"It's not that I've become more picky," says Anvil Bar & Refuge founder, owner and mixologist Bobby Heugel, "the quality has declined."
It's a sunny afternoon at Anvil, and Heugel is about to unleash on the state of the tequila industry today. It's a topic he feels strongly — and knows a lot — about.
Heugel honed his palate as an undergraduate in Amarillo, where he tended bar at a restaurant that offered nearly 100 types of tequila. He says it was his passion for mezcal, another type of agave-based liquor, that got him into cocktails in the first place.
"In that college restaurant, there were 100 tequilas because there were that many worth carrying," says Heugel, now 27. Today, "there are only 15 or 20 tequilas in Texas that are worth purchasing."
Heugel says a number of factors have contributed to the severe lapse in quality over the last five years, but it starts with the agave.
The agave plant takes between eight and 12 years to reach maturity, separating it immediately from grain-based spirits like whiskey, which grow in a yearly cycle. Even the most experienced jimadors might see six harvests in a lifetime.
"Tequila's heyday in the '90s resulted in an agave shortage. There was a surge in demand that resulted in ton of people growing agave that don't know what they're doing. Now, the market is flooded and they've got to dump it," Heugel says, meaning much of today's tequila is distilled from immature plants.
And "immature" translates to cheap. Heugel says even brands he once respected taste different (read: worse) today than they did five years ago. "They pay so much less for immature agave, and they have the marketing — they have an established brand. Why on earth pay more if people aren't going to notice?" (Heugel is careful not to name names, but a reactionary crinkle of his nose or subtle shake of his head — I think I even detected a shudder — when I offer suggestions reveals the culprits. If you're curious, you'll have to go to his bar and ask him, or just scan Anvil's shelves for what's missing.)
Compounding the decline in quality of the agave used for distilling, Heugel says many Mexican growers are trying to tap into the buyer's market by finding United States investors to fund new brands. "That's part of the reason there are so many new tequilas," Heugel says.
"We're so into who's behind the brand that we don't bother to ask where the agave is coming from or who is making it. Think about the wine market — of course we'd ask where the grapes are from."
The marketing machine has done worse for tequila with its billing of smooth taste and multiple distillation. "What brands are doing now is making tequila taste like nothing," Heugel says. "I hate the word 'smooth.' Originally it meant it didn't offend your palate. Now, it means it doesn't taste like anything. If you want that, drink vodka."
(It should be noted that Heugel doesn't have anything against vodka, although you'll notice there are no vodka-based cocktails on the menu at Anvil. Heugel, like others in the growing set of classic drink enthusiasts, believes that cocktails are about showcasing the taste of the alcohol, not concealing it.)
"Distilling multiple times covers up the flaws — in agriculture and in distilling. The best tequila in the world is only distilled twice," he says. Like good scotch, good tequila should reveal its agave's place of origin — whether it was grown in the highlands or the lowlands of Mexico.
Is it possible to make money doing it right? Heugel says yes, if consumers start supporting boutique growers. "You can pay to grow the plant to maturity, or you can pay for marketing," he says.
If buyers don't start demanding quality product now, Heugel warns that even the crappy brands will go extinct — along with the agave. Forced reproduction of the plants means no biodiversity and no immune system, he says.
"It's just a matter of time until a disease or pest hits and wipes [the agave] out. They're grown in such proximity that it would be easy."
There are just five brands, by Heugel's estimation, who are doing it right, meaning roasting the agave's core, called the piña, in clay (no pressure-cooking) and then grinding it, preferably in an old stone grinder, and finally fermenting it "in a muddy mush, with all the fiber and goodness," before distillation. They are, of course, the five brands you'll find on the shelf at Anvil: Siembra Azul and Single Estate Tequila Ocho (both backed by American enthusiasts), El Tesoro Platinum, Tequila Partida and Heugel's favorite, 7 Leguas.
Some of those brands are available at Spec's, and all are accessible through Houston Wine Merchant.
"The owner of 7 Leguas was offered millions to sell," Heugel says. "How do you say no? But he did, and that's the reason to buy those tequilas. The people who care enough not to sell out are the ones who do it right."