¡Viva la Margarita!

The drink that changed the way we eat

Cuervo Gold is considered a premium tequila; it sells for $16.83. The premium tequila category has recently expanded to include a line of flavored tequilas also made by Cuervo. Cuervo Citrico, Cuervo Pineapple and Cuervo Oranjo (is that some bad Spanglish, or what?) are available at the same price as Cuervo Gold.

Super-premium tequilas such as Centinela, Herradura, El Tesoro and Chinaco go for between $30 and $60 a bottle. This type of tequila will account for 7.4 percent of the 4.5 million cases of tequila that will be sold in the U.S. in 2006. And sales of super premiums are growing at about 15 percent a year.

Beyond super-premium, there's the new ultra-premiums, which include Don Julio Real Tequila at $312, and Patron Gran Platinum at $203 a bottle. The most expensive tequila Spec's sells is Herradura Seleccion Suprema at $342 for a 750-milliliter bottle.

The Margarita -- the drink that changed the way we eat
Daniel Kramer
The Margarita -- the drink that changed the way we eat
"You've got to have Tex-Mex margaritas and chips and salsa in the Montrose," says Sabor owner Jon Paul.
Daniel Kramer
"You've got to have Tex-Mex margaritas and chips and salsa in the Montrose," says Sabor owner Jon Paul.

In August of this year, Brown-Forman, the liquor-marketing giant that owns Jack Daniel's, bought the Herradura tequila distillery for $876 million. At a time when all other categories of hard liquor are either declining or showing flat sales, liquor companies are spending their money on the only category that's showing any growth, according to Scheinman.

The concept behind super-premium and ultra-premium liquor marketing was inspired by the single malt Scotch binge of the early 1990s. Bottles of rare and unusual single malts brought astronomical prices from connoisseurs, especially in Japan.

In an attempt to cash in, American liquor marketers bottled "single cask" bourbons with unique-looking labels. Several of these supposedly artisanal bourbons were bottled at the Jim Beam distillery from the same whiskey that would otherwise have ended up in Jim Beam bottles.

And then there was the super-premium vodka craze. Purer and cleaner vodkas at ever-escalating prices captured the public's imagination for a while. But in a blind taste test of 21 vodkas conducted by Eric Asimov of The New York Times, Smirnoff, the least expensive bottle, beat out all the expensive super-premium vodkas, including Grey Goose.

I had similar results with a tequila taste test over a decade ago in which I compared super-premiums like El Tesoro with common brands and found little difference in flavor. The ultra-premium vodkas and tequilas appeal to the same people who buy Kristal and Dom Pérignon -- people who seek to impress others with how much money they have. There will always be a market for such luxury products.

It's not clear whether we are ready for $45 margaritas in Houston, but I have no doubt we'll soon have a chance to buy them.

Ra Sushi Bar on Westheimer is owned by Benihana, the company that coined the word "eatertainment" to describe the experience of dining on Japanese food while watching the chef clown around with cooking utensils. The company has evidently branched out into the related field of "drinkertainment" with this new venture. The square footage of the chicly decorated second-story space seems to be equally divided between the bar area and the dining room. And on a recent Thursday night, all of the tables in the bar area were occupied, while the dining room sat mostly empty.

I ordered a mango margarita, which is served on the rocks in a tumbler garnished with a lime slice. Mango margs are usually frozen, so I asked the waiter what was in this one. He said it contained silver tequila, triple sec, sweet and sour mix, and mango syrup.

I also asked him what kind of sushi he recommends with a mango margarita. "The crazy monkey roll," he replied without hesitation. The roll includes smoked salmon, mango, cream cheese, avocado, tempura bits and cashews. The drink and the sushi roll pair well -- they both taste like mango, and they're both horrible. If you're wondering when it was that sushi bars started serving margaritas, you haven't been paying attention.

A couple of weeks ago, on a long highway trip, I pulled into the Applebee's at the intersection of I-30 and Texas 59 in Texarkana, Texas, looking for a decent hamburger. The dining room of the restaurant was designed around a prominent bar. At my booth, I found a table card with a special margarita menu that included frozen mango swirl margaritas, frozen wildberry swirl margaritas and a premium Cuervo 1800 margarita with both Cointreau and Grand Marnier, shaken over ice.

The appetizer menu included queso and tortilla chips; "nachos nuevos," made with spicy ground beef, black beans, chile con queso, sour cream, lettuce, tomato and jalapeños; and a "chicken quesadilla grande" stuffed with grilled chipotle chicken, melted cheese, onion, tomato, bacon and jalapeños.

Top-shelf margaritas and nuevo Tex-Mex at Applebee's, a Kansas-based restaurant chain known for its burgers and boneless skinless chicken breasts? Perhaps it was inevitable. No American restaurant with a liquor license can afford to ignore the profit potential of margaritas.

Margarita Recipes

Frozen Margaritas (From The Tex-Mex Cookbook)

Here's the easy way to make frozen margaritas at home. The frozen limeade concentrate makes the drinks extra-slushy without the addition of too much ice. Don't get the limeade concentrate out of the freezer until you need it!

Makes 1 large or 2 small frozen margaritas

3 shots tequila plata

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