Tequila just might be Mexico's most infamous export. But thanks to devoted producers and restaurateurs, it is now becoming as much a connoisseur's drink as single-malt scotch and small-batch bourbon.
The southwestern Mexican state of Jalisco is the tequila capital of the world, with endless fields of blue agave, and dozens of distilleries. But it takes an obsessive tequila fan to make a special trip thereand an even more obsessed one to travel with Julio Bermejo. A tequila expert and the bartender at Tommy's Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco, Bermejo takes eight-person groups on weeklong tours once a year. His trips are notorious for their exclusivity. To participate requires earning Bermejo's tequila Ph.D., an elaborate process that involves sampling 70 varieties of prime tequila and passing a Bermejo-administered exam. In Jalisco, Bermejo's group stays in Guadalajara and receives VIP treatment at distilleries in the nearby town of Tequila and the agricultural Los Altos region. Besides demos and tastings with master blenders, the group enjoys another major perk: private parties (from $1,100; 415-387-4747 or www.tommystequila.com).
The most important difference between fine tequila and ordinary tequila is that the good stuff is made from 100 percent blue agavethe desert succulent that is pressure-cooked, then fermented. The majority of tequilas come from Jalisco. All are at least 51 percent blue agave; most bargain brands stop at that scant minimum. These are classified as mixtos. As for the premium tequilas, there are three kinds: plata, reposado and añejo. Platasalso called blancos or silversaren't aged, meaning the earthy, peppery flavor of agave is still intense. While they can be sipped, their relative harshness makes them more suitable for mixing. Reposados (or "rested" tequilas) are aged for up to 11 months, resulting in a mellower taste. Añejos, the most refined tequilas, are aged for at least a year; master blenders will often refine the flavor of añejos by adding small amounts of even older tequilas.
10 Top Tequilas
EL CHARRO REPOSADO Earthy reposado with strong agave flavor and citrus and pepper nuances ($28).
EL TESORO PLATINUM Quintessential plata with fruity, peppery flavors and a touch of smoke ($30).
CAZADORES REPOSADO Pale reposado aged in new oak barrels with hints of spice and fruit ($34).
SAUZA TRES GENERACIONES PLATA Smooth, light plata from a mixto giant ($35).
EL TESORO AÑEJO Dark añejo with vanilla and caramel flavors ($36).
HERRADURA REPOSADO Oaky, balanced reposado from the company that invented the "rested" category ($37).
SAN MATÍAS AÑEJO GRAN RESERVA Lively añejo with elements of honey and spice ($40).
GRAN CENTENARIO AÑEJO Amber añejo with nutty, spicy flavors ($59).
JOSE CUERVO RESERVA DE LA FAMILIA Bourbon-colored añejo; each year, a different Mexican artist decorates the box ($100).
DON JULIO REAL Vanilla-flavored añejo, produced in limited quantities ($350).
Alan Miguel Kaplan had a life-changing tequila experience one night in Mexico City. A restaurant consultant there in the '90s, he was having drinks with his friend Eduardo Gonzalez, a Don Julio tequila heir. "Gringos no saben tequila," Gonzalez told him. If Americans don't know tequila, thought Kaplan, maybe it was time to teach them. At Salón México, a haute-Mexican restaurant he opened in Manhattan last year, Kaplan offers 101 premium tequilasalong with what he calls "the lecture" on sipping techniques. And every month he holds special tequila-pairing dinners, at which he might serves salpicón de jaiba (crab with chiles) alongside a peppery Sauza blanco (134-136 E. 26th St.; 212-685-9400).
Best Tequila Bars
CHICAGO SALPICÓN Priscila Satkoff cooks authentic Mexican food while her husband, Vince Satkoff, oversees the list of 100 premium tequilas (1252 N. Wells St.; 312-988-7811).
DENVER LOLA This Nuevo Latino newcomer is creating masses of tequila converts with its 97 bottles of 100 percent agave tequilas and frequent pairing dinners (1469 S. Pearl St.; 720-570-8686).
LOS ANGELES EL CARMEN The hot pink, cheetah-print bar stools and black velvet paintings may be Tijuana-esque, but the 350-tequila list is serious: Nearly all are 100 percent agave (8138 W. 3rd St.; 323-852-1552).
NEW YORK CITY DOS CAMINOS From the owners of Manhattan's Blue Fin and Fiamma, a high-end tequila showcase with 95 top-quality tequilas; many brands are unavailable anywhere else (373 Park Ave. S., 212-294-1000).
SAN DIEGO EL AGAVE TEQUILERIA This restaurant near the Mexican border serves an impressive 875 tequilas, and more than 500 are 100 percent agave. Chef-owner Juan Carlos Gomez's family runs Mexico City's 107-year-old La Puerta de Cartagena restaurant (2304 San Diego Ave.; 619-220-0692).