A trophy for the cabinet: Tequila’s new level of quality

A premium Tequila fresh on the market perfectly illustrates the spirit's promotion to a higher league, says Joel Harrison. He explores how Tequila has moved beyond traumatising nightclub shots to become a drink to be sipped and savoured

Words by Joel Harrison

A field of agave

A few weeks ago, social media algorithms decided that what I needed to see on Instagram was clips from old English football matches. I have no idea how these (not so) random clips were chosen to appear on my screen – most likely something to do with the start of the men’s domestic football season and my watching the women’s World Cup – but something was clear from this grainy, vintage footage: the football was rubbish. At least compared to today’s ultra-professional offering.

English football has changed beyond belief over the last two decades. This is partly due to the sheer amount of money involved (in 2009, the Glazer family paid £790m for Manchester United but today, estimates put the club’s value at £4.8bn) and partly due to a greater focus on professionalism. Gone are the days of heavy hobnail boots; today we are in an age of highly engineered football boots that can cost upwards of £250 a pair, not far off the price of handmade leather brogues from a good Jermyn Street cobbler. 

Much like football, the Tequila of old was generally a low-quality product. Often bottled in ‘mixto’ form (where agave distillate is cut with spirit from other sources) and consumed in shots, it was terrible, terrible stuff and many of us – me included – are still recovering from these horrific drinking experiences.

Patron El Cielo Tequila
El Cielo, a new premium Tequila from Patrón, is the first Tequila to undergo distillation four times

Last month, I was introduced to a new silver Tequila from Patrón. Silver Tequila is a clear spirit that has been made from 100% Blue Weber agave and is essentially the purest form of distillate under the Tequila banner.

At £170 a pop, this version of Patrón – called El Cielo – is Tequila on a different level. El Cielo is distilled four times (the first time this level of pot still distillation has been used in Tequila) using the smallest copper pot stills at Patrón’s distillery in Mexico, giving it an incredible refinement. The taste is so light and delicate on the palate, resembling little to nothing of the type of rough Tequila found in bottle a decade or so ago.

It demonstrates that, much like English football today, Tequila’s quality has risen beyond any reasonable expectations, enabling the spirit to move away from the reputation of its former incarnation. If you think the Glazer family invested well with Manchester United, then take a look at the Tequila category. Drinks giant Diageo purchased Casamigos in 2017 for a reported $700m with a further $300m in performance-related pay. The Rock’s Teremana Tequila has reportedly made him a billionaire in just a couple of years. For a spirit that a couple of decades ago was seen as pure firewater, this is a new level of success.

Shots of Tequila
Tequila as a category is moving away from the old image of 'mixto' shots to a quality spirit that can be savoured on its own

The increased value in Tequila is linked intrinsically to sales, and sales are, on the whole, linked to quality. The rise and rise in the quality of Tequila and particularly in the naked ‘sliver’ category has been extraordinary. Patrón has always been a leader in this regard (and was the first quality silver Tequila I ever experienced when I first tried it in a bar in Austin, Texas, in 2002), and their new El Cielo release is not simply a pure, clear Tequila priced in the same echelons as a good Scotch or Cognac; it is a drink with real presence and finesse from the four stages of distillation. Due to its smoothness, it works as a sipper not a slammer. You might, at the price, feel it moves Tequila into ‘prawn-sandwich brigade’ territory but I’d disagree: it’s setting a new benchmark for a browbeaten spirit. Anything that improves the perception of Tequila’s quality should be welcomed.

Patrón is not alone in pushing quality Tequila forward. Maestro Dobel, from the family-owned business behind Jose Cuervo, has also been responsible for focusing on producing high-quality Tequila. In fact, it was Dobel that, in launching Diamante, introduced the world to the first cristalino Tequila; a style derived from long-ageing Tequila spirit in oak casks before removing the colour through filtration. The result is a silver-like Tequila that maintains the richness and smoothness given to the spirit through oak-ageing. It’s utterly stunning.

If you think Tequila is not for you, it’s time to think again

This elite group of ‘Champions League’ Tequila brands is growing slowly, as more and more producers realise that the future lies not in the awful corner-shop ‘mixto’ offerings and cheap shots but in quality sipping Tequila that has serious flavour and serious appeal.

If you think Tequila is not for you, it’s time to think again. Start with a properly made silver Tequila and you’ll find a spirit that is easy to drink neat and one that mixes well with anything from sparkling water, through to tonic, and, of course, grapefruit soda in the now ubiquitous Paloma cocktail. Moreover, you’ll find a love for a drink that has gone from scoring cheap own goals with badly made spirit to something that is really at the top of its game.

What Joel has been drinking this month…

  • With the longer evenings and shorter days, I’m turning back towards the delights of smoky, peated Scotch whisky. One of my top distilleries, Ardbeg has released a new series, The Anthology Collection, with the first release, The Harpy’s Tale, aged for 13 years in a combination of ex-Bourbon and sweet Sauternes wine casks. It really delivers in a butterscotch-meets-smoke combination and for just over £140 is a real steal.
  • September is ‘organic month’ in the UK, an initiative from the Soil Association. I’m a big fan of anything organic and as such have been enjoying both Hardy Cognac, which is certified organic, and Eight Lands gin, made on the Glenrinnes organic estate in Scotland. Both I’ve found pair wonderfully with tonic – the gin in the late afternoon and the cognac once the sun goes down. Both great brands and both worth supporting.
  • ‘Tis the season for apples and the vast amount I’ve picked from my allotment means the house is overflowing with homemade apple juice. I’ve been using it in a simple cocktail called Big Apple from my latest book 60-Second Cocktails. Combine two parts bourbon (I’m using Elijah Craig Small Batch) with two parts apple juice, one part fresh lime juice, a dash of sugar syrup and an egg white. Shake with ice, and strain into a coupe glass. Dust with cinnamon for the perfect autumnal cocktail.
Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and a contributing editor at Club Oenologique