Black Book: Hold the Lime

A train wreck named Tila and college coeds across the country have given tequila a bad rap, but today’s top-shelf offerings are about as good as spirits get.

Don’t blame the tequila. It’s as innocent as the rolling hills of Jalisco, where near rows of blue agave plants have been cultivated for more than 500 years. Tequila didn’t ask to be treated like some Tijuana donkey show by those with no appreciation for the effort required to coax the right balance of sweetness from the loamy earth. It didn’t ask to be prefaced with a lick of salt and chased with a wedge of lime—or mixed with cloying, neon-green margarita mixes—to mask its very existence. It didn’t ask to become the poster child for unrefined drinking. Still, that’s what happened.

Instead, blame Jimmy Buffet, Sammy Hagar, or the producers of every spring break movie since 1983 for sullying this fine liquor’s reputation. Then give North America’s first indigenous spirit—and the concept of moderation—another chance. Today’s premium sipping tequilas can stand up to the finest whiskeys, vodkas, and gins on the market, with artisanal craftsmanship and subtle, alluring flavors that bring nothing more to mind than the blue skies and warm breezes of its birthplace.

Commence your reintroduction to the Mexican spirit world with silver platinum tequilas, which are as close as you can get to its essence. The agave used in Casa Dragones ($275; casadragones.com) for example, grows in the dark soil of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, which is scattered with black obsidian lava rock and onyx boulders 1,200 meters above sea level. After a minimum of eight years, workers cut out pinas (which resemble their namesake pineapples) at the peak of maturity. The resulting agave juice is

fermented distilled multiple times, and filtered before adding just a touch of aged tequila to balance the taste. The end product is tequila with an aroma of sweet roasted agave, notes of vanilla, spice, and pear, and a warm, hazelnut finish. Forget about that lost shaker of salt; this tequila should be enjoyed completely unadorned, with nary an ice cube or a drop of water in your snifter. It’s a sublime treat for a special occasion.

Today’s top-shelf choices really are a cut above the standard versions; if you’re looking for truly shippable tequila, spend the extra pesos on the good stuff. Granted, the entry-level offerings are still flavorful, but with their burn factor, they’re best mellowed out with a proper measure of fresh lime juice and triple sec—a quality margarita, say, on the beach. Remember, there’s a time and a place for (almost) everything.

Bertha Gonzalez Nieves, the co-founder and CEO of Casa Dragones, has Japan to thank for igniting her passion for tequila. As a Mexican ambassador to Japan in her early twenties, she underwent a rigorous program to ensure that she was ready to represent her homeland’s art, culture, and national industries. Part of the training involved visiting Mexico’s top tequila distilleries, and that was all it took to capture her interest. ”When I first went to an agave field, I was blown away,” she says. “I became enamored with the concept of tequila and how it’s produced.” Gonzalez Nieves went on to earn a masters at Northwestern University, then took a job at Grupo Cuervo, the oldest and largest tequila company in the world, where she “learned the business from the inside out,” both in the Mexican market and internationally.

Years later, a chance meeting with MTV founder Bob Pittman helped her realize a long-held dream. “He said, ‘I’ve always wanted to produce a tequila,’

and I said, I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur, so we set out on a quest to produce a unique style of sipping tequila.” The result is Casa Dragones, a singular small-batch spirit that’s been leading discerning drinkers around the world to give tequila a second look. Gonzalez Nieves, the first woman to be certified as a Maestra Tequilera by the Mexican Academy of Tequila Tasters, says, “There’s a romantic side to spirits, too, and the beauty and complexity of the handcrafted process really attracted me.”