If you need further evidence of tequila’s popularity, preliminary 2022 data indicates that the agave spirit surpassed American whiskey by value to become the second most valuable spirits subcategory in the U.S. And according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, tequila is set to overtake vodka in 2023 to become the industry leader by value.
Online alcohol delivery service Drizly finds that 64% of retailers surveyed plan to give the agave-based spirit more shelf space than any other spirit next year. In its 2022 Retail Report, Drizly also notes that 54% of retailers said that tequila has overperformed their expectations this past year, outpacing all other spirits.
What is it about tequila that has captivated American consumers? The spirit’s sense of place and provenance, for one, as well as its authenticity and the greater availability of high-quality products. Increased interest in Mexican culture and cuisine, including events such as Cinco de Mayo and D’a de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) also contributes to tequila’s allure.
Not that you have to be a Mexican dining concept to sell lots of tequila. At Sweetbriar, a live fire-cooking modern American restaurant in New York’s Park South Hotel, tequila battles with vodka every week, says beverage director Ivan Papic. “Tequila cocktails are especially popular, same goes for mezcal-based cocktails.”
Operations that do specialize in Mexican food have a distinct advantage, however. Rreal Tacos, which just opened its third location in Atlanta, has about 100 tequilas on offer. The concept is known for its tequila walls at all restaurants, which have become a staple of the brand, says co-owner Miguel Hernandez. “They hold the largest selection of tequila and mezcal in all of Atlanta.”
It’s no surprise that tequila is the number-one selling spirit at Rosa Mexicano. “Since we are Mexican, most of our customers come in with tequila on their minds,” says Chef Manuel Trevino, vice president of Culinary. Founded in New York in 1984, Rosa Mexicano now operates 10 locations from Massachusetts to Maryland.
Rosa Mexicano stocks at least 50 tequila brands in most of its restaurants, depending on what’s available in the market, Trevino says. “After the pandemic, it’s been difficult to source all of the brands that were available in the market before.”
“We are in the agave golden era,” says Pepe Barajas, owner of La Josie in Chicago. Not only is tequila now one of, if not the most popular spirits at the Mexican restaurant, “mezcal has also become extremely popular, specifically in cocktails,” he says.
La Josie carries 150 different brands and agave variables, focusing on supporting family-owned and -produced agave distillates, as well as tequilas with all-natural flavoring, Barajas says. “Families with a long history of producing are some of the more popular distillates we currently carry,” he notes. “Facts and education are a big trend in our industry.”
Indeed, that’s partly why Hacienda Encantada Resort & Residences in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, opened The Museo del Tequila in June 2022. The inspiration started with the property’s hacienda-style architecture and the idea to showcase the history and flavors of Mexico’s tequila, says Jose Rojas Torres, director of food and beverage at Hacienda Encantada Resort & Residences. “Museo del Tequila taps into travelers’ rising interest in this classic Mexican drink.”
Guests can visit the Museo del Tequila for a culinary journey through tequila, mezcal, sotol and bacanora with the tequila sommelier, or tequilera, Pamela Miranda. Museo del Tequila, which stocks 70 brands of tequila and mezcal, also hosts tastings for guests nightly at 5 p.m.
Rosa Mexicano’s guests are often curious about mezcal, “and we tend to educate them about it,” Trevino notes, adding that mezcal is his own favorite spirit. “But in the end, people either love or hate it.”
In addition to tequila and mezcal, Rosa Mexicano carries “any and all spirits we can get our hands on from Mexico,” Trevino says, such as sotol, bacanora and raicilla. “Although the demand isn’t here yet for these spirits, we do our best to introduce them to our guests by cocktails and education.”
La Josie also offers all spirits from Mexico. “Raicilla is definitely growing,” Barajas says, adding that it’s one of his favorite spirits. “We also carry whiskies, liqueurs and wines from Mexico.”
Rreal Tacos stocks all of the Mexican spirits as well, Hernandez says. “They are an important part of our inventory behind the bar. The market for agave spirits has expanded in the last few years exponentially.”
Brands on the Bar
At the Tequila Museum, which offers 70 brands of tequila and mezcal, popular brands include mainstays such as Don Julio, Patron and Casa Cuervo, Torres says. “Travelers will enjoy not just the taste of tequila, but also the range of unique aromas that such a sublime beverage can offer.” In the case of mezcal, the different varieties and styles are sourced from wild agaves — like tobala.
