Mix It Up

Tequila Tries To Get Classy

So long the choice of Entourage wannabes, tequila is forging an identity as a serious drink for sophisticated drinkers. But old drinking habits die hard.

10.17.15 4:01 AM ET

In the second season of HBO’s wicked satire Silicon Valley, we were introduced to Russ Hanneman, a billionaire angel investor meant to be the archetype for all the rich, tech douchebags out there.

He had a manicured beard, wore zippered blue jeans, and drove a bevy of ostentatious sports cars, all with doors that open in crazy ways.

And what did Hanneman drink? Why tequila of course. (Not only that, he had his own brand in a garish bottle, Tres Commas.) 

It was perhaps no surprise that Hanneman touted tequila, as it has long been the one spirit the most douchey of celebrities have attached their names to, from floppy-hair frontman Sammy Hagar and his Cabo Wabo to the frequently sleeveless and goateed Vince Neil and his Tres Rios Tequila, to cowboy douche Toby Keith and his Wild Shot (although, that’s technically a mezcal).

Likewise, what did the lovable douchebag in the baggy jeans and backwards cap, Turtle on Entourage, decide to help import into America in season 7 of the series? You guessed it, his beloved tequila.

Unlike Tres Commas, though, Turtle’s tequila, Avión, is actually a real brand, one that has struggled to shake its image as the preferred tequila of fictional douches.

As founder Ken Austin told HuffPost Live recently, “It sort of frustrates me sometimes when I’m with a mixologist who says, ‘Oh, that was the made-for-TV tequila.’”

If most Americans had seen tequila as cheap “mixto” swill for most of the 20th century, by the late-90s and well into the 2000s, tequila was now viewed as the preferred beverage of the douche—that club-going, protein-packing, Axe-spritzing, free-spending cretin.

But now—whether their execs want to fully admit it or not—tequila brands are finally attempting to garner a new image, releasing high-end products comparable to the best whiskeys on the market, and angling them to the same kinds of people shelling out for the most coveted of bourbons and scotches.

Jonah Dill-D'Ascoli of the ESquared Hospitality bar and restaurant group is a little more diplomatic than I am about tequila’s changing face.

“‘Douchey’ I think is an unfair label for people who may have less of an understanding about their alcohol,” she told me. “The drink they had in their hand was not so much an expression of the artistry of the jimador [person who harvests the agave for tequila] but rather a quick shot that could propel them faster to euphoria.”

Patrón is perhaps the one tequila most associated with douchebags being propelled to a fist-pumping euphoria, owing its industry dominance to its intentional prominence in the aughties’ nightclub scene.

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First introduced in 1989—by the pony-tailed hairdressing magnate John Paul DeJoria—Patrón didn’t really take off until the early-2000s when Ed Brown took over as CEO.

Generally credited as being the industry’s first “premium” tequila, Brown thought the key to selling Patrón’s expensive-for-the-time $45-a-bottle spirit was in getting it into nightclubs.

“I started to look at positioning Patrón not as a tequila, but as an ultra-premium white spirit that could compete with rum and vodka,” Brown told Mark Spivak in Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History. “I didn’t want to be in Mexican restaurants. I wanted to see the product in nightclubs, top restaurants, and trendy bars.”

Brown was incredibly successful with that strategy and soon slamming Patrón shots became a standard douche move at nightclubs, while bottle service culture even more so propelled the brand’s success.

By the late-1990s, bottle service was becoming a dominant part of New York, Miami, and Las Vegas’s nightclub scene and, along with vodka, tequila was the spirit most prominently represented.

That was usually in the form of Patrón bottles, easily the most lavish tequila of that early era. By 2007, Patrón’s iconic hand-blown glass bottles—squat with a massive cork stopper—were going for $375 a whack at Manhattan’s elite Marquee nightclub.

In a 2007 article, Forbes reported that “this bottle fever, and the multi-bottle minimums that certain clubs impose on weekends, that had New York City officials threatening to crack down on bottle service earlier this year, arguing that it encourages bulk drinking.” 

It might very well have: in 2000 when Brown arrived, Patrón was selling 70,000 cases a year, by 2010 they were selling nearly two million cases a year.

Simultaneously, the spirit had become a fixture in pop culture, especially the hip hop music popular in these clubs, getting referenced in songs by artists like Eminem, Flo Rida, Ludacris, and Wyclef Jean. 

The Paradiso Girls, along with Lil Jon and Eve, found a massive 2009 hit with a song literally called “Patrón Tequila.”

Claire Richards, senior director of tequilas at Beam Suntory told me, “A big challenge for tequila in the past was its party persona but over the last few years, we’ve seen it shedding that image.”

It’s perhaps somewhat ironic that the hard-partying Patrón has been the one brand most responsible for generally improving the quality of tequila in this country with classy releases like last year’s Gran Patrón Piedra, which was aged for three years in both American and French Oak barrels.

Less a fixture of club culture, the personally hand-numbered, wooden-boxed, $399 offering has been reviewed favorably by spirits connoisseurs.

“The tequila market in the U.S. is massive, but the growth in demand is now for premium tequilas,” Brennan Adams, the brand ambassador for Santera Tequila notes. “We don’t have to completely promote to club drinkers any more.”

Even in the celebrity regard, things are also slowly starting to change with more—ahem—refined superstars getting into the tequila game. Last year, Justin Timberlake teamed with Sauza for his “901” line, while George Clooney and his buddy, nightlife impresario Rande Gerber, have recently released Casamigos.

“We created Casamigos for us to drink and it was never intended to sell to the public so it had to be the best. We had the money, time, and patience to make it perfect,” Gerber told me—and I had to somewhat agree, finding their añejo extraordinarily complex, with rich cocoa and caramel notes. It was as enjoyable neat as any quality bourbon.

But old drinking habits die hard.

Beam Suntory’s own research still shows that more than half of tequila drinkers enjoy the spirit purely in shot form. Thus, their portfolio still finds great success with their lower-end Hornitos Lime Shot, a “ritual in a bottle” meant to resemble a classic tequila shot backed by a lime wedge and salt.

However, last year they introduced something called Black Barrel, a unique “whiskey-like” tequila tripel-aged in three different American Oak barrels.

It’s a stellar offering and a wholly unique tequila experience, with a nose reminiscent of a smooth, blended scotch, and a body with an amount of wood character atypical for the spirit.

On that note, Dill-D’Ascoli offers an interesting idea as to why tequila is poised to finally make its mark amongst higher-end connoisseurs: “Due to weather and proximity to the equator, 6 months in Mexico is like 8 years in Scotland, so a 2 year aged añejo tequila is as rich in flavor and complexity as any aged scotch or cognac.”

“Tequila makers and consumers are now at a crossroads,” Dill-D'Ascoli believes. “We are seeing a huge influx of amazingly unique, thoughtfully crafted, and truly elevated tequilas. The question, I believe, is not so much if those [in my words ‘douchey’] consumers are still necessary, but rather how to differentiate ‘well’ mixtos from the well-aged and highly-developed añejos that allow for both types of drinkers to enjoy the tequila of their choice within the same portfolio.”