Spirits: Tequila's moment

By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 2:46 PM

The Situation - that fist-pumping, grenade-avoiding, gym-tanning-laundry cad from MTV's "Jersey Shore" - is now shilling for Devotion Vodka, a spirit infused with protein powder.

My first thought: Wow, that's a radical departure from the spirits industry's usually sanctimonious (and hypocritical) "responsibility" message. My second thought: There is now clear evidence that vodka's cultural fashion-accessory moment is finally on the wane.

It was an impressive ride, lasting more than a decade. For years, anyone in the realm of celebrity seemed to be professionally associated with vodka, including bigwigs such as P. Diddy, Donald Trump and Dan Aykroyd. It seems somehow appropriate that the latest vodka pitchman is a reality star whose allotted 15 minutes of fame could very well end after the first episode of next season's "Dancing With the Stars."

Is tequila the new vodka? That's a question observers in the spirits and cocktail world have been asking recently as a new trend emerges: the proliferation of "ultra-premium" tequilas targeted at a club crowd that slowly has begun to trade in Grey Goose for Patron.

Perhaps surprisingly, tequila, once the scourge of "that bad night in college" stories, has gone positively mainstream. During a recent "Today Show" segment, weatherman Al Roker declared that "tequila is the new vodka." And we all know that if Al Roker says it, it must be true.

Drinks writer Camper English, who blogs at Alcademics.com, was one of the first to raise the "tequila is the new vodka" issue back in June: "Tequila has recently reached the stage where entrepreneurs have decided they can all get rich by launching a brand, putting it in a nice bottle and telling everyone it is a luxury product. Hundreds of vodka brands were launched after the success of Grey Goose using this same model."

A number of vodka innovators have branched out to tequila. Eurowinegate, the Cognac, France-based maker that (along with Diageo and partner P. Diddy) created Ciroc vodka, is poised to launch an excellent tequila called Excellia, in partnership with distiller Carlos Camarena of El Tesoro. Excellia will be finished in Sauternes and cognac barrels.

"Tequila is all about flavors, personality and characteristics linked with the terroir and aging process, just like wine," said Audrey Fort of Eurowinegate. "You can bring a touch of innovation, but you can't cheat with the inherent taste of the tequila or you'll confuse the consumer."

Rockers Sammy Hagar and Vince Neil were among the first entertainers to have their own tequila brands. Of course, aging lead singers from 1980s hair bands aren't exactly the high-wattage celebrities that drive trends (though Hagar did make his Cabo Wabo brand a success, selling it to Gruppo Campari for $80 million in 2007).

Last year, Justin Timberlake launched his 901 tequila, complete with over-the-top sexy Internet ads directed by the multitalented star himself.

Then came the current season of "Entourage," when things got really weird.

The HBO television series follows fictional heartthrob actor Vincent Chase, his bro posse of E, Drama and Turtle and his acerbic agent, Ari, as they navigate the Hollywood scene. Though it was once excellent and hilarious, "Entourage" now eases into middle age mostly as a reliable bellwether of male fashion and fads and as wish fulfillment for aspirational young men (much as "Sex and the City" did for women at the end of its run).

This year, the trendiness includes men's leather wrist cuffs, a desultory reference to "ping-pong as the new billiards" and the inspired addition of porn star Sasha Grey playing herself as Vince's girlfriend. (We're reminded constantly in dialogue that, yes, she really really can act!)

Then there's the tequila. Turtle, Vince's ne'er-do-well childhood friend and manservant, becomes involved with a tequila company that uses Vincent's celebrity to promote the brand. The brand, Avion, is portrayed as the product of a family-run Mexican distillery, complete with the patriarch doing business at a party in a glamorous hacienda. Avion quickly becomes the most coveted liquor of L.A.'s in-crowd. American tycoon Mark Cuban, playing himself, tries to buy the tequila company from the family in Mexico. NBA star Chris Bosh, playing himself, is frustrated when there's no vodka (presumably now passe) at a party: "I will pay you $1,000 for a vodka," he offers the bartender.

All that plays well as a fictional send-up of booze trends, except for one thing: Avion tequila exists. Avion's founders, former Seagram's executive Ken Austin and Kenny Dichter (both also founders of Marquis Jet), are friends of "Entourage" creator Doug Ellin. He gave them free product placement, with one catch: They would have no control over how the brand was used. As a result, Avion tequila has played a negative role in Vince's downward spiral, and a fictional back story to the product has been created: Unlike in the show, the real Avion is cagey about revealing who distills its tequila.

"It's been a mixed bag of publicity," said Yasemin Altintas, Avion's spokeswoman. "Our biggest issue has been the separation of fact and fiction." Of course, it also has meant that the product is hitting the shelves in multiple states with unbelievable name recognition only 40 days after launch, a situation almost unheard-of for a small start-up brand.

By the way, the tequila itself is pretty nice. I've tasted only the silver (blanco), and it has a distinctive, buttery nose. It is slightly fruitier on the front than most tequilas, but with a nice peppery, floral finish that's fairly mild.

When I called a liquor store the other day to inquire about availability, the woman answering the phone asked, "Avion? The 'Entourage' tequila? You mean it's real?"

As to whether tequila really is the next vodka: That remains to be seen.

Wilson is the author of "Boozehound," coming this month from Ten Speed Press. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist.

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