When it comes to tequila, there’s more sipping than shooting going on these days. A well-curated tequila selection is a destination for consumers who are better educated about agave and thirst to learn more—and are willing to pay for superpremium quaffs.
New tequila brands, expressions and variants are inundating the market. The agave-based spirit has caught the fancy of several celebrities who want to get into the act (see sidebar “Rockin’ the Blanco” on page 23). Most important, innovative operators keep coming up with cool and crazy promotions to keep those elbows bending, from rattlesnakes, tequila on tap and barriques, catadores and aphrodisiacs.
“Tequila is becoming more popular every day—that’s the trend, and producers are now focusing on quality over quantity,” says Sergio Ramos, managing partner of Zapoteca Restaurante Y Tequileria in Portland, ME, and Mixteca Mexican Food & Margaritas in Durham, NH. Ramos is the only catador in New England, a sort of tequila sommelier, certified by the Tequila Regulatory Council of Mexico.
With selections of 126 tequilas for Zapoteca and 65 bottles for Mixteca, Ramos has developed the two restaurants as destinations for aficionados. Only 100% agave tequilas are stocked; served in snifters, prices range from $8 up to $80 for Patron Gran Burdeos.
A BURGEONING CATEGORY
Total tequila consumption increased 5.2% in 2013, reaching 13.6 million 9-liter cases, according to the Beverage Information Group. And many new brands and variants entered the category in the past year.
Following the lead of vodka, flavored tequilas are testing the market, from Peligroso Cinnamon and Jose Cuervo Cinge (cinnamon) to 1800 Coconut and Hornitos Lime Shot, to name a few. There’s even Malibu Red, a novel rum-tequila hybrid.
Like their whiskey counterparts, some tequila producers are experimenting with different wood finishes. Corazon’s Expresiones line is matured in different bourbon barrels, while Herradura uses port and sherry casks for its new Colleccion de la Casa expressions.
“The tequila category is expanding very rapidly,” says Gary Manley, general partner and resident tequila expert at Iron Cactus Grill & Margarita Bar. Based in Austin, TX, the five Iron Cactus restaurants each offer more than 100 different tequilas. “There are probably a hundred more that we can’t carry because we don’t have the room,” Manley adds.
Prices range from $6 up to $50-plus, for superpremium Herradura Seleccion Suprema or Casa Dragones. “It’s important to offer a range of quality and price points because different consumers are looking for different things,” Manley says.
One thing that sets Iron Cactus restaurants apart is chilled tequila on tap. Four different blancos are kegged and stored in the walk-in and pumped via glycol lines to cobra-head taps at the bar.
“A lot of customers like their blancos cold,” Manley points out, but chilling the spirit in a shaker tin with ice dilutes and changes the flavor profile, while the taps dispense pure tequila. The set-up has visual marketing appeal as well: Each blanco boasts a customized tap handle, which customers see when they first walk in the front door.
Iron Cactus is also involved in the Herradura barrel program. Manley and his team selected a unique flavor profile for the restaurants. Herradura then custom-aged and bottled the tequila as Herradura Double Barrel Reposado, with labels that read “exclusively bottled for the Iron Cactus.”
“It’s kind of cool having our own tequila—our own flavor profile,” says Manley. The program has proved so successful that Iron Cactus has run through four barrels so far. Those used casks are on display in the restaurants.
“We can tell our customers, ‘The tequila you’re drinking came right out of that barrel,’” he notes.
Other visuals used to sell tequila are even more striking. Take Pepe, for example. Pepe is a rattlesnake infusing a glass jar of silver tequila, coiled on the backbar at Agave, a restaurant, bar and nightclub in Avon, CO.
Rattlesnake-infused tequila, or tequila de vibora is a macho drink found in some parts of Mexico, and has proved remarkably popular with the apres-ski crowd at Agave. “Pepe is awesome,” says Agave general manager RJ Andrade. “We started out thinking Pepe would be a conversation piece, but the tequila does sell,” he notes.
The presentation of Pepe frequently causes a stir as the infusion jar with snake is carried to customers’ tables with some glasses. Reactions differ: “Customers are either, ‘OMG, I want to try it,’ or ‘Get that thing away from me,’” Andrade says. Besides Pepe, Agave carries about 120 bottles of various tequila expressions, priced $5 to $55.
Another experimental tequila project is Agave’s house barrique, established on Cinco de Mayo 2011. They filled a used bourbon barrel with 120 liters of 100% blue agave silver tequila. Liquor was pulled from the barrique at three months, six months and a year for comparative tastings, and a portion is bottled.
The idea is to give customers a better understanding of the mechanics of the aging process. Right now it tastes like an añejo, says Andrade, and what’s left is now maturing in a small cask on the backbar. Agave plans to repeat the experiment with a different barrel and blanco tequila.
