Unlike Bourbon, Cognac and gin, which have long histories in classic cocktail culture, Tequila hasn’t always been synonymous with sophistication and high quality. Long considered a party spirit for college students on spring break, Tequila is now being featured in upscale mixology bar programs, shedding its former image and receiving fresh attention from mixologists and consumers alike.
“Tequila has continued to gain credibility within the mixology world, which has helped to further open the eyes of consumers to the versatility of the spirit,” says Gina Castillo, national brand ambassador for Don Julio Tequila. “Years ago, the average Tequila drinker rarely strayed from the traditional Margarita or shot—the two primary Tequila options available on cocktail menus. But today, it’s very common to find a multitude of Tequila-based drinks on bar menus ranging from new, inventive recipes to twists on classics.”
The profile of the Tequila drinker is indeed changing: All demographics of legal-drinking-age consumers now enjoy the agave spirit in a plethora of cocktails, thanks to a broader availability of premium brands and mixologists’ embrace of the spirit. “Consumers have developed more of an appreciation for Tequila,” says Gary Ross, senior brand director of Tequila at Beam Suntory. “Rather than exclusively drinking Margaritas or taking shots, consumers are now enjoying Tequila neat and in unique cocktails. As Tequila is incorporated into cocktails more often, there comes a greater regard for the spirit and increased knowledge around the category.”
Such exposure to high-end cocktails that feature premium Tequila brands—from unaged blanco varieties to extra añejo styles—has been a leading cause of Tequila’s overall growth and expansion. As mixologists experiment and producers continue to focus on premium offerings, Tequila-based cocktails are in a position to evolve and gain even more fans.
As the popularity of craft cocktails continues to soar, consumers are becoming more educated about what to look for in a well-made drink and thus more discerning about which spirits they prefer. When it comes to Tequila, the new standard is 100-percent blue agave brands, with mixto Tequilas (those that only contain 51-percent blue agave) falling out of favor. This trend is largely due to the mixology community embracing the spirit and educating consumers about high-quality styles and labels. What has resulted is an enormous influx of premium Tequila brands on the market today.
“The craft cocktail bartender’s love of good Tequila has created a home for well-made, 100-percent blue agave Tequilas,” says Leo Robitschek, a James Beard Award–winning bartender at The NoMad Hotel in New York City. “Ten years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find three or four good Tequilas, while today there are dozens to choose from.” He points to Don Julio, Ocho, Partida and Excellia as being the most popular Tequila brands at his bar. The NoMad’s best-selling Tequila-based cocktail, The Loisaida Avenue ($16), features jalapeño-infused Excellia Blanco, Sombra mezcal, Green Chartreuse liqueur, lemon and Angostura bitters.
“I think the cocktail boom has helped Tequila quite a bit,” says Nikki Sunseri, bartender at Las Perlas in Los Angeles. “For a while, so many people detested the spirit because they drank too much poor quality Tequila at a younger age and never wanted to touch it again. Now that we’re using better spirits, they’ve realized Tequila is really amazing. Consumers are becoming more exposed to Tequila and therefore know how to select better quality products.” Top-selling Tequila brands at Las Perlas include Ocho, Siete Leguas, Tapatio, Clase Azul, Casamigos and Fortaleza. Sunseri’s Rosemary’s Baby ($11) mixes Ocho 2014 Plata Tequila, Shrub & Co. Peach shrub, honey syrup, lemon juice, and house-made rosemary-and-watermelon agua fresca, served in a sugar-rimmed glass and garnished with a morita chili pepper. And her Ore Verde cocktail ($11) comprises roasted pepita–infused Fortaleza Reposado Tequila, Miracle Mile Castilian bitters, Regans’ Orange No. 6 bitters, and house-made fig-and-strawberry syrup.
“With the growth of craft spirits and cocktail lounges, our bartenders are being transformed into chefs,” says Rob Day, national beverage director for Richard Sandoval Restaurants’ La Biblioteca bar, with locations in New York City and Denver. “They’re using Tequila in several unique ways, incorporating other premium spirits and using fresh ingredients.” Day’s Sweet Heat ($9) features serrano pepper–infused Casamigos Blanco, pineapple-infused Casamigos Blanco, fresh pineapple juice and agave nectar. Another cocktail that features culinary components is the Jalisco Garden, created for Don Julio Tequila by mixologist Marshall Altier. It blends Don Julio Blanco with fresh pineapple juice, agave nectar, and fresh-pressed kale, collard greens and dandelion.
Indeed, bartenders are increasingly moving away from artificially flavored ingredients in favor of fresh fruits and herbs. “Great ingredients make a great cocktail,” says Kevin Vanegas, mixologist and national ambassador for Brown-Forman Corp.’s Herradura Tequila. “It’s exciting to see bartenders who aren’t afraid to juice, squeeze, muddle and take time to make handcrafted drinks. Consumers are more educated and understand that fresh lime juice and agave nectar make the best Margarita. They no longer want overly sweet cocktails.”
