The High-Teq Boom

Even discriminating quaffers are warming to upscale versions of that one-time diabolical drink, tequila.

Ask Dawn Lamendola for a glass of tequila, and she might suggest the Herradura Añejo, with its earthy, slightly floral notes; pronounced ripe-apple aroma; and deep oaky finish. Or perhaps a splash of crisp, citrusy Don Julio Silver. Or the 1800 Reposado. Or the fruit-infused Angelique. Or any one of more than a dozen varieties she keeps behind the bar—nearly twice as many as she stocked last year. “It’s far more common now for our guests to arrive knowing what tequila brands they prefer, much the same way they ask for a vodka or a gin,” she says.

Lamendola doesn’t tend bar at some Latin-themed hot spot. As beverage director for Commonwealth Restaurant Group, she oversees the liquor lineup at Mistral—that’s right, the impossibly tony FrenchMediterranean restaurant in the South End. A Franco-boîte loading up on the stuff that spring-break bad dreams are made of? Clearly, there’s a revolution afoot. Even the Today show, seldom the first to spot a burgeoning fad, has happened onto the high-end tequila trend, citing an ACNielsen report that sales of super- and ultrapremiums (those priced above $26 a bottle) grew 41 percent during 2006. Premium vodka may not be in serious danger of losing its throne—but it might want to watch its back.

If the thought of an imminent tequila craze leaves you with a queasy stirring in the pit of your stomach, you’re not alone. But this much maligned spirit deserves a revisit, if for no other reason than what we drank in college or in happy-hour margaritas was likely such wretched plonk it would barely count as tequila by today’s standards. The quality of tequila has been on the rise for the better part of a decade, and some are so delicious and smooth they’re akin to fine cognacs—and enjoyed, similarly, in snifters.

Go on to the next page to learn more about how to tell a quality tequila…

In separating the good stuff from the poison that makes you dance on the table (then wish you were dead), a grasp of the basics is useful. Tequila is made from the blue agave plant, which looks like an aloe vera plant and takes an average of 10 years to mature. After all that waiting, it can be harvested only once, by stripping away its leaves and cooking what’s left: a core that weighs about 40 to 70 pounds. The cooked cores are fermented with yeast, converting the sugar to alcohol, and then distilled twice—the second yielding what will become tequila.

Like scotch and bourbon, tequila is named for its place of origin: the Tequila region, primarily in Mexico’s Jalisco state. By law, it can be made only here and under strict guidelines—though that doesn’t stop less scrupulous producers from making it elsewhere with God knows what. There are two kinds of tequila: 100 percent blue agave and mixto, which is distilled with a minimum of 51 percent blue agave plus “other sugars.” Unless your goal is to get drunk cheap, ignore the latter.

In the world of real, 100 percent blue agave tequila, there are four official classifications, starting with blanco (“white”), a.k.a. plata (“silver”), which is clear and bottled immediately after distillation. Next comes oro (“gold”), a.k.a. joven (“young”), which is blanco blended with caramel and other additives to appear aged. After that is reposado, which is blanco aged in oak for two months to a year. And at the top there’s añejo, or blanco aged in oak for a year or more; that time in wood gives it a beautiful caramel color and mellow flavor.

Now that you’ve got that straight, replacing the memory of bad tequila is easy—especially here in Boston, where Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants with serious tequila offerings abound, such as Masa, Cactus Club, Bonfire, and Cambridge’s Olé. Their tequila lists read like wine menus, some with upward of 60 selections, all priced according to pedigree. A few places even offer tasting flights, an opportunity to sample three or four small pours alongside one another, thoughtfully, rather than shoot them in rapid succession.

Tequila truly comes into its own at Sushi-Teq, the InterContinental Boston’s high-energy lounge that serves only sushi and tequila. Barman Domingo-Martin Barreres (formerly of Les Zygomates) has crafted a brilliant list, replete with a taste profile for each of the 70-odd bottles he stocks, as well as cleverly organized flights served with salt, cinnamon, sangrita, and lime and orange slices.

Of course, you can explore the spectrum of fine tequilas no matter what cuisine you prefer. Avila, the Mediterranean restaurant in the Theater District, usually stocks about 20 top-shelf varieties. At Kenmore bistro Eastern Standard, bar manager Jackson Cannon has no problem selling 40-buck pours of Herradura La Suprema, a silky, spicy tequila that’s aged seven years in French oak. “More bourbon drinkers are curious about trying tequila,” he says, “and cocktail drinkers are more curious about tequila drinks beyond margaritas, which is good because tequila is very mixable and there’s a lot of variation among brands.”

An understatement, to be sure. Suffice to say you’ve got your work cut out for you—although knowing what to drink doesn’t necessarily mean knowing when to stop. Remember, as in those harrowing days of spring break, your morning-after will reflect the quality of what you’ve enjoyed. Make sure it’s a good one.