Picture the scene: You’re standing in a crowded house party, or bar. Several drinks down and one of your more rambunctious friends has produced a bottle of budget tequila. Now, with little recollection of how you got here, you’re standing – slice of roughly-cut lime in one hand and dusting of salt on the other – ready to shoot a shot of South America. Now, press pause.
It’s a familiar scenario, but you’ve been drinking tequila all wrong. Today marks National Margarita Day and, earlier this month, consumers around the world were warned of an impending tequila shortage. So, before you sink another measure of this endangered spirit, listen up. Tequila is a drink to be savoured, sipped and celebrated – not knocked back with a wince and a wedge of lime.
“A lot of time goes into tequila,” says Josh Rooms, the man behind the bar at South London’s Cartel Tequila Bar. “So it deserves to be enjoyed. The Blue Agave plant, from which tequila is distilled, takes around 8 to 12 years to mature – and if you shoot it that’s gone in an instant.”
"A lot of time goes into tequila, so it deserves to be enjoyed..."
It’s half an hour before opening in Cartel, and Rooms is readying himself for a roaring trade. Previously a bartender at El Camion, there’s little the tequila enthusiast doesn’t know about the spirit – and it’s knowledge he’s keen to pass on.
“Most of the tequilas people have already tried are ‘mixtos’,” Rooms explains, “which are created using outside sugars, such as beet sugar, so they don’t have as much Agave flavour. Because of that, they cost a lot less – but the full flavour of the Agave is never liberated.”
Try enjoying tequila a new way
Today, on National Margarita Day, Rooms says that the time is ripe to up your tequila game.
“People should jump at the chance to enjoy tequila in a different way to the usual university days, when you’d shoot it. Most people I encounter just associate it with ‘tequila face’” – he mimics the twisted expression – “that contorted face you pull the first time you shoot it and taste the alcohol.
“But, trying better quality tequila, or using it in cocktails will take this harsher side away from it. You may make a ‘tequila face’ the first time you sip a cocktail but, as you go on, the taste will develop.”
Rooms explains that the only people who come into Cartel and feel comfortable drinking straight tequila are those who have just returned from Mexico – or those he manages to talk around. The majority, he reveals, say that they stepped away from the spirit after a bad experience at university – and can’t deal with the shock factor of trying straight tequila again. But a 100 per cent Blue Agave tequila, the bar man insists, is considerably smoother.”
“Personally, I really enjoy the flavour. There’s more variation in tequila than those who just shoot it know. In Jalisco, Mexico, where the blue agave is grown, you get different flavours from the highland yield – which pops with citrus – and the lowland – which is sweeter.
"There’s more variation in tequila than those who just shoot it know..."
“The pure tequila, and the stuff I quite often can just take a snifter glass of and sip at 4 or 5 throughout the night, has a lot more character. You get butterscotch and vanilla notes coming through. And it’s a unique flavour. The sugars used to created tequila are fermented insulins – rather than the fructose or glucose you’ll be used to – so it’s as far from vodka and other spirits as you can get.”
The end of tequila?
Earlier this month, however, National Margarita Day looked to be in danger. Patron Tequila director, Francisco Soltero, reported that “the growth [of the industry] has overtaken us. It’s a crisis of the success of the industry”. It’s a problem Rooms knows all too well. Over the last two years, the price of Blue Agave has risen six-fold – and it’s been more difficult to get hold of certain tequilas as a result.
“Demand has massively increased,” says Rooms. “100 per cent Agave takes around 12 to 13 years to create and, because there’s been a rise in interest and popularity of tequila during the last few years, no-one had the foresight to create tequila in the quantities needed today back then.”
“They were only making as much a decade ago as they thought they’d need. When demand grew, tequila becomes more scarce.”
So, with less of the South American spirit to go around, does it annoy the bartender when he sees people shooting it?
“Even the industry, there are still those who prefer to shoot tequila rather than sip at it,” he shrugs, “and that’s okay. It depends what type of night you’re going for. But, personally, my advice would be to learn to appreciate the flavour.”
So suit yourself is the official opinion. But, with levels running low, perhaps it’s time to step away from the lime, and learn to love the taste of tequila – before it’s too late…