Modern Living: Aztec

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Slow at first to make itself felt, tequila after two or three rounds comes on like a mariachi band. Mexico's national spirit has crept up on the U.S.

market in much the same way. Before 1970, liquor stores used to stock tequila —if they carried it at all—on a back shelf alongside ouzo and grappa. In the past five years, however, annual imports have increased more than 400%; where only a handful of brands were available north of the border ten years ago, some 250 labels are now registered, accounting for total yearly sales of more than 5 million gallons. Says an industry newsletter: "Tequila is hot!"

Made from a cactus-like succulent grown in volcanic soil near the town of Tequila in Jalisco, tequila was probably the first distilled liquor in America; it was an Aztec tipple. Today its staunchest U.S. aficionados are in the West, where generations of visitors to Baja California have knocked back the musty-smelling liquor for a few cents a glass. It is no cheap shot north of the border; prized brands like José Cuervo 1800 and Sauza Conmemorativo sell for $10 to $11 a fifth. Nonetheless, at outlets such as Liquor Castle in Beverly Hills, which sells 20 cases a month, tequila sales are doubling every year. Says Owner Simon Levi: "Tequila outsells bourbon 5 to 1. I've been in the business 40 years and I've never seen anything like it. It's like vodka was ten years ago."

Tequila Sunrise. Throughout the country, tequila appeals most strongly to the young, for whom it serves as something of a maturity symbol. Its biggest new markets beyond California are states with high college enrollments, notably Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois; the major distributors promote their product heavily on campus. The tequila boom was partly pushed by the Rolling Stones, who swigged the stuff on tour, and another rock group, the Eagles, who recorded a hit called Tequila Sunrise (named for the tequila potion made with orange juice and grenadine).

Though a few diehards still down tequila the traditional way—straight, with a lick of salt and a wedge of lime—most gringos prefer cocktail variations like the Margarita, made with lime juice and triple sec. Other Aztec ¡Oles!: T'n'T (with tonic); Bloody Maria or Mexican Mary (substituting tequila for vodka); Brave Bull (with Kahlua); the Freddy Fudpucker (with orange juice and Galliano); and Cold Gold, a sort of Aztec on the rocks. Tequila will probably never rival bourbon, Scotch, gin or vodka in the U.S. It is additionally appealing in another respect, however. According to Mexico City's National Institute of Hygiene, tequila is rich in yeasts and vitamins.