Premiumization has been driving liquor trends across all categories and tequila is no different, but what goes into a premium agave spirit?
There are a wide range of reasons why the tequila industry has gone premium, but one of the major reasons is that consumers have realized that the spirit can and should be delicious and sippable straight. While the pandemic pushed the premiumization trend into overdrive, it’s a trend that’s been building momentum for years. New brands are popping up all the time, but existing brands have been making moves towards premiumization for years through exploring aging, cask finishes and more.
As higher-end and traditionally produced tequila brands make their mark in the US market drinkers have come to realize that much like whiskey, tequila has subtle, complex, and dynamic flavors. Tequila can pair with a wide range of foods, making it interesting for the restaurant setting past it’s obvious cocktail applications. The process of making tequila follows strict guidelines, but there is still opportunity for a wide range of notes and aromas to come through depending on the terroir, cask finishes, and distillation process.
For bartender Javier Ramirez, drinking premium tequila is all about time, “I drink it neat with a few ice cubes on the side this lets me enjoy it neat and after a few sips I can add a cube and chill it afterwards.” On what makes a premium tequila, Ramirez shares, “To me a premium tequila is about the quality of the spirit in the bottle not the quantity. It has to stand out among all the other products out there and be worth its price. The juice must have a lot of tasting notes and good mouth feel.”
When it comes to figuring out what makes quality, it starts from the ground up. Great tequila can only be made from great agave. Agave itself is a unique plant that takes seven to ten years to grow to optimal maturity. Some tequila makers harvest the plants before they’re ready sacrificing quality and flavor for speed. Premium tequilas are very proud of their agave harvesting, which means one way to tell if a spirit is better quality is if they are excited to share about how they grow their plants.
Skipping forward a bit, during the distillation process tequila needs to be distilled at least two times by law, although some brands distill additional times for added clarity. During the second distillation the master distiller carefully guides the process, adjusting the heads and tails to develop a unique spirit.
Once the distillation process is complete, a blanco tequila can be bottled directly, but for aged expressions there are a few more steps. Unique casks and aging are places where premium tequila makers get to flex their creative muscles. In general, tequila does not need to be aged for as long as other spirits to gain the same character thanks to the hot climate of Mexico. Most tequila is aged for four years or less, although some brands are playing with longer periods like ten to even twenty years. When it comes to casks, most age their spirit in lightly charred American oak ex-bourbon casks. Ex-sherry, ex-cognac, and other styles of barrels can be used depending on the brand. These unique and aged expressions are part of what helps set premium tequila apart from others.