Tequila is Mexico’s national spirit. For tequila to be tequila, it must be produced within the country, in specific regions surrounding a town called Tequila and with ingredients — namely agave — grown in those regions. It’s written right into the NAFTA agreement: “Canada and the United States shall recognize Tequila and Mezcal as distinctive products of Mexico.” But nowhere in the legalese does it say who has to own the tequila.
For a while after the great recession of 2008, it became nearly a movement to leave the corporate world to start one’s own spirits company. And no shortage of tequila brands were born this way. Tequila has to be distilled in Mexico, but brands can be owned by anyone — and a growing number are owned by Americans. There are tequila purists who lament this, claiming that as American and European companies move into tequila country, the spirit’s authenticity is being diluted. Part of the issue has to do with foreign-owned brands being some of the most expensive, packaged in the fanciest bottles and often processed or treated using unorthodox proprietary methods. In other words, aimed at a global luxury market. But for those non-Mexicans who have started independent tequila companies, it’s the sincerest way to pay tribute to the spirit they love.
“Over the past 30 years, [my partners and I] have developed a great appreciation and understanding of fine tequila,” says Medhat Ibrahim, who owns the New York restaurant Casa La Femme and recently launched Qui. “It was the marriage of our passions and experiences that urged us to go forth with our own brand of tequila.” Billed as “the world’s only platinum extra-añejo tequila,” it’s aged in used American whiskey and Bordeaux barrels, joining a new sub-genre of tequilas that have been aged or blended with añejo, then filtered back crystal clear.
Ken Austin, a former aviation executive, launched Tequila Avion in 2010. The brand is characterized by its mellow flavors — Austin once said he wanted to make a tequila for his wife, who didn’t drink the spirit at all — and has been marketed brilliantly. Thanks to a friendship with a producer of the show Entourage, Avion was featured prominently in seasons seven and eight of the HBO series. What’s more, Austin cut a deal to have Avion t-shirts sold at the Gap. Some fans of the show didn’t even know the brand was real. But for tequila drinkers in the know, it’s a respectable upmarket spirit in a cool, unusual bottle that sits on top shelves next to other exquisite tequila bottles.
Bottles like the ultra-premium DeLeon, started by a former finance guy named Brent Hocking after his plans to release a French wine fell through. Launched right as the recession kicked in, Tanteo is the infused tequila brand owned by another ex-finance guy, Jonathan Rojewski. It comes in three flavors — cocoa, jalapeño and tropical — and was developed only once the Mexican government relaxed its rules about flavored tequilas in 2006. Justin Timberlake has his 901 (triple-distilled, as opposed to the standard twice) and now the rapper Xzibit has Bonita. Even Patrón, which arguably did for tequila what Starbucks did for coffee, is based in Vegas and owned by John Paul DeJoria of Paul Mitchell hair products fame. And then there’s that mezcal from Brooklyn.
Is tequila less Mexican if it’s owned by an American? The question is a delicate one and hotly debated among purists. But one thing is certain: tequila has become as American as apple pie. And it’s way more fun.
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