Agave’s Allure

The popularity of Tequila, mezcal, and other agave spirits at bars shows no signs of waning.

Created by Phil Ward in 2007, the Oaxaca Old Fashioned helped to put mezcal on the map. The drink (pictured at Cariño in Chicago), made with reposado Tequila, mezcal, agave syrup, and bitters, is now a popular order at the bar.
Created by Phil Ward in 2007, the Oaxaca Old Fashioned helped to put mezcal on the map. The drink (pictured at Cariño in Chicago), made with reposado Tequila, mezcal, agave syrup, and bitters, is now a popular order at the bar. (Photo by Kelly Sandos)

Ashly Levi, bar manager at Casa Ya’ax in Miami, dates the start of the Tequila boom back to 2014. “That’s when I really started to see a lot more Tequila brands behind the bar and a more general knowledge of the different styles—and it hasn’t slowed down since,” she says. “Mezcal soon followed suit, with more mezcal cocktails appearing on menus, and now there’s a mezcal in the well at pretty much every bar.”

And now, lesser-known agave spirits are primed for their own boom, Levi adds. “At a different pace, other agave and Mexican spirits, such as sotol and bacanora, are gaining more recognition, and people are excited to try them,” she says. “As education about agave spirits and the availability and accessibility of more brands grows, people are trying these spirits and finding what they like and how they like to drink them.”

Denisse Soto, mixologist and beverage consultant for Cariño in Chicago, also notes the rise of education around the agave spirits category as contributing greatly to its popularity. “All the right information is out there now: the artisanal methodology behind these spirits, how families inherit their methods for generations, and how every producer applies their own methods and creativity to the process of each agave spirit,” she says. “All of this is making this industry more appreciated and understood.”

Jason Hedges, director of beverage for The Kimpton Eventi hotel in New York City, points out that the sheer amount of agave spirits on the market today makes it a wonderfully versatile category to explore and experiment with behind the bar. “The diverse flavor profiles, ranging from vegetal and herbaceous to smoky and earthy, add complexity and depth to any drink and cater to various palates and preferences,” he says. “The distinct terroir and production methods of agave spirits also provide a sense of place and time-honored tradition, which can enhance the overall cocktail experience.”

Agave spirits are bringing forth innovation at the bar. At Casa Ya’ax in Miami, the Oaxacan Espresso (pictured) swaps vodka for La Luna mezcal to add a smoky finish to the traditionally bittersweet Espresso Martini.
Agave spirits are bringing forth innovation at the bar. At Casa Ya’ax in Miami, the Oaxacan Espresso (pictured) swaps vodka for La Luna mezcal to add a smoky finish to the traditionally bittersweet Espresso Martini.

Awareness At A High

 Carlos Ruiz, head mixologist at Meximodo in Metuchen, New Jersey, notes that the launch of the George Clooney co-owned Tequila brand Casamigos in 2013 marked a huge shift for the spirit. “This was the match that lit the fire—fast forward to now, many more celebrity Tequila brands have emerged, and because of this, a lot more consumers have jumped on the Tequila wagon,” he says. “The same thing is happening with mezcal, as more celebrities are getting involved with it and creating a buzz around it. Now we’re also seeing the growth of smaller brands that never got attention but make high-quality products.” His Agave Colada ($14) features coconut fat-washed Pueblo Viejo Blanco Tequila, Kalani coconut liqueur, pineapple and lime juices, Coco López cream of coconut, simple syrup, and Angostura bitters, while his El Jefe ($16) blends equal parts Ilegal Joven mezcal, Green Chartreuse, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, and pineapple and lime juices, topped with sparkling water.

Chris Gill, manager at Crown Block in Dallas, also points to the importance of Casamigos, which he says drew in the attention of the masses. “Beyond the celebrity factor, the unique characteristics of agave spirits pushed it into popularity within the craft beverage industry,” he says. “I’ve worked in clubs, speakeasies, and trendy restaurants with different demographics, but when something catches on, it trickles down into every place and Tequila has now overtaken Bourbon sales in the U.S. and is predicted to overtake vodka as America’s preferred spirit.” The Crown Blockberry ($21) comprises Casamigos Reposado Tequila, Cointreau liqueur, lime juice, simple syrup, blackberry purée, and aquafaba, while the Angels & Devils ($22) mixes Socorro Reposado Tequila, Cointreau, lime juice, and agave syrup.

