Is Tequila Going Downhill?

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.


Skip the lime, try orange and cinnamon. [Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

Tequila has one of the best rags-to-riches stories in the spirits world. Virtually unheard of in the U.S. until the mid-20th century, tequila was, for decades, the black sheep of booze—the liquor you'd guzzle like a daredevil during spring break or a road trip to Tijuana or simply a weekend blowout, followed by drunken escapades so foolish and a hungover aftermath so fierce that you'd then forswear all tequila for the remainder of your drinking life, except maybe for the occasional slushy margarita to wash down your enchilada combo.

Within the past 20 years, however, and especially within the past 10, tequila shed at least some of this party-hearty image, as well-crafted, pure-agave tequilas began to capture shelf space alongside the cheaper, more prevalent mixtos, and as spirits aficionados started heaping praise upon vivid reposados and fine anejos, deeming them as worthy of exploration as well-made whiskies and brandies.

Today, tequila is still one of the fastest-growing categories in the spirits world, but some of the bloom is off the rose. As a rising tide of new brands has flooded the market, tequila's story has become more tangled, and some recent debuts have seemed to be little more than a marketing plan and a fancy bottle with an afterthought of a low-rent liquor inside.

Word of tequila's changing situation first started resonating last summer, when spirits journalist Camper English ventured the question, "Is tequila the new vodka?" on his blog, Alcademics.

As English pointed out, and as Washington Post writer Jason Wilson further discussed in his related column last fall, tequila marketers are increasingly following the path laid down by vodka marketers during the previous decade: of introducing new brands with splashy campaigns replete with celebrity endorsements, targeted at a high-spending club crowd accustomed to plunking down major cash for an otherwise pedestrian bottle of Grey Goose.

But while English and Wilson saw some positive signs in this shift—after all, tequila has character and flavor, as compared to the neutral-by-definition vodka—others are uneasy with this larger trend. During the recent San Francisco World Spirits Competition, judges tweeted comments disdainful of many of the new tequilas they'd blind-tasted during the event, dismissing the spirits as "underwhelming...pale, thin, lacking agave spine."

Then last month, bartender Bobby Heugel, co-owner of Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, consistently listed as one of the best cocktail bars in the country, distributed to his bar's Cinco de Mayo customers (and posted on his blog) an agave call to arms, titled "Tequila is Dying!"

As Heugel writes, major liquor conglomerates are increasingly throwing their weight around in the tequila world, changing distillery practices and increasing production to a point where the future integrity of tequila may be placed in jeopardy. Heugel writes:

I love tequila; it made me fall in love with spirits to begin with. [...] It is a downright shame to see what passes for tequila nearly a decade later. As American and other large companies have become more active in the production of tequila in Mexico, once great brands have stopped producing world-class spirits and started producing bland abominations."

Heugel's post is admittedly emotional, but he makes many valid points. As tequila's fan base and market share has grown, major companies have purchased distilleries and changed production methods, with the result that some once-excellent brands have changed markedly in quality. And while I don't agree with every stand in Heugel's post—he takes several big brands to task, including Don Julio, a tequila of which I'm still somewhat fond—he's right that shifts in production technology (such as the rising use of autoclaves) and trends in the direction of agave monoculture could result in major problems down the road, with implications not only for tequila enthusiasts, but for the people who make their living in this growing industry.

I'm a relative newcomer to tequila, but even I've noticed some changes in quality among some big brands and a growing trend toward lighter, more bland spirits among new arrivals.

Are you a longtime fan of tequila? What kinds of changes (if any) have you seen in this agave spirit?