There’s no question that Tequila’s reputation has positively evolved over the last couple of decades. “It’s gone from an obscure spirit to one that was consumed in mass quantities by college students and partygoers, to a star ingredient in complex cocktails,” says Josh Powanda, bartender at Sor Ynéz in Philadelphia. “Because of the resurgence of cocktail bartending, consumers are no longer looking for a shot of Tequila, but a composed drink that has unique flavors shining through.”
Enrique Sanchez, bar consultant at El Alto in Los Altos, California, attributes the change—or at least the start of the change—to one bartender in particular. “Back in the day, people in the U.S. weren’t making or drinking many Tequila-based cocktails, which I think mostly comes down to a general lack of knowledge—people didn’t know how good Tequila could really be,” he says. “It wasn’t until the late 1980s, when Julio Bermejo started pouring 100% agave Tequila at his parents’ Mexican restaurant Tommy’s in San Francisco, that the Tequila world really changed. People used to not know the differences between blanco, reposado, and añejo, but Julio changed the game and I really look up to him for that. Since then, people have realized how much flexibility Tequila can have and it’s led to great experimentation in the cocktail world.”
Sanchez adds that more U.S. consumers are embracing Mexican culture than ever before and spirits from the country have benefited greatly. “There seems to be a rebirth of agave spirits happening as more people travel to Mexico and find themselves influenced by their time there,” he says. “As mixology has evolved and specialty cock- tails have gained in popularity, things have really opened up for Tequila cocktails and agave spirits just keep growing.”
The Light Side
Tequila is a spirit with a real sense of place, as it’s only produced in Mexico—primarily in Jalisco with a few local municipalities in Guanajuato, Michoacan, Tamaulipas, and Nayarit—and can vary greatly depending on the region’s specific terroir. “The flavor of Tequila doesn’t just come from the agave plant itself—it’s heavily influenced by the altitude, soil, temperature, and water source of each particular place,” Sanchez says. “So Tequila is unique in that it can come from a limited number of regions but still offer such a wide and unique variety of flavors.”
Ivy Mix, co-owner of the cocktail bar Leyenda in Brooklyn, New York and author of “Spirits of Latin America,” has been pleased to see high-quality Tequila become the norm at U.S. bars. “It’s become easier to get 100% blue agave Tequila, and that will make a better drink in and of itself,” she says. “From peppery Lowland styles to more floral Highland expressions, they actually taste like something, rather than like caramel coloring; this makes for more nuanced and delicious cocktails that celebrate the flavor of the spirit itself rather than attempting to mask it.”
Mix adds that everyone loves a Margarita, which is appropriate since Tequila pairs so beautifully with citrus. “We sell many, many, many hundreds of Margaritas,” she says. Leyenda’s Classic Margarita ($14) features Siembra Valles Blanco, Cointreau orange liqueur, fresh lime juice, and simple syrup. A Margarita made with blanco Tequila is indeed a wildly popular drink, and is seen as the classic entry point to enjoying Tequila—but that doesn’t mean blanco expressions can’t be used in more adventurous original concoctions, too. Mix’s Sonámbula ($14), for example, blends jalapeño-infused Siembra Valles Blanco, fresh lemon juice, house-made chamomile syrup, and Peychaud’s and Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters.
“Tequila’s evolution has not only inspired bartenders to do different types of Margaritas, but also to play with variations on classics and other magnificent cocktails,” says Mario Leal-Cruz, Jr., area director of food and beverage for Viceroy Hotel Group. He developed and oversees the beverage program at Sugar Palm in the hotel’s Santa Monica, California location. His Poblano ($19) takes the basic combination of blanco Tequila, lime, and agave, and elevates it with additional complex ingredients: It comprises Casa Dragones Blanco Tequila, Licor 43 liqueur, lime juice, agave syrup, and Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate bitters, topped with a few drops of chili oil and served with a sumac salt rim. At Sor Ynéz, meanwhile, Powanda’s Tranquilo Y Guerra ($14) is a play on the traditionally gin-based Bee’s Knees, blending Corazon Blanco, Yellow Chartreuse liqueur, lime juice, and honey syrup, while cocktail consultant Juan Bustamante’s Frida ($11) is a Margarita riff that mixes charred corn-infused Sauza Silver, Montezuma triple sec, lime juice, and house-made charred corn syrup.
“Tequila cocktails have evolved from simple mixed drinks to super fun and eloquent presentations that are increasingly popular,” says Carlos Gaytán, chef and partner at Tzuco in Chicago. The venue’s cocktail The Pibil ($15) by former beverage manager Paul Sauter features Cimmaron Blanco that’s been infused with toasted almonds, guajillo peppers, cinnamon sticks, and cumin, plus simple syrup, lime juice, and pineapple vinegar, served with a tajín seasoning rim. “The sky is the limit when it comes to Tequila cocktails, and Tequila will continue to evolve with the times as talented bar people evolve with it,” Gaytán adds. At El Alto, Sanchez’s Holy Water ($15) blends Pueblo Viejo Blanco, John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum liqueur, Green Chartreuse liqueur, lemon and lime juices, Small Hand Foods passion fruit syrup, and hoja santa powder, served with a hoja santa powder rim, while his Little Gem ($15) mixes kumquat-infused Pueblo Viejo Blanco, Dolin Dry vermouth, Campari aperitif, Cointreau, and saline solution.