SIP & SAVOR
“People are sipping tequila more these days, not downing a cheap shot,” says Safa Zaraga, owner of Huerto Restaurant & Tequila Bar, which opened about six months ago in West Bloomfield, MI. “Customers have become more educated about tequila, they know the terms, what reposado and añejo mean and they want to sip them.”
An elegant, built-in tequila case shows off Huerto’s stock of 75 tequilas. Camarena is the house tequila, priced at $6 for a 2-oz. pour; others go as high as $250 for a snifter of extra añejo.
Most sippers are in the $20 to $50 range, Zaraga says: “We do quite well at that price point. Our guests don’t mind spending the money for good quality tequila.” Huerto seats up to 350 in a lounge, dining room, patio and banquet areas; Zaraga plans to build a reputation as a tequila destination.
At Zapoteca and Mixteca, Ramos estimates a 50-50 split between sales of sipping tequila and cocktails. “Customers sometimes ask why we don’t serve shots,” he says. “You sip tequila; you are supposed to enjoy it.”
The restaurants sell plenty of tequila snifters and flights, Ramos notes. “People come here for that experience, to try different brands and expressions.”
Flights are three ½-oz. pours of a brand’s blanco, reposado and añejo tequilas, served with housemade tomatillo sangrita, which acts as a palate cleanser. Prices range from $17 all the way up to $90 for a flight of extra añejos Patron Gran Burdeos, Herradura Seleccion Suprema and Gran Centenario Leyenda. “Flights go over well because people can sample either three different añejos or three silvers, or try all three expressions of a specific brand,” points out Manley at Iron Cactus. Three glasses fit into a custom-designed metal tray fitted with a laminated card describing the tequilas.
Prices range from $9.95 up to $69 for the Ultimate, a sampler of Herradura Seleccion Suprema, Patron Gran Platinum and Patron Gran Burdeos. “That flight does sell,” says Manley, pointing out that the flight is more economical than purchasing each pour individually.
Sangrita is available upon request at Iron Cactus, and it is becoming more popular as consumers discover this traditional accompaniment. Recipes vary, but sangrita is typically a spiced mix of tomato, orange and lime juices; real pomegranate grenadine is often used instead of tomato juice.
Despite the recent emphasis on sipping, the bulk of tequila is still consumed in mixed drinks such as the classic Margarita and Paloma or new cocktail creations by innovative bartenders.
“We definitely serve more cocktails here at Agave,” says Andrade, who estimates about 90% of tequila sales are in mixed drinks. Prices range from $6 to $10, with the exception of the $24.50 Truly Top Shelf Margarita, made with Casa Noble Añejo and Cointreau, topped with a float of Grand Marnier Cuvee du Cent Cinquantenaire.
Some of Agave’s more unusual drinks include the Damianarita, which substitutes the herbal Damiana liqueur (considered an aphrodisiac) from the Baja for triple sec; and the Margarita Tradicional, made with Sotol, a spirit distilled from a desert plant and not often found north of the border.
At The Smith, a three-restaurant group in New York, beverage director Jeff Leanheart rotates his take on the classic Margarita to fit the season; at press time it was a Blood Orange Margarita ($13). “We always run a seasonal fruit Margarita and it is always in the top of our cocktail mix,” notes Leanheart.
The brasseries carry about a dozen tequilas; 2-oz. pours are generally priced at $11 to $16. Patron and Don Julio are the leading call brands, says Leanheart.
A mainstay on The Smith’s cocktail menu, under the Muddlers section, is the Cucumber Loco. It’s made with fresh cucumber, lime juice, silver tequila, Cointreau and sea salt and sells for $13.
Prior to opening Huerto, Zaraga hired a mixologist to craft a list of signature tequila cocktails. “People can get a Margarita or a Paloma anywhere, but these drinks are something different,” says the owner.
Most popular are The Remedy, mixed with Cazadores reposado tequila, St. Germain liqueur, lemon juice and Fever Tree ginger beer; and the El Pepino, made with Corzo silver tequila, muddled cucumber, lime juice, topped with soda and served on the rocks with cucumber garnish.
Besides the cocktails, Huerto offers a selection of Margaritas, which come in two sizes: 12 oz. ($9) and jumbo 18 oz. ($16). Among the Margaritas is the Michigan Cherry, made with Michigan cherry liqueur. “It’s awesome and we sell a lot of them,” says Zaraga.
At Zapoteca and Mixteca, cocktails range in price from $8 to $11. The signature drink is a Habañero Watermelon Margarita, which is double spiced with habañero-infused tequila and muddled fresh peppers, along with orange liqueur, agave nectar, watermelon puree and lime juice ($10). “Sales have been phenomenal,” says Ramos.
About 75% of the drinks business at Iron Cactus comes from specialty cocktails, Manley estimates. The best seller is the 100% El Agave Margarita ($8.75), with Herradura silver tequila and Cointreau. The El Perfecto Margarita ($9.75) combines Patron silver tequila and Patrón Citrónge liqueur; it sells well because of Patron’s marketing, says Manley.
