When was the last time you drank tequila? Maybe it was poured by a costumed "shot girl" in a noisy bar and you slammed it back in one with a lick of salt and a suck of lime, making the classic pained "tequila face" as you choked the harsh-tasting liquid down.
The next day you probably had a hangover of historic proportions. If so, the recent images of world's-suavest-man George Clooney dropping off a case of his own-brand Casamigos tequila to the chic Cipriani hotel in Venice might have come as something of a shock. What's a world-famous actor and political activist doing peddling headache juice?
But if the spirit has bad associations for you, you've probably been drinking the wrong stuff. Clooney and fellow celebrity producers, including Justin Timberlake with his 901 brand, make 100 per cent agave tequila, distilled only from the fermented sap of the Weber blue agave plant (a member of the lily family and not a cactus as is sometimes assumed) that's grown in central Mexico in the lowlands and highlands around the town of Tequila itself. Lower-quality "mixto" tequilas, historically sold as shots, only have to contain 51 per cent agave, with the remaining 49 per cent made up of cane-sugar alcohol and additives. Hence the throbbing head.
Tequila sales hit a record high in 2010, with global shipments of 23.87 million cases, 11 million of them going to the US. And what America drinks, Great Britain drinks. "We're currently seeing growth of tequila consumption by volume of about 30 per cent compared with last year," says Jeremy Hill, director of UK drinks company Hi-Spirits, which imports Timberlake's tequila. "Most other spirits are seeing 4 or 5 per cent growth at best. People are also trading up – sales by value have increased 35 per cent – so they're drinking better-quality tequila, too."
Clooney and Timberlake are merely the latest in a long line of celebrity names associated with the spirit. Former Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar was an early adopter, launching his Cabo Wabo brand in 1996 and selling it for $100m to Campari in 2010 – perhaps inspiring fellow rock- guitar legend Carlos Santana to join the board of Casa Noble tequila in 2011.
When Tom Cruise ordered Patron tequila by name in the 2001 film Vanilla Sky, it helped establish it as America's biggest-selling brand (now second only to Jose Cuervo Especial mixto), assisted by a lyrical name-drop from rapper P Diddy. Diddy, who is now rumoured to be launching an own-label tequila.
Xzibit, fellow multi-platinum-selling rapper and host of MTV's Pimp My Ride, has already taken the plunge and become co-owner of the "super-premium" brand Bonito, which is packaged in a crystal decanter. "Premium brands are increasing in sales, so there was no risk going for the top of the market," he says.
It's not just the Americans getting in on the act. Former Kenny Everett Television Show star Cleo Rocos started importing tequila to the UK a few years ago and launched her own label, AquaRiva, in 2012. "I don't like the burn of tequila but I love the flavours, so I use agave grown in the highlands of Jalisco, south of Tequila town, that are a bit more floral and fruity, sweeter and citrussy," says Rocos, who was honoured in 2009 by the President of the Mexican Tequila Chambers for her work promoting the spirit.
Bartenders are also championing the spirit. Tony Conigliaro, of the fashionable 69 Colebrooke Row bar in London and author of Drinks, reckons it's the "outsider" nature of the spirit that makes it attractive. "It's seen as the underdog and bartenders love an underdog."
Damian Williams, the bar manager of Casa Negra in Shoreditch, reckons the sheer diversity within the category is part of its appeal. "We stock about 60 tequilas, all with different taste profiles. It's a high-quality product, with more regulations in its manufacture than any spirit other than cognac; it's artisanal and people buy into that; and it's got a fun reputation which you wouldn't associate with any other quality spirit."
Some bartenders have gone as far as to make the spirit themselves. Dré Masso and the late Henry Besant opened the Mexican bar and restaurant Green and Black in 2006 and launched their Olmeca Altos brand in 2008. Production at the distillery is seriously old-school, with the agave hearts or piña steamed at a low temperature in traditional mamposteria – brick ovens – for 36 hours, turning the starch into fructose sugar. They are then rolled under a two-tonne millstone made from volcanic rock into a fibrous pulp, which is fermented with yeast into a sort of beer called pulque (originally drunk by ancient Aztecs and now being bottled and gaining some popularity among young Mexicans) before being distilled in small copper-pot stills into tequila.
Tomas Estes, owner of Café Pacifico in Covent Garden and the Mexican government's official Ambassador to Europe for Tequila, makes Ocho, the first tequila to designate not only the year it was made, but the field from which the agaves were sourced. "When you talk about wine, you talk about terroir, and it's exactly the same with tequila," says Casa Negra's Williams. "A classic lowlands style such as El Jimador has a rich, earthy flavour with a viscous mouth feel that would suit a vodka drinker. Tapatio is the archetypal highlands tequila, much more vegetal and floral with more of the taste of the plant; it would appeal to a gin drinker." k
Although aged or "rested" tequilas (reposado spends between two months and a year in oak barrels, añejo between one and three years and extra añejo three or more years) are more expensive, with the rarest examples fetching thousands of pounds, many aficionados prefer unaged silver or blanco tequilas. "As a tequila purist I like really young, fresh tequila, where you get a strong characteristic of the agave plant coming through," says Williams.
Thomasina Miers, owner of the Wahaca group of Mexican street-food restaurants, agrees. "At Wahaca we try to get people tasting tequila for the first time to start with the reposado, where the barrel ageing softens the flavours, but then you also lose quite a lot of the grassy notes, and if you're drinking a really good tequila, those flavours are delicious."
