Tequila’s image and appeal has seen a boost in recent years, thanks to creative twists and contemporary craft-style cocktails using the agave-based spirit. The growth of high-end sippers, through flights and other marketing efforts, has also broadened consumer and trade awareness and knowledge of tequila.
Barrio operates five units in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, but it’s the downtown flagship where tequila does best. “Tequila is fairly popular now, more of a standard spirit rather than a niche market like it used to be,” says general manager Erik Haglind. “A lot more people are knowledgeable about the differences in tequilas, where in the past, even people who worked in the industry didn’t really know a lot.”
Then there’s the Margarita, the number-one cocktail in the U.S. The drink’s popularity was initially fueled by Mexican and Tex-Mex-themed operations, but it’s become more mainstream and more upscale.
“People love a well-crafted and fresh Margarita,” says Mat Snapp, beverage director at Phoenix, AZ, based-Fox Restaurant Concepts, which includes five Blanco Tacos + Tequila units. “The fun modifications to the classic are coming in homemade syrups and sours, craft liqueurs replacing Curaçaos and triple secs—really just using the name ‘Margarita’ as a vehicle for tequila and new flavor.”
As an example, Snapp cites a cocktail made with chamomile-infused Cointreau liqueur and dragonfruit/white-tea syrup with white tequila and lime. Sounds more like a craft cocktail, but drinks like a Margarita, he notes.
Tequila has continued its multiyear surge in popularity. The category grew about 8.5% in volume (more than 1.3 million cases) in 2017, and nearly 10% in value, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. figures released in February.
The most impressive growth came at the high-end premium (up 14.1%) and superpremium (12.2%). DISCUS-defined high-end premium brands include El Jimador, Cazadores and Hornitos, while superpremium tequilas include Patron, Herradura, Don Julio, Tres Generaciones, Avion and Casa Noble.
Tequila selections vary by operation. 400 Rabbits, a cocktail lounge adjacent to the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema location in Austin, TX, has a tightly controlled list of agave spirits—eight brands and 23 tequila expressions, nine brands and 23 mezcals, with a few sotols.
Other agave-focused operations go large: At Las Perlas in downtown Los Angeles, one of a number of mezcalerias that have opened to great success in the past few years, more than 400 agave spirits take center stage. New York’s La Contente Oeste and La Contente Lower East Side boast more than 200 tequilas and mezcals with prices ranging from $7 to $38 per ounce, depending on the brand.
Barrios stocks about 120 tequilas, plus 20 mezcals in what Haglind figures is the largest offering in the state. A four-shelf wall looming behind the bar displays the tequilas with the expressions ascending in age, and most reachable only by ladder.
Restaurants such as Lubbock, TX-based Abuelo’s, with 40-plus units in Texas, the Southeast, Midwest and Southwest, are dependent on national distribution for brands.But the chain still carries 35 to 60 depending on location, says Brian Bell, vice president, beverage for Food Concepts International: DBA Abuelo’s.
“People walk in the door here and there are two things they’re going to count on: draft Mexican beer and a good selection of tequilas to choose from.”
Tequila has managed to cling to its “sour” drink heritage. Most of the cocktails found even at craft cocktail bars today include some form of citrus, for example.
The Paloma—tequila with a grapefruit-flavored soda and a spritz of fresh lime—has been catching on and becoming a standard menu item. But various Margaritas are what keep the lights on, even among confirmed agave sippers. During Happy Hours, which extend on weekends from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., Las Perlas serves Margaritas and Palomas through a draft system by the glass or pitcher.
Spirits account for more than 85% of alcohol sales at Barrios, with the vast majority of that coming from tequila and mezcal, says Haglind. And the well-established list of Margarita-like creations leads the way. Barrios offers 11 Margarita-type drinks in all, plus four other cocktails with tequila.
In addition to the two best sellers—the house variant and a top-shelf splurge—Barrios Margarita-style drinks include The Macho Camacho, made with blood oranges, ancho-chile-infused tequila and cava; Enter the Dragon, with passion fruit, muddled pepper and cava; and Diamante Pepino with cristalino tequila, cucumber and jalapeno. The restaurant also offers a pineapple juice/serrano pepper/mezcal effort called Up In Smoke.
400 Rabbits offers $5 Happy Hour Margaritas, Palomas and El Diablos (reposado tequila, lime juice, ginger beer, cassis). Other cocktails at 400 Rabbits, normally priced in the $10 range, include the Phoenix (joven mezcal, green chili liqueur, lime, tajin), the Firing Squad (blanco tequila, lime, grenadine, bitters, soda), the Garden Margarita (tequila, lime, celery, cucumber, cilantro) and the agave triple play Tiki Tiki Tavi (blanco tequila, reposado sotol, mezcal, velvet falernum, lime juice, spiced syrup, grapefruit soda).
