Asignificant portion of the population seems to have an immediate and visceral reaction to the word tequila. Mostly they turn green. And that’s a pity, because no other hard liquor has undergone such a rapid and dramatic transformation for the better. The so-called tequila that ruined it for most of those unfortunate overindulgers bears little resemblance to the elegant and well-made spirit I’m seeing in bars and shops today. Just a few short years ago, the industry appeared to be in big trouble—primarily because of a severe shortage of blue agave (the plant used to make tequila)—so it’s all the more remarkable to see the recent parade of fancy new bottlings that’s hitting store shelves and back bars. This seems like the perfect time to take a fresh look at Mexico's national drink.There are two broad categories of tequila: those made from 100 percent blue agave and those made with as little as 51 percent blue agave (the balance is usually sugarcane), which are called mixtos. Less than 5 percent of all tequila is 100 percent blue agave, but that’s what you should drink if you want to keep from turning green yourself. Until recently, Mexican government regulations defined three styles of 100 percent blue agave tequila: blanco (“white”), which is how all tequila starts, can be aged in wood up to 60 days but in practice is aged little or not at all; reposado (“rested”), which must be aged in wood for at least 60 days; and añejo (“aged”), which must spend at least one year in wood. Wood aging smooths some of the rough edges, but it can also mute the agave flavors. A new category, extra-añejo, sees a minimum of three years in wood. The extra-añejos I’ve tried, all of which sell for more than $250 a bottle, were impeccably made, but I generally found myself wishing they tasted a bit more like tequila and a bit less like oak.
After all, it’s the blue agave—a succulent, not a cactus as many assume—that makes tequila special. There are hundreds of agave varieties, some of which make complex and delicious mezcals (tequila is, in fact, a mezcal made from one type of agave grown in a defined area), but no variety is produced in nearly the same volume as blue agave. And that is one of its main problems. The agave crisis of the mid-1990s was primarily a consequence of how hard it is to plan for the plant’s 7- to 12-year growing cycle. But this collapse was made worse by several maladies that many feel were caused by increased plantings in the early ‘80s. Because of the way blue agave is propagated, its genetic makeup has become extremely narrow, leaving it vulnerable to pests and disease.
As those large crops came to maturity, agave prices began to fall, and some growers no longer found it worthwhile to tend their fields. This gave pests a leg up. Needless to say, in that economic climate, replanting was not a priority. The glut was followed by a shortage at the very moment when dozens of new brands that had sprung up when agave was cheap were getting established. Some producers tried to skirt the industry’s strict regulations by using varieties of agave from outside the designated growing area or by adding other sources of sugar to the fermentation tanks. Several distillers were fined and a few were shut down. By the summer of 2000, nearly a third of tequila factories had ceased production. The agave supply was now depleted, but demand was high, so of course prices skyrocketed. You don’t have to be an economist to figure out what happened next: Planting increased.
Now the fruits of that labor are maturing, which is why we are in the midst of another surge in tequila brands. During the previous boom, the number of distillers jumped from 46 to 72 in two years. Six years later, the figure hovers around 110, producing distillate for a staggering 750-plus brands (the numbers fluctuate constantly).
Improvements in technology and hygiene have raised tequila quality across the board, particularly at the high end. Which makes it all the more discouraging to see that the industry isn’t addressing its endemic problems. Plantings have fallen precipitously, from 86 million plants in 2003 to just under 13 million in 2006. Carlos José Phillips, managing partner of the boutique producer Penca Azul, thinks that every agave grower should divide his farm into eight plots and plant one per year. “This way there will be crops ready for harvest every year, ” Phillips says. “With agave, the only way to reduce your risk is to harvest an equal number of plants every year. You sell at different prices, sometimes high and sometimes low, but you get a good average price over the eight years. ” It’s a sensible solution, but one that would require a level of cooperation and self-control that seems outside the realm of possibility. In the meantime, in 2009 or 2010, the cycle will bottom out again and there will be another agave shortage, prices will rise, and plants will go into the ground. The dizziness you feel has nothing to do with what's in your glass.
Blanco tequila retains the most agave flavor. We tasted nearly two dozen blancos; here are our five favorites.
CORAZÓN Beautifully balanced, citrusy; $30
DON EDUARDO Soft, delicate, smooth; $40
EL TESORO PLATINUM Herbal, classic tequila flavors; $45
FINA ESTAMPA Intense, good length; $36
PENCA AZUL Very perfumy, complex, elegant; $55