to say, if you haven’t tasted fine Mexican spirits, you haven’t tasted anything like them. And these days, at least for tequila, your chances may be getting slimmer.

Agave Azul plants in Arandas – Photo Joseph A. Tyson

Tequila is made from a man-high desert succulent–a raffish member of the lily family–called the blue weber agave (ah-GAH-vay). The high-end brands are typically made from 100% fermented agave, an expensive proposition, since Mexican law allows the addition of up to 49% less pricey spirits, often distilled from cane sugar (basically rum, in other words). Many, if not all, inexpensive brands use the 49% rule to full advantage.

And one more thing: A distiller can–and many of course do–harvest their agave plants the moment they have grown enough to make it worthwhile. That keeps the production lines running, but younger plants also produce less intensely flavored juice (and this is before the blandifying effects of the 49% “tequila helper”).

To get to the flavor-turbocharged essence of the agave, these monster plants should be allowed to mature at their own mañana pace, over 8 to 12 years, and be individually harvested at perfect ripeness. The tequila you get from such plants is ambrosia. But you don’t have to be a spreadsheet wizard to see that this looks more like the scenario for a slow-motion train wreck than a business plan.

Among other snags, a traditional agave farmer has his next decade of production locked in–he can’t expand his output for many years even if demand takes off. And there is no quick response if, say, a plant disease comes along and kills off a field’s next ten years of harvests. Now imagine both of these things–soaring demand and creeping crud–actually happening at once. You’d have a pretty good picture of the fix the tequila business is in circa 2002.

The agave fields in the legal tequila region of north central Mexico were attacked by a plant-killing fungus in the mid-1990s. Damage estimates vary, and the plague has apparently passed, but at the very least the fungus exaggerated a problem already beginning to loom large. The fact is, the tequila business has become too successful for its own good. The export market was exploding by double-digit annual rates over the late 1990s; but, even allowing for the lag time imposed by nature, agave growers had been too slow to put more plants in the ground.

The result was that by the turn of the millennium, supplies were choking off and tequila brands were disappearing left and right (some 300 out of 500, by one count). The price of blue agave was climbing from around five cents a kilo in the early 1990s to $1.50. For growers with plants to sell it is a windfall–though they’ve had to factor in the price of guarding their fields.

Inevitably, the shortages have led to temptation. Among those who allegedly succumbed was the owner of Porfidio, that flashy, hyper-expensive brand with the blown-glass cactus in the bottle. Amid what hobby website described as “constant reports of impropriety (and we mean constant),” Porfidio was accused of a roster of misdeeds by the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT), including the bottling of fake tequila.

Up in El Norte, there were dire predictions of tequila price hikes, which have occurred to some extent, and of major product shortages, which apparently haven’t. The developing conventional wisdom holds that A) the crisis was oversold to begin with, at least as far as the famous export brands were concerned, and B) even if it wasn’t, we’ve skirted the worst of it. Still, it’s hard to know whether the story has played out. Clearly President Vicente Fox felt the industry was still in need of extraordinary relief when he stepped in earlier this year to suspend a new tax on tequila approved by Mexican legislators at the end of 2001.

Of course, a little scarcity would only excite the covetousness of America’s corps of tequila snobs. These are the kind of people who will point out, at the drop of a sombrero, that 100%-agave tequilas shouldn’t be compared to single-malt scotches at all. They are more like Cognacs, or even Armagnacs–drinks that carry the flavor of their original substance and of the soil where they were grown.

True, harvesters whack at agaves with machetes rather than snip them with little grape cutters, but these are apparently very sensitive vegetables. The flavor of agave hearts, like that of wine grapes, is said to reflect the soil, climate and altitude where they are grown. So El Tesoro, say, in the iron-oxide soils of the high plateau country, will start out with different tastes and aromas in its agaves than, say, the agaves harvested in the volcanic soils of the Sierra Madre foothills for Sauza Tres Generaciones. The legal tequila zone, at least in theory, is where decades of practice have shown these agaves grow best.

What happens to agaves after harvest, of course, also makes the drinks distinctive. The archtraditionalist El Tesoro, for example, still slow-cooks the hearts in folkloric ovens rather than in speedy, modern autoclaves or pressure cookers, and then crushes them with stone wheels. Its methods are not so much preindustrial as pre-Columbian. But you can find tastes that take you even farther back.

The new connoisseur’s frontier is down south in Oaxaca, the heartland of the “other” agave liquor, mescal. True, most mescal is tonsil-threatening white lightning, despite being the ancestor of tequila. (Tequila is, in fact, just a heavily regulated kind of mescal.) But tasting a dramatically rich, complex mescal, like the ones now being bottled under the Del Maguey label, will set your NAFTA consciousness level soaring. You want authentic? These tiny village producers cook the hearts of the local agave espadín for days buried in pits with heated stones. The result is an amazingly complex drink with a background note of campfire smoke that you’ll love or not. Though Del Maguey is double-distilled, à la tequila for gringo tastes, the character still comes from the genuine heart of a 400-year-old folk tradition.

So while most of what we’re presented becomes slicker and simpler to appreciate with every new iteration, some tequila and mescal bottlers are on the opposite track-taking these extravagantly flavored drinks back to their artisanal roots. At least while supplies last.

Source: Forbes FYI Tequila article –

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