They say mud tends to stick, and tequila has had a hell of a lot of dirt thrown at it over the years. But I've been amazed, and very glad, to see how it continues to boom and shake off its tarnished reputation. There still seems to be a few who can't get pass their misunderstandings with it, but opinions on the spirit have changed massively since I started working with it many moons ago.
My first bar job was actually in a tequila bar and restaurant and it was a really hard push to convince folk to spend their hard-earned on something that was associated with shooters - and ones they didn't think they liked at that. There were so many poor impostors around that convincing someone that an aged tequila could be sipped after dinner, neat, wasn't an easy sell. If you could convince them to give it a go though, they were nearly always pleasantly surprised.
To many, tequila was overly sweet frozen 'margaritas' or shots accompanied by some cheap salt and a slice of lime. Don't get me wrong, both lime and (proper) salt can be wonderful compliments to tequila, but just not licking a mound off your hand and chomping down on a slice of it. The problem is, this ritual followed tequila, so even when the good stuff started to be easier to find, many still figured it still had to be drunk in this way. In fact, it's often when you convince people to part with shooting tequila alongside some salt and lime that they start to enjoy it.
This was so different to what my experiences of the spirit were, and as with many things, drinking tequila in its home nation was really an incredible experience. It's quite amazing how well it compliments food and just quite how versatile a spirit it is. Stylistically there's many different interpretations (and the whole other massive category of Mezcal), but - and this is certainly a positive - it retains its character through all. This is partly why the negative associations from the few-too-many office shots continued to put many off; The poor tequilas still exemplify the vegetal sweet agave note that is so wonderful in the finer examples.
To be honest, tequilas are many and varied, and I really wouldn't be able to do it justice here. Thankfully, there are many new agave spirits becoming available, and many new places where you can try them. One key pointer is to look out for the stuff that says "100% Agave" (the plant that tequilas and mezcals are made from; a close relation of the lily family, not a cactus as many imagine), this at least will point you in the direction of a better bottling. And go beyond mixing in the humble margarita - try a Tommy's version substituting agave nectar (or apricot brandy for a Toreador) for Cointreau, or try my friend Mike Sager's favourite; a glass of Champagne sipped alongside a nip of mezcal.
I think the category really comes into its own alongside food though. In Mexico, we had many long lunches where tequila was shared amongst many courses and I was astonished how well it worked with the food. Of course, local drinks tend to work with local food, but tequila seems to be a wonderful partner of other cuisines too. It has an ability to ride a fine balance between savoury and sweet which is one of its many assets in the food matching task.
This is a wonderful, refreshing drink that works great with food (and the sun!), or by itself. Definitely better with a group of you though:
50ml Blanco or Reposado tequila (100% Agave)
20ml Fresh Pink Grapefruit juice
10ml Fresh lime
10ml sugar syrup (optional)
Small pinch of proper salt
Add all ingredients to a highball and stir until the salt has dissolved. Add some sugar syrup if your juices are quite sharp. Fill with cubed ice, stir and top up with chilled soda.