For a spirit first produced in the 16th century, tequila is causing a lot of chatter among bartenders and imbibers. Just a sampling of recent buzz: Contestants admired the view from atop the Rum Barrel in Key West, Fla., but most were interested in the cocktail presented by Michael Parish, winner of this summer’s Tequila Partida Spirit Bird Challenge. Likewise, Dulce Vida tequila took home “best blanco” at the First Annual Texas Tequila Throwdown Competition held last year in Houston. The charity event pitted 10 tequilas against one another in a blind tasting judged by a panel of tequila enthusiasts.
The agents behind Espolón tequila, a darling of craft cocktail mixologists this year, are encouraging mixologists to create cocktails inspired by the art and history behind Mexico’s annual holiday Dia de los Muertos. The effort will culminate at New York City’s cocktail hot spot Death & Company in November. Earlier this year, the Spirits of Mexico Las Vegas event, presented in conjunction with the Nightclub & Bar Convention and Trade Show, offered an enchanting array of boutique and specialty tequila expressions to rave reviews.
These events are evidence that tequila marketers — large and small — are spending money to highlight their bottlings as something far removed from the former tequila experience, namely a trio of lime, salt and grimace. Even Patrón tequila, a brand previously synonymous with being a great shooter, launched a national tour this year with Master Distiller Francisco Alcaraz, during which he personally met with bartenders to discuss the brand and its versatility in cocktails.
It’s not just Patrón that’s making inroads into cocktail culture, either.
“Tobin Ellis from BarMagic ran a series of events called Social Mixology, where each week featured a variety of cocktails made with Jose Cuervo Platino and extraordinary ingredients, like infusing meat in his famous Mongolian Beef Margarita,” says Kevin Vanegas, senior tequila brand ambassador for Jose Cuervo and Don Julio.
Vanegas not only witnesses these endeavors but works — like all tequila ambassadors — to encourage them. He’s one of hundreds of ambassadors now employed by spirits companies far and wide to spread the gospel of tequila and to educate in front of the bar as well as behind it.
Dens of Dedication
Research from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States reveals tequila is smokin’ hot. In 2001, 6.7 million 9-liter cases of tequila were sold in the United States. In 2010, sales totaled 11.5 million cases.
Brands are creating more ambassador-type roles and, because of that initiative, tequila is making its way into more cocktails behind the bar. What’s more, as customers become savvier about tequila, distillers also are expanding their portfolios with new expressions. Now entire bar concepts are being built on its versatility and appeal, and not just ones in the Southwest.
“I think it’s proof that people are starting to catch on to a particular spirit when places can open entirely dedicated to that spirit,” says Courtenay Greenleaf, Tequila Librarian at New York City’s La Biblioteca, a venue opened last year dedicated to elevating tequila. “My job here is to educate on agave, and that includes tequila, mezcal and even sotols. We feature about 400 bottles, and instead of books, our shelves display tequilas organized by families.”
Greenleaf says the venue continually is filling to its capacity of 300, and its membership levels have risen to 250.
“People have the option of coming here and purchasing one of our bottles. We then give them a membership card. They can then leave their bottle with us in one of our beautiful bottle lockers for next time,” Greenleaf explains.
Similar to a fine Scotch or wine, tequilas are presented with a detailed education at La Biblioteca. “We discuss the terroir of each tequila and how the agave is cooked, whether it is slow-roasted or done in a stainless-steel autoclave,” she explains. “We discuss the type of yeast in the fermentation process and the type of stills they use; how many distillations it goes through and then how it’s aged.”
While La Biblioteca certainly is unique in its sophisticated approach to its favored spirit, the word of tequila is spreading throughout bar culture.
“We feel strongly that tequila is a great thing,” says Adam Landsman, director of operations for New York City’s Abe & Arthur’s.
The hot spot is the first foray into restaurant operations for nightclub operator EMM Group, and both its main level and upstairs bars are busy on any given night.
“Last year we were moving around 20 cases of blanco tequila a month,” he says. “Now, it’s just over 30.”
Abe & Arthur’s offers guests on average 12 tequila brands that Landsman selects personally after researching the flavors and background of each brand.
“I won’t stock a brand that’s simply cool for the moment,” he continues. “I may not add any for a year, but if two or three launch that are amazing, we might add all of them at once. Our increase in tequila sales is definitely due to guests coming in and knowing what they want.
When Avión tequila appeared on [the HBO show] ‘Entourage,’ people came in asking about it. We looked into it because of those
requests, but we only stock it because it’s good.”
Empowering the Staff
Some might be shocked to hear it — given Las Vegas’ love affair with celebrities — but Jean Pierre Francois, beverage director of Mesa Grill, says he shies away from such pop-culture-fueled brands.
“Everyone and their mother is pedaling tequila,” he says. “I also won’t stock a bottle shaped like an alien, flavored with hibiscus or one that won’t fit in the well. I’m tired of people coming out here with $70 blanco, as well. I can’t sell a $16 Margarita with blanco in it, and I’m in Las Vegas.”
Tequila drinks currently are in demand at La Biblioteca
Instead of relying on brands with flashy packages or celebrity backing, Francois is relying on his knowledge to empower staff with a clear expectation that it will be passed along to guests.
“I do an annual staff training with Ruben Aceves, the global ambassador from Herradura. Our partner also comes in once a year, and we have a Tequila 101 class. We start with a mixto, then might taste a classic sliver, then a reposado, followed by a great anejo. We end with a gold, so it’s like starting with rubbing
alcohol, showcasing great brands in the middle and ending with something artificially flavored and sweet like Coca-Cola.”
At Chicago’s Adobo Grill, head bartender Ernesto Soriano is charged with educating staff on the bar’s selection of nearly 150 tequilas; the most popular sellers include Corazón, Herradura and Casa Noble.
Soriano sees a major shift in his patrons’ knowledge of tequila.
“Eighty percent of the people coming in know more than [customers did] five years ago,” he says. “We have done three tequila dinners with Corazón — with the staff I also do trainings.”
During staff training, he focuses not only on understanding the ways in which barrels change flavor, but also in delicate flavor nuances between an anejo aged three years compared with one that’s spent four in wood. Each server then tastes tequilas with dishes from the kitchen, gaining knowledge on selling the spirit to accompany food.
It’s Not All Cocktails
This fall, bartenders still will be experimenting with tequila, but there will be new ways to make customers fall in love with this old spirit.
Diageo, for one, is launching its latest expression: Tequila Don Julio 70. Made from Master Distiller Enrique de Colsa’s special reserve, the liquid is in honor of the 70th anniversary of the year Don Julio González began making tequila. While something of this caliber will be marketed for sipping neat, other new options exist for mixing. At Mesa Grill in Las Vegas, bartenders will be adding floaters of Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal to Margaritas as a way to introduce a bit of smoke, as well as tequila’s rougher cousin mezcal to guests’ palates.
Tequila no longer is owned solely by cocktail bars. Tequila bottle service is cropping up in nightclubs, and the spirit also is gaining ground in the growing dayclub scene. Peligroso Tequila, for example, recently was added to the menu options at Liquid Pool Lounge at Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. The brand also will go on special during happy hour, along with select beers.
“Everyone has a specific palate, and it’s hard to get them to change,” offers the venue’s General Manager Gerald Pacheco. “But if you offer them a good deal, guests are almost always willing to try something new.”
The beauty of the current tequila landscape is that there’s plenty new to talk about in this age-old category. NCB