In Pursuit of Pure Blue Agave Tequila
by bill kearney
In one strike, Ismael Gama thrusts a staff with a viciously sharp blade into the red earth of Mexico and pries out a massive blue agave head, or piña, as locals call it. With deft, graceful strokes, he uses the staff, called a coa, to cut away spike-like leaves until all that’s left is a 90-pound orb, scaled green and white like some relic dinosaur egg. This is the crown jewel of the upsurging tequila industry. It took eight years to reach this size, and its fermented and distilled juices, skillfully manipulated, fuel one of the biggest booms in the history of the liquor business.
The new upper-echelon tequilas sell for $100 a bottle or more (some even hit $2,000) and are mixed into $20 craft cocktails at high-end Miami lounges. There’s no question tequila has arrived. It’s a far cry from the gag-inducing shots of cheap mixto stuff (agave blended with other distillates) most of us bonded over in decades past. Now, small-batch, 100 percent blue agave iterations make mixologists swoon, whiskey loyalists lose their religion, and acolytes speak in almost mystical terms. For good reason: With agave, more than 500 flavor elements can survive distillation, producing wild yet nuanced and idiosyncratic taste profiles that compete with or surpass the complexity of rare single-barrel Scotch, Cognac, and small-batch bourbons.
Tequila is a new frontier, and Miamians are drinking it up. “Bourbon drinkers are converting,” says Derek Villanueva of Bardot. Josh Wagner, of the Gale South Beach’s Rec Room and Regent Cocktail Club, adds, “Weekend warriors who normally do shots—you can slow them down and offer them some good stuff.”
Some pretty heady numbers prove it out. Between 2002 and 2012, 100 percent blue-agave (super premium) tequila import volume grew 429.9 percent, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Since 2003, gross revenues of tequila suppliers, on the whole, have increased 95.6 percent. And that boom is about to explode, as 100 percent blue-agave tequila will, for the first time, be allowed into the largest, thirstiest market on the planet: China. Some see this as a billion-person gold rush, others as the demise of a magical spirit.
It won’t be the first time outsiders took interest. In 1519, Hernan Cortez and his men, upon entering Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), witnessed the Aztecs consuming fermented agave wine, or pulque. By 1525, the Spaniards had brought in pots to distill that pulque into spirits, and mezcal was born, eventually dividing into categories, tequila being one of them. Tequila must be distilled from blue agave grown and processed in one of five states in central Mexico, the most important of which is Jalisco.
The plant, which is associated with the Aztec fertility goddess Mayahuel, seems to punch angrily from the ground with hard leaves covered in rows of tooth-like spines, and tipped with yet another hard spike capable of puncturing a leg. It’s a tough plant from a rugged land of extremes—searing daytime sun and cold nights. But growers will tell you that the more the plant is stressed by climate, the more it produces sugars and intriguing characteristics.
Señor Gama, known as a jimador, or harvester, strikes again, this time cleaving the piña open to reveal a grainy white interior. I break off a wet chunk. It tastes like hard, slightly sour jicama. This particular piña represents that new tequila frontier. It’s owned by Maestro Dobel (the one with ads featuring brand ambassador Perry Farrell). Dobel is part of the “single-estate” movement: Instead of working in high volume and following the normal practice of buying random piñas from ranches all over Jalisco, Dobel plants and grows all of its agave on one ranch, exposing the plants to the same altitude, weather, soil, and harvesting care. This method gives Dobel ultimate quality control, and, as with wine, imparts a terroir, or flavor profile specific to this plot of land. Dobel harvests these plants in the dry spring season, when the plant is most stressed and flavorful.
A hazy blue blanket of agave covers the slopes beneath remnant volcano peaks as my guide, Juan Pablo Ramirez, drives me through the valley. We break for a man on horseback crossing the rural road before reaching the town of Tequila, where Maestro Dobel is distilled. The small city has cobbled streets emanating from a centuries-old Catholic church and town square. Forty thousand people live here and in the surrounding hills, 70 percent of whom are involved with the tequila industry, according to Ramirez. As the spirit goes, so goes the town.
Ramirez leads me into a vast Spanish-colonial compound that’s actually the oldest legal tequila distillery in the world, purchased by Jose Cuervo in 1758 (Cuervo owns Maestro Dobel, which is distilled here, and also owns brands Gran Centenario, 1800, and half of Don Julio). Once inside, I’m enveloped by the swampy, overripe-fruit smell of cooked, crushed agave. Ovens the size of a Manhattan studio apartment spill over with Dobel’s steam-cooked piñas, golden with caramelization after 38 to 48 hours of heat.
Ramirez points out with great pride that the jimadors have trimmed the leaves very close to the piña, opting for less raw material but better flavor (the wax in the cuticle results in bitterness). It’s the kind of decision that pulls you into the labyrinthine world of craft tequila. From here, every step offers a tequila master a choice of flavor versus efficiency: Will he cook the piñas low and slow for richer flavor profiles or use a super-efficient, chemically enhanced diffuser? Will the fermented juice be distilled via copper pots or money-saving columns, which some claim diminish flavor? That would be perfect for vodka, but debatable for tequila.