“Tequila and agave spirits have become much more available in recent years, which has meant that the cocktail evolution can be experienced in the wide range of tastes of the actual spirit, not just in a combination of mixers,” says Gina Chersevani, owner of the Washington, D.C. venues Last Call Bar, Buffalo & Bergen, and Suburbia. “Tequila is very smooth, with a soulful taste, even in unaged varieties, but it also takes on barrel notes very nicely.” At Last Call Bar, Chersevani’s Champagne Strawberry Cobbler ($14) features Milagro Silver, muddled strawberries and lemon, and simple syrup, topped with Perrier-Jouët Brut Champagne, while her Mandarin Margarita ($14) comprises Espolòn Añejo, Grand Marnier orange liqueur, and freshly squeezed lime and mandarin orange juices.
The Dark Side
Just as terroir affects the flavor of Tequila, aging—or lack thereof—does as well. Aged Tequilas like reposado—aged 2-12 months in oak—and añejo—aged 1-3 years in oak— take on richer flavors from the wood, and lend themselves well to more spirit-forward drinks and pairings with bolder ingredients. At Tzuco, bartender Christian Leon’s Azafrán ($23) blends saffron-infused Don Julio Reposado, lemon juice, Campari, and house-made rosemary syrup, while his Mis Raíces ($16) mixes Don Julio Reposado, Nixta Licor de Elote corn liqueur, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, and Regans’ No. 6 Orange and Bittermens Xocolatl mole bitters.
“Tequila, reposado especially, stands out to me because of the aging process—being aged in oak barrels gives reposado a balance of fruits, florals, and spices and it really helps round out and smooth the flavor of the cocktails in my program,” says bar manager Blake Leonette at Avli on the Park in Chicago. “I love a fantastic Margarita, but there is so much more that can be explored with the flavors of Tequila, and that excites me.” His drink The Oracle ($16) comprises 818 Reposado, pear reduction, house-made cinna- mon syrup, and lemon juice. “The Oracle is a very balanced cocktail, with hints of soft caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, and white pear,” Leonette adds. “The 818 Reposado has aromas of vanilla, honey, and fruit accents.”
At Sor Ynéz, Powanda notes that Margaritas and Palomas are still guest favorites, but that this trend is starting to change as Tequila cocktails become more prevalent and varied. “We just put an Oaxacan Old Fashioned on the menu, which is always something that catches the eyes of anyone who wants a boozier cocktail,” he says. The drink ($13), which Powanda created, features La Gritona Reposado, Apaluz mezcal, house-made piloncillo syrup, and Angostura bitters. Also comprising aged Tequila, the Mex Tai ($13) blends La Gritona Reposado, Cañada Oaxacan rum, agave syrup, lime and orange juices, and house-made avocado seed orgeat, served with a citrus salt rim. The drink was created by Nick Baitzel, director of oper- ations for Sojourn Restaurants, the hospi- tality group that owns Sor Ynéz.
“One of the things that I love the most about Tequila in mixology is that it lends
itself to so much,” Viceroy Hotel Group’s Leal-Cruz Jr. says. “I think of Tequila as
a chameleon: It can make a great fruity cocktail as well as a more complex
aromatic sipper.” At Sugar Palm, his La Familia ($21) falls into the latter category, mixing Casa Del Sol Reposado, Cynar amaro, and Fee Brothers Orange
bitters. At Callie in San Diego, meanwhile, bar lead James Roe’s Mr. Adultman ($16) features Volcan Reposado, Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee liqueur, Tempus Fugit Gran Classico Bitter liqueur, and Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth. “This cocktail has big Negroni vibes: Volcan Reposado is made from 100% Highland agave, meaning a more sophisticated sipper; Mr. Black Cold Brew gives mellow coffee vibes that help create that comfortable cozy feeling we love; Gran Classico, an Italian-style bitter that drinks like the cooler older brother of Campari, brings forward big orange and herbal flavors that pair perfectly with coffee and Tequila; and sweet vermouth complements the drink and helps chill out the bold flavors, similar to a splash of water in whisk(e)y,” Roe says. “Adding it all up, you get a big, bold cocktail with amazing layers of flavor, with Volcan Reposado bringing out the best in everyone.”
Similarly pairing an aged Tequila with coffee flavors, the Flat White ($32) at Fellow in Los Angeles mixes Komos Añejo Cristalino, Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee liqueur, cold brew concentrate, agave syrup, saline, a dash of Pernod absinthe, and an oat milk float. “I wanted to create a high-end take on a White Russian for an after-dinner beverage,” says bar director Adam George Fournier, who created the drink. “Komos Añejo Cristalino is the perfect base for this with the wonderful barrel notes and slight sweet- ness of the agave. It creates a wonderful mouthfeel that pairs perfectly with the darker notes of the coffee and the creaminess of the oat milk, which adds another layer of complex flavor.”
Whether in a Margarita or an Old Fashioned—or something in between—Tequila has a place in all types of cocktail applications, and is likely to only continue commanding attention. “Tequila will always be trendy—it has the ability to be fun or serious and offers a beautiful rainbow of flavors and unique personalities,” El Alto’s Sanchez says. “Over the years, Mexican food itself has grown in popularity and I think that has a lot to do with the spirits. As the cuisine continues to become more popular, so will Tequila—there’s a lot of room for it to grow.”