There’s a revolution brewing in the Mexican province of Jalisco, and it has nothing to do with social unrest or affairs of state.
Jalisco is where tequila is produced. In the area surrounding the town of Tequila itself, the soil is perfect for the cultivation of blue agave. The agave plants are shredded and pressed, and the juice is first fermented and then distilled to make one of the world’s most popular spirits.
Tequila suffered from a negative image until very recently. It was the drink of college fraternity houses and low-end bars, and most of the tequila consumed in this country was of inferior quality. The white, unaged version was frequently downed in shot form, accompanied by a pinch of salt and a slice of lime, while a great deal of the “aged” tequila sold in America was actually flavored with caramel to simulate the appearance of barrel aging. In the superior category of tequila (those made with 100-percent agave), there are basic gradations: blanco or plata (unaged), reposado (two months to one year in barrel), añejo (one to three years) and extra añejo (more than three years in cask).
Tequila’s status has changed radically in the past decade as a result of the appearance of super-premium brands such as Patrón. Its white tequila, Patrón Silver, is double distilled and then filtered to produce a clean, fresh taste. It is targeted toward upscale vodka drinkers, and with a price tag of $40, it’s not likely to show up in fraternity houses anytime soon. Other white tequilas aimed at the same market niche include Herradura Blanco ($35) and the triple-distilled Sauza Tres Generaciones Plata ($45).
There’s been a considerable change in the extra añejo category as well. It’s not unusual for tequila lovers to spend $80 to $100 for these bottles, and some of the top examples rival the best cognacs in price and complexity. José Cuervo Reserva de la Familia ($130) is aged five years in a combination of French and American oak; each bottle is dated, numbered and sealed in wax. Don Julio Real, made in a special still and aged for three to five years, sells for $350. Cuervo’s top blends, such as the 1800 Colección ($1,600) and 250 Aniversario ($2,500), can compete with the top spirits in the world. These tequilas are best savored in a snifter, without additions or distractions.
The popularity of tequila locally has reached critical mass with the opening of Cantina Beach at The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, Miami. Billed as Miami’s only “coastal-Mexican inspired” restaurant, Cantina Beach doubles as a tequila bar with a selection of 85 premium agave tequilas. It also is home of the nation’s first and only tequilier, Heriberto Ovideo.
“Our goal is to make guests comfortable with something they’ve never tried before,” Ovideo says. “Tequila is actually a very sophisticated spirit, and I enjoy educating guests on its finer qualities and providing recommendations on how best to enjoy it.”
As a sommelier of tequila, Ovideo’s enthusiasm is infectious. He conducts complimentary tastings for guests at 6 p.m. daily, taking them through the different types and explaining the differences in quality. He also is skilled at pairing tequilas with the authentic cuisine of Mexican native Andres Parlange. Traditional dishes such as Carnitas de Cerdo (pork rib slow-braised) and Huachinango yellow tail snapper with Veracruz sauce become more than the sum of their parts when accompanied by Mexico’s native spirit.