The Margarita will likely always remain the most popular and well-known Tequila-based cocktail, but in recent years there’s been a significant shift toward those that combine 100-percent blue agave Tequila with fresh lime juice and agave nectar rather than bottled sour mix. Consumers now expect a mature Margarita.
This simple recipe is often the jumping-off point for mixologists to experiment with Tequila and other fresh ingredients. “I’m seeing a lot of Margarita-style drinks that differ from one another based on the unique fresh fruits used,” says Chris Spake, brand education director at The Patrón Spirits Co. The Patrón Smoked Sea Salt Margarita, created by Austin, Texas–based bartender Brian Dressel, comprises Patrón Silver Tequila, agave nectar, fresh lime and pineapple juices, and smoked paprika, garnished with a smoked sea salt rim.
Spicy variations on the Margarita have become a major trend, Beam Suntory’s Ross points out, adding that “the agave and natural flavors of Tequila pair well with spicy ingredients like jalapeño.” Hornitos Tequila mixologist Carlos Abeyta created the Muy Caliente, made with the brand’s Plata expression, fresh lime juice, simple syrup and muddled jalapeño. At La Biblioteca, the Pepino Margarita ($10) blends serrano pepper–infused Casamigos Blanco with fresh cucumber purée, fresh lemon juice and agave nectar, garnished with a rim of Tajín seasoning.
Another classic Tequila-based drink, The Paloma—which comprises Tequila, grapefruit soda and lime—serves as the starting point for experimentation in the Tamarind Paloma, created for Herradura by New York City–based bartender Krystlelynn Kingcade. The drink features Herradura Silver, Bohemia beer, fresh lemon juice, homemade tamarind syrup and Regans’ Orange No. 6 bitters. “Tequila is such a vibrant spirit,” Vanegas says. “The aromas and nuances of spice, pepper and herbaceous agave notes are expressive in a cocktail, as opposed to spirits like vodka, which can easily hide in a drink.”
Even among blanco, plata or silver Tequila expressions, variety and flavor ranges abound. “Tequila’s popularity in cocktails can be attributed in large part to the number of Tequilas that are now available and how their unique flavor characteristics enhance cocktails,” Patrón’s Spake says. “For example, our new Roca Patrón Silver makes an entirely different-tasting Margarita than our core Patrón Silver, with more complexity and earthy notes and a higher proof.” Roca Patrón, which also features Reposado and Añejo variants, is an artisanal, ultra-premium extension of the Patrón portfolio. La Roca y La Rosa, a cocktail created for the brand by New York City–based bartender Esteban Ordoñez, comprises Roca Patrón Añejo Tequila, Patrón Citrónge orange liqueur, Fonseca Bin No. 27 Port, agave nectar and homemade hibiscus bitters. “In today’s cocktail-driven bar scene, bartenders and consumers increasingly consider Tequila as a base for sophisticated drinks,” Spake adds.
This approach is especially true of reposado and añejo Tequilas, which can show the same complexity and distinct characteristics exhibited by Bourbons and Scotches. “While blanco Tequila is still immensely popular as a base for cocktails thanks to its fresh citrus flavor and agave notes, Tequila drinkers are beginning to further appreciate the complexity and versatility of aged Tequila,” Don Julio’s Castillo says. “Reposado and añejo Tequilas are full-bodied spirits with astonishing depths of character that are ideal for stirred, spirit-forward drinks that have typically featured whiskies.” Don Julio’s Highway 71, created for the brand by mixologist Thomas Waugh, features Don Julio Añejo, coconut-infused sweet vermouth (brand varies) and Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters, garnished with a smoked cinnamon stick.
With aged Tequilas becoming more established on the market, consumers are seeing the spirit’s potential to be just as bold, complex and sophisticated as whisk(e)y. “Tequila offers a variety of great flavor combinations because it encompasses so many different styles—plata, añejo, reposado, and even flavored and uniquely aged Tequilas,” Beam Suntory’s Ross says. “For example, Hornitos Black Barrel Tequila is aged to exude complex whisk(e)y-like notes.” Abeyta’s Black Ginger comprises Hornitos Black Barrel, lemon juice, simple syrup, rosemary and ginger beer.
With his Nuevo Manhattan, The NoMad’s Robitschek shows that even an unaged Tequila has the depth of character to take the place of a brown spirit in a cocktail. The drink, which he created for Terlato Wine International’s Riazul Tequila brand, is made with Riazul Plata, Dolin Blanc and Punt e Mes vermouths, Combier orange liqueur, Nonino amaro, and Angostura bitters. “Tequila can work in cocktails in a multitude of ways,” Robitschek says. “It’s a flexible, generous spirit that lends itself well to all kinds of treatment.”
Tequila-based cocktails truly run the gamut on today’s bar menus, thanks to the increased exposure of high-quality brands and experimentation among mixologists using the agave spirit in their creations. “Ten years ago, most bartenders only knew how to serve Tequila in shots, Margaritas and Tequila Sunrises,” Herradura’s Vanegas says. “It’s very exciting to see how Tequila has evolved behind the bar, and I’m 100-percent confident that this trend will continue nationwide.”