Stupor Market

Tequila. It's not just for binge drinkers anymore. Super-premium blends have become super popular with well-heeled inbibers, and in the process, super profitable for some bar owners.

At Scottsdale's Coyote Grill, guests can savor a $145 shot of José Cuervo 1800 Colección, straight or blended in a margarita. Though only a few hundred bottles of the extra-agave, oak-barrel-aged spirits are released each year, the Grill will pour as much as anyone wants. And why not -- it renders the restaurant a delicious $90-plus profit per shot. That works out to a profit of at least $1,700 per bottle.

Granted, the bottle retails for around $1,000, but just how good can the tequila taste? Either customers are getting soaked, or some patrons with too much disposable income are suckers.

Sorry, tequila sippers, I've got to go with the latter. It's true that the better tequilas get, the more they taste like fine cognac, but even the experts agree that anyone short of an obsessive connoisseur won't be able to tell the difference past a certain price point.

Coyote Grill owner Chris Harter says he's gone through more than five bottles of the elite Cuervo in the less than two years he's been open, and is chuckling all the way to the bank. "It's definitely a status thing," he says, admitting that the only way to really taste the difference is to compare it directly to a bunch of other tequilas. "It's for total show-offs who want to impress their table, or sometimes we get a group of connoisseurs who will split the cost of a shot just to try it."

Michael Lewis, owner of Drinkwater's Liquor and Cheese in Scottsdale, is flabbergasted that anyone would pay so much for a tequila. His top pick is Herradura's Seleccion Suprema, at $300 a bottle. "The Herradura is excellent, and I can't justify the Cuervo Colección being so much better to cost more than three times as much," he says.

Even José Cuervo's regional manager, Mark Sheehy, notes in Massachusetts Beverage Business that a lot of the tequila's appeal is in its snob factor. "Customers are collectors or someone who's very affluent and wants something that sets him apart as a discerning connoisseur," he says. "And, of course, there are always a few out there who simply have to own the most expensive item in any category."

When the tequila was debuted in 1998, in fact, it was as a collectible marketed through Neiman Marcus.

One regular Coyote Grill customer did put the tequila through the acid test, says Harter, sampling each of the restaurant's more than 110 tequila offerings --over several weekends and at a cost of more than $1,000 -- after Harter promised him a free shot of Colección at the end. "He didn't like it," says Harter. "He said his favorite was the Herradura."

At $35 a shot, the Herradura's still no bargain, but at that price, it sure goes down more smoothly.


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