Agave Grows Up

How popular has tequila become in the past decade? Adelitas Cocina Y Cantina in Denver, which has grown its collection to more than 155 tequilas, has run out of shelf space for all the new expressions, says co-owner Brian Rossi.

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Of Masa Azul’s 14 cocktails, several are Margarita variations, while others are agave variants of classic drinks.

Adelitas is now expanding those shelves to make more room and satisfy the demand for tequila, a spirit that’s been gaining respect in the past 10 years, Rossi says. “Now people are more educated about agave distillates, and we are seeing a rise in hand-crafted artisanal brands.” Adelitas prices its tequilas from $5 to $125.

Indeed, artisanal spirits like high-end tequilas are cited as the top trend in beverage alcohol by the National Restaurant Association in its 2015 Culinary Forecast. The spirit has benefited from crossover interest in barrel-aged spirits.

Tequila has become a growth driver of the spirits industry in the U.S., not only as the base for America’s favorite cocktail, the Margarita, but also achieving a reputation for sipping quality. Tequila volumes were up a healthy 5.2% in 2014, according to the Beverage Information & Insights Group, the research unit of Cheers’ parent company. Most of that growth occurred in the superpremium arena.

New and notable

“I rely upon my distributors to keep me up to date on all new tequilas coming onto the market,” says Greg Clements, bar manager at Alegria Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar in Nashville, TN. For example, he was recently sold on Patron’s new ultrapremium Roca line after an extensive tasting.

Alegria currently carries more than 100 tequilas, but Clements plans on cutting back the list by half to better focus on the brands that move. Prices range from $5 a shot up to $70 for top-shelf sippers such as Gran Patron Burdeos and Don Julio 1942. “I sold three of those high-end tequilas to a table just last night,” Clements says.

“We’re seeing more artisanal producers highlighting the use of the tahona, the volcanic roca [rock] used to crush agave pinas,” says Bill Fairbanks, vice president of operations for the three-unit Barrio Restaurant Group in Minneapolis. The restaurants offer a core list of 126 tequilas, priced from $5 up to $96. Popular call brands are Maestro Dobel, which debuted silver, reposado and añejo expressions, and Clase Azul, whose hand-painted bottles show off well on the restaurant’s mirrored backbar, aka the “Tequila Library.”

“We are seeing more sipping of tequila,” says Fairbanks, noting that the sweet spot for sampling is in the $14 to $26 per glass range. He makes a point to stock all three or four expressions of every brand.

“When customers find a label they like, they are more willing to step up, from the blanco to the reposado or from repo to añejo or extra añejo,” Fairbanks explains. They are interested in experiencing how additional aging affects the spirit.  

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A lineup (L-R) of specialty Margaritas at Barrio in Minneapolis. Cesar Chavez: Cabrito reposado tequila, Mandarine Napolean and orange juice. Macho Camacho: A blood orange Margarita made with ancho chili-infused tequila and a splash of cava. Enter the Dragon: A passion fruit Margarita with muddled Fresno pepper and a splash of cava. The Trinity: Cabrito blanco tequila, Cointreau and fresh-squeezed lime juice.

Mezcal Mystique

These days you can’t talk about tequila without mentioning its fast-rising agave brother mezcal. Tequila itself is a type of mezcal, but with delimited agave growing areas and strictly regulated production methods. Mezcal has a smoky flavor profile because the agave is fire-roasted rather than kilned as tequila is. Growing infatuation with tequila has led to greater interest in mezcal.

“Absolutely, mezcal is getting more popular and more available,” says Leah Marino, beverage director for the Philadephia-based parent company Cantina Dos Segundos and Cantina Los Caballitos. The two Mexican concepts have strong tequila selections, at 160 and 62, respectively.

Marino has been growing the mezcal offerings as well, with 20 at Dos Segundos and eight at Caballitos; prices range from $7 to $40 a glass. “Mezcal fits the flavor trends towards bolder and stronger,” says the beverage director.

