David StevensSip, don’t shoot. That’s the motto of tequila experts worldwide, and certainly the advice given by David Hernandez, the “agave alchemist” at Thompson Hotels’ luxe Playa Del Carmen property in Mexico. We interviewed Hernandez about his experience in the tequila industry, as well as trends that will impact the spirit in 2017 and beyond. Read below for this exclusive Pursuitist Q&A.

Agave is a succulent, correct? What type of conditions does agave need to grow in?

Correct, agaves are succulents! There are a number of important families of the succulent monocots. Agaves are often mistaken as cacti or even a type of aloe when in reality they are closer to an orchid than a cacti. This might seem to be due to the fact that they are associated with hot desert like regions; however, agaves like altitudes over 1500 meters and easily adapt to cooler climates.  As for the conditions for an agave to grow in, it depends on the variety, but as long as there is gritty soil, plenty of sunshine, and a moderate to light source of water they will find a way!

 When and where was your first interaction with tequila?

Story tells my father used tequila as a gum soother during my teething phase. My mother’s angry face at my father every time this story is told is my only reliable source that this is true! After this my first memorable experience with a tequila was at a Palenque some time in 1998 when my grandfather gave me a pulque and then let me try his tequila reposado, he told me about how jimadores would go out to harvest the agaves and how the tequila was made, story which has stuck around since then and helped feed my curiosity to keep learning about Mezcal, Sotol, Raicilla, and Tequila.  

Is there something that one should never eat while drinking tequila?

There are food that should be avoided in general when the body alcohol content reaches limits of intoxication, foods that further dehydrate the body or others that cause a number of illnesses associated to intoxication.

As for pairing a meal with tequila, please experience the versatility of this spirit! There’s no reason to be afraid of ever eating whilst drinking tequila (unless of course you have allergies!)

It is so versatile it is easier to entice you embellish your coffee with tequila, try it with cheese, fruits, seafood, etc…

What is the ideal way to drink tequila?

Neat. Although, it is adaptable to suit the most discerning palate. For those whom appreciate the taste of the spirit an añejo “up” can be such a delightful treat.  

 Why do you love tequila?

I love agave spirits in general be it mescal, raicilla, sotol, or tequila. It is part of my heritage. I love these spirits because of the artisan and spiritual process behind their production.

I love it because I can create experiences with our culinary culture through my cocktails, agave spirits represent an area of our food culture that has a lot to be exploited and explored. Agave spirits have made a huge impact in recent years through the expansion of mescal and have left foot print in the past with classic cocktails such as the margarita.

We are living in great times for agave spirits and we have much more to taste, that’s why I love tequila or agave spirits.

 How should one who is new to tequila begin to train their palate? Any specific types to try first?

First off, take it slow. Forget about college and starting the party with tequila shots. There’s a taboo with hangovers and “fiestas” that haunts the history of tequilas. When in reality there’s no reason to be afraid!

Let’s think of agave spirits as we do wine for a moment. This should put things in perspective. Just like wine there’s a lot of influence from the altitude on which the agave plant grows, the soil, the weather, the process it undergoes, its aging, etc… So when it comes to training your palate into the world of agave spirits there’s quite and adventure awaiting.

 I like to start off friends on agave spirits by tasting a tequila blanco first, then tequila añejo, and a cold tequila cristalino. Then following up with a set of mezcales such as Espadín or Tobala. And finishing up with a Raicilla and Sotol. This gives you a fine range in tastes and sets up a scale for your taste buds.

What’s your favorite tequila and tobacco pairing?

Tequila infused with tobacco leaves. Well, this just goes to show the versatility of the agave spirits, and as far as the taste is concerned well the transformation brings notes of wood and spices into the mix, this is very helpful when creating a new recipe for a cocktail.

 What type of food do you recommend pairing tequila with? Are there specific spices or herbs that you recommend?

 One word, ALL. Think about it, a sweet sauce with tequila, I don’t know perhaps a fruity sauce with tequila or just a nice spicy tequila sauce. We might as well create a mezcal barbecue sauce to give other popular barbecue sauces a run for their money.

Agave spirits can be used in desserts, soups, salads, they complement seafood surprisingly well, just about all Mexican cuisine, chiles, fruits, spices… I recommend you begin to experiment pairing food with agave spirits, go to the basics, deep to the roots, try an agave spirit as an aperitif before a pozole or have it with a traditional mole poblano.

Which of the four tastes do you recommend to pair tequila with? Sweet, salty, sour, or bitter?

I’ll answer this question with a YES! And on a serious note, let’s talk about cocktails… first thing that comes to mind is a Classic Margarita. You may say, but, David could you please elaborate on that, and I will. Have you had a classic margarita in the last month? Tequila, Cointreau, and Lime juice. Now let’s talk about agave syrup and the margarita, or a salt rim, maybe sugar rim?… Do you see where I’m going with this? All variations in one cocktail all equally delicious in its own particular way. That is just one contemporary classic cocktail. The possibilities are endless and with such an extensive array of ingredients just within our culture what is not to love about any of the tastes? I personally invite you to sit at our bar for a journey through México and its agave culture through our cocktails.    

Does soil, fermentation and distillation all affect taste?

Of course! remember we talked about comparing agave spirits to wine? Maestros Tequileros, Mezcaleros, etc… they all have a profound knowledge of their craft from their soil to their plants and so on. There’s a particular beauty to the soulful and artisan ways to produce these exceptional spirits, from the most rudimentary ways to the most up to date state of the art palenques (by the way a palenque is the place where these spirits are brought to life!).

We could talk about soil quality, fermentation periods, distillation procedures all day long, at the end of the day the spirit itself will pass on to your palate the taste of centuries of craftsmanship. 

Does the type of barrel that it’s stored in matter?

Yes. It directly influences the visual, aromatic, and flavor characteristics of the spirit. To keep it short and sweet and give you a general idea the oak contributes by making the spirit have silkier texture to it, white American oak will contribute to aromas of fresh sawdust and a French oak will contribute to with a hint of vanilla. It can get complex really quick since the influence of the cask over the spirit can be to the extent of the composition of the oak to the soil on which the tree itself grew. Interesting, right?!

Patron obviously has the most famous reputation – why? Are there other types you’d say offer the same quality, but lesser cost or easier accessibility?

Such an interesting question when we begin to talk about branding and putting quality and price on a balance for these crafted spirits. Let us talk about what we’re doing for the longevity and continuity of the art of making agave spirts and the agave plans themselves. Plants which could take anywhere from 5 to 35 years to reach maturity and finding solutions to ensure we have these spirits for years to come.

What are the top trends in Agave Spirits today?

Mezcal, Mezcal, Mezcal! The growth and demand for this spirit in particular is incredible, ten years ago mezcal was a $10 million dollars industry compared to today’s industry having a market share upwards to $130 million dollars annually.

Cocktail enthusiasts and mixologist around the world are putting the spotlight on Mezcal. We are seeing a rise in mezcalerias and variety of chick craft cocktails. With good reason have you tried a Mezcal Margarita yet?!

What do you think your guests enjoy most about the tequila tasting that’s provided at Thompson Playa del Carmen?

Some of our guests  are truly experiencing tequila for the first time, we have a number of people come see us at the tequila tastings with the common idea that tequila equals headache or a horrible hangover, that tequila is a cactus, that tequila is a spirit to get wasted with or little to zero knowledge overall.

It is extremely satisfying to share our culture and let people experience tequila far beyond a shot with salt and lime. Furthermore offering the opportunity to experience the difference in tastes present in the presentations of the tequilas and other agave spirits.