Few liquors can match tequila for its association with endurance drinking and lethal hangovers. For decades, Mexico's national spirit has been at the heart of an unholy alliance with salt, lime and pickled caterpillars to make it the tipple of choice for those in search of cheap and rapid oblivion.
It is to "premium" tequilas, made for sipping rather than slamming, that Britons are turning, however, as they develop a more sophisticated taste for Mexican food and drink.
In the UK, consumption of tequila, the fiery spirit traditionally distilled from the cactus-like agave plant, has trebled in a decade to 1.35 million litres a year. The global market has grown by an average of 9 per cent a year for the past decade and is now worth an estimated £3bn.
Sales of 100 per cent agave tequilas – many of them made from the Weber's blue agave species which takes up to 12 years to mature and reputedly produces the finest flavour – have risen by 30 per cent in the past year and by 60 per cent in 2007, with 500,000 bottles now being sold in venues from London cocktail bars to branches of Waitrose.
The rise of premium tequila is due to a decision by Mexican producers to dramatically increase planting of blue agave. Hitherto, most tequila has been produced with a half-and-half mixture of agave and sugar cane spirit – a combination supposedly responsible for the drink's renowned ability to cause hangovers.
UK sales by Patron, the biggest producer of premium tequila, have doubled in the past 12 months, with prices ranging from £40 to £400. Another premium brand, Clase Azul, will launch in the UK this autumn.
Francisco Alcazar, Patron's master distiller, said: "We are getting away from the idea that tequila is a cheap, mass-produced spirit to show the true tequila, made from the highest-quality agaves and with a taste that appeals to the sophisticated palate. This is a drink made to be enjoyed in the same manner as a good single malt. An oak-aged tequila can be justifiably compared in complexity with a fine whisky."
Thomasina Miers, the Masterchef winner and broadcaster who set up the Wahaca Mexican restaurant in London, said: "The really good stuff not only tastes delicious when sipped before supper, or mixed in drinks, but it is a really great spirit to cook with. The sugars in the alcohol come from the blue agave cactus soaking the sun's rays for up to 12 years before the cactus is ready to be harvested, so you can look at tequila as sunshine distilled in a bottle."