My first encounter with tequila occurred when I was very young and living in California; the day was hot, the sun was bright, the transistor radio was blaring, when out from the speaker came a catchy rock and roll riff on the saxophone. Then, it happened; the band sang a single word to end the musical phrase: “Tequila!”
Looking back at that No. 1 hit by The Champs, the song seems rather innocent, but at the time, it felt shocking and subversive. It was a time when crews of local older teenagers, following in the footsteps of movie stars during the prohibition, would travel across the Californian border to Tijuana for a good time. On their return, dazed and sniggering, they would exhibit their smuggled booty – huarache sandals with tyre-tread soles, cheap clothes, firecrackers on strings, beer, cigarettes and of course, tequila.
Tequila had a connotation of being bad and sinful. This might also have applied to many other spirits, as America has always had a love/hate relationship with hard liquor; it cannot seem to make up its mind whether it is exotically attractive elixir for high society or a dirty and dangerous intoxicant for low society. The Champ’s rebellious rock and roll song celebrated this ambiguity.
However, it goes further. Tequila’s reputation in America suffered from a belief that the liquor was raw and base: a moonshine – with all the risk. Some of this animosity derives from a distaste for the idea of distilling tequila from the agave cactus – and especially for the habit of putting worms in some bottles of mezcal (also made from agave and very similar to tequila).
But the real downer on the drink was mainly attributable to being ‘Hecho en Mexico’, or ‘Made in Mexico’. Sadly, for this energetic and evocative country of rich history, colourful people, and culture, there persists in the minds of some Americans, a Hollywood vision of unruly, sombrero-clad bandits, firing guns and menacing villagers on their rearing horses. Even if these perceptions are based on stereotypes, for many there endures real prejudices and suspicions of the people and products beyond the border.
For my elder compatriots, it was therefore risqué to drink tequila. Yet for some – either happy to ignore the bias of others, or enamoured with Mexico – sampling tequila was a revelation. They discovered to their surprise that tequila is neither crude nor unpalatable, but remarkably agreeable and mellow. To add to their enjoyment, they would also learn that tequila is full of elusive and evocative character. Slowly, tequila started to lose its disreputable status, and grow in deserved popularity.
And what does tequila taste of? Most spirits evoke a flavour of their native land: think of the Highlands and a single malt whiskey of Scotland, or golden fields of grain and the rye whiskey of Tennessee, beautiful vineyards the fine cognacs of France, or even ragged gorges and the raki of Crete. So, open a bottle of Cuervo Gold, take a sip of tequila and close your eyes… You will soon be in Mexico, tasting the smoky, sweet burning piña core of the blue agave, feeling the hot sun on the dusty hills and canyons, and sensing some of the vibrant clashing colours of Mexico, contrasting with the warm caramel-toned ochres, terracotta tiles, and dark woods of an inviting cantina interior. With a little more imagination, you might also hear the shuffling syncopated bass notes of the huge guitarrón mexicano and the distant soulful strains of a Mexican lament…
These days, Mexico is very different from the days of The Champs’ hit. It has turned from a land of perceived outlaws to a land of real gangsters. As daily news reports testify, these modern drug-trafficking outlaws are far more lethal than the bandits of lore. Sadly, it seems Mexico cannot shake off this historical curse of recurring violence (nor America curb its insatiable demand for illegal drugs).
However, despite modern troubles, Mexico remains an attractive country and is still popular as a tourist destination. In legal markets, Mexico has prospered: the world loves Mexican food and music; they drink its beer; and especially they drink tequila. Lots of it. Despite the old perceived jeopardies of Mexico – or perhaps because of them – tequila has become one of the world’s most popular and coolest drinks. Cocktail bars everywhere boast tequila preparations to suit every taste and occasion.
More recently, tequila is experiencing a further elevated trend in the form of ultra-stylish (and expensive) ‘designer’ tequilas, each with a detailed unique provenance and exquisitely-shaped bottle. These are not for mixing, but for showing off and sipping. It seems, after all, that Mexico can produce a distillation of the highest quality, comparable with the world’s best – “tequila!”