Old School/New School Part I
When my father in law comes over to visit we usually have at least a few glasses of tequila while we sit and talk. I always have something new for him to try and he enjoys testing them out. Most of the time however we disagree about which ones we like most. When I pulled out the Charbay Blanco last week I could tell that it was too strong for him, yet I think it's perfect. "You can feel it as it goes down," he said as he pointed to his chest with a slight frown. When we sipped the Don Julio 1942 however he was thrilled. "So smooth and you don't even notice the burn at all," he replied. I was not as impressed. There is a vast difference between the two tequilas, mainly the fact that the Charbay is a vibrant, spicy, unaged tequila and the Don Julio is an añejo so it has been smoothed out and sweetened by spending some time in the barrel. The most important difference for me however is that one tastes like tequila and the other does not.
Imagine you feel like eating pizza so you head over to Amici's and you order their best Italian-style pie. When the pizza is finally served it's covered with chicken, bean sprouts, broccoli, and carrots with a Thai ginger sauce mixed into the cheeze instead of marinara. You take a bite and it tastes great. In fact, it's very easy to eat because the flavors are so appealing, however, you still flag down the waiter because it isn't what you were expecting. When you explain the problem to the waiter, he asks, "What? Did it not taste good?" You elaborate about how you felt like something traditionally Italian and that's why you came to a pizza parlour - the mozzerella, the basil, the garlic, and the tomato sauce all freshly prepared and baked quickly on a thin, crispy crust. "I love those flavors because they remind me of a summer I spent in Napoli," you say, but instead of nodding in understanding, he replies, "The point of food is to taste good. Who cares how we make it or what we put in it as long as we make it taste good?" "But this isn't really pizza!" you exclaim. "It has cheese and dough, but you've completely manipulated the flavor into some asian-fusion thing that has nothing to do with real pizza!" You can see where this analogy is going.
If you replace the pizza from the above story with tequila and set the location in a bar instead of a pizza shop, you could probably witness the same scenario. Tequila more than any other spirit is in danger of losing its soul and identity because producers are changing its flavor to fit the general American palate. So many Americans have terrible memories from college dorm rooms or juvenile trips to Tijuana that even the smell of tequila can make them queezy. This has been a difficult hurdle for the distillers to jump over until a few guys got together and said, "Hey, what if we make it taste more like vodka?" From a capitalistic perspective, it was pure money-making genius and it got even better when those same guys said, "And while we're at it, let's make an aged version that tastes more like Johnny Walker black!" The money came pouring in and tequila empires sprouted up over night. Millions of Americans decided to try these brands littering the pages of fashion magazines and billboards everywhere and they said, "Wow, I had no idea I liked tequila so much!" Guess what America? Most of you still don't like tequila.
When you take any fermentable substance and distill it multiple times until it becomes soft and neutral, the possibility of it offending a specific taste becomes less and less. It's like white walls in dentist's office or boiled chicken and potatos for dinner - let's keep this as inoffensive as possible. However, when one looks to include everyone by excluding no one, they usually end up with something incredibly stale and boring. When you hear about mixologists trashing vodka cocktails, this is the reason. Sure it tastes fine, but there's nothing to it! Where's the originality, the talent, or the pizazz? Tequila is a delicious spirit that is distilled from the agave plant, so it should therefore retain some of the flavor of its source. If people are turned off by this flavor, then they don't like tequila and that's perfectly fine. I don't like cream cheese or mayonnaise and I also have a tough time with melted American on burgers and nachos. Those are foods I simply don't like to eat. The problem with manipulating a substance to make it appeal to the masses is the threat of losing the original product. This is not about progress or evolution, but rather about society's tendency to forget about origins - like the words "ironic" or "literally," no one seems to understand what they actually mean. This is happening already with tequila.
With the exception of a few stores in the Bay Area, it is very difficult to find a decent bottle of traditional tequila at a reasonable price. If I'm on vacation and have to shop at a grocery store then forget it. Without a doubt, my favorite thing to do at K&L is watch our customers reactions when they approach the tequila section because I know that if they're new to the store they might stare in complete confusion. Where are all the normal brands? There is hardly a recognizable bottle on our shelves because I've done my best to weed out what I feel constitutes the new school of tequila and worked hard to locate small, traditional tasting bottles that express the true flavor of the spirit.
While I feel it's important to give people what they want, I also feel I have a responsibility to carry the best products from the most talented distillers. In this day and age there are a mere handful of tequilas that are actually made by the company selling them. Anyone can hire a distillery to make them a tequila and then slap their own label on it. Most distilleries have mastered the popular new school flavor and have completely abandoned the traditional, old school style. When there is no one left to make old school tequila, then we will have lost one of the great gems of the spirits world. Today you don't need to know anything about tequila these days to sell it. Justin Timberlake and Paris Hilton have their own tequila brands! That should be all you need to know. Why would anyone buy JT's reposado, you might ask? Because not only is it popular at the club, it's so smooth and there's no burn whatsoever.