Tequila Rising

A new wave of restaurant owners, bar managers, and mixologists is elevating the culture of tequila in the Old Pueblo.

July 9, 2015

BuzzIssue 13: July/August 2015

The many facets of agave.

When I drink tequila, I taste the earth, but I’m also transported to the sea. Earthy but sweet, spicy but floral, it’s a spirit layered with so much flavor. Every time I drink it, I wonder why I don’t drink it more often.

And I’m not alone. According to Mexico’s Tequila Regulatory Council—or Consejo Regulador del Tequila—the United States is the largest consumer of tequila outside of Mexico. We get 79 percent of all the tequila that’s exported from Mexico. So given that we live in a region that was once Mexico, we’ve got to have some of the best tequila watering holes in the country. Right?

I decided to find out.

Tequila is produced in only five areas of Mexico: the state of Jalisco and in parts of neighboring states: Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. And while agave can be distilled elsewhere, the name tequila can only be used for the distillation made within these five regions.

It’s a strict denomination of origin, so I wanted to start out drinking tequila in the most authentic way possible. I went to Boca Tacos y Tequila near Speedway and Euclid. Owner and chef Maria Mazon grew up in Sonora where the drink of choice is, surprise, not a margarita.

“For us, it’s the bandera,” Mazon said.

Maria Mazon of Boca Tacos mixes up a bandora: lime juice, tequila, sangria.

Maria Mazon of Boca Tacos mixes up a bandora: lime juice, tequila, sangria.

We walk over to her small bar where she gathers ingredients. A bandera is a three-shot drink named after the Mexican flag. The tequila is the white. The lime juice, the green. And the sangrita—usually a mix of orange juice, lime juice, and chile powder—the red.

“You just sip each one. I like to start with the tequila, then the sangrita, and then the lime,” Mazon said. The combination of smoky tequila and spicy citrus made me want to order all the tacos on the menu. And that is partly the point; Mazon looks at tequila as another ingredient, often incorporating it into her famous salsas. “If you’re having something as simple as chips and guacamole—and you get the saltiness of chips, the creaminess of the guacamole—a good blanco is just going to hit all those notes and make it pop,” she said.

While Mazon knows her tequila, she has a realistic approach to stocking her bar. “I carry bottles of what’s considered boutique tequila, but I also have my well, the cheap stuff that isn’t 100 percent agave,” she said, referring to her stock of mixtos. Mixtos can be made with as much as 49 percent of nonagave sugars, usually sugarcane or a sugar molasses. It’s a cheaper, faster process than 100 percent agave tequila, and is also typically sold at a lower price point.

Mike Morales is a writer and consultant who has covered the tequila industry for more than a decade. He’s the CEO of Tequila Aficianado Media, a company that covers the latest news on all things tequila. Morales told me the highest consumption of mixto in the United States is in New Mexico and parts of Arizona. “The liquor companies know that, and they dump all that mixto into the four corners,” he said. Among tequila connoisseurs like Morales, the presence of mixtos is a black mark on the industry.

“Nowhere are you going to have—can I have a 51/49 [percent] Bordeaux, can I have a 51/49 cognac, can I have a 51/49 champagne,” said Morales, “Tequila is the only one that allows itself to do that.”

When I asked Mazon why she carries mixtos she said, “It makes me money. The people coming in just to get buzzed, this is what they order.”

But she admits mixtos hurt tequila’s reputation.

“You have to respect the booze; the booze doesn’t have to respect you,” she said.

Tequila paired with tajin-sprinkled orange slices.

Tequila paired with tajin-sprinkled orange slices.

I headed to Casino del Sol’s Tequila Factory to meet with Property Mixologist, Aaron DeFeo, otherwise known as “Doc,” for a lesson in Tequila 101.

“Good producers of tequila typically wait 8 to 10 years before harvesting,” DeFeo said. That’s how long it takes the agave plant to mature—which means there’s enough sugar in the plant to produce tequila.

“Generational farmers—the ones doing the harvesting – are called jimadores,” DeFeo told me. They begin by cutting the leaves off the agave to reveal the core, or piña (because it looks like a pineapple). The piña is what’s actually distilled into tequila.

“It’s first roasted, because you need to heat it to get enough fermentable sugars,” DeFeo said. “There are different roasting methods, and this is where tequila production can go so many different ways.”

How the agave is processed after it’s heated also plays a part in how it tastes. DeFeo had me try the Fortaleza blanco, a lowland tequila made using a traditional method of stone crushing the cooked agave. A lowland tequila is made from agave harvested in the valleys south of Guadalajara—closer to the actual town of Tequila, while a highland tequila is harvested northeast of Guadalajara in more mountainous regions.


Mescal at Penca.

The Forteleza was bold and spicy, packing a wallop of heat. DeFeo said it reminded him of grass; he even had me pour a bit of the tequila onto my hands and rub them together. The smell of earth and grass hit me right away. “Lowland tequilas tend to be more herbaceous, whereas a highland tequila is more floral and sweet,” DeFeo said. “In the highlands you’re going to get a sweeter, more approachable tequila. If I was going to introduce someone to tequila for the first time, I would give them a highland.”

I asked DeFeo what he thought of Tucson’s tequila scene. “I think when you have outsiders come in to a place like Tucson it is surprising, still, how much mixto we see being served in large quantities at our restaurants and bars,” he said. “In Tucson even our Mexican restaurants aren’t focused on agave spirits.”