“Tequila has always been a go-to shot at bars, but the real Tequila rush started when people became more curious about the spirit and started to ask, ‘What else can we make with this?’” says Francisco Velasco, head bartender at El Lugar Cantina in New York City. “Brands like Patrón and Casamigos really paved the way in bringing Tequila to the mainstream. It was no longer just one gold Tequila in the well; it was a back bar full of elevated agave spirits.”

At Cariño, Soto’s Sueños ($15) features Corazón Silver Tequila, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, Tattersall Crème de Fleur liqueur, pineapple and lemon juices, and a Lucid Supérieure absinthe rinse. “Tequila has been so popular I remember there was even a shortage of Blue Weber agave in 2018 and it was hard to even get some brands for your bar,” Soto says. “I think that Mezcal has been getting super popular in the last three years because a lot more people understand more about it and you can see more mezcal lovers and adventurous folks giving it a chance. But there are a lot of people out there who still think that mezcal is a type of Tequila or that it’s going to be too smoky or too strong—in reality, mezcal is one of the cleanest and most artisanal spirits out there.” Her Mi Campo Margarita ($18) blends Bosscal Cenizo mezcal, house-made green juice, agave nectar, and lime juice.

Even though there are some consumers who are not as familiar with mezcal as they are with Tequila, mezcal has been having a boom of its own in recent years. “As we all know, Tequila is the most consumed agave spirit in America and Margaritas are the most popular cocktail, yet around five years ago another agave spirit—mezcal—took over and is becoming a protagonist on cocktail menus across the country,” says Cesar Diaz, owner of Odd Birds Cocktail Lounge & Kitchen in St. Augustine, Florida. His Mezgarita ($12) mixes Bozzcal Joven mezcal, Bauchant orange liqueur, lime juice, and agave syrup.

“The Tequila boom has had a stronghold on the beverage industry for a while now, but the real Cinderella story is the wide acceptance of mezcal that’s starting to take hold,” notes Tony Edgerton, corporate beverage director for the New York City-based hospitality company Aicii, which has concepts in several cities across the country. “Mezcal programs are popping up in major markets all over the country as people are diving into the spirit’s wonderful and diverse flavors and traditions.” At Aicii’s concept Masa & Agave in Minneapolis, Edgerton’s Masa & Agave ($16) comprises corn-infused Fidencio Clasico mezcal, Tapatio Reposado Tequila, Ancho Reyes Chile liqueur, house-made corn milk, pineapple and lime juices, agave syrup, and a pinch of Tajín seasoning. 

These days, Tequila and mezcal can be found in Martinis like the Crown Blockberry (pictured) from Crown Block in Dallas as often as they are in cocktails on the rocks.
These days, Tequila and mezcal can be found in Martinis like the Crown Blockberry (pictured) from Crown Block in Dallas as often as they are in cocktails on the rocks.

Creative Possibilities

Crown Block’s Gill appreciates that the wide range of agave spirits allows for the ability to experiment and tailor each drink to each individual preference, even if that means thinking outside the typical cocktail template for that spirit. The Wild Honey ($22) at Crown Block is a Mexican take on the Mule build, blending Casamigos mezcal, lemon juice, ginger and lemon-infused honey, and Scrappy’s Firewater tincture. “Each spirit has its place in history and tradition—there’s a reason you make Margaritas with Tequila and Old Fashioneds with Bourbon—but we’re reinventing these traditions with recent trends and trying out new flavor profiles in classic drinks,” Gill says. 

