Tequila’s reputation as a fun, celebratory spirit is well-established. “It has a bit of a party personality—people like to share the experience of drinking Tequila,” says Jeremy Allen, general manager and lead bartender at MiniBar Hollywood in Los Angeles. “I don’t know anyone who has a bad time while drinking Tequila.”
There’s even a belief among some that Tequila is a stimulant rather than a depressant, notes Colin Pflugradt, beverage director for the Sol Mexican Cocina chain, which has four locations in California, Arizona, and Colorado. “This technically isn’t true, but there’s something about the Tequila buzz that makes it seem like more of an upper than a downer,” he says, adding that Tequila has become a far more approachable and respected spirit for many people who previously had only bad experiences with low-quality Tequila. “Brands like Patrón and now Casamigos have brought the spirit into the mainstream, and both have made quality products that don’t scare people away from the category.”
Indeed, consumers are coming to appreciate the spirit for more than just its festive reputation as they gain exposure to high-quality brands. “It’s great to see Tequila getting the respect it deserves,” says Kevin Murphy, bar director at Daisies in Chicago. “It’s being embraced for more than just the Margarita. Increasingly, people are discovering añejo Tequila as a new aged spirit similar to a whisk(e)y, and it’s helping to dispel the notion that Tequila is ‘bad.’”
With access to upscale Tequila brands now at a high, cocktails featuring the spirit run the creative gamut, notes Amy Wong, lead bartender at Portland, Oregon-based King Tide Fish & Shell and its summer pop-up, Tacos + Tequila. “Up until the early 2000s cocktail culture renaissance, there wasn’t much diversity with Tequila-based cocktails—there were only a handful of tried-and-true recipes,” she says. “But now, bartenders everywhere are experimenting and introducing all kinds of flavor and texture combinations.”
Bread And Butter
Though Tequila-based cocktails have certainly grown more creative over the past several years, the most common combination of Tequila, citrus, and sweetener—usually lime and agave nectar or syrup—remains prevalent. “Margaritas and Palomas are always the favorite, because they’re widely known,” says Wong. “They’re classics for a reason: They taste good.” But this doesn’t mean that bartenders aren’t having fun with these classic builds and adding their own flair. Wong’s Primavera Margarita ($12) at Tacos + Tequila features El Jimador Blanco Tequila, Bols Triple Sec liqueur, a mango and pineapple juice blend, lime juice, agave syrup, and Bittermens Hellfire Habanero shrub. At Grey Ghost in Detroit, co-owner and beverage director Will Lee’s Once Upon a Paloma ($13) blends El Jimador Reposado Tequila, cinnamon-infused Aperol aperitif, lime juice, grapefruit sherbet, and soda water.
“Margaritas are our bread and butter,” Sol’s Pflugradt says. “The balance of Tequila, sweet agave nectar, and bitter lime can be the hardest thing to execute behind the bar, but when done properly, you can add any fruit, herb, or spice with amazing results. It’s the overly sweet Margaritas and cocktails that people fear, and I don’t blame them.” His Blackberry Ginger Margarita ($12; $14 for a grande size) comprises Nosotros Blanco Tequila, lime juice, agave nectar, muddled blackberries and ginger, and soda water. Also a Margarita riff, his Bubbles and Berries ($14) blends Casamigos Blanco Tequila, Cointreau orange liqueur, lime juice, agave nectar, muddled blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries, and Wycliff Brut sparkling wine.
Flavor balance is key with any cocktail. “Tequila mixes well with a little sweetness, cut with acid from citrus, and with a little spicy kick at the end,” says Matt Wenger, general manager of Whisler’s in Austin. Bartender Sean Skarvka’s Mexican Firing Squad ($11) features all of these components, mixing Lunazul Blanco Tequila with house-made grenadine, lime juice, and a house-made chile pepper tincture. Wenger adds that this combination may be fairly straightforward, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy to execute. “Finding the right balance between sweet, sour, and spicy to make a simple and elegant cocktail is an art in itself,” he says.
Also featuring a combination of sweet, citrus, and spice, the Lavender-Honey Jalapeño Margarita ($13) at El Vez in Fort Lauderdale, Florida comprises Milagro Silver Tequila, house-made lavender-honey syrup, fresh lemon juice, and a house-made jalapeño tincture. The Pikachu ($16) at Komodo in Miami, meanwhile, mixes Avión Silver Tequila, house-made wasabi honey shrub, and yuzu juice.
Though Tequila, lime, and agave will always be a classic combination, marrying Tequila with other types of citrus and sweet components is a simple way to mix things up. At MiniBar, Allen’s The Pink Flamingo ($13) features La Gritona Reposado Tequila, house-made Flamingo mix—which comprises fresh-squeezed grapefruit and lemon juices, sugar, and water—and a splash of Campari aperitif. At Casa Del Toro in New York City, the Matador’s Wife ($15) blends Código 1530 Rosa Tequila, lemon juice, simple syrup, fresh raspberries, and egg whites. “Tequila-based cocktails have become elegantly elevated, and people are making a wider range of combinations than just lime,” Allen says. “There are better Tequilas and a wider range available, and people want to taste the Tequila, not just make it drinkable.”
