05/04/2012 02:57 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2012

A Tequila Renaissance

by Duggan McDonnell, Cocktails Expert for the Menuism Cocktails Blog

It's true: tequila has a bad, bad reputation. And it's well-earned; tequila's history is dubious, complicated, full of scandal and poor behavior. But, all of that is in the past. The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (C.R.T.) was formed in 1994 to control, improve and promote the quality of tequila production and has constantly maintained its efforts, even rewriting its standards in 2006. The C.R.T. boldly assures us that tequila has cleaned up its act. Even better, many artistic creations, single-barrel bottlings and unique blends of tequila, all from premium stock, have recently emerged. Jake Lustig of Las Joyas del Agave recently introduced his Seleccion Arte N.O.M. series of tequila. Acting closely as a negociant of agave and of specific barrels, Lustig works only with the best of the best of the Tequileros in Jalisco and bottles only his favorites, with each batch bearing the signature of the distiller on the label. Chiara Shannon of K & L Wine Merchants described the 1079 Blanco Tequila as "one of the coolest tequilas I've ever tasted. Absolutely unreal."

Tequila, the "Spirit of Mexico," is a wildly growing category of distilled spirits in North America thanks to its chief cocktail the Margarita and the lively culture of celebration and lack of inhibition that Mexico has exported so well.

Care to throw off the worries of the day and get the party started? Tequila!

As the proprietor of the ubiquitously named Latin spirits mecca Cantina in San Francisco, I can attest to tequila being more than a means to get the party started; it too is ubiquitous, more than whiskey, vodka, or pisco, tequila has become the shot du jour. Is this because tequila possesses some unique stimulant that enhances our imbibing? Perhaps. Or is it more likely due to the fact that tequila is just a hell of a lot better than it was just a decade ago?

"There was no better time for premium tequila than when we launched Clase Azul in 2005," mused John Hanson, partner and founder of Tequilas Premium. "Bored of Cognac and Whiskey, the American consumer was thirsty for adventure but they still craved that same smooth, full taste of a well-crafted spirit. Clase Azul delivered that in a unique way right after brands like Herradura and Patrón took the fear out of drinking tequila again."

I'm certain that the efforts of the Mexican government and the abiding producers changed the face of tequila and thereby the faith of the American consumer in tequila. Long gone are the days of chugging from a mixto package of brown liquid in clear plastic with a bandit on its label, and nearly dying the following morn from headache and hangover. The C.R.T. has had its way and the global consumer now calls for premium 100% agave tequila; rather than shooting the drink, tequila is sipped, slowly.

Tequila is produced from the heart of the agave plant, the underground fibrous part known as the pina, which is harvested, crushed, fermented and then distilled into the spirit that gets its name from a town where, in centuries past, it was chiefly produced. (NOTE: Nowhere is cactus mentioned as a source...)

An agave field is an unnerving sight. Accustomed to vineyards and orchards, when I first viewed hectacres of Agave Tequilana stretching out over the undulating pastures of western Jalisco, the feeling was similar to visiting a natural history museum, as the blue agave is a seemingly Paleolithic plant, tall and strong and resistant, an agricultural beast that takes an average of eight years to mature. Bumping along those roads outside of Arandas, Jalisco in the back of a pickup truck, eyes fixed on tens of thousands of agave, was an amazing experience -- authentic and altogether aided by the bottle of El Tesoro Reposado passed amongst the group. That delicious spike of intoxicant clutched in my right hand, slightly burning my palate, was culled from the same fiercely primitive agave the pickup truck blazed past.

The taste of tequila should be reminiscent of a glass of Sauvignon Blanc: grassy, it should hold varied citrus notes with pepper and hints of minerality. Pure tequila will have a long, semi-sweet finish with a medium burn. Excellent examples of this are the brands Siete Leguas, Corralejo, and Partida.

Across the United States, there are dozens of excellent bars and restaurants with superb tequila selections. Some of my favorites are La Perla in Los Angeles, La Biblioteca in New York City, Big Star in Chicago, and Barrio in Seattle. The bartenders behind-the-stick at these gems know their tequila as every sommelier knows his Burgundy.

This Saturday brings to us the annual fiesta of Cinco de Mayo. Sure, it may be a hack holiday, its origins in American marketing rather than in authentic Mexico; but, beyond it being an occasion for Americans to lose their inhibitions, it provides the opportunity to celebrate a unique glass of something premium, a distilled liquid from 100% agave, partly primitive and wholly delicious.

Related Links from the Menuism Cocktails Blog:
• The Bartender's Guide to Preventing Hangovers
• A Girl's Guide to Scotch
• The Secret History of Pisco

A Tequila Renaissance was originally published on the Menuism Cocktails Blog.

Duggan McDonnell owns and operates Cantina, the San Fran-centric cocktail lounge dedicated to Latin spirits and California cocktails. He operates Liquid Think Tank, a beverage consultancy, and co-founded San Francisco Cocktail Week and the Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail. He also co-founded and serves as CEO and Master Blender of Campo de Encanto pisco, winner of the Ministry of Production's Gran Medalla de Oro Best in Show gold medal (the highest honor for any pisco). Duggan's many accolades include a Best Mixologist of the Year nomination at Tales of the Cocktail (twice) in New Orleans, and Leader of the American Cocktail Revolution from Food & Wine. A featured expert on the TV show "Great Cocktails," Duggan also served as the spokesperson for the got milk? 2010 holiday cocktail TV campaign. He's designed cocktails for the Sundance Film Festival and Aspen Food & Wine, and has consulted for spirits companies including Tequila Don Julio, Grey Goose Vodka and Cabana Cachaca.