While mixto is still for the masses, DeFeo said there is a change happening among the city’s small but mighty cocktail community. “The cocktail bars that have sprung up—they have an intense love for agave and carry hand-picked selections of the best of the best.” And the mixologists and bartenders at those bars are demanding better ingredients.

I found Niklas Morris, the beverage director at Tough Luck Club—the basement bar tucked below Reilly’s Craft Pizza and Drink, at Scott and Pennington—behind the bar, prepping for the day. He’s hard to miss—wide face, big smile, several tattoos, frenetic energy. In this region, he said, “from about the 1830s through the 1860s or so, it’s all bacanora and sotol. There was a bacanora distillery on Meyer. It was just all about what we had here, all these mescals. And then from about the 1870s on, once there was money and migration from the East, it switched to whiskey and gin.” All the native varieties, he said, “kind of disappeared.”

But Morris is part of a cocktail community that’s bringing agave back to the Southwest. “The first direct line train from Tequila, the city, to the United States came through Tucson,” Morris said. “We love tequila but we also love bacanora, we love soltol, and every other shade of mescal.”

Mescal encompasses all agave-based liquors, including tequila. Whereas tequila can be made from only one type of agave plant, the blue agave, mescal can be made with several types of agave.

Mescal holds a special place in the rotation at Penca, manned by manager Bryan Eichhorst.

Mescal holds a special place in the rotation at Penca, manned by manager Bryan Eichhorst.

And few in Tucson’s cocktail scene know mescal better than Bryan Eichhorst, beverage director at a downtown Mexican eatery, Penca, near Broadway and Scott, which offers more than 50 agave spirits.

Unlike tequila, which is distilled above ground in steel autoclaves, “Mescal distillation is a different process,” Eichhorst said. It includes the cooking of the agave, and “it’s usually done in an open pit, and cooked slowly over time,” he says.

He poured me a Don Amado Rustico mescal, and right away I tasted the distinct flavors of barbecue. A sticky, sweet smokiness that made me think ribs and brisket—which makes sense, because agaves are roasted over wood, usually mesquite.

Sidecar's Niccy Brodhurst says tequila is the closest thing we have to an indigenous spirit.

Sidecar’s Niccy Brodhurst says tequila is the closest thing we have to an indigenous spirit.

Mescals also hold a special place for Niccy Brodhurst, manager of Sidecar, located inside Broadway Village. “When I was 13 or 14, I went to Oaxca with my dad,” he says. “We were down there for two weeks for the purpose of tasting mescal—I was allowed to have a few nips here and there.”

One of Brodhurst’s goals is to build up the bar’s agave collection; when we spoke, he was getting ready for a trip to Mexico to do just that. “It’s the closest thing we have to an indigenous spirit. I think every shelf in Tucson should have some space for quality agave spirits,” Brodhurst said.

Shelf space is not an issue at Reforma Cocina y Cantina. Located at St. Philip’s Plaza, near River and Campbell, Reforma has one of the city’s largest tequila collections. More than 200 bottles adorn the bar. It’s a big restaurant but the bar, with its mirrored wall and assorted shelf sizes to showcase each bottle, is clearly the focal point. The tequila menus are all on iPads; the most expensive offering is a $125 per ounce DeLeón Leóna.

I sat down with Dylan Higgins, then general manager and beverage director.

“Tequila producers would love to stop making mixtos,” Higgins said. “I think they would rather sell 100 percent agave any day of the week, because everybody who does something would rather do it the way they know is best,” Higgins said. “But they make the other stuff because that is what we [the consumers] buy in bulk.”

I thought back to what DeFeo had said about mixtos hurting tequila culture, and asked Higgins if he, and those at Reforma, felt a sense of responsibility to elevate tequila. “Absolutely,” he said. “Everybody on staff is expected to be able to answer the most basic questions, like, is that a highland or a valley tequila?”

No margaritas here, just quality tequila, lime, and salt. At Reforma Cocina y Cantina, a mirror-backed bar shows off their vast array of tequila.

No margaritas here, just quality tequila, lime, and salt. At Reforma Cocina y Cantina, a mirror-backed bar shows off their vast array of tequila.

I had Higgins pour me a few of his favorites from Reforma’s large collection. The final pour was my favorite—a Milagro Reposado Select Barrel Reserve that had been aged in French oak barrels.

I left Reforma as the early dinner crowd was trickling in. I wanted to go home, put my feet up, and drink water. Instead I sat outside Reforma for a while, and let my last 48 hours marinate. I thought a lot about Chef Maria’s “respect the booze” philosophy. How can tequila garner respect when mixtos are duping drinkers? While there isn’t exact data available for sales of mixto versus 100 percent agave, the Distilled Spirits Council reports sales of 100 percent agave tequilas are growing. Last year, retailers and restaurants bought 2.4 million nine-liter cases of “super-premium” 100 percent agave tequila, compared with only 513,000 cases in 2004.

But as global demand for tequila increases, mixtos are likely not going anywhere. And they’ll still be stocked in most bars in town, for those people looking for a cheap buzz. But we’ve got Mazon making banderas, DeFeo giving lessons, and Reforma stocking 100 percent agave.

It’s a good time to be drinking tequila in Tucson. ✜

Swetha Sharma is a former television news producer with a love for all things food and drink. She’s usually writing with her mouth full. 

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