The difference in the way Tequila is viewed by consumers today versus a decade ago is like night and day. It helps that the majority of Tequilas found on the market today are top-quality, 100% agave brands. “People used to shy away from Tequila because of their memories of bad hangovers,” says Abe Ruiz, CEO of Latin American restaurant Babalu Tapas & Tacos, which has eight locations in the southern U.S. “But now most brands don’t have added sugars, so people are realizing they can drink it and not be terribly sick afterward. This is a revolution for the Tequila category.”
Indeed, as the perception of Tequila’s quality has steadily risen, the spirit has grown tremendously in popularity—especially as a cocktail ingredient. “The cocktail has opened up a lot of avenues for Tequila,” Ruiz says. “Back in the day all you ever saw was straight Tequila shots. Now there are cocktails pairing Tequila with everything from rosé Champagne to Cognac. Innovation in mixology has allowed for more creative cocktails and increased sales, and it’s also brought more Tequila to the market. You used to see only a couple of brands and now I see a new one almost every other day.”
Josh Relkin, beverage director for rooftop bar Boleo and lobby lounge Vol. 39—both housed within Chicago’s Kimpton Gray Hotel—has noticed his guests becoming more and more discerning about Tequila. “They’re more curious about what we’re using in our cocktails, and not settling for whatever well product might be there,” Relkin says. “They’ll request to replace it with a brand they’re more familiar with, and they know that for a few extra bucks they’re getting a truly special product. Whether it’s a classic or a ‘dealer’s choice’-style cocktail, there’s more knowledge and appreciation from the guest’s perspective, which allows us as bartenders to be a little more creative while sharpening our skills.”
Simple And Classic
Tequila owes much of its success to its No.-1 cocktail, the Margarita. “The ever-popular Margarita has always been around—made fresh at a bar, in a mix at your local chain restaurant, spinning in a slushie machine on the cruise you took,” Relkin says. “Many people are familiar with Tequila because of this drink.”
Because of the Margarita’s enduring popularity, Babalu’s Ruiz believes that Tequila may some day overtake vodka as the most called-for spirit in the U.S. “People don’t often think of it this way, but Tequila is just as simple, neutral, and versatile to use in a cocktail as vodka,” he says. Babalu has locations in Atlanta; Birmingham, Alabama; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Jackson, Mississippi; Lexington, Kentucky; and Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee, and its signature cocktails can be found at each location. Beverage director Michelle Laverty uses the Margarita as inspiration when making Tequila-based drinks for the chain, but she also adds her own creative touches. Her Notorious P.I.N.K. ($11) blends Cazadores Reposado Tequila, Notorious Pink Grenache rosé, fresh blood orange juice, house-made sweet and sour mix, and strawberries, while her Blood Orange Pama Margarita ($12) features Cazadores Blanco, fresh blood orange juice, agave nectar, 18.21 Bitters Blood Orange-Ginger shrub, house-made sweet and sour mix, house-made grapefruit, brown sugar, and blackberry purée, and a foam made of Pama Pomegranate liqueur.
Felisha Leger, bar lead at chef José Andrés’ Chinese-Mexican fusion restaurant China Poblano at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, notes that the venue’s Salt Air Margarita is a destination drink. “People come to China Poblano specifically for this signature cocktail,” she says. In the drink ($14), Andrés incorporates the molecular gastronomy he’s known for, mixing Milagro Silver Tequila, Cointreau orange liqueur, fresh lime juice, and a house-made salt air foam.
At Rocco’s Tacos & Tequila, which has eight locations throughout Florida and one in Brooklyn, New York, the Strawberry Basil Margarita ($12) comprises Herradura Silver Tequila, fresh lime juice, agave nectar, and fresh muddled strawberry and basil. Former bar manager Richie Panella created the drink. “Guests always gravitate toward our Margarita—it’s a cocktail where Tequila really shines,” says Marc Chaskalson, corporate Tequila trainer at Rocco’s. “But people are also starting to go very simple and fresh with their Tequila cocktails, even calling for ingredients that are classically associated with gin or vodka.” Panella’s Ranch Water ($12) is one such straightforward drink, blending Patrón Silver with muddled lime and Topo Chico mineral water.
The Margarita and the Paloma are the most popular calls at Mexican hot spot Las Perlas in Los Angeles, according to general manager Bartholomew Walsh. “These drinks are very simple, which is key for Tequila,” he says. “You want to be able to taste the agave flavor in the cocktail.” The bar’s house Margarita ($10) is made with Pueblo Viejo Blanco Tequila, Cointreau, agave syrup, and lime juice, and the Paloma ($10) blends Pueblo Viejo Blanco, Jarritos grapefruit soda, and lime juice. “When you’re just starting to explore agave spirits, I would definitely stick with lime, orange, and grapefruit and really get to know those ingredients,” Walsh adds. “Once you decide where you stand with those, you can start to explore more intricate flavors.”
Tim Cluley, head bartender at Vidorra restaurant in Dallas, thinks outside the Margarita box. “Margaritas are the most obvious answer, but I’ve used Tequila as a substitute in everything from Champagne cocktails and sours to tiki drinks and Old Fashioneds—without losing the balance and dynamics that make those cocktails delicious and unique,” he says. His Spanish 43 ($13) features Cazadores Reposado, Licor 43 liqueur, Freixenet Brut Cava, lemon juice, and simple syrup. “In the U.S., most people associate Tequila with taking shots or with Margaritas, but bartenders in Mexico have been making a wide variety of Tequila drinks for a long time,” Cluley adds.
Pride Of Mexico
A major aspect of the current cocktail renaissance and ongoing spirits boom in the U.S. is the immersion of bartenders and consumers in the histories and traditions behind each spirit—and Tequila has plenty to offer in this regard. “The colorful culture of Mexico and the centuries-old tradition of distilling agave are what make it unlike any other spirit,” says China Poblano’s Leger. “Agave plants take as long as seven years to reach maturity, and it’s well worth the wait. It’s important for us to educate our consumers about this process—when they learn that some brands use shortcuts like diffusers, they’re more likely to lean toward brands that have traditional processes instead of mass-produced ones.”
At cocktail bar Ghost Donkey in New York City, head bartender Nacho Jimenez cares deeply about using top-tier Tequilas. “I like to work with brands that use production methods I have personal knowledge of—this way I know that I’m offering my guests an authentic product that’s typically sustainably made and that supports the communities it comes from,” he says. A Mexico native, Jimenez enjoys sharing his love of Tequila and his home country with guests. “People really relate to the way Tequila is produced and they always fall in love with the story behind it,” he adds.
In an effort to be both authentic and educational, Ghost Donkey uses as many Mexican flavors as possible on its menu, while also pulling ingredients from around the world to make unique concoctions. Jimenez’s Insurgente ($16) blends Milagro Reposado Tequila, Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal, Bertoux brandy, Sandeman Fine Rich Madeira, house-made piloncillo-ancho chile syrup, Angostura bitters, and Dale Degroff’s Pimento Aromatic bitters, while his Pistolero ($15) mixes Viva XXXII Blanco Tequila, Ancho Reyes Verde poblano chile liqueur, lime juice, and a house-made roasted poblano-pineapple sherbet.
“Bartenders have recently taken more of an imaginative stance when making Tequila cocktails, breaking away from the Margarita-style drinks,” Vidorra’s Cluley notes. “The unique flavors that aged Tequila receives from the techniques and materials used in the distillation process make it a great backbone for more complex drinks.” His Tequiling Me Softly ($13) features Patrón Reposado Tequila, Xicaru Silver mezcal, Herradura agave nectar, lime and pineapple juices, mint, and Tajín seasoning, while his Here Today, Guava Tomorrow ($14) comprises Avión Reposado Tequila, Unión Uno Joven mezcal, Giffard Banane du Brésil banana liqueur, lime juice, agave nectar, and guava purée.
“Something that truly speaks to me as I grow and become more knowledgeable in my craft is terroir,” says Relkin of Boleo and Vol. 39. “You can taste the terroir and the tradition of technique in Tequila, and the pride that comes with the production is astounding. These nuances from bottle to bottle, whether it’s a different producer or a different batch of the same Tequila, show you the subtle differences, and that allows us as bartenders to tweak our recipes to truly showcase the spirit.”
