Ask tequila-loving restaurateurs what new chapter they would add to any book on tequila, and the answers spill forth. Some jump to the growing popularity of ultra-premium extra-añejos, others mention the boom in mezcal (tequila’s smoky grandfather). But all celebrate the fact that tequila is being taken seriously as a fine sipping spirit and as a nuanced craft-cocktail base with potential far beyond the standard Margarita.
“Tequila is very hot,” says Jake Daniken, beverage director of Chicago’s Mercat a la Planxa, which sells ten tequilas, priced from $8 to $35. “People are finally seeing tequila as much more of a cocktail-friendly spirit.”
“Tequila is no longer just teenagers doing shots during Spring break. Now people want to sip it,” says Mario Letayf, who—with co-owner Antonio Marquez—operates 5 restaurants in Monterrey, Mexico, and, the new Lazaranda Mexican Seafood Grill, in Addison, Texas. “As little as four years ago, tequila was considered a strong glass of liquor. But since the tequila makers started refining and aging it, it has become much softer and more approachable, so, more people here like it better,” says Letayf, who offers 36 to 40 brands of tequila priced from $8 to $50 for a 2 oz. shot.
In his market, Letayf says Patrón has great name recognition, “But we are finding Don Julio along with Herradura to be our biggest sellers.” Promoting these leading brands, Lazaranda may offer samples of featured tequilas at brand-specific parties, or, offer them at a special price in limited-time-offers.
In Portland, OR, bar manager Lee Watson, of the Original Dinerant—which offers 26 brands of tequila, priced from $8 to $26 per shot—sees interest in a mix of both big brands and more artisanal products: “The market is still dominated by Cuervo and Sauza. But you do see more brands like Casa Noble, Uno Dos Tres and Fortaleza.”
Those reports match up with latest sales numbers from the Beverage Information Group, Cheers’ parent company, which show Jose Cuervo still at the top (despite a 1.5 percent drop in volume compared with 2010), followed by Patrón which grew 6.5 percent last year and Sauza which grew 9.9 percent. Total tequila volume jumped 3.8 percent from 2010 to 2011.
Given the explosion of tequilas on the market, bartenders have to ensure consistency to earn guests’ trust with the tequilas they feature, says Jason Lerner, owner of Masa Azul, a restaurant with a focus on small-batch tequilas in Chicago’s Logan Square.
To do so, says Philip Ward, owner of Mayahuel in New York City, “The thing you want from tequila is quality and consistency. It’s not just about a pretty bottle.” Mayahuel offers more than 70 tequilas, priced from $8 to $25 per serving.
Beyond the NOM
At least one consistency check is apparent right on each bottle: the NOM—the Mexican government regulated Official Mexican Standard of Tequila—shows which distillery each bottle of tequila was made. Red flags should wave if you notice a brand’s NOM changing every year. “If the NOM on a certain brand’s tequila bottle changes every year, be wary,” says Laurence Kretchmer, managing partner at Bold Food, the multi-concept Bobby Flay restaurant company, and author of The Mesa Grill Guide to Tequila “That means the brand is using a different distillery from one year to the next, which means you are not going to get a consistent product.”
Beyond the NOM, “It really comes down to careful research, trial and error and tasting,” says Ward.
From the guest standpoint, bartenders report that greater numbers of restaurant and bar guests are interested in learning the differences between tequila brands and classifications.
Helping them learn, a growing number of bars are offering tequila flights that encourage guests to sip and savor the flavor of tequila, rather than shoot it down.
Usually small ½ ounce to ¾ ounce pours of tequilas, set up in trios, flights may be vertical—allowing guests to sip through the different age and types of aging categories (blanco, reposado and añejo) of one family of tequila. Flights may compare different brands, or, they may be set up to compare or contrast highland or lowland tequilas.
Many bartenders recommend the flight approach. “Flights offer great price value,” says Brian Sirhal, co-owner of Cantina Feliz and the just-opened La Calaca Feliz in Philadelphia, which carries 20 brands and 60 total tequilas, priced from $7 to $15, and has eight flights—most in the $9 to $12 range. “People look at a flight and realize, “Hey, I can try three different tequilas for $12” which is a good value. Sirhal says these guests purchase more than one flight. “So the value equation helps get them away from shots to sipping and then once they’re there, they stay there and ultimately learn a lot about tequila.”
As well, ordering smaller pours in multiples is analogous to ordering tasting-menu portions of food. “People really like that “a little bit of this and that” approach,” says Steve Calabro, house mixologist with Red O Restaurant in Los Angeles, which carries 95 tequilas priced from $10 to $150. Calabro is working with Rick Bayless, Red O’s concept chef, on a sharing menu that will pair tequilas with small bites. “The idea is to keep that educational element there, but to make it fun and friendly,” says Calabro. “Ceviches go well with blancos, reposados with chicken or fish, and añejos, something like a pork-belly sope.”
Gateway Tequila Cocktails
But as open as new converts are to sipping tequilas, operators say cocktails are where most tequila is consumed. “I’d say comparing cocktails vs. pours, at least 80 percent of our tequila sales are in cocktails,” says Lerner of Masa Azul. “As much as I’d like more guests to order tequila to sip,” agrees Jay Silverman of the Agave Tequila Bar in New York City, “90 percent still want it in a cocktail.”
Compared with other major spirits—tequila has been last to get the craft cocktail embrace. “If you study the history of classic cocktails, it’s difficult to find very many with tequila,” says Jenny Kessler mixologist and bar director at Masa Azul. “But we’re working to change that.”