“When we opened more than three years ago, we were more tequila-focused, with about 80 tequilas and just six mezcals,” says Jason Lerner, owner/bar director of Masa Azul, a Mexican street-food restaurant and bar in Chicago. “Since then I’ve upped the mezcal as it became more available, and trimmed the tequilas to small-batch producers.”

Masa Azul carries about 50 examples of each, with a small selection of other Mexican spirits such as raicilla, sotol and bacanora. (See sidebar “Agave Spirits and Cousins,” page 16.) Customer have warmed to mezcal, Lerner says. “I couldn’t be this strong in mezcal if I didn’t have an audience.”

Along with its backbar shelves, Adelitas has expanded its selection of mezcals, now totaling 49, along with five sotols, a bacanora, and some raicilla. “We not only love our tequila, but we are extremely passionate about all agave distillates,” says Rossi.

With a name like Mezcal Cantina, it’s not surprising that the concept has a vested interest in mescal. “Just over the last six months to a year, we’ve been selling so much more mezcal,” says Shayne Filo, director of spirits and cocktails for Niche Hospitality Group, which operates Mezcal Cantina restaurants in Leominister, MA, and Worcester, MA.

While the tequila selection has remained steady at 150, mezcal has grown from a single brand to 40. “Our guests are more educated about tequila and now curious about mezcal,” Filo says.

Cocktail Connection

Despite a trend toward more sipping of tequila—and mezcal—the cocktail, especially the Margarita, is the big draw. Operators say that a well-made drink is the best way to encourage exploration of the category.

“While we do sell a lot of neat pours and flights of tequila and mezcal, our cocktails are the biggest avenue by which we showcase these spirits and introduce people to them,” says Lerner at Masa Azul. There is a comfort zone in tasting a new spirit in a mixed drink, he explains. And customers who enjoy a cocktail often go on to try the liquor on its own.

Of Masa Azul’s 14 cocktails, priced $8 to $12, several are Margarita variations, including the Primero, which substitutes damiana herbal liqueur for triple sec, as called for in the original recipe. Other drinks are agave variants of classics, such as the Oaxacan Negroni and an Old Fashioned with mezcal, which encourage trial, says Lerner.

Perhaps the most interesting drink is the Tour de Mexico, which showcases five examples of the agave: tequila, mezcal, sotol, pulque (a beer-like drink) and agave nectar.

Mezcal Cantinas also recommend a Mezcal Old Fashioned to guests. “You get a little bit of smoke, but balanced, not overpowering,” says Filo. Often customers will then try the mezcal on its own. “It helps us get the conversation going with guests.”

At Alegria, a popular cocktail is a twist on a classic called the Tijuana Mule, made with blanco tequila, lime juice and ginger beer. But Clements admits that most tequila sales are from Margaritas. The house standard is $5 at Happy Hour, with the premium version ringing in at $15.

“We are known for our Margaritas and sell a lot of them,” says Marino at Dos Segundos and Caballitos, explaining that the majority of tequila sales come from cocktails. The popular El Burro Rosado is a Moscow Mule variant, and an Old Fashioned substitutes Siembra Azul anejo tequila for whiskey.

Top-selling drinks at Adelitas, Rossi says, include the Mezcal-rita, made with Del Maguey Vida mezcal, agave nectar and fresh lime juice. The classic Paloma is a tequila-based cocktail made with fresh red grapefruit juice topped with a splash of Squirt citrus soda.

“We’ve been selling more mezcal-based cocktails,” says Fairbanks at Barrio, who notes that the spirit’s smoky flavor often appeals to Scotch drinkers. An example is Up In Smoke, a cocktail of Del Maguey Vida mezcal, pineapple and lime juice and serrano pepper.

Another innovation is a cocktail that pairs whiskey and aged tequila: The High Plains Drifter mixes Gran Centenario Anejo with Bulleit rye and ancho chile-infused syrup.

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Cantina Dos Segundos in Philadelphia offers a selection of 169 tequilas and 20 mezcals.

Flight Patterns

With so many new tequila brands and expressions now available, flights have become key for on-premise operators. “We sell our share of cocktails, but we also encourage our staff to sell flights,” says Rossi. Adelita’s flight holder is a miniature coa, the tool used by jimadors to harvest the agave. Tequilas often come with a side of spicy house-made sangrita. Tastes of mezcal are served in copitas, traditional handmade clay cups.

