Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | September 9, 2010

Is Tequila the New Vodka?

Via Alcademics, I see that Jason Wilson has an article in the Washington Post asking if tequila is the new vodka.  Wilson’s main point is that while vodka once was the darling spirit of Hollywood stars, a lower quality celebrity (cough, The Situation, cough) is now hawking vodka, while A-listers are turning to tequila. This question is being brought to the forefront, in large part, due to the appearance of recently launched Avion tequila in HBO’s Entourage. Additionally we see Eurowinegate launching a super-premium brand, Excellia, while 1800 Tequila (hardly a super-premium brand) tapping The Soprano’s Michael Imperoli to be their TV spokesperson.

Obviously what celebrities buy themselves or hawk to the public is fairly determinative of what is popular (or at least, popular in the sense of a trend). But I think Wilson is missing something important. While no one had really felt the urge to spend $50 on a bottle of flavorless spirit before Grey Goose exploded with the help of celebrities, there is plenty of high quality, rare, and legitimately super premium tequila on the market now. While there is sure to be more brands that launch themselves exclusively to, well, look exclusive, it’s hard for me to see this as dramatically changing the market.

Camper English wrote about the question a few months back. He highlights some key differences with those that want to bang out new “super premium” tequilas:

The great news is that it seems most of the tequilas that are launching are 100% agave tequilas, the only kind worth drinking. (It’s unfortunate that many of the press releases for these new brands neglect to mention this.) Like many of the new vodkas that launched in recent years, none of the new tequilas I’ve tried are terrible; most are mediocre-to-good. Some are excellent.

But it’s going to be really, really hard to stand out and build new brands in the near future. It’s getting that way already. Other than the shape of the bottle, there are less and less points of differentiation between new brands, and less brand owners who seem to understand that you need them. They want the dial-a-brand method that worked with vodka. They don’t think drinkers care what’s actually inside the bottle. They don’t know that with the legally-required NOM number on every bottle of 100% agave tequila we can easily look up in which distillery the tequila was made.

This is obviously a pretty big hurdle for tequila becoming the next vodka. But even more relevant than this, as English notes, is that flavor matters with tequila infinitely more than with vodka:

Tequila is not vodka. It has flavor. Consumers want a little bit of flavor, with the average consumer not wanting too much. (Connoisseurs always want tons of flavor and will pay for it. That’s why mezcal is so popular with the bartending set.) In tequila, you can often taste from where the agave comes. In vodka, you can rarely taste much of anything.

Vodka was popular prior to super premium vodka becoming popular. It’s popular because it tastes like whatever you mix it with and for most people – rappers, actors, and athletes included – the taste of tonic or cranberry juice is a lot more enjoyable than a spirit. Tequila is a complex, savory, dynamic spirit that is greatly influenced by terroir. How it is made, where it is made, how it is aged – these are all factors which determine flavor. The only comparable characteristic with vodka is how many times it was filtered to remove any flavor.

I hope that if there are investors and spirit company owners looking to capitalize on the new celebrity interest in tequila will not be slopping some crappy tequila into a used whatever cask then plop it into an extravagant bottle and sell it for $60. Instead, look at the existing brands and tell people, “Hey, this stuff is great, come try it.” Pueblo Viejo, Tequila Ocho, Partida, Herradura…there are plenty of widely-available bottlings that are both high quality and worthy of greater consideration. Don’t start selling more crap because there’s a bigger market of suckers.

I won’t mind if tequila becomes a big Hollywood attraction in lieu of vodka, but I’m not confident that it will happen. Tequila is a robust and flavorful spirit that many people are scared to drink. Maybe a surge in tequila drinking will mean there are more good bottlings on the market, but that’s never really a problem I’ve felt existed today. There are already a lot of good tequilas out there to drink, whether I want to spend $15 for a bottle or $150. So Hollywood, welcome to the party, but it’s been going on for a while without you.


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