One good thing about the frenzied flurry of new tequilas introduced in the last few years: It’s sparked plenty of interest among mixologists and consumers.
Total tequila brands have increased 80% since 2006, reaching about 1,300 at the end of 2012, according to Mexico’s tequila-governing Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT) agency. And while it’s unclear how many of those new tequila brands will survive the glut, operators say the explosion of options has piqued customer curiosity.
“The number of guests who know or want to know more about tequila has significantly increased,” says Chuck Meyer, managing partner at La Condesa, a St. Helena, CA, farm-to-table restaurant and tequila bar specializing in the cuisine of Mexico City. “So education is crucial.”
Selling tequila involves doing your homework, staying active and engaged to build and understand a better selection, “and then training your staff so they can interest guests in trying what you have on offer,” Meyer says. “It doesn’t matter that you have a great tequila selection if it just sits there on the back bar.”
In paying attention to what’s new and what the guest wants, “you have to keep your eyes and ears constantly open,” says Nichelle Ritter, beverage director for Dallas-based Consolidated Restaurant Operations (CRO). “There’s no coasting.” CRO operates more than 100 casual theme restaurants, including the Cantina Laredo and El Chico Café concepts.
Keeping abreast of new offerings while appealing to guests with tequila programs that look good, taste great and retain an element of fun isn’t easy. We talked to several top tequila bar and restaurant operators about trends and best practices for selling the spirit. Here are six tips for increasing tequila sales.
1) Stock a balanced selection.
Strike a balance between big-brand tequilas and up-and-coming brands you and your staff are excited about. “It’s all about balancing the known vs. the unknown and encouraging guests to try something new by the power of suggestion,” says Mike Juarez-Sweeney, general manager in charge of the tequila program at one of St. Paul, MN-based Barrio Tequila Bar’s three locations.
“Sometimes the uniqueness of your selection builds loyalty,” Sweeney says. “We have people that come in because we have some tequilas that are only offered here.”
Daryl Freeman, bar manager at Carnivale in Chicago, agrees. “People want the name brands, and it’s easy for them to just order Patron or Don Julio, but there are other things that are just as cool that the average person might not be used to seeing,” he notes. “It’s up to us to find the familiar flavor profile and then use the brand-name product as a lead in, like, “If you love Patron, then you’ll love this, too!”
It’s important to select tequilas with the guest’s palate in mind, not just your own. “I have to remind myself that I’m not just buying for myself,” says Meyer of La Condesa. It has to be a good tequila to be considered, he adds, “but beyond that, I have to think about the flavor profiles my guests are interested in, and not just buy what I like.”
You have to be really picky, advises Jay Silverman, food and beverage manager at Mexican restaurant Agave in New York. “And block everything out but the taste.”
Erwin Stone, general manager at El Carmen in Los Angeles, notes that a lot of places want to have “as many tequilas as are known to man.” But it’s not about the numbers, or the deals and discounts offered by reps, he says. “You really have to make your decisions based on the taste and your own personal research.”
2) Know your stuff.
The very nature of tequila engenders respect: Unlike vodka, gin or other spirits distilled from quickly-grown or easily-obtained sugars, tequila is legally made from the core (pina) of only one kind of agave plant—the tequilana Weber blue variety. The succulent typically takes six to 12 years to mature.
But even with a perfect pina, many steps will ultimately determine the quality of the resulting tequila, from how it was harvested and cooked to how it was juiced, fermented and distilled. Add to that differences in terroir that affect flavor, plus all that goes in to aging reposado and anejo tequilas (the types of wood barrels the tequilas were rested in, what was in the barrels if previously used to age other spirits, length of time in the barrels), and you begin to see why homework is required.
To stay on top of tequila knowledge and terminology, operators say it’s a good idea to schedule as many restaurant visits from tequila makers and representatives as possible. Visits to the actual distilleries in Mexico are another way to learn about tequila.
You can also hire tequila experts or consultants to come in and talk. This has a two-fold benefit: Experts can train staff at behind-the-scenes restaurant sessions, and educate guests in open-to-the-public classes and dinners.
3) Make it look good.