Outside The Box
Tequila, citrus, and sweetness together provide an excellent starting point when creating cocktail recipes with the agave spirit—and once this combination is mastered, a world of flavor possibilities opens up. “You can make a sweet, fruit-forward cocktail, a spicy cocktail, a smoky cocktail, a spirit-forward cocktail, a dessert cocktail, or a breakfast cocktail,” Sol’s Pflugradt says. “Tequila is incredibly adaptable.”
As bartenders explore different age statements within Tequila, they’re finding that the spirit works well with even more esoteric flavor profiles on the spectrum, from bitter to herbal to vegetal and everything in between. At Whisler’s, bartender Joseph Colonna’s Witch Hunt ($13) comprises Lunazul Reposado Tequila, Strega herbal liqueur, pineapple, lime, and ginger juices, and a Fernet-Branca amaro float. At Toca Madera in Phoenix, lead bartender Keifer Gilbert’s Heart of Stone ($15) features Lunazul Blanco, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, Dolin Génépy des Alpes liqueur, house-made red bell pepper syrup, lemon and orange juices, and muddled raspberries.
“The consumer being more knowledgeable and less intimidated by Tequila has allowed us to be more creative and open during the cocktail-creation process,” says Lee of Grey Ghost and Second Best. “I’ve mixed blanco Tequila with peppers, playing off the natural green vegetable characteristics of the spirit. I’ve paired an añejo with bitter, herbaceous ingredients to create stirred, spirit-driven cocktails. And I currently have a cocktail featuring carrot, coconut, and grilled pineapple, all complementing a reposado Tequila.” The latter description refers to his Decent Thief ($13), comprising El Jimador Reposado, Becherovka herbal liqueur, fresh carrot and lemon juices, house-made grilled pineapple syrup, coconut milk, and a pinch of salt.
“While a traditional Margarita always has its place, we like that Tequila has a natural vegetal quality that works wonderfully in our cocktails, which tend to feature vegetables,” says Murphy of Daisies. The venue’s cocktail consultant Pete Gugni created The Green Giant ($12), blending Cimarron Blanco Tequila, John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum liqueur, juiced green beans, simple syrup, lemon and lime juices, and Regans’ No. 6 Orange bitters.
Wong of King Tide and Tacos + Tequila appreciates that bartenders today are experimenting with more unusual flavor combinations in their Tequila cocktails. “These days you see a wider variety of ingredients mixed with Tequila, such as Campari, tamarind, vermouth, Sherry, nuts, fat, eggs, and more,” she says. At Superkhana International in Chicago, beverage director Colleen Malone’s Spice Note Cumin + Limca Highball ($10) is a unique concoction of Spice Note Cumin Tequila, Limca soda, and chaat masala, while bartender Blaze LaRoe’s Sedona on the Rocks ($15) at The Up Room in Chicago comprises Libelula Joven Tequila, lime juice, and a house-made tamarind and chamoy candy syrup.
“Recently there’s been a lot more spirituous-style Tequila drinks than I used to see,” notes Toca Madera’s Gilbert. “The sour-based drinks continue to reign supreme in the Tequila category, but I think the boozy sippers will keep gaining relevance.” At MiniBar, Allen’s The Emerald Slate ($15) is a stirred, Martini-style drink mixing Enemigo 89 Añejo Cristalino Tequila, Bordiga Maraschino cherry liqueur, and Seedlip Spice 94 distilled non-alcoholic spirit. “I think we’re going to be seeing a lot of a new Tequila style called cristalino, which is aged and filtered the same way rum is made—some are añejo, some are extra añejo, but they’re still clear,” Allen says.
Because Tequila can vary in flavor from one style to another, it works just as well in spirit-forward drinks as it does in shaken, fruity ones. “Tequila can give you an array of flavor notes from vegetal to mineral to spice,” Wong says. “If you replace the Bourbon in an Old Fashioned with Tequila, you’ll get a totally different cocktail.” The Hombre Old Fashioned ($16) at the Dallas restaurant José does just that: It mixes Código 1530 Reposado, St. George Spiced Pear liqueur, Demerara simple syrup, Bar Keep Organic Fennel bitters, and Fee Bros. Black Walnut bitters. Wong’s Penicilina ($13) replaces the usual Scotch in a Penicillin cocktail with El Jimador Reposado. The drink also features Del Maguey Vida mezcal, house-made ginger honey syrup, and lemon juice.
“I think we’ll continue to see more adventurous and unconventional flavor pairings in Tequila-