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Tasty tequila's image gets a shot

Consumption of tequila has more than doubled in the United States since 1985, making it the fastest-growing distilled spirit in the country.  

From Jim Forbes
For CNN Travel Now

When most people hear the word "tequila," they think of wild parties and nasty hangovers.

But the image of this legendary drink is changing, and more people are drinking it than ever. In fact, since 1985, consumption of the fierce liquor has more than doubled in the United States, making it the fastest-growing distilled spirit in the land.

Tequila began its commercial life in Mexico more than 200 years ago, and its reputation is legendary. Now, the elegant maturing of this image is fueling tequila's biggest boom ever. Credit savvy marketing, beautiful packaging and the growing influence of Latin culture in the United States, and you have the making of a tequila renaissance.

Capital of tequila

To understand this tequila revitalization, you need only visit the town of Tequila, located in the southwestern Mexico state of Jalisco.

Roughly 98 percent of all tequila is manufactured there, and the residents of the region are just as proud and protective of their products as those from Champagne or Bordeaux, France.

Robb Boykin, owner of Gringos' Cantina, talks about how to best appreciate the many types of tequila (August 23)

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Julio Bermejo points out the many types of tequila: smoky, soft, spicy or fruity, each a distinct flavor (August 23)

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Photo gallery -- The making of tequila 

Tequila is born in the fields where row upon row of blue agave plants reach toward the sun.

While they look like cactus, they're actually a member of the lily family. They're hardy plants, growing eight to 12 years before they can be harvested.

It's hard work, but profitable, which explains why men these days are guarding the blue agave fields. With the current tequila boom, you can't grow more plants quickly, so some people are stealing them.

One company enjoying this tequila explosion is the granddaddy of the business, Jose Cuervo, which has been around since 1795. Today, it produces almost half of the tequila Americans drink.

Secret recipes

At Cuervo, blue agave hearts are brought back to the distillery where they are steamed in huge ovens. Then the starch is converted in sugar, and the liquid extracted from the plants is fermented, distilled, tested and finally bottled.

Every premium brand has its own secret distilling recipe. Yet the end result is all the same: 100 percent pure blue agave.

From there, the pure blue agave can be blended with sugar cane and other elements, diminishing the agave content to no less than 51 percent. That mixture is the basis of the popular Cuervo Gold label, and other similar products.

Or the liquor can remain in its pure form, 100 percent pure blue agave, and become the sophisticated drink everyone is talking about. A clear blanco or silver tequila is simply bottled after distillation. If it ages for at least two months in an oak barrel, it's called a reposado, and starts taking on the golden color of the oak. More than a year of the aging and it earns the name anejo.

Unlike wine, once tequila's in a bottle, it doesn't change much.

"Once you have a good seal from the bottle, no problem," Cuervo's Enrique Legoretta says.

Asked if it will last 30, 40 even 50 years, he says: "I don't know. Nobody can keep a bottle of tequila and not drink it in 50 years."

Meet the expert

Learning about these premium tequilas is a challenge, though. Ground zero in San Francisco, California, is Tommy's Mexican Restaurant, where they sell more brands of 100 percent blue agave tequila -- 205 -- than anywhere else in the United States.

Tommy's Mexican Restaurant
Tommy's Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco, California, sells more brands of 100 percent blue agave tequila -- 205 -- than anywhere else in the United States.  

The servings also come in a variety of prices, with the highest pulling in $350 a shot.

Tired of tequila's nauseating reputation, Julio Bermejo of Tommy's made it his mission 10 years ago to not only serve high-caliber drinks, but also educate his customers about the drink.

"And that's one of the things that I believe, that tequila's the last undiscovered great spirit," he says.

If there was such a thing as a Ph.D in tequila, Bermejo definitely has one. Ask him to list a few tequilas, and stand back.

While the U.S. drinks more tequila than any other country, it still accounts for only 3 percent of American spirit sales.

"Tequila's still a bit of a mystery," Bermejo says. "It's going to be a beautiful thing in the next coming years, I mean, as people discover this. They're going to fall in love."

And while love -- as tequila -- may sometimes bite, it's most often a beautiful thing.


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