Tequila: More than the drink of mere champs

Tequila: More than the drink of mere champs

Even Tokyo now has agave specialists coming out of the woodwork

Tokyo tequilaTop-end tequila is no longer a rare sight in Tokyo.

Japan has 120 tequila sommeliers. Don’t snicker -- it’s a proper thing. If you can be qualified in fermented grape, why not distilled agave?

The Japan Tequila Association began offering the titles in January. To procure one, you’ll have to down 12 shots in three minutes using only your lips, then play the song “Tequila” by The Champs on a five-string vihuela.

No, you won’t. You’ll be quizzed on the drink’s history and production, cocktail recipes, food matching, regional characteristics and the stories and traits of various distilleries.

You’ll then blind taste a tequila and guess its provenance, style and brand.

You can now find tequila sommeliers in Mexican restaurants, girly bars, soba shops, ramen joints and even prancing around on stage as a member of the pop group Exile. You’ll also find them in half a dozen dedicated tequila bars in Tokyo.

I visited three of them to pick their brains and drink their drinks.

Tequila House

Tokyo tequilaChoosing your agave tipple can be daunting for the uninitiated.

Tequila House is a rough-cut two-tier establishment hidden away in Koenji.

It was called Tacos Café until April, when staff member “Jennifer” earned her tequila sommelier’s badge.

It still serves cheap tacos, but these days it’s overflowing with top-end tequila.

I ordered blancos by Cuervo, El Tesoro, Reserva del Senor, Chimayo -- I forget the others -- and then Jenny gave me a Don Fulano Blanco Fuerte.

At 100-proof it’s considerably stronger than most tequilas, but stunningly polished. It also smells like an agave oven. New favorite.

To prove how smooth it is, I took a random impartial tasting flunky to the bar, gave him a Fulano Fuerte alongside an 80-proof Tres Amigos blanco, and asked him which tasted stronger.

He picked the Tres Amigos.

Tequila House, 2-23-19 Koenji Minami, Suginami-ku.
+81 (0) 3 6750 9439

Website

Desperado

Down the road in Asagaya, Koji Kimura is another certified agave aficionado. He passed the exam in February and opened tequila bar Desperado in May.

“What do you recommend?” I asked. “Anything expensive,” he said. But this was Asagaya, where nothing is expensive. Jose Cuervo’s Reserva de la Familia is ¥1,500 a shot. You’ll pay three times that in other bars.

Kimura poured me a few things and then an Alacran blanco. He likened the Alacran to sake, and that’s not as barmy as it sounds.

Alacran has an elegant grassy fragrance. I bought a bottle the following day. At ¥4,000, it’s a steal.

Desperado, 2-21-16 Asagaya, Suginami-ku.

+81 (0) 3 5936 1110

Website

Agua

Tokyo’s newest tequila bar is Agua, which opened last month in Shibuya. It’s a little white standing-only bar downstairs, a little black lounge upstairs. And it has the best tequila list outside Roppongi.

Agua’s big tease is to sell Patron -- silver, reposado or anejo -- at ¥500 a shot.

Patron is a phenomenal drink. It sells phenomenally well, grew phenomenally fast, is phenomenally well marketed and tastes like licking a plumber’s fingers.

The next time someone tells you it’s the world’s best tequila, poke them in the eye and tell them it’s not.

Tequila barrelsA Patron cellarman checks on a batch of tequila barrels in Atotonilco, Jalisco State, Mexico.

I’ve long thought that Don Julio 1942 is the greatest tequila. It’s an anejo, aged at least two years in a bourbon cask, but it’s richer and more scrumptious -- if that’s an acceptable tasting term -- than most of its peers.

It has heaps of orange, vanilla and toffee over a very subdued alcohol. I use 1942 when I want to convert a rabid tequila hater.

I noticed that Agua stocks Don Julio Real, the pinnacle of the distiller’s portfolio. Real is at least three years old, aged in bourbon barrels and finished in Canadian whiskey casks.

I’ve dreamed of trying it. More specifically, I’ve dreamed of Don Julio sending me a sample. Agua sells it for ¥4,200 a shot. Sold.

I took a different random impartial tasting flunky and lined up a Real, 1942 and Patron anejo. To my surprise, we both favored the 1942. Real is easily the smoothest anejo I’ve tasted, but 1942 is much more fun.

Agua’s resident sommelier, Hajime Kobayashi, also says 1942 is his favorite drink.

We then lined up some top-end blancos: Embajador Platinum, 901 blanco, Patron Silver and Gran Patron Platinum. The latter is thrice-distilled, crystal clear, and sells for a hefty ¥40,000 a bottle.

Once again, the flunky and I concurred. Embajador bulged with flavor, 901 (Justin Timberlake’s tequila) was funky like a potato shochu, Patron Silver was thin and chemical, but Patron Platinum was drinkable perfume, the antithesis of the boorish gut rot that ruins tequila’s image.

Well, this is awkward. I’ve been trashing Patron for years. But Gran Patron Platinum is a magnificent drink. Sure, it’s expensive, but is it worth it? Don’t be daft, not at that price.

Agua, 34-6 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku.
+81 (0) 3 6427 0567
Website

Nicholas Coldicott is a contributing editor at Whisky Magazine Japan.

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