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All añejos are aged in small barrels no larger than 600 litres (most are around 180-200 litres). Most producers buy used barrels for this purpose because new barrels will express considerably more wood into the product and could change the flavour much more. New barrels are also considerably more expensive than used barrels ($300-$400 each). The most popular barrels for aging are American oak, such as Jack Daniels' whiskey barrels, although both French and Canadian barrels are also used.
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Updated May, 2011
Tequila is taking over the world one glass at a time, or so it sometimes seems. The name tequila conjures a special magic that sells product and creates myths around the world. There are online forums for tequila drinkers in Russia, the Philippines, and Canada, but reaching worldwide and growing.
Tequila blends modern technology with ancient echoes, uncompromising standards with a rowdy reputation. It mixes style and process easily.
Tequila's popularity is also part of a subtle shift from the Old to the New World. For centuries, Old World wines and spirits dominated the world markets, just as Old World classical music and art dominated the cultural scene. But that has been changing this generation. New World counterparts are competing for awards that once went almost exclusively to Old World products.
Just as Chilean and Australian wines challenge French and Italian wines, tequila is challenging cognac and whiskies. The developing world is taking on the developed.
Tequila has always retained its intimate association with its source - the agave, associated with uninterrupted human use for more than 9,000 years. That link underpins tequila in a way that is absent or has weakened with other alcoholic drinks. With tequila, the consumer is never far from the earth, from the agave, from the jimador. On the other hand, some spirits have grown divorced from their source and become almost ectoplasmic - vodka, for example. It is this link that helps maintain the heritage and traditions of a product and also helps keep its authenticity for consumers.
The growing popularity of Latino culture - especially Mexican - outside its native lands has also helped (as has the growth of the Cinco de Mayo festival outside Mexico) as it gathers participants on its periphery.
So who drinks tequila today? According to a psychologist's research, published by the BBC, 18 Mar. 2005, this is the profile of the typical tequila drinker (well, a UK one):
TEQUILA - EXTROVERT
Industry research shows 100% agave tequila is most popular among drinkers who are in the 25 to 45-year-old range, and their members include many artists and musicians. Mixto tequilas tend to appeal to the under-25 crowd, similar to the way sweet wines appeal to younger drinkers, while more mature drinkers prefer dry wines.
Tequila continually evokes new myths, spawns its own subcultures, bubbling into literature, fiction, song and film in an evocative, sometimes subversive way. Tequila Sunrise. Tequila Mockingbird. Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.
Bad press: worms, poppers and slammers
Perhaps the saddest myth still associated with tequila is the worm. Despite decades of debunking, even some distributors persist in selling "tequila with the worm" For example, UK distributor The Drink Shop offers "tequila with larvae (worm)" although the products they show are clearly marked "mezcal" and not tequila. Not very good for building consumer confidence if the seller doesn't know the difference between two products!
But the insults to tequila culture continue on a wide front, either through deliberate assault or simple, inexcusable ignorance. There is a children's book called The Tequila Worm, an online game called Akimo the Tequila Worm, a toy called the Fiesta Tequila Worm and a "tequila worm" lollipop. You can also find stupid comments like "The worm is the soul of the tequila, its presence a guarantee of authenticity and safety." or this: "...our local liquor stores don’t carry tequila with a worm in it. Where can I find some besides Mexico?" All the true tequila aficionado can do is shake his/her head, challenge these statements and boycott the goods or store.
Perhaps tequila drinkers pass through one of the 14 stages Brian Brooker describes, with tongue in cheek, in his essay, The Fourteen Stages of Tequila:
Stage 9—Poised in the Eye of the Storm. Suddenly, in the ninth stage, the drinker of tequila will remain utterly still with all of his senses alerted and uncannily whetted. His posture will betray an awareness that he is harassed from all sides by an invisible threat. The ticking of seconds will register in the twitching of the corners of his eyelids; the knowledge of an impending disaster will be inscribed in the furrows of his brow. He will detect a scent of ozone, a phantom trace of asphalt or of clover.
Cuervo's mass-produced mixto Gold tequila, despite not being 100% agave and having additives like colouring, is the world's best-selling tequila by all reports - a credit to their marketing if not necessarily to public taste. Although this brand and most mixtos are disdained by purists and sophisticated drinkers, they all admit Cuervo also makes some excellent 100% agave, reposado and añejo tequilas - and much to their credit a legendary Reserva de Familia añejo that said by many to be the ultimate in smoothness. Cuervo even introduced a $1,000-a-bottle 1800 Coleccion tequila, aimed at the stratosphere of premium drinkers.
