The word “tequila” likely brings two things to mind: The Champs’ 1958 novelty song, or hangovers resulting from nights out that got out of hand. That’s because this spirit – that dates to the 16th century and which can be as refined as single malt scotch – has a reputation as a drink for getting a quick buzz on a tight budget. In common with the recent trend for “rehabilitating” spirits however, that picture is evolving. Tequila began its life as pulque , a nutrient-rich drink fermented from maguey agave by pre-Conquistador natives. It was purportedly first produced en masse by Spanish aristocrat Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle in Mexico’s west-central state of Jalisco; José Antonio Cuervo was the first licenced manufacturer. Today, roughly 100 distillers produce high-end tequilas which are tightly regulated to ensure singularity and quality. Now made from the agave tequilana – blue agave – plant that grows in Jalisco’s volcanic soil and hot, dry climate, tequila must meet geographic and production standards akin to those of champagne to be labelled as 100 per cent agave tequila. Alcohol is out of fashion, and mocktails are having a moment “It’s one of the most labour-intensive spirits in the world, and one of the most terroir-driven spirits in the world. Plants stay in the ground for eight years, sometimes up to 30,” says Jay Khan, owner of Hong Kong tequila bar Coa, ranked third on Asia’s 50 Best Bars list for 2020. Jimadores , adhering to centuries of tradition, plant and harvest agave by hand, using a long-handled blade called a coa. It’s then cooked in brick ovens and crushed into juice which is fermented and distilled twice. Tequila comes in varieties whose complexity depends on age: unaged blanco (white) or plata (silver) tequilas are bottled immediately after distillation; reposados are aged two to 12 months in oak barrels; and añejos , the jewel in the crown, are aged a minimum of one year and up to three. Even older extra añejo varieties were established in 2006. Unfortunately, tequila still has the ‘spring break’ reputation and there are definitely cheap, poorly made spirits on the market that perpetuate this trend Daniel Eun, beverage director, 11 Westside Despite the craftsmanship that goes into producing tequila, its enigmatic personality and often spotty supply has contributed to it being intensely misunderstood. There was a time not too long ago when tequila was rumoured to be heading the way of the dodo due to either the endangered status of a pollinating bat, climate change causing agaves to grow too fast, and farmers planting more lucrative, high-demand biofuels (like corn), drastically reducing yields in the late 2000s. As Khan sees it, some of that is mythmaking. Agave’s long maturation and harsh native climate make it among the toughest plants in the world, and natural agricultural ebbs and flows supported a bit of savvy marketing that coincided with the drink’s rising profile. But tequila’s struggle to gain global traction is rooted in unfamiliarity. Tequila sales are “still driven by the entry-level segment”, notes Roger Chan, CEO of Metagroup, which distributes Cuervo and 1800 in Hong Kong. Noting tequila’s “real synergy for high-energy occasions and nightlife venues”, Chan admits Covid-19 has thrown up a roadblock to wider appreciation, but it’s “encouraged people to appreciate the spirit in a slightly lower-tempo environment, which has allowed people to appreciate the more premium brands and different taste profiles”, demand for which is spiking. Tracy Gan at The Bottle Shop, in Sai Kung, Hong Kong, sees a future in the spirit too, noting visiting mixologists and Hong Kong bartenders returning from overseas have supported broader exploration since the early 2010s. “Hong Kong drinkers have become more discerning as the standard of bars and their menus have been raised,” says Gan. Indeed, Khan says he’s only had a handful of people drop into Coa asking for a shot and lemon, and Daniel Eun, managing partner and beverage director at Mexican eatery 11 Westside, in the neighbouring Kennedy Town district, agrees. The ‘Noma of nightlife’? Hong Kong’s first sustainable bar “I definitely think it has been changing over the years, and a lot of it has to do with the consumer being better educated about what they’re drinking these days,” Eun says. It helps that tequila’s star is rising among the glitterati, too. Dwayne Johnson (Teremana, launched last year), Michael Jordan (Cincoro Tequila, 2019), Nick Jonas (Villa One, 2019), Kendall Jenner (818, coming soon) and Kevin Hart (still under wraps) are just a few of the stars joining pioneers George Clooney (Casamigos, 2013) and Justin Timberlake (Sauza 901, way back in 2009) in launching celebrity tequila brands. Nonetheless what tequila lacks is a so-called luxury level akin to fine wines and collectable scotches . Once again, it’s misunderstanding the product that leaves that impression. “Ultra-premium” tequila exists, argues Khan, “But it’s just positioning. It has nothing to do with how it’s made.” For him, so-called luxury tequilas would be from distillers that harvest agaves only when naturally ripe, avoid technology to extract sugar, and don’t use additives to stand in for missing flavour. “Clase Azul is one of the most expensive bottles out there. The bottles are hand-sculpted and painted, and it’s associated with being smooth and not tasting like tequila. So what’s the point?” Khan asks. Still, Clase Azul’s ultra-premium extra añejo comes in a platinum, sterling silver and 24-carat gold decanter and will set you back US$1,500, while its añejo is over US$10,000. Move aside, Japanese single malts: Scotch whisky is back Tequila might remain on the outside looking in – for now, at least – but explorers will find it’s a versatile and diverse spirit that deserves a shot, no pun intended. It’s best served neat – like scotch – but creative cocktails make for a good introduction. “Unfortunately, tequila still has the ‘spring break’ reputation and there are definitely cheap, poorly made spirits on the market that perpetuate this trend,” Eun laments. “On the other hand, you have producers who respect the ‘old ways’ and produce beautiful artisanal tequilas as well, and so there’s always a push-pull dynamic between the two opposing sides. But once you taste great tequila, there’s no going back.” Want more stories like this? Sign up here. Follow STYLE on Facebook , Instagram , YouTube and Twitter .