At Sweetbriar, which carries about 20 different tequila brands and 10 different brands of mezcal, with different expressions, Casamigos has been the best-selling tequila in recent months, Papic says. “For me personally, Fortaleza Tequila and El Tesoro are among my favorite brands.”
Papic has observed more cristalino expressions of tequila. Cristalino, a clear, aged tequila, is filtered through charcoal, which removes the color from barrel aging.
Rosa Mexicano has seen a rise in sipping blancos, reposados and cristalinos, Trevino says. Some of the most popular brands at the restaurant include Casa del Sol, Fortaleza, Cazadores, Maestro Dobel, Komos and Don Julio.
At Rreal Tacos, popular tequila brands include Clase Azul, Cava de Oro, Maestro Dobel, while Bozal, Te Quiero Mucho and 400 Conejos are the popular mezcals, says Beverage Director Aruturo Salgado. “One of the biggest trends that we have been seeing are celebrity tequilas, like 818 (Kendall Jenner), Casamigos (George Clooney), Teremana (The Rock) and the newly added Grand Coramino (Kevin Hart).”
The traditional Mexican style of drinking tequila is to appreciate all the notes and flavors, Torres says. “However, many guests are more comfortable with Margaritas or mixed drinks.” Despite trending cocktails such as the Old Fashioned and Espresso Martini, the Margarita remains the top libation at the majority of on-premise establishments.
The Paloma has been gaining ground in some places, as has Ranch Water. Chili’s Grill & Bar, with more than 1,600 restaurants, in 2022 rolled out a Ranch Water offering, which will no doubt boost national awareness of the tequila/sparkling water/lime drink.
But tequila also lends itself to craft cocktails and spicy spins on the classics. La Josie’s Maracya Hallelujah cocktail starts with a tequila base, plus lime, aperitivo and passion fruit syrup. The La Malinche incorporates spicy chile-infused tequila, lemon, ponche de tamarindo and peach puree; both cocktails are priced at $15.
At Rosa Mexicano, cocktails begin with the house signature: the Frozen Pomegranate Margarita ($14), says Trevino. The concept also offers an Al Gusto Margarita with fresh-squeezed juice, organic agave nectar, Grand Marnier and choice of tequila, mezcal or sotol ($18). The Josefina Margarita — a nod to founder Josefina Howard — features Komos Rosa tequila, organic agave nectar and fresh-squeezed lime juice.
“Our main focus behind the bar is Mexican mixology,” based on agave spirits with citrus and fruit-forward flavors, says Salgado. A top cocktail at Rreal Tacos is the Fresco Cucumber with tequila blanco, lime juice, cucumber juice, agave and mint, and the Malverde, the mezcal version of the same. Both are priced at $13.
A top cocktail at Sweetbriar is the Rose of Sharon, made with Tres Generaciones reposado tequila, homemade hibiscus-pink peppercorn syrup and lime juice, priced at $19. That cocktail and the mezcal-based Smokey Pistolas (Dos Hombres joven mezcal, lime and piri piri agave) are always in the top-five best-selling drinks, Papic says.
“We approach tequila the same as any other spirit,” he adds, “usually looking for seasonal ingredients that are good pairings with tequila’s flavor profiles, then going back to basic, looking into classic cocktails and finding inspiration.”
Sweetbriar partnered with Don Julio this past January and featured a special Paloma (Don Julio Blanco tequila, lime juice, Fever Tree pink grapefruit soda, with an Aleppo-salt rim), priced at $12 during Happy Hour at its Lounge bar.
On thing is for sure: Expect to see more agave spirits and cocktails at bars and restaurants. Sweetbriar, for instance, aims to add more tequila-based cocktails, especially during the summer months. “We are planning on partnering up with different tequila and mezcal brands to host Happy Hour, mixology classes — even tamale-making classes with tequila pairings,” says Papic.
Rosa Mexicano wants to revamp its entire beverage menu in 2023 to feature more flight options, more fun and creative cocktails and tequila pairing dinners, Trevino says.
La Josie will continue to bring in small-batch, family-owned and -produced agave spirits and showcase them through flights and tasting events, Barajas says. “We currently do specialty menus on different nights of the week to share our knowledge and passion with guests.”
At The Museo del Tequila, guests will be able to go even deeper into the world of tequila with pairing dinners and tasting opportunities, Torres says. “We are happy to accommodate guests that request more beverage experiences and develop our programming as fit.”
And Rreal Tacos will be perfecting its bar program across the board, Hernandez says, with the idea to make the most consistent drinks in the city. “No matter what 2023 brings, we will push forward with bringing tequila and mezcal to the masses!”