But while purists turn their noses up at it, mixto tequila is still the best-selling type, at least outside of Mexico. Seventy percent of all tequila consumed in the USA is used in margaritas, so one report suggests - meaning it is mostly mixto. Mixtos were the gateway for many of today's tequila aficionados that opened the way to 100% agave tequilas. That trend is changing as drinkers become more educated and savvy and turn to pure tequilas.
Sadly, tequila culture in much of the world still orbits around frat-house-level drinking, tequila shots and cheap mixtos consumed in unhealthy quantities. This is exacerbated in areas where pseudo-tequilas are still found, or where imports are generally limited to mixtos, with 100% agave tequilas rare or impossibly expensive due to taxes and tariffs.
The unfortunate association between tequila and uninhibited partying - and the next-day consequences thereof - is assiduously catered to by Mexican resorts and hotels in the party zones like Cancun and Tijuana. That culture of frenetic overdose and binge drinking encourages vacationers to relate tequila with the inevitable hangover and nausea the next day. This probably does more harm to the tequila industry's reputation and potential success in the export market than any other aspect of tequila culture - it's a subversive attack against Mexican culture from within. Vacationers are taught to drink carelessly, and and that the quality of the tequila is irrelevant - only the quantity matters. In that sense, Mexican resort owners and operators in these popular spots may constitute the single greatest opposition to 100% agave tequila's future success to be perceived as a premium alcohol.
Philip Martin wrote (rather ungrammatically) in Arkansas Online,
But Tequila insists that you treat him with respect. Which I
failed to do on a couple of occasions. Which meant I woke up with
rattlesnakes writhing on my smashed bones bleaching in the Sonoran
as the sunlight shaved my eyes with a rusty switchblade. Or as Bart
Simpson might say, “Ay caramba. ”
Some drinkers assume the suave margarita is head and shoulders above the crude tequila shots. But as popular as they remain, margaritas are only a small step above shooters to those who drink them without an understanding of the tequila they use in their cocktail. A cheap mixto makes a bad margarita, and this does not contribute to the drinker's appreciation of tequila as premium drink.
Breaking through: premium brands gain popularity
A pioneer in getting premium tequilas into the US market was Robert Denton. He and his partner Marilyn Smith tirelessly promoted the idea of premium tequilas for years on both sides of the border, even fighting - successfully - in Washington against a proposed change in taxes on tequilas, which would have exempted bulk (mixto) tequilas bottled in the USA but put a heavy tax on premium (100% agave) tequilas bottled in Mexico. Denton helped create and promote El Tesoro de Don Felipe, the first premium Highlands tequila to be sold in the USA. Denton also distributed both El Tesoro and Chinaco in the USA.
Wine Patrol says, "Denton and his partner, Marilyn Smith, have almost single-handedly educated North America about fine tequilas, and their El Tesoro and Chinaco brands have become industry standards. They have fought for consistency in labeling and for adherence to Mexican law governing the proper use of agave in tequila production."
In 1983, Chinaco (through the efforts of Robert Denton) became the first company to launch an ultra-premium tequila into the market. As noted on Wine Patrol's site, "Denton marketed the tequila like a fine cognac, and demanded the highest prices of any tequila on the market. The rich, elegant Chinaco Añejo lived up to the promises, and almost single handedly created the North American market for upscale tequila. "
At this time, two diehard Chinaco drinkers - John Paul De Joria and Sammy Hagar - decided that, if they couldn't get their favourite tequila, they'd make their own. And they did - De Joria went on to found Patron, and Hagar Cabo Wabo, both successful companies.
Chinaco didn't return to the market until 1998, by which time it had to compete against considerably more ultra-premium tequilas beside it on the shelves.
Denton eventually sold his tequila lines to industry giant, Jim Beam Brands Worldwide. In 2005 Germán González of Tequila Chinaco broke off the relationship with Jim Beam and signed a new deal with Preiss Imports. Now retired, Denton lives near Guadalajara and his beloved fields of blue agave.
