Dubious though it may be to cite rock stars and Hollywood actors as paragons of insight, it seems clear to me that they grasp something about the drinks universe that most people would deny: Tequila is sublime.
Dan Aykroyd loves the stuff and owns the rights to premium maker Patron in Canada. Justin Timberlake makes a tequila called 901. Sammy Hagar, Van Halen's former lead singer, created the excellent Cabo Wabo. And Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe is the pitchman for Tres Rios. Maybe it's California's proximity to the sunny source, Mexico.
Now a new, excellent brand called Avion has stepped into the limelight of its own accord, figuring prominently in the HBO series Entourage.
Fans of the hit show, which revolves around a hunky actor and his posse of pals, will surely recognize the name Avion. It was woven into the storyline last season as a new business venture for the hapless Turtle, played by Jerry Ferrara. The brand gets so much airtime, it could qualify for membership in the Screen Actors Guild.
In an unusual twist for Hollywood, not a penny was spent on product placement. Avion's casting call was the result of a lifelong friendship between Entourage creator Doug Ellin and brand co-founder Kenny Dichter. Mr. Ellin mentioned he needed to conjure up a new business for Turtle. How about getting the character to distribute my new spirit in the United States, Mr. Dichter shrewdly offered. Tequila, with its reputation for party-time overindulgence, was an Entourage subplot made in heaven.
"Our website crashed and our Facebook [traffic]spiked overnight," Avion Tequila president Jenna Fagnan told me of the Entourage effect on the year-old brand. "We got calls from distributors around the world. We were out of stock on everything for a short while."
Avion made its Canadian debut in Ontario this month, with rollouts ahead for other provinces. Apparently I'm not the only Entourage-smitten, tequila-thirsty Canadian out there. Ms. Fagnan says customer queries at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario prompted the retailer to approach her, not the other way around. "We weren't thinking internationally," she says.
Avion may have taken off faster than other brands, but it's coasting on a tailwind of growing appreciation for premium tequilas, which can deliver complexity on a par with fine whisky. Credit the much-hyped and expensive Patron for leading the charge. While less fashionable, Cazadores and Leyenda del Milagro are my go-to, widely available brands at a much lower price. I also like Herradura and Cabo Wabo among the pricey offerings, and el Jimador is a bargain.
But of all the above I now like Avion best. It comes in the three basic tequila styles: Silver is clear and bottled soon after distillation, the standard base for such cocktails as the margarita; Reposado spends a few months in oak barrels to draw in added flavour and a pale-gold colour, ideal for sipping on the rocks; and Anejo spends a minimum of one year in wood, acquiring vanilla and caramel tones from the wood and often a suggestion of sweetness. Connoisseurs sip it straight.
Distilled from the roasted flesh of the pineapple-like agave plant, tequila has a trademark vegetal-spicy quality, often likened to cucumber and hot peppers. I tend to like briefly matured reposados best because there's enough woody overtone to add complexity without erasing tequila's refreshing vigour. Avion strikes that balance even in its anejo, which is more than can be said of some pricey counterparts that pander too blatantly to the rum and whisky crowds.
Even Avion's basic silver is remarkable for its depth of flavour and a faint whisky-like note. The company grows its agave at the highest elevation in the Tequila region of Mexico, yielding sweeter flesh and a more caramelized, charred quality after three days in a brick oven.
The silver just won a coveted double-gold award at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, earning top marks from all 33 judges. Not a bad start for a drink imported by a Turtle.
So much going on here for an un-aged silver. Think of great vodka laced with cucumber and jalapeno peppers. Then think again, because there's a roasted, caramel nuance that suggests this tequila once had a tryst with a high-priced bottle of Scotch at a motel in Tijuana.
Don Julio 1942 Anejo
Connoisseurs love Don Julio - this subtly sweet, dense elixir delivers plenty of snob appeal. I like it, too, but at this price I become a single-malt man. Imagine hot peppers steeped in the hazelnut liqueur Frangelico - a tequila to shed the spirit's Spring Break reputation forever. Under no circumstances mix it into a cocktail; it's after-dinner fare, no ice.
Slightly sweet and caramel-like, it's got plenty of herbaceous, spicy tequila flavour under its saccharine sombrero. A best buy.
Leyenda del Milagro Reposado
The hint of sweetness is an accent, counterbalancing the herbaceous exuberance of the agave, making for a deftly balanced reposado. It's on sale in Ontario for $47.95 till July 17.
Oily and round, with sweet vanilla at first. The whisky-like oak influence gradually hands over the reins to the spicy, peppery cucumber for a fun ride into the tequila sunset.
I like the relatively light body of this reposado as well as the grilled-pineapple and spicy-pepper essence, but it's a tad too sweet for me, which may explain its popularity with the club crowd.
El Jimador Blanco
A favourite value brand of discerning bartenders, it's big on cucumber and melon and reminds me of a debauched weekend in Miami - in a good way. A fine entry-level tequila.