Once upon a time, tequila had a serious image problem. Synonymous with boozy cantinas and monumental hangovers, it was the beverage of choice for fraternity debauches. Barmaids toted it around in holsters for customers to slug down in bizarre shooter rituals. And, of course, the song to which Pee Wee Herman did his memorable dance in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was—yes—“Tequila.”
But today, all that has changed. The baby boom generation, always on the prowl for something different, has finally turned its attention from wine, single-malt Scotch, fine vodka, and gourmet beer to tequila. During the past twenty years, while the sales of almost all other liquors have declined, in some cases drastically, tequila has been the fastest-growing category of spirits in the country, more than doubling its market share. In 1994 alone, sales of the best brands, those the liquor industry calls the super-premiums, increased by 20 percent. Tequila it seems has turned into a class act. Bars now list it along with brandies and liqueurs for $5 and $6 a glass. Package stores sell the top labels for $35 to $40. Connoisseurs of wines and fine spirits order tequila straight, in snifters—the better to savor every nuance. And cooks are finding that it has a marvelous affinity for food, as both an ingredient and an accompaniment.
With appreciation has come a debunking of tequila myths: It is not cactus juice or Mexican moonshine; it does not make you hallucinate; it does not have a worm in the bottle. The truth is that tequila is as complex and subtle as cognac or eau-de-vie, that the best ones are aged in oak barrels like fine wines and whiskeys, and that it doesn’t take years of study or an arcane vocabulary to appreciate its full-bodied, salty, smoky taste. All it takes is a trip to a reasonably well-stocked liquor store—and the company of a few friends who share your spirit of adventure.
There’s more to tequila than just clear and gold. In fact,