Miers recommends sipping blanco (also confusingly known as plata or plato) with the traditional Mexican accompaniment of a glass of non-alcoholic sangrita (see right) on the side. "For cooking, blancos are really good, too. It's very good with chocolate and in sorbets. I make a scallop aguachile (see recipe, previous page), and the tequila gives it a rounded flavour that sherry also gives in food."
While the overwhelming message from tequila lovers is "sip don't shoot" ("I put the bottle in the freezer so it's ice-cold and sip it from a tumbler," says Xzibit), it undeniably makes a great cocktail. Conigliaro's creations include a green-tomato margarita he created for the bar at chef Bruno Loubet's recently opened Grain Store restaurant in London's King's Cross.
For Casa Negra's signature margarita (see previous page), Williams has adapted the recipe created by Mexican bartender Julio Bermejo at the renowned Tommy's bar in San Francisco. "In the 1990s, Bermejo started making margaritas with agave syrup rather than triple sec orange liqueur, which is the traditional sweetener in the cocktail. We've adapted that by using both the syrup and triple sec and adding a sherbet made of the oil from citrus zest and sugar, which adds a freshness and zestiness to the drink."
With Timberlake's 901 brand launching this month in nearly 1,000 JD Wetherspoon pubs across the country (Timberlake was in London earlier in the year and participated in a staff training session), premium tequila is set to be the drink on everybody's lips. And you won't even need to reach for the aspirin.
By Damian Williams
40ml El Jimador blanco tequila
20ml freshly squeezed lime juice
20ml agave sherbet liqueur (see recipe)
Make the sherbet liqueur by mixing the zest of 3 lemons and 3 oranges with 250g of caster sugar. Mash with a muddler or wooden spoon in a bowl and leave covered in a cool, dark place for 12 hours until the sugar is totally dissolved in the oils from the citrus zest.
Mix with 250ml of water then strain out the citrus zest. Mix with 100ml of agave syrup and 250ml of high-quality triple sec liqueur such as Briottet. Add the other ingredients to a cocktail shaker and add ice. Shake hard and strain into an ice-filled glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.
By Damian Williams
40ml Tapatio reposado
20ml Martini Rosso vermouth
Add all the ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Add cubed ice and stir slowly then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a large strip of orange zest.
Scallop and prawn aguachile
By Thomasina Miers
Serves 6 as a starter
200g king prawns
Juice 4 limes (about 200ml)
1-2 green chillies, roughly chopped
1 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp flaky sea salt
2½ tbsp Demerara sugar
1 small cucumber or ½ a large one
2 tbsp reposado tequila
1 large banana shallot or 4 baby ones, finely sliced
12 cherry tomatoes, quartered
Handful chervil, coriander or mint
1 Hass avocado, diced
Granary bread, to serve
Prepare the scallops by slicing off the tough muscles that run along one side and removing the roe. Peel the prawns and remove the vein along the back. Rinse all the seafood and cut into 1cm dice.
Pour the lime juice into a blender, adding half the chilli, the fish sauce, salt, sugar and a 5cm chunk of the cucumber. Blitz the lot, pour in the tequila and taste for seasoning. Depending on the heat of your chilli, add the remaining half to the blender, or even another one. You are looking for an extremely hot marinade, albeit one you can taste. Add more fish sauce, salt or sugar if it needs it. You want a refreshing liquid not so sharp that it makes you suck your teeth.
Transfer the marinade to a bowl. Add the shallot, cherry tomatoes and seafood and mix. Cut the rest of the cucumber in half lengthways, scoop out the seeds and cut the flesh into slices about 5mm thick. Add to the bowl of marinade, then cover and put in the fridge for 1 to 4 hours so the lime juice can "cook" the seafood.
When you are ready to eat, roughly chop the herbs and stir most of these into the aguachile. Ladle modest servings into small bowls and top with the avocado and a scattering of the remaining herbs, and serve with slices of buttered bread on the side.
Mangoes in anise-chilli syrup
By Thomasina Miers
The tequila adds a wonderfully complex note to this sweet dish.
2 fat ripe mangoes
60g agave syrup
Zest and juice 2 limes
1 star anise
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
2 tbsp tequila
Good-quality vanilla ice-cream
Small handful of torn mint leaves
Skin and dice the mangoes and place in a bowl. Put the rest of the ingredients into a small pan and simmer gently for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat, allowing the mixture to cool. Once cool, pour over the mangoes and allow to marinate for 45 minutes in the fridge. Serve with scoops of ice-cream and torn mint leaves scattered over the mango.
By Thomasina Miers
Make a jug of this non-alcoholic base and pour it out before lunch or dinner with small glasses of tequila for a delicious aperitif. In Mexico, tequila and sangrita are traditionally served in separate shot glasses and sipped alongside each other.
Makes 4 glasses
Chilli powder, for rims (optional)
500ml good-quality tomato juice
Juice 1 large orange (about 100ml)
Juice 1-2 limes
1-2 tsp Tabasco sauce
1-2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1-2 tsp sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 lime wedges
Prepare 2 tumblers with chilli rims if you wish. Shake all the ingredients over ice and pour into 4 tumblers. Garnish each with a wedge of lime and a dusting of chilli powder.
Edited recipes from 'Wahaca – Mexican Food at Home' by Thomasina Miers, published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £20