A conversation about tequila is incomplete without at least one person talking about a terrible hangover post their encounter with the tipple. For a very long time now, tequila has been referred to as the “hangover drink” – a fun tipple for a wild night out. But come 2022, the beverage has been a part of a revolution that gave the drink its newfound reputation – a versatile drink that is fun to experiment with for cocktails, or even savoured with a splash of water or on the rocks. Yes, like any celebrated single malt, tequila has become a drink that can be enjoyed (responsibly).
And while we know that tequila is heavily enjoyed in the West, we do know that the spirit is finding its way into the Indian liquor industry as well. That’s right, moving the spotlight from gin, tequila is having a revolution of its own, and our experts Ishaan Bahl – Founder of 145 Cafe & Bar, Nilesh Patel – Business Head West at Impresario Handmade Restaurants and Nikhil Agarwal – CEO & Founder of All Things Nice, couldn’t agree more.
The beginning of tequila
First of all, what is tequila? A region-specific name, Tequila is a distilled beverage made from Blue Agave, a plant that is grown on rich volcanic soils. It is often spoken about in context with mezcal, where the two are sometimes mentioned synonymously. However, while all tequila is mezcal, not all mezcal is tequila. The main difference between the two is the infamous blue agave, which is used in making tequila, whereas mezcal can be produced using any kind of agave.
Exploring the revolution of tequila calls for a look at its origins. One of the oldest drinks in the world, the origins of tequila can be traced to 200 A.D. Known back then as “pulque”, the earliest version of the agave spirit, was prepared by the Aztec Indians who uses fermented sap of the agave plant to prepare the drink. Pulque was first documented via pictograms on stone walls around 200 A.D., however, experts believe that the spirit was likely used by the Olmecs, a civilization going as far back as 1000 B.C., based in the lowlands of Mexico.
Despite its popularity in the ancient world, pulque caught on with the rest of the world after the Spanish invasion of the Aztecs in the 1500s. This marked the beginning of the distillation of tequila. When the Spanish invaded Mexico around 1519, they were without their favourite brandy and didn’t much appreciate the fermented agave drinks. And so, they set out to experiment and create something more palatable which led them to distil fermented agave and mud to create what they called Vino de Mezcal.
The first large-scale distillery – Tequila, Jalisco, was built in the early 1600s by the Marquis of Altamira after the Spanish government opened a trade route between Manila and Mexico in the mid-1500s. Commercial distillation of tequila began in 1758 after the Cuervo family opened the Fábrica La Rojeña. Following the Cuervo family, the Sauza family also got into the tequila business in 1873. Don Cenobio Sauza is credited with identifying blue agave as the best option for making tequila. Today, in order to be classified as tequila, the spirit must be made specifically from blue agave.
Types of tequila
Tequila, like a single malt, has its variations. These are spread across five major categories, namely Blanco, Reposado, Añejo, Extra Añejo, and Cristalino.
Blanco tequila is often referred to as silver tequila because of its crystal-clear appearance. Blanco is said to be the purest form of tequila since it foregoes the ageing process, meaning it goes straight from the still to a stainless-steel tank to the bottle. This unique process is what gives blanco a clear, transparent hue giving it the name silver tequila. The flavour profile begins with sharp notes that emerge into spicy, citrus notes, finishing with sweet touches of vanilla and honey. The best way to enjoy a blanco is with light and citrusy cocktails as opposed to a neat drink or a shot.
One of the predominant tequilas, reposado is usually aged in barrels for anywhere between two to twelve months. Distillers take blanco tequila fresh from the still and store it in American or French oak barrels. The shorter distillation period helps the liquor develop a unique flavour with losing younger notes from the original agave juice. Reposado has all the flavours of blue agave, minor barrel notes, along with complex notes of dry chocolate, chillies, vanilla and cinnamon. In comparison to blanco, reposado is said to have a smoother finish that is easier on the palate, which can be enjoyed neat or with ice.
Aged for a little longer than a reposado, añejo (meaning old) is aged for one to three years in American or European oak barrels, the barrel size is limited to 600 litres. While any type of wooden barrel can be used, ex-American whiskey and French oak barrels are the ones more commonly used. The longer ageing process gives the tequila a woodier flavour, which is intense and supposedly harsh for some but carries a variety of flavours including vanilla and brown sugar which are often associated with bourbon.
Introduced in 2006, extra añejo is tequila that has been left to age for more than three years. It is often referred to as the ultra-premium tequila thanks to its intense flavour palate and rich amber hue. Extra añejo must be cut with water to temper the proof, which smoothens out the final product even more. Due to the extensive ageing process, extra añejo has deep notes of caramel, chocolate, cinnamon and vanilla which resembles an aged whiskey or cognac.
Cristalino tequila is aged tequila – usually made using añejos and extra añejos which are filtered through charcoal to remove the tannins, leaving behind more floral and fruity notes with a clear blanco-esque appearance. Cristalino is a fairly new category for tequilas displaying a softened approach to a reposado, añejo, or extra añejo. These are far less complex with a sweeter palate of caramel and vanilla, giving it a lighter mouthfeel.
A new reputation
As known to every soul across the globe, tequila was called the hangover drink for the longest time. But what was it that led to this harsh reputation? And how did that really change?
Nikhil Agarwal credits the quality of the tequila for its newfound reputation. “The recent surge in tequila is because of the creation of high-end tequila that is meant to be savoured,” says Agarwal. “There is a huge difference between the young tequila drinkers who is looking to get wasted vs the quality tequila drinker who is looking to savour.”
Agreeably, Ishaan Bahl talks about a good quality tequila that it is essentially just distilled agave juice with no additives. “It has incredible flavour and seldom requires any additions or changes,” he adds.
One thing our experts agree on is the complexity of tequila. While it always has been a fun drink for all, it is now a favourite among mixologists who are exploring good-quality tequila instead of simply grabbing silver and mixing up margaritas. “It is more than just a shot; tequila cocktails are diverse and a lot of fun to explore,” Nilesh Patel adds. “You can mix up the original margarita or enjoy it in a variety of flavours.”
According to Bahl, tequila has always been a bartender’s favourite tipple thanks to its ability to be mixed with a variety of ingredients; it is versatile and refreshing in cocktails. As for the revolution of tequila, Bahl believes, it’s only the beginning. “I think the tequila revolution has only just begun with a lot of new-age mixologists all over the globe constantly experimenting with the spirit. There is still a lot to be discovered in the tequila cocktail segment.”
While tequila cocktails are all the hype right now, tequila shots do continue to have a prominent space in the liquor industry. The people driving tequila consumption on an artisanal level do enjoy drinking tequila in multiple ways, be it a cocktail or a neat drink, and of course, an occasional tequila shot as well. Bahl believes that even though there is plenty of experimentation with tequila cocktails, tequila will always be enjoyed as a shot amongst the younger populace.
Tequila without a doubt has become what it is because of the attention it receives in the United States through mass media like TV, Hollywood and celebrity buy Tequila brands.
Tequila in India
The position of tequila in the liquor industry has never been in question. Tequila has always been thriving internationally, however, its presence in the Indian liquor industry has been on the rise post-pandemic. “Post the pandemic, tequila has been thriving and has been the number one spirit for over the last 3 years,” says Patel.
Exposure to good quality tequila in India might’ve started in a number of ways, according to Agarwal. “…people travelling to the states for business, tourism or even education could have triggered an exposure to tequila,” he says. “And then there are the higher-end tequilas which became available in India leading to the consumption and increase in demand of the spirit. Once a leading bar catches on to the trend, other bars take it up quickly.”
Tequila has been finding its way amidst the gin revolution and the popularity of single malts in India. It has been fighting it out for the second spot with whiskey leading the way, while gin continues to be a current favourite, especially when it comes to cocktails. “I think the gin revolution is slowing down and agave-based spirits are the new trend; I believe these will get stronger in the years to come. The tequila revolution, on the other hand, has already begun to have a massive effect,” Agarwal adds.
When it comes to tequila, India is hardly spoilt for choice. Because of the limitation the number of brands available, tequila was only considered as a shot as far as its position in the industry is concerned. However, it has certainly grown in markets both in India as well as internationally. A minor contributing factor would be the rise in celebrity-owned tequilas. From Dwayne Johnson’s The Rock tequila to Nick Jonas’ Villa One, celebrity-owned tequila has certainly helped amp up the reputation of the fine spirit. “The celebrity-owned brands have created enough hype for tequila, popularising it across the globe,” adds Bahl. “And now you even have new options like low-calorie and sugar-free tequila which makes it a hit among all groups!”
To sum it up, the popularity and growth of the global tequila industry has been on an extreme rise, credited to its premiumization and novel experimentation by mixologists and bartenders. In fact, the tequila market worldwide has increased by 22% since 2014 and is expected to reach a whopping USD 14.35 Billion by the year 2028, with a registered revenue of CAGR of 5.4%.