To get there, Kessler sidesteps the ubiquitous frozen Margarita, which she says conspires on every level to, “shut tequila up. First, any softness or undertones to the tequila are lost to the over-use of acid, there are no aromatics because the drink is frozen has no fresh herbs,” she explains. Shifting the- paradigm, Kessler’s close to 20 tequila (and mezcal and sotol) cocktails at Masa Azul are carefully mixed to balance base spirit, modifiers and aromatics.
More than a Margarita
While Masa Azul skips the margarita moniker entirely, other operators keep the classic drink name on the menu, but riff with the contents. At Red O the Market Margarita is made with muddled fresh cucumber and honeydew melon, Espolon blanco tequila, lemon and lime juices, and, the Alacran Margarita, with Sauza Conmemorativo tequila, Veev Acai spirit, Torres orange liqueur, fresh lemonade, and Serrano-infused syrup.
At the Original Dinerant the Rita includes Antiguo Herradura Blanco tequila, fresh lime juice, house-made triple sec St. Germaine, orange flower water and candied orange-peel.
Likewise, at Mercat the Melo Picante, a play on a watermelon margarita, includes Avion Silver Tequila, Grand Marnier, fresh watermelon, house-made sour mix and house-made habanero syrup, shaken and served in a Rocks Glass rimmed with cayenne sugar.
Begin with Blanco
Because blanco (silver) tequilas are generally more familiar in a cocktail and less expensive than their longer-aged siblings, many restaurants start their craft-tequila-cocktail programs with blanco and build from there. At his restaurants, Sirhal is having success infusing blanco tequilas with tea. His Juan Daily, an alcoholic version of the Arnold Palmer, is a tea-infused El Jimador Blanco Tequila mixed with simple syrup and fresh lemon juice, while his best-selling I’m a King Bee cocktail includes Espolon Blanco infused with chamomile tea, honey syrup,lemon and basil.
Moving beyond blanco, when Masa Azul’s Kessler works with reposado in cocktails, she balances flavors with “ruby red fruits,” such as cherries, or even malbec wine. Her “The Smoking Jacket” features Casa Noble Reposado, malbec, sweet potato-avocado leaf puree and lemon with a smoked brown sugar and sea salt rim.
At Mayahuel, Ward likes reposado with sweet vermouth. His Jet Stream cocktail has Pueblo Viejo Reposado, Bombay-Chai-infused sweet vermouth, orgeat, lemon and whiskey-barrel bitters.
While Ward says añejo is more challenging to use in a cocktail because of the cost (most good añejos cost more than $40 a bottle) his The Last Straw Cobbler features Pueblo Viejo añejo—a tequila Ward calls the “blue collar Cadillac of the añejo world” along with strawberries, Velvet Falernum and aromatic bitters.
Going further, some, such as Kessler—are mixing many agave-based spirits in one glass: Masa Azul’s Tour de Mexico has Del Maguey “Santo Domingo” mezcal, Pueblo Viejo reposado, Hacienda de Chihuahua sotol Reposado (a tequila-like spirit made from the dessert spoon plant), 1881 pulque natural (agave wine), house-made limonada and agave nectar.
Better With Age
Discussing where the tequila category is headed, several operators say extra-añejo tequilas (aged three years or more) are gaining in popularity. “Consumers are really latching on to extra añejos, drinking them in place of Cognac, fine brandies and fine whiskies,” says Tad Carducci of Philadelphia-based Tippling Bros.
Sirhal lists añejo and extra añejo tequilas on his dessert menus, “as you would Cognac.” Started about a year ago, the dessert tequilas have garnered quite a bit of interest, says Sirhal.
Also exciting? Intertwined with the boom in tequila, mezcal—another agave-based spirit—is taking off. Compared with tequila which is made from blue agave, mezcal is made from any one of dozens of varieties of agave—some cultivated, some wild, some only available in one village. Because mezcal is made in a process that involves smoking the agave over rocks buried in underground pits, the spirit’s flavor is much stronger and smokier than tequila. In craft-cocktail circles, mezcal has become “a darling of bartenders,” says Carducci.
At Masa Azul, “Mezcal is our favorite spirit” says owner Lerner. “In the tequila family, it’s like the crazy uncle, unexpected and unpredictable.” Bartender Kessler says mezcal cocktails with big, bold flavors have been the most popular: “Guests don’t seem to want a “hold-your-hand” mezcal experience.”
Ward of Mayahuel agrees. “No spirit caters to spicy and savory cocktails better than mezcal. One of his most popular? Ron’s Dodge Charger: Del Maguey Vida Joven Mezcal infused with Chile de Arbol and agave nectar, fresh lime and pineapple juice, shaken and served in an up glass with smoked-salt rim.
To keep the category moving forward, most operators say it’s important to continue training staff about tequila, and, to market the spirit. Several talk about offering a featured “tequila of the night” (or, “of the week.”) If the featured tequila is one that staff is less familiar with, the special gives them a chance to familiarize themselves. It can also help bring an under-promoted tequila back to server consciousness. “Tequila Tuesdays” at the Agave Tequila Bar in New York City work that way. “We always pick a brand that’s less familiar, in order to get everybody on board with it,” says Silverman.
Promotions around flights, tequila clubs and dessert tequilas also help stoke tequila interest. “You really just want to give guests better understanding, new options and new reasons to try tequila, says Letayf at Lazaranda Mexican Seafood Grill, who has been promoting flights, and, just launched a Tequila Club with prizes. “Once they have that, it just grows,” he concludes.