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Premium Tequila

May 03, 2012 10:12PM ● By Anonymous

In the past 10 years, the tequila industry has grown rapidly, about 6.1 percentage points per year, according to David Culver of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. The spirits industry average increase is about 2.7 points per year. However, when you kick up the price point into premium and ultra-premium (also called super-premium) brands, the growth rate raises to the double digits —anywhere from 10 percent per year for high-end brands and 20 percent for super-premium brands. “You’re really talking about products that people will oftentimes sip straight like a good Cognac or Scotch,” Culver says.

Patron, which launched in 1989, was the first premium brand of tequila in the United States, and it still outsells all other types of tequila in its category. (Jose Cuervo, however, is the number-one selling brand of tequila overall.) The main difference between premium varieties and the headache-inducing tequila of our youth is that premium brands only use 100 percent blue agave. By Mexican law, tequila can only be called as such if it contains at least 51 percent agave, known as a “mixto.”  

“Most people have experience with tequila that was a mixto, and that obviously colored their perception of what tequila should taste like,” says Tequila Avion president Jenna Fagnan. (Yes, Avion is the tequila company that Turtle supposedly started on the HBO TV show Entourage—it’s a real brand.) The extra 49 percent of a mixto is made up of neutral grain spirits and sugar, the main culprit behind those tequila-induced hangovers.

Where the tequila originates makes a large difference, too. You likely know that tequila is only produced in Mexico; but most brands are produced in a town actually named Tequila in the Mexican state of Jalisco. The Weber Blue Agave plant, the source of tequila, can be grown in the lowlands or the highlands, but premium tequilas typically take their plants from the highlands. “The iron-rich red soil in the highlands, combined with the high altitude and day/night temperatures, produces agave that is high in sugar content—and ideal for high-quality tequila,” says Greg Cohen, director of communications for the Patron Spirits Company. It takes seven to nine years for the agave plant to grow to maturity, and it is then cut down, the leaves are removed, and the heart of the plant is either steamed or roasted, according to Juan Pablo Arav of Revolucion Tequila.

When sipping on an ultra-premium brand of tequila, the taste should be smooth and clean with a pleasant aroma that doesn’t make you cough, Cohen says. “Of course different people look for different taste and mouthfeel experiences when drinking tequila, which is why there are so many different and wonderful styles of tequila available today,” he says.

For the record, you’ll never find a worm in a tequila bottle, premium or not. You might, however, find it in a bottle of Mezcal, a separate variety of spirit that mainly comes from Oaxaca, Mexico. It stems from a marketing gimmick, con gusano, which began in the 1940s. “People put it in for shock value,” Fagnan says. “I don’t want any worm in my tequila.”

Types of Tequila

Blanco
(Silver or white). Clear in color and not aged at all. “Silver is a hallmark of a good tequila,” Fagnan says. “If you’re an aficionado, you want to taste someone’s silver first because you can’t cover anything.”

Oro
(Gold). Blanco that is “mellowed” with caramel or coloring to appear aged. Most commonly sold tequila in the U.S.

Reposado
(Rested). Blanco that has been aged in white oak barrels or casks for anywhere between two months and one year.

Anejo
(Aged). Blanco that has been aged for more than one year, producing a unique bouquet, amber color, and woody flavor.

Extra anejo.
Aged at least three years in wooden barrels or casks.

Premium Tequila Brands

Listed is a selection of premium tequilas. Expect to pay at least $40 per bottle, with ultra-premium brands ranging from $70 to $200 or more.   

Cabo Wabo
Don Julio
Herradura
Milagro
Partido
Patron
Tequila Avion
Tequila Revolucion

Tequila by the Numbers
Nearly 140 million bottles of tequila were sold in the U.S. in 2010.
In 2006, a bottle of Pasion Azteca tequila sold to a private collector for $225,000, making it the world’s most expensive tequila.
The average weight of an agave plant is between 40 and 70 pounds, but can weigh as much as 200 pounds.
It takes 15 pounds of agave core to produce one quart of tequila.
The official ratio for a margarita, according to the International Bartender Association standards, is 7:4:3—50 percent tequila, 29 percent Cointreau, and 21 percent fresh lime juice.