Barrio restaurants offer 35 different set flights; eight of which showcase mezcal. Prices range from $12 to $91 for a sampling of extra anejos. Guests can opt for compadres, house-made chasers. Tasting sizes are served in small stemware such as a sherry glass.

At Mesa Azul, Lerner creates bespoke flights for customers, highlighting different aspects of tequila and mezcal, including the effects of terroir. Tequilas are served in Riedel glasses designed to show off the liquor; mezcal is offered in veladoras, small votive-candle holders.

“We have a number of flights and sell a lot of them,” says Marino at Dos Segundos and Caballitos. Guests will often sample three tequilas and then order a shot of their favorite. Tequila is poured in caballitos, a traditional tall shot-glass.

“Flights are huge business for us,” says Filo. The two Mezcal Cantinas list three price tiers for tequilas and mezcals: the lowest is for a flight tasting size, the mid-price is for a cocktail or a full pour, and the highest is the pitcher price for drinks. Mezcal flights are especially popular, and new additions to the backbar are highlighted that way.

Barrelling in

Mezcal Cantina just purchased an entire barrel of Maestro Dobel tequila. After tasting samples of six different barrel treatments from the producer, the operator selected the best for its clientele. Maestro Dobel bottled the barrel with a label that reads hand-selected for Mezcal Cantina.

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Adelitas Cocina Y Cantina in Denver, which has grown its collection to more than 155 tequilas, has run out of shelf space for all the new expressions.

Why buy a barrel? “It’s a great tequila, and this allows us to sell it at a better price, passing the savings along to our guests,” explains Filo.

“We are always searching for new ideas and events,” says Rossi. He and some of his key staff are heading to Mexico, first to Jalisco to check out tequila distilleries and then to Oaxaca to visit a couple of mezcal distilleries.

Back home, the next project is to transform a back section of the restaurant, now a bar called El Guapo, into a traditional mezcaleria. “We will be focusing on mezcals and central-Mexico foods,” says Rossi.

“My goal will be to find a good source for grasshoppers and crickets,” he adds. “So if you know anyone selling crickets, let me know.”

Thomas Henry Strenk is a freelance writer who has traveled extensively in Mexico, tasted tequila right from the still and enjoyed cricket-topped pizza in Oaxaca.

Agave Spirits and Cousins

The agave is not a cactus but rather a member of the lily family, and there are several hundred species of this perennial desert plant. Mezcal is the fermented and distilled product of the agave plant. All tequilas are mezcals, but tequila is made exclusively from the Weber blue agave variety, grown only in five Mexican states, chiefly Jalisco, but also Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.

Mezcal can be and is made all over Mexico, but primarily in Oaxaca. It can be produced from a number of different agave types. The biggest difference between tequila and mezcal is production processes.

For tequila, the heart of the agave, called the pina, is shredded mechanically and then cooked in closed-kiln ovens. For mezcal, the pina is crushed by a volcanic millstone towed by burros, then baked in ember-lined pits that give the spirit its characteristic smokiness. Whereas many tequilas are produced in quantity at large distilleries, mezcal is still made primarily by small independent artisans.

As agave geeks have latched onto mezcal as a new interest, they are now being intrigued by related sister and cousin spirits, bacanora, raicilla and sotol. Bacanora is produced from the Agave Pacifico plant in the Mexican state of Sonora. Illegal until 1992, bacanora now has its own denomination of origin.

Raicilla is sort of a moonshine mezcal, also produced in Jalisco—usually along the coastline—from wild agave. Legal varieties of this liquor are now available in the U.S.

Sotol is not agave-based but distilled from a plant called Desert Spoon and is made in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

All of these different spirits from Mexico are produced, like tequila and mezcal, in various expressions according to maturation: blanco (white or unaged), reposado (rested or slightly aged) and añejo (old).—TS

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Mezcal Cantina, operated by Worcester MA-based Niche Hospitality Group, has upped its mezcals from a single brand to 40.

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