Relkin adds that as he’s grown to appreciate the unique terroir of different Tequilas, he’s been drawn to more spirit-forward, stirred Tequila drinks. His Agave Especiado ($14) at Boleo mixes nutmeg-infused Casa Noble Reposado Tequila, Del Maguey Vida mezcal, house-made anise Demerara syrup, Dashfire Clove bitters, and Bittercube Jamaican #1 bitters, and his This Side of Paradise ($14) at Vol. 39 features El Jimador Blanco Tequila, habanero- and poblano-infused Yellow Chartreuse liqueur, St. George Spiced Pear liqueur, Montenegro amaro, lemon juice, and simple syrup. “I like to add a little sugar, some bitters, maybe a splash of something else, but it’s mainly about showing off and highlighting the base spirit,” Relkin adds. “There’s something special about tasting a beautiful spirit, and using it in a cocktail where it shines and is obviously the star.”
Quality is on consumers’ minds today more than ever before, and that extends to the cocktails and spirits they choose, notes Chaskalson of Rocco’s Tacos & Tequila. “People want authentic, organic, quality products, and Tequila hits the mark on all of those points,” he says. “Producers like Casa Noble, for instance, are bringing organic and kosher-certified Tequilas to the market. That attention to detail and care is what consumers appreciate.”
While people are growing more discerning in their drink choices and calling for specific Tequilas by name, bartenders also have their own favorites. Walsh of Las Perlas likes Fortaleza Blanco Tequila. “It has amazing peppery notes that add dimension to cocktails,” he explains. “I’ve been to the Fortaleza distillery, and I can tell you everything they do there is the way Tequila should be made. From the harvesting to the distilling to the cooking, they take no shortcuts and it definitely shows in their product.” Walsh’s Cielos Grises cocktail ($11) comprises Fortaleza Blanco, house-made grapefruit agua fresca, agave nectar, lime juice, mint, and sparkling water.
“The agriculture aspect of Tequila is impressive,” Babalu’s Ruiz says. “I’ve visited the Patrón and Cuervo distilleries and you see the jimadors working the fields, planting and harvesting the agave—it’s a very authentic experience.” Babalu features the Coralina Margarita ($10) on its menu, which is a recipe that comes straight from Patrón Sprits. It blends Patrón Reposado, DeKuyper Triple Sec liqueur, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, and a Zolo Malbec float.
Shawn Stanton serves as beverage manager for Detroit-based restaurant group Working Class Outlaws, where he’s responsible for cocktail creation at the group’s three concepts: Imperial, Public House, and Antihero. When working with Tequila, his go-to brand is Hornitos. At Public House, his Wanda cocktail ($10) blends Hornitos Plata, Yellow Chartreuse, simple syrup, lemon juice, and fresh muddled watermelon and mint. At Antihero, his Harajuku on a Sunday ($12) mixes Hornitos Plata, Midori melon liqueur, Fee Brothers Orgeat Cordial syrup, and pineapple and lemon juices. “Tequila is being taken more seriously by a wider audience as a craft cocktail ingredient,” Stanton says. “But at the same time, it’s still a fun spirit—when most people think of Tequila, they think of beaches, summer, and partying.”
Ghost Donkey’s Jimenez concurs that people equate Tequila with good times. “A big part of Mexican culture is the celebratory aspect of it, and Tequila is often perceived as a spirit that can lift your mood,” he says. His Mucho Take It Easy ($15) says it all in the title: Tequila inspires relaxed and happy times. The drink comprises Tromba Reposado Tequila, Becherovka herbal liqueur, blood orange and lemon juices, house-made cardamom syrup, and Austin Eastciders Blood Orange cider. “Understanding Mexican culture and the traditions and production methods of Tequila has helped to broaden appreciation of this spirit, and has helped take down some of the stigmas from the past,” Jimenez adds. “So much of the Tequila conversation is around shots, and while we support drinking Tequila in any way at Ghost Donkey, it’s nice to offer our guests a different perspective on a somewhat misunderstood spirit