From its reputation as a party-time shooter and ingredient in schooners of fruity, frozen Margaritas, tequila has upgraded its image significantly in the past decade. The agave-based spirit has become a key player behind the bar, not only in Mexican-themed restaurants but in any place that’s serious about cocktails.
How strong is tequila? The entire category grew last year by 7.4%, according to figures supplied by the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS), with the two top tiers—high-end premium and superpremium—up 17.2% and 12.5%, respectively. (DISCUS includes brands such as El Jimador, Cazadores and Sauza Hornitos in high-end premium, while Patron, Herradura, Don Julio and Cabo Wabo are grouped in superpremium.)
Tequila was in fact the fastest-growing, nonwhiskey category in terms of percentages, and second only to vodka in total volume growth. It was up more than a million cases in 2015.
Mezcal, tequila’s robust and rambunctious forebear, is also zooming, although volumes sold in the U.S. are still too small to be reliably calculated for the most part. But the mobile bar inventory app Partender, which gathers data from about 15,000 restaurants, recently reported that mezcal grew at a faster clip in the last quarter of 2015 among the operations the firm tracks than any other spirit category.
A Wide Range of Drink Styles
Growth of tequila and mezcal should come as no surprise, as Mexican-themed restaurants and bars with an interest in serving a wide range of agave spirits both seem to increase daily. And the types of cocktails go far beyond the Margarita and its offshoots.
For instance, Chicago’s South Water Kitchen serves a cocktail called You Remind Me Of The Babe, made with Espolon tequila, Chinese broccoli shrub, lavender syrup, and tonic. Head bartender and drink creator Dan Rook makes the shrub by charring Chinese broccoli, then steeping it in rice wine vinegar, coconut sugar, ginger, cayenne and Champagne vinegar. South Water Kitchen also offers a mezcal Old Fashioned, which is barrelaged in-house.
At Don Chido in San Diego, 14 of the 18 cocktails on the menu are agavebased. Providing a wide range of cocktail styles helps get novice consumers over any lingering perception of tequila as a harsh spirit, says head bartender Gabe Garza.
“I always tell people the reason they don’t like tequila is that they have never had a good tequila,” Garza says. While he thinks many consumers still consider tequila and mezcal esoteric spirits, cocktails that offer them both in an array of flavor profiles can open the door for more exploration.
Don Chido stocks about 120 agave spirits, including mezcal and bacanora—which is produced from the agave Pacifico plant in the Mexican state of Sonora. But Garza says it’s still the major brands that are most familiar to customers. “We welcome guests with brands they know, and then get them to start swimming into deeper water with more of the smaller brands.”
Most cocktails at Don Chido are priced in the $10 to $13 range. Shots of tequila range from $8 to $175 for extra anejos Clase Azul Ultra, 1800 Collecion and Asombroso Del Porto. One of the bar’s more popular drinks is a twist on the Paloma using house-made blood orange soda rather than grapefruit.
Other cocktails include Mi Adelita (chili-infused El Jimador blanco tequila, strawberries, rosemary, and mango with a chili-mango rim) and El Churro (cinnamoninfused El Jimador blanco, Licor 43, lemon, lime, agave syrup and cinnamon sugar.) The La Cazuela punch bowl, made with Milagro tequila, fresh fruit and Jarritos soda, is priced at $36.
Don Chido lists a few types of Margaritas, including a Watermelon Ginger Margarita and the top-shelf Margarita Lujosa. Priced at $55, it’s made with Don Julio 1942, lime, agave syrup, egg white and Grand Marnier 1880.
The dominance of the Margarita is hard to dismiss. At the 127 AMC movie theatres where beverage alcohol is served, “Margaritas account for 34% of all our spirits sales, and it’s the top-selling drink year round, with the top tier accounting for about half of our total Margarita revenue,” says Frank Lewis, director of alcohol food and beverage for AMC.
Margaritas have always been strong for AMC, and the movie chain is focusing on giving guests options to go premium, says Lewis. He recently shifted from blenders to frozen Margarita machines. The house Margarita is made with Jose Cuervo and priced at about $9.90; two higher-end versions, made with either Patron or Avion anejo, are priced at about $12.
All AMC Margaritas are made with fresh-squeezed lime juice and agave nectar, with the higher-end option only offered on the rocks. The house tier includes Strawberry and Mango Margaritas, but the ultra premium Watermelon Mist Margarita outsells the Strawberry nearly 2 to 1, Lewis says.
Copita Tequileria y Comida, a contemporary Mexican restaurant and tequila bar in Sausalito, CA, offers a number of tequila cocktails. But the Margarita rules, says co-owner Joanne Weir (pictured atop), who is also a cookbook author and TV personality. The Copita menu is inspired by her cookbook Tequila: A Guide to Types, Flights, Cocktails and Bites.
“The cocktails we sell are still definitely 85 or 90% Margaritas,” she says. The drinks are made in the style universally known as Tommy’s Margarita, for the pioneering Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco that became famous for using just tequila, lime juice and agave syrup.
“I think so many people are so happy to finally have a Margarita that is good and well balanced that they get another or come back for more,” Weir says. Even at a modest 60-seat capacity, Copita serves 300 to 400 Margaritas a day.
Copita stocks about 100 tequilas, not an uncommon number for such operations these days. Copita’s cocktails range in price from $10 to $13, while shots are primarily in the $8 to $10 range, topping out at $55 for Don Julio Real. Mezcals range from $8 to $29.
Weir says that many customers order their tequila straight. “I don’t see the interest in tequila waning at all,” she notes.
“People used to ask mainly for the best-known name brands, but now they ask for other, less well-known-tequilas as well,” Weir says. “It’s become not just something to drink, but something people want to know about. So for us it’s really important that we have so many with different flavor profiles.”