As few as five years ago, many considered tequila shooting a feat of bravery, both for the immediate fiery flavor and for the horrendous hangover the next day. It was a drink served straight-with salt and lime, of course-only on nights that were predestined to be out of control, a badge of honor worn by those who value the deep end of inebriation and weren’t afraid of drinking fermented blue agave juice to get there. All you had to say was “tequila,” and friends and strangers would clear the way.
But today, while some still don’t give due respect to the ancient Mexican liquor, most connoisseurs are realizing that tequila, when done right, is as high-class as the finest single malt scotch. The days of shooting mass-produced garbage have turned into sophisticated evenings of sipping the best boutique brands sans salt and lime, commenting on vanilla notes and pepper tones, and making sure your bottle will last more than a few rounds of shots.
With Santa Barbara’s social calendar once again striking “Fiesta” (considered by many to be the best annual time for tequila-ing), it’s time to celebrate this momentous shift in the world of fine spirits-or time for those still slugging shots to come around to the finer side of fermented agave juice.
The Tequila Lover
My tequila re-education occurred after college, when I moved into the green-and-yellow house on Santa Barbara Street, just down from Canon Perdido Street on the historic Presidio grounds. Next door lived a ceramicist who hailed from Guadalajara, the Mexican metropolis that serves as corporate headquarters for many distilleries based in the smaller town of Tequila. In a few short months of trying Armando de la Rocha’s good stuff-imported, many times, from Mexico (Chamucos, for instance) but often just picked up selectively at a corner market (Corralejos or Centenario, for examples)-my college-honed impression of the devilish tequila was dead, replaced by a need to sample as many fine brands as possible.
“I remember people would much more prefer vodka or whiskey over tequila any day, or they would never drink it straight,” explained de la Rocha of his first impressions of American tequila drinking. “Any tequila would make people’s face go, ‘ooh-uuh.’ They would always prefer margaritas.” Nowadays, however, de la Rocha is amazed by how popular it’s become, and he’s afraid to even guess at how many brands there are. (That would be about 600 being made by more than 100 distilleries.)
Much has changed since his younger days in Guadalajara, when good tequila was mainly a Mexican thing. “They didn’t have a brand. You would go to Tequila, the town, and go into these houses and then get the tequila in plastic gallons, without a brand,” explained de la Rocha, who remembers visiting small adobes that had family fields of agave just out the backdoor. “And now those have been pretty much bought by businessmen, who put their brand on them. But a lot of those tequilas came from backyards.”
While he’s dismayed at the corporate takeover of his countrymen, he’s not denying that the explosion of tequila hasn’t ushered in some pretty tasty stuff. His utmost tequila experience was most recently when his wife brought a gift of three Conquistador bottles back from Mexico. They were the smoothest he’s ever tried. “All of the sudden it was like drinking candy,” said de la Rocha, “which can be very dangerous, too.”
The Tequila Maker
One such purveyor of candy-like tequila is Casa Noble, which was clearly the finest stuff being served at a recent tequila tasting for the restaurant industry in El Paseo Restaurant. Arguably the world’s most lovingly crafted tequila, the brand is run out of Beverly Hills and Guadalajara by David Ravandi, Jose Hermosillo, and Carlos Hernandez, whose father was a master distiller. Ravandi, whose vision as a tequila-lover launched the brand, was born in Iran and educated in London and Switzerland before coming to America at age 18, where he eventually wound up in Santa Barbara for eight years, studying film at Brooks Institute of Photography and later developing an advertising company. “But my passion,” he explained recently over the phone, “was always to make the best tequila possible.”
So in the mid 1990s, Ravandi traveled to Tequila and met Hermosillo. Together, they began making tequila in the old-fashioned way: in a distillery that was originally founded in 1776. “We took an ancient formula and brought it to the 21st century,” explained Ravandi, who said that while they don’t use burros to turn the grinders, they only use organically grown agave, they don’t add sugar, and they rely on the natural fermentation process triggered by the native yeasts in the air.
With the traditional mentality yet an eye for the world’s palate, Casa Noble reigns as a pioneer in refined tequila-making: It was the first to triple-distill tequila (it’s usually only double-distilled). It uses brand-new French white oak barrels (old bourbon barrels are typically used for aging). It ages its reposado for 364 days (Mexican law dictates anything over 365 days is a±ejo, or “aged”) and its a±ejo for five years (most rarely push three years, so this is technically an “extra a±ejo“). And in a few months, Casa Noble will be the first to release single-barrel tequilas.
“All people need to do is erase their memories of college and re-educate themselves about high-end tequilas,” explained Ravandi. “Start with a new virgin palate and give a try to ultra-premium tequila. There’s a whole new world of tequila out there waiting to be discovered.”
Tequilas to Try
For those wishing to explore the brighter side of tequila this Fiesta, here are some recommendations:
¼ Casa Noble Crystal: Unlike other blanco tequilas that are harsh, this one-which was the first blanco to win a double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition-is creamy, buttery, and smooth. $39.95.
¼ Herradura Reposado: Though mass-produced, this brand is still enjoyed by many lovers of authentic tequila. And since Herradura invented the reposado category, why not start here. $34.99.
¼ 1800 A±ejo: As the first premium tequila to come to the States in 1975, this Double Gold-winning brand-once part of the Jose Cuervo empire, but no longer-has hints of coconut, orange rind, and marzipan.