Few spirits come packaged in more striking and beautiful bottles than those used for tequila. So on-premise operators should show them off.
“We really looked at our back bar display and made it so it’s very tequila-centric, uncluttered and visible from all angles of the restaurant,” says CRO’s Ritter. “Just putting the higher-end products and the tall, pretty, eye-catching bottles at the top has enhanced sales, making the display an actual sales tool.”
Displays of tequila infusion jars that store tequilas steeped withghost chilies, hibiscus flowers, pineapple and other flavorings can have the same effect, says Thomas Holland, partner in Boston restaurants Tico and Barrio Cantina. “We keep them up high, so whenever a guest orders them, the bartender has to climb up there,” he notes. “They are a real conversation starter!”
Likewise, many operators talk about tequila service, such as pouring or mixing high-end tequilas tableside and serving tequilas ordered neat in snifters and special glassware made to enhance the drinking experience. Serving tequila flights in custom-designed racks, or tequila “paddles” with cutouts designed to hold multiple glasses is another good idea.
Tequila librarian Courtenay Greenleaf says most tequilas are served in a snifter or a Riedel tasting glass. Greenleaf, who oversees tequila programs at Richard Sandoval’s 20 concepts, including New York’s La Biblioteca de Tequila (which serves 400-plus tequilas), says that assertive flights go on small wooden trays along with sangrita. Smoother anejos are served with horchata (a Mexican rice beverage) to better match the caramel and vanilla flavors, she says. Accompanying neat tequilas with a creative chaser can be a point of differentiation for operators.
Juan Coronado, beverage manager for the ThinkFoodGroup’s multiple concepts, including the new Barmini in Washington. D.C., likes “pretty pairings.” That means putting bigger-flavored tequilas with sangritas, while grassier, more-floral silvers and not-too-smoky reposados come paired with a sidecar of jicama, lime juice and chili powder to cleanse and open the palate.
4) Initiate tequila talk.
While too much tequila discussion can be a turnoff, tantalizing tidbits create interest and enhance sales. Encourage servers to share favorite tequila facts, such as “Tequila—like sherry, Champagne, Cognac and mezcal—is an appellation of origin, and must be made in specific parts of Mexico to be legally called tequila.”
If pouring a premium tequila, the bottle can be a talking point—so can the label. At Boston’s Barrio and Tico Cantina, Holland says guests like hearing about celebrity connections. “And there are no shortage of those with tequila!”
For instance, the just-launched Casamigos is from actor George Clooney and restaurateur Rande Gerber, while Carlos Santana is one of the owners of to Casa Noble. Other musicians with tequila brands include Sammy Hagar (Cabo Wabo) Vince Neil (Tres Rios Tequila) and Justin Timberlake (901 Silver Tequila). “There are a lot of cool connections between tequila and pop culture,” Holland says.
5) Encourage tasting with flights.
Show and tell has its place, but taste is the final arbiter. Give guests a taste of the tequilas you talk about, either by first pouring a small sample, or by selling flights, a selection of three ½-oz. pours of different tequilas.
Silverman of Agave says he spends Friday and Saturday nights “hand selling the tequila list one person at a time.” And when guests are interested but unfamiliar with tequila, “I try to steer them toward a flight of three tequilas rather than just one glass,” he says.
Sliverman also frequently pour samples “so they can taste what I’m teaching them. Giving tastings almost always leads to someone ordering something more.”
What’s more, flights are a good value for quality tequila, says Milner of Gabriela’s. “A high-end tequila can cost $12 for a 2-oz. pour. With flights, you’re getting three pours for just a little more than that ($17).”
Flights can also be fanciful, such the $20 “Rebs vs. Frogs” flight featuring four barrel-aged tequilas (three anejos and one reposado) at Cantina dos Segundos in Philadelphia. The flight, which includes El Jimador, Tres Generaciones, Casa Noble and Asombroso La Rosa, lets guests see the difference between tequilas rested in different types of barrels. Two of the tequilas are aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels, one in white French oak, and the last in French oak barrels formerly used for Bordeaux.