More recently, Patron's aggressive marketing bulldozed the way to allow its tequila to become the best-selling premium tequila in the USA, and set a new standard for promotional flair.
Why the change from frat drink to hip sip?
In part it's because the continued prosperity of the North American and European markets allows consumers more time and money to indulge themselves. Premium drinks appeal to the boomers with high disposable income. It's also partly because the boomer culture generally eyes foreign goods and international products with delight and acceptance, rather than the suspicion and xenophobia of previous generations. Tequila is exotic, and mysterious - and has not yet achieved the common-place acceptance - or banality - of most other spirits.
Tequila's renegade reputation also helped it gain acceptance from the maturing Gen-Xers who wanted a drink to match their own outre self image. Suddenly, it seemed, tequila was hip, it was hot, so hot it was even used in perfume!
To try and capture more market share of this growing industry, advertising for tequila products has become more aggressive - look at Cabo Wabo's sexy, suggestive ad for Sammy Hagar's product. Others, including Sauza and Cuervo, have produced their own advertising aimed at winning and keeping consumer loyalty, sometimes through innuendo and sex appeal as well. Sex, of course, sells.
The short-lived magazine 100% Tequila was full of slick ads, reviews, good photography and polished articles appealing to the connoisseur and the elite drinker, a combination of Vanity Fair, GQ and the Robb report, with a slice of lime. Unfortunately it only lasted a couple of years.
Tequila packaging has also been made upscale, with many products remade for a more visible presence on the shelf. Bottles are no longer utilitarian vessels, but have become collectors' items, maintaining a brisk trade on eBay. Miniature tequila bottles are another collectible item, as are any company-labelled or monogrammed items like caballitos, coasters, T-shirts, etc.
Tequila has become a "barometer of social pretension," as Vicente Quirarte said.
Both Cuervo and Sauza - the two largest producers, respectively - have changed to meet the increased demand for 100% agave tequilas, offering new and premium product lines beside their range of best-selling mixtos (which still comprise the great majority of their sales).
Juan Carlos Canales, the national director of Jose Cuervo, has said, "We are trying to reposition it in people's minds, so they don't see tequila only as a slammer shot for spring-breakers in Tijuana. We are trying to dignify tequila. It is a very good quality product so we want to dignify the way people drink it."
That attitude, while admirable, is countered at the street level by the continued perception of tequila as a somewwhat sleazy party drink. A quick tour through the many tequila-related video clips on YouTube shows most of them are not complimentary, let alone factual. However, some companies are taking advantage of this popular site to seed it with their own marketing, putting a positive spin on tequila and its premium side.
Premium tequilas are expensive, even in Mexico, and production can be so limited they are not exported. Or sometimes they are only sold as exports in the lucrative, growing American market. But premium tequilas are selling themselves, creating an expanding market as tequila is repositioned as a quality product, a hip sip.
This is greatly the result of the growing international market for tequila, especially in the USA, where it has been gaining the same sort of popularity single-malt scotches got a few years back. In fact, figures showed tequila sales in the USA grew 1,500% between 1975 and 1995, and continued to grow since then at 12-15% a year. One study suggests the USA will be the largest market for tequila worldwide by 2010, outstripping even Mexican domestic sales.
To cater to the premium sales market, Cuervo announced a limited edition "Millennium Tequila" in its 1800 line, at a recommended retail price of $18,000 US per barrel! This was made available in December, 1999 - 13 months before the dawn of the next millennium (2001) - so I'm not sure why it had that name (or the inflated price tag).
Small tequila distilleries are being positioned in the same vertical market for discriminating buyers for whom expense is no object and quality is their prime concern. The quality of the product is being highlighted through designer glassware bottles and upscale marketing that focuses on the sophistication of the product and its consumers.
On the other side, many producers are promoting the heritage and traditions of tequila and making an aggressive effort to look respectably old fashioned. Many have used retro labels or bottle designs, often handcrafted, to emphasize their connection to the past or their company's or family's history. Some are advertising generations of family history, although in some cases, the companies themselves are less than a decade old. And others have gone backwards in production to use traditional methods and equipment, eschewing the more efficient hardware for the tahona and small copper stills.
However well these changes may bode for the local economy, it's difficult to tell what impact increased demand will have on quality and traditional production methods in the future.
2009: World Tequila Conference, Sept. 13-18, Guadalajara