“Agave spirit-based cocktails have evolved significantly in recent years as bartenders have moved beyond traditional Tequila-based Margaritas and Palomas,” The Kimpton Eventi’s Hedges says. “You can now find a wide array of agave-based cocktails incorporating fresh fruits, herbs, spices, different infusions and fat washes, savory elements, and different types of bitters to create complex and balanced drinks.” At the hotel’s Back Bar, Hedges takes the simple Margarita build and adds his own unique spins: His Laguna Blanca ($19) comprises Thai chile- and coconut-infused Milagro Plata Tequila, Cointreau, lime juice, and house-made lemongrass syrup, while his Midnight Devil ($19) features grapefruit- and jalapeño-infused Los Siete Misterios Doba-Yej mezcal, Cointreau, lime juice, and house-made vanilla syrup. “Making cocktails with agave spirits allows for a wide range of creative possibilities, thanks to their diversity of flavors and textures,” Hedges adds. “They pair well with a range of modifying ingredients and cocktail styles: Citrus, tropical fruits, herbs like cilantro and thyme, and spicy elements like chile, black pepper, and ginger all complement their flavors, and classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned, Negroni, and even the Martini can be reimagined using agave spirits to make creative and delicious variations.”

The Oaxaca Old Fashioned—created by Phil Ward in 2007 and featuring reposado Tequila, mezcal, agave syrup, and Angostura bitters—helped put mezcal on the map and has since become nearly as, if not just as, popular as the classic. At Cariño, Soto’s Oaxacan Old Fashioned ($16) is a hickory wood-smoked drink mixing Wahaka Espadín mezcal, piloncillo reduction, and a house bitters blend containing Angostura, Fee Brothers Orange, and Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate bitters, plus dehydrated oranges and cinnamon. “Agave spirits can have a lot of body, aromas, and profiles to add to cocktails, from earthiness, dryness, smokiness, spiciness, or even botanical flavors to complement other cordials or even bitters, replacing other spirits perfectly in classic cocktails like an Old Fashioned made with mezcal, a Last Word made with mezcal, or an Aviation made with Tequila,” Soto says.

At El Lugar Cantina, the Drinks With Brenda ($17) is a Tequila-based dirty Martini created by Velasco and Nancy Santiago, director of beverage and business development. It blends Maestro Dobel Diamante Tequila, Carpano Bianco vermouth, olive juice, and pickled jalapeño brine, while their Waiting On A Table ($17) is a Tequila Espresso Martini featuring Cazadores Reposado, Licor 43, Cazadores Café coffee liqueur, espresso, and simple syrup. A similar take on the Espresso Martini, Levi’s Oaxacan Espresso ($16) at Casa Ya’ax comprises La Luna mezcal, Kahlúa and Licor 43 liqueurs, espresso, and house-made cinnamon tincture.

“Since the industry is constantly changing it can be hard to predict trends, but some newer ones I’ve seen are Tequila Martinis and Tequila sparkling wine cocktails,” Velasco says. His and Santiago’s At A Sunday Brunch ($16) falls into the latter category, mixing Patrón Silver Tequila, Campari aperitif, and house-made pomegranate syrup, topped with soda water, Cune Cava Brut, and a few drops of red edible glitter. “The sky’s the limit with agave spirits and we bartenders are always working on the next big thing,” Velasco adds.

Beyond Tequila and mezcal, lesser-known agave spirits are showing up behind the bar. Raicilla and sotol are utilized in the Raicilla Negroni from Masa & Agave in Minneapolis and Bar Cima’s Tan Lines (pictured) in New York City, respectively.
Beyond Tequila and mezcal, lesser-known agave spirits are showing up behind the bar. Raicilla and sotol are utilized in the Raicilla Negroni from Masa & Agave in Minneapolis and Bar Cima’s Tan Lines (pictured) in New York City, respectively.

Continued Exploration

While Tequila and mezcal are solidly mainstream now and have been for some years, the lesser-known agave spirits sotol, bacanora, and raicilla are slowly but surely creeping their way into the conversation at U.S. bars.

“I think soon we may see other agave spirits rise in popularity or at least see them incorporated into more cocktails,” Casa Ya’ax’s Levi says. “Bacanora has been pretty popular at the bar and isn’t as smoky, while raicilla and sotol may be for the more experienced palate.” Her Jalisco Cantarito ($16) blends equal parts La Venenosa Tabernas Raicilla and El Tequileño Blanco Tequila, plus watermelon, lime, and grapefruit juices, topped with Squirt soda.