“It’s a lot of fun to theme these,” Cantina dos Segundos bar manager Ashley Thomas says of the flights. “We’re thinking about doing a spiritual spirits flight, featuring tequilas with a mystical/mythic story or name, like Apocalypto.”
At Austin, TX-based Iron Cactus, a five-unit Mexican grill and tequila bar, flights go out in custom designed metal racks. They’re also accompanied by a flight deck: a flip-card chart describing the tequilas in the flight, along with photos of the bottles. “When that comes out, it has a ‘wow’ factor. When we sell one, we sell five,” says co-owner Gary Manley.
6) Upgrade your well.
It used to be standard practice to keep an inexpensive mixto tequila (tequila made with 51% agave sugar) in the well, making $5 margaritas, and $10 pitchers more feasible. But more tequila-focused bars and restaurants are upgrading well brands and nixing mixtos in favor of affordable 100% agave tequilas.
“It just doesn’t make sense to have a mixto in there when you can find really good, 100% blue agave tequila for a reasonable price,” says Thomas of Cantina dos Segundos. She’s in the process of changing her well tequila from a mixto to a 100% blue agave tequila.
“There’s a certain cache that comes from being able to say everything you serve—even your well tequila—is 100% blue agave,” agrees chef Robert Luna, who runs the bar program at Mas Malo in Los Angeles. Mas Malo just upgraded its well tequila from Cimarron to Correlejo Blanco.
“For a tequila bar to have credibility, the first thing I look at is what their well tequila is,” says David Suro-Pinera, owner of Tequilas restaurant in Philadelphia. Tequilas keeps two 100% agave blancos in the well: Siembra Azul and Pueblo Viejo.
“A lot of bars may have a good selection of tequilas,” Suro-Pinera says, “but to me, it is bad ethics not to offer a good tequila in the well too.”
What’s in a NOM?
Some clues to tequila quality are given on each bottle’s label. If it doesn’t say “100% agave,” the product is a mixto, made with 51% agave sugars. And astute tequila followers who track the quality and production practices of Mexico’s 100-plus distilleries will know by the distiller registration number (NOM) on the label which distillery made the tequila.
Since one distillery may make many tequila brands, you can typically find brands you’re more likely to enjoy by matching NOMs: When considering new brands, look for NOMS that match those on your favorite tequila labels. It’s not a quality guarantee, but a good guide.
With this in mind, some operators—such as Nat Milner of Gabriela’s in New York, are starting to list tequilas on menus grouped by NOMs. “Grouping the tequilas by their distillery provides a better understanding of the relationships between different tequila brands, and differentiates highland and lowland tequilas,” Milner explains.
Some tequila brands are now voluntarily including information that offers more insight into product manufacturing processes. Labels on bottles of Siembra Azul blanco, for example, include where the agave was grown, the year it was planted and harvested, the name of the jimador (agave harvester), the type of jima (cutting tool) used, as well as information on the hydrolization (brick oven), extraction (milling), fermentation (stainless steel tanks) and distillation.
The Tequila Terroir
Because many guests are familiar with the concept of single-estate wines and how terroir impacts their flavors, helping them understand that the same is true of tequila can be an effective selling tool.
The blue agave earmarked for tequila can legally be grown in just five areas of Mexico (Jalisco, plus small parts of Tamaulipas, Nayarit, Guanajuato and Michoacan). Because the soil, moisture and temperature varies, tequilas made from agave grown in these different terroirs have different flavor characteristics.
Agaves grown in the “highlands” of Jalisco, where the earth is iron rich and nighttime temperatures are cooler, will produce tequilas considered to be sweeter, more aromatic, floral and fruity. Agaves grown in “lowlands,” where temperatures are hotter and soil is volcanic, produce tequilas considered to be drier, more flavor-forward and assertive.
“The concept of terroir is one of the most important aspects of distinguishing tequilas,” says David Suro-Piñera, owner of the Siembra Azul tequila brand and owner of Tequilas restaurant in Philadelphia. “In our restaurant, we don’t let our servers suggest brands, only flavor profiles.”Most tequila terroir talk focuses on highland and lowland characteristics. But experts say to look for more information on the other terroirs in the future.