We sit down to taste the finished spirit. Maestro Dobel is concocted by blending aged tequilas, then charcoal filtering. The result is smooth and sweet, with less pronounced notes of agave, cinnamon, and vanilla, a high-end nouveau tequila with an edgy, authentic, slightly dangerous frontman. It’s a delicious branding package for someone left-of-center enough to like “Pigs in Zen,” and now old enough to spend some money.
The Cuervo family’s most coveted treasure, however, is stored below, in a dungeon-like basement, with what looks like a jail cell containing vessels of silver tequila made between 1890 and 1900. Tequila masters used it in 2008 to create 495 bottles of extra añejo celebrating the company’s 250th anniversary, aging it in American oak and sherry casks from Spain. The bottles cost over $2,000.
The tequila floodgates have clearly been opened; Cuervo now has Kiefer Sutherland making mischief in TV spots, while George Clooney and Rande Gerber have teamed up to launch Casamigos. But back in 1989, things tasted a lot less pleasant. That all changed when Martin Crowley traveled to Mexico. His friend John Paul DeJoria, the cofounder of hair-product line John Paul Mitchell Systems (yes, the pony-tailed guy in the ads), asked Crowley to bring back the best tequila he could find. He returned with what would eventually become Patron, the highest-grossing premium brand today. Crowley and DeJoria asked the small distiller if they could market the product in the US under their own label. It was the first significant push of up-market tequila in the US, and it changed the tequila landscape forever. Patron hired John Rivera Sedlar, a half-Mexican chef out of Santa Fe, New Mexico, to travel the US, promoting its new spirit. “We went to Denver, Houston, San Francisco, Miami at the Delano, and did seminars in chic, totally wow-and-now hotels. We’d take people down to Jalisco, and they would crawl back to wherever they were from and spread the word.” This was in 1993. Myriad other brands, such as Don Julio, Don Eduardo, Tapatio, and Milagro, would soon follow.
Miami-based mixology consultant Ezra Pattek has seen the tequila boom hit different cities at different times. “I think in cities like San Francisco, New York, and Boston, tequila started catching on in the mid-2000s.” Miami soon caught up. “In 2008, 2009, you saw a really big boost in cocktail culture, and thus tequila, in Miami.”
Though there’s normally a quiet lull between lunch and dinner at Sunset Harbour’s PB Steak, today the restaurant is packed with a who’s who of Miami’s top bartenders and nightlife scene creators, all sitting rapt as Tomas Estes, author of The Tequila Ambassador and part owner of Tequila Ocho, holds court. He’s here to preach about tequila’s next denomination of cool: vintages. Estes ambles through stories of his love of different ranches at different altitudes peppered throughout Jalisco state, and runs the crowd through a tasting of the Tequila Ocho lineup. Like Dobel, Ocho uses single-estate production. Each year, the brand harvests from a different ranch, with different sun exposure and soil, resulting in a distinct vintage and terroir. Estes also chooses to age minimally, with untoasted barrels, to craft an agave-forward spirit.
One of the bartenders asks if Ocho is highland or lowland, a genre divide discussed among mavens. Lowlands (such as Herradura) grow below 6,500 feet, according to Estes, and are generally masculine, herbal, strong, and peppery, while highlands, like Don Julio, come across as rounder, more fruity, and floral. “‘Highland’ and ‘lowland’ is old terminology that’s somewhat being moved away from now because there are so many peaks and valleys and different microclimates in Mexico,” he explains. He encourages us to look at tequila like wine, and with production like his, terroir will actually change from year to year. A sip of two vintages is proof: The 2009 Las Pomez ranch blanco smells sweet, with hints of bacon, anis, and green olive, while the 2012 Refugio ranch blanco emits notes of pineapple rind, pepper, faint beef jerky, and olive brine.
David Suro, president of the Tequila Interchange Project, which studies tequila from its chemistry to its cultural heritage, takes it one step further with his Siembra Azul brand. The labels list the ranch, the planting dates, the head jimador (his pruning determines the sweetness, claims Suro), the cooking time, and the fermentation yeast type (he uses the same yeast as Champagne). And according to his website, the fermentation is aided by the vibrations of music by Mozart and Vivaldi (in case you detect notes of Wolfgang).
Which brings us to China and the effect it will have on the tequila culture. Suro is worried about an agave price increase, noting that it takes between five to 12 years for the plant to reach harvestable size and flavor. “Small producers are not going to absorb the increase in prices,” he says—an ominous thought for the artisanal market so flush today. He’s also concerned about the genetic frailty of blue agave, whose mono-culture farming has left it vulnerable to disease. With pressure on the blue agave, the future, Suro feels, may be with mezcal, which allows for 27 species of agave, and thus genetic diversity. You might someday see bottles labeled by species, much as wine is today.
This just may be the golden age of tequila. The demand for luxury product has upped the quality, while purists are fighting for and creating unique expressions of an ancient, and some would say spiritual, plant. And despite big business, there’s still something wild to it all. “To me, this image of tequila is edgy, dangerous, romantic.... I think the image of tequila suits the image of Mexico,” Estes says. “They’re inextricably bonded.” In the end, tequila may be like that new girl in town, beautiful, her energy more animal than princess. She’s not yet consumed by the scene. You’d better go say hello before she’s lost.
photography by Erich Schlegel/corbis; bill kearney; gary james (pattek, negroni)
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.