“These lesser-known agave spirits are becoming more prevalent on back bars and utilized in cocktail menus, but I wouldn’t say they’ve had a boom just yet—but it’s coming,” Aicii’s Edgerton says. “At our Bar Cima in New York City I made a sotol cocktail where I sous vide-infused the sotol with cucumber, coriander, and black peppercorn and essentially make a Gimlet with it. To elevate it one more notch, I topped it with a honeydew and grapefruit foam for a nice kick of citrus sweetness. It quickly became one of our bestsellers, and sotol was the backbone of the cocktail. I can proudly say we introduced a lot of people to the ‘desert spoon’ last summer.” The drink, called Tan Lines ($20), comprises cucumber, coriander, and black peppercorn-infused La Higuera Wheeleri sotol, Aperol aperitif, lime juice, and house-made oleo saccharum, topped with a house-made honeydew and grapefruit foam plus Peychaud’s bitters. At Masa & Agave, meanwhile, Edgerton’s Raicilla Negroni ($16) features equal parts La Venenosa Tabernas raicilla, Cocchi Di Torino sweet vermouth, and Campari aperitif, plus Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters. 

“Sotol, raicilla, and bacanora are gaining bartender and consumer awareness since the recent changes in Mexican laws, which now make them more widely available,” The Kimpton Eventi’s Hedges says. “Right now I love Kilinga Silvestre bacanora, which is made from agave pacifica, a species of agave exclusively found in the Sonoran Desert. It’s floral, dry, dusty, and smoky with notes of fruit and spice.” At Back Bar, his Sonora ($19) mixes pink peppercorn-infused Kilinga Silvestre, Xila Licor de Agave 7 Notas, and Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters, while his Desert Oasis ($12) comprises Kilinga Silvestre, house-made fig cordial, lemon juice, honey syrup, and a pinch of salt.

At Odd Birds, Diaz’s Catch The Pigeon ($13) blends Por Siempre sotol, Ancho Reyes Verde poblano chile liqueur, Hayman’s sloe gin, house-made tamarind and chile de arbol syrup, lime juice, and Tajín. “Cocktails with agave spirits are not only the most complex to create, but also to taste; you can feel the minerality, sweetness, and smokiness—you can pretty much taste the whole distilling process with each sip,” Diaz says. “I believe agave spirits will continue to rise in popularity as long as mixologists understand how to layer them with other flavors and keep educating guests. Focusing on introducing these spirits in a way that awakens people’s curiosity to explore new flavors is key.” 

Agave-based Cocktail Recipes

El Jefe

By Carlos Ruiz

1 ounce Ilegal Joven mezcal;

1 ounce Green Chartreuse liqueur;

1 ounce Luxardo Maraschino liqueur;

1 ounce pineapple juice;

1 ounce lime juice;

2 ounces sparkling water;

Mint bouquet.


In an ice-filled mixing glass, combine mezcal, liqueurs, and juices. Stir and strain into a rocks glass over a large ice cube. Top with sparkling water and a mint bouquet.

Drinks With Brenda

By Francisco Velasco and Nancy Santiago
(Photo by Jose Portillo)

2 ounces Maestro Dobel Diamante Tequila;

¼ ounce Carpano Bianco vermouth;

1 ounce olive juice;

¼ ounce pickled jalapeno brine;

3 pickled jalapeño-stuffed olives.


In an ice-filled cocktail shaker, combine Tequila, vermouth, juice, and brine. Shake and double strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with pickled jalapeño-stuffed olives.

Desert Oasis

By Jason Hedges
(Photo by Laurent Tourondel)

2 ounces Kilinga Silvestre bacanora;

¾ ounce fig cordial¹;

¾ ounce lemon juice;

¼ ounce honey syrup (2:1 honey to water);

Pinch of salt;

Dehydrated lemon wheel.


In an ice-filled cocktail shaker, combine bacanora, cordial, juice, syrup, and salt. Shake and strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with a dehydrated lemon wheel.

¹In a medium saucepan, combine 1 quart simple syrup, 4 cups washed and quartered black figs, 1 cinnamon stick, 3 cloves, and 1 tablespoon lemon zest. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil, stirring occasionally. Let simmer for 15-20 minutes then strain, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Mix in 3 grams citric acid. Let cool, bottle, and refrigerate.