Even at New York’s La Contente Oeste and La Contente Lower East Side, where authenticity is important, Margaritas are the top seller, says partner and mixologist Alex Valencia. “But next to the Margarita, our signature cocktails are right up there.”
La Contente’s specialty cocktails include a group of what Valencia calls “bebidas ancestrales,” that showcase the flavors of Mexico.
Ingredients include cactus pear, prickly pear, huitlacoche, pulque, tepache, corn and damiana flower, among others. “Bebidas ancestrales for me is a recipe that combines equal parts of tradition and flavors with the main ingredient which is mixology,” Valencia says. “The final product is a new experience for our customers.”
At a Premium
As might be expected, Margaritas are even more important at classic Tex-Mex-themed restaurant chains. Many of these operators have upped their Margarita game as well. Abuelo’s, for instance, recently added a new premium Margarita, Bell says. The El Jefe Margarita is made with Maestro Dobel Diamante tequila percolated in a glass vacuum coffee brewer through grilled oranges.
“That drink category—the premium Margarita—has been a big grower for us, up 10% and at Happy Hour, up about 30%,” he says. “Margaritas are a very familiar platform so you can do new and interesting flavors with them because customers are willing to engage.”
That makes it the perfect trade-up vehicle, Bell says, with greater profitability. It also gives Abuelo’s the opportunity to move into $10 and up cocktails. El Jefe is the most expensive, and in some units, the biggest seller.
Yet, at the same time, Bell says that whenever he tries to upgrade the $6 house Margarita made with mixto tequila, an uproar from guests pushes him back.
With tequila, you get a mix all across the gamut, “people who want to shoot it, people who want to sip and enjoy the craftsmanship of the product, and then there are people who want to throw it into a Margarita,” Bell notes.
“I’m a big tequila snob personally, but if we have people come in who want a Margarita with Herradura Selecion Suprema, I’m not going to turn away an order for $40-plus drink.”
Flights have been useful as a sampling and educational tool, and. At 400 Rabbits they have helped drive sales for both tequila and mezcal, although tequilas still outsell mezcals two to one.
“Our flights tend to be mezcal heavy. The base of mezcal drinkers isn’t nearly as deep as with tequila, but it’s growing as consumers come to understand that the mezcal they had years ago at a frat party that was bad is not what that category is,” says Bill Norris, beverage director of Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas in Austin.
“What’s changed in the last 5 or 10 years is a growing appreciation for tequila and mezcal as spirits on their own and branching out,” says Norris.
As a mezcaleria, Las Perlas goes further. Bar manager Bartholomew Walsh co-curates the Mezcal Collective, a membership program that introduces brands to customers in frequent talks and sampling sessions. “Over the past couple of years, people have been much more interested to try things they have never heard about, and with mezcal that’s especially the case,” he says. That’s not really surprising, “because it’s one of the last really artisanal spirits out there.”
La Perlas, in fact, sells about as much mezcal as tequila, with more than 175 tequilas priced from $8 to $50 for a 1-¾-oz .pour, and at least 185 mezcals priced from $6 to $85 for a 1-oz. pour.
Education and Production
Like sampling via flights, staff education is key, especially as the ethics and practices of agave spirit producers receive more scrutiny from the trade. Patron, for instance, has taken a number of steps to limit the impact of its tequila production, including reforesting, creating fertilizer compost from leftover agave fibers and developing a water treatment process at its distillery.
“If you look at brands like Siembra Azul and their mezcals, they are transparent about the process, number of distillations, type of oven, on the label. Those bottles tell a story and connect people more to what is really special about agave spirits,” says Norris.
Understanding how, by whom and from where tequila is produced can enhance the enjoyment. “Getting bartenders and servers excited and able to convey that contagious excitement to our guests is important, especially with mezcal, because once people go down the rabbit hole of mezcal, there’s no climbing out,” Norris says.
Indeed, there is great enthusiasm for education. “For those deep in the spirits world—they listen, they sip, they taste, the critique, they enjoy, they educate,” says Snapp.
Don’t overdo it, though.
“Maybe only 10% of your guests are looking for an education, so forcing one on everyone isn’t the right move,” Snapp notes. “But having a bar team that is ready to discuss tahona vs. roller mill [methods of tequila production] gives that business and bar an edge.”
Jack Robertiello is a spirits writer and judge based in Brooklyn, NY. Read his piece Imported Whisky Trends in 2018.