A strong local connection contributes to the popularity of Z Best Express Margarita ($8.50) because it features Pepe Z Silver Tequila, whose Austin-based owner is a local character.
A few cocktail-related publicity ploys have garnered Iron Cactus some good ink in the press and play on Facebook and blogs. A photog’s shot of Latin actress Sofia Vergara downing a Margarita in a glass rimmed with five limes led to the chain offering the Sofia Vergara-style Margaritas.
“We give Sofia Vergara all the credit for what we believe will be a new trend in drinking tequila,” says Manley, who adds that people did come in looking for the cocktail.
Dire predictions of the end of the world forewarned on the Mayan calendar inspired a Mayan Margarita to celebrate the apocalypse. The superpremium drink made with DeLeon tequila and 100-year-old Gran Marnier sold for $99, with the promise that if the world didn’t end, customers could come back for a second one—an unusual two-fer. Of course, the world did not end, and Manley got customers returning to the Iron Cactus to celebrate their reprieve. ·
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelancer who crafts his own homebrew and writes about all things drinkable.
Rockin’ the Blanco
From rock stars to movie actors, a number of celebrities have hitched their stars—and names—to tequila brands. Started in 1996, rocker Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo was one of the earliest and most successful ventures. Legendary guitarist Carlos Santana is a part owner and on the board of Casa Noble.
Justin Timberlake created 901 Tequila (a reference to his hometown area code) in 2009, and now brand is being relaunched by Beam as Sauza 901. Sean P. Diddy Combs, who catapulted Ciroc vodka to success, is trying a similar strategy with superpremium DeLeon tequila. Film star George Clooney is getting into the act too, with the 2012 launch of Casamigos.
Do connections with the stars really sell tequila? They do provide some traction, say operators. “When a celebrity endorses a brand, there’s more consumer recognition and better market support,” says says Safa Zaraga, owner of Huerto Restaurant & Tequila Bar in West Bloomfield, MI. “So those brands do sell a little better.”
Consider the motives, says Sergio Ramos, managing partner of New England restaurants Zapoteca Restaurante Y Tequileria and Mixteca Mexican Food & Margaritas. Some celebrities get involved with tequila because they like the product, he says, and some endorse brands for the money. That said, Ramos offers a few celeb brands at Zapoteca, such as Cabo Wabo, Casa Noble and Casamigos. “I think they are doing a good job and offer quality tequila,” he notes.
“People hear about the celebrity tequilas, and some come in and want to try them,” says Gary Manley, general partner of the Austin, TX-based Iron Cactus Grill & Margarita Bar chain, which stocks a few celeb brands. George Clooney actually launched Casamigos at the Iron Cactus in Dallas with his partner, bar/lounge operator and former model Rande Gerber, Manely says. With little fanfare, the two came into the restaurant on a Monday night in January 2013 for sampling, photos and autographs.
Casamigos is a good seller at the restaurants. “Gerber knows the spirits business, and the brand is growing,” points out Manley. —THS
Mystique of Mezcal
Mezcal is a Mexican spirit produced from a variety of agave other than the Blue Weber used to fabricate tequila. Also unlike tequila, the agave piñas are often cooked in wood-stoked pits instead of kilns, which gives mescal a smoky flavor. Although still somewhat of a rarity, the spirit is appearing on more tequileria drink lists.
“Mezcal is an extremely small category that is folded into tequila. But I think mezcal is growing rather nicely,” says David Ozgo, chief economist for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS).
“People have gotten curious about mescal,” says R.J. Andrade, general manager of Agave restaurant, bar and nightclub in Avon, CO. Agave carries about a dozen examples. The Del Maguey brand is popular, he says, and the bar features it in the Del Maguey Mezcalrita ($7.75). “Mezcal appeals to those tequila fans who have been there, done that.”
Mezcal is great for sipping or mixing; “it adds a smoky accent,” points out Safa Zaraga, owner of Huerto Restaurant & Tequila Bar in West Bloomfield, MI. Huerto stocks some 15 mescals. “The category isn’t hot yet, but it should be taking off, I think,” he observes. “People who are into tequila are trying meszcal.”
New England restaurants Zapoteca Restaurante Y Tequileria and Mixteca Mexican Food & Margaritas offer a selection of 16 mezcals, says managing partner Sergio Ramos. “Travelers have discovered mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico, and they come here looking for them.”
Four cocktails have mezcal as a base, including a Mezcal Rita ($11) and the Mezcalita de Piña, which mixes mescal, grilled pineapple, cilantro and fresh squeezed lime juice, garnished with jalapeño slices ($10).
The Austin, TX-based Iron Cactus Grill & Margarita Bar chain Iron Cactus carries a mezcal from Oaxaca. “There is a lot of interesting mixology going on with mescal,” notes general partner Gary Manley. “I believe interest in mezcal will continue to grow. It’s not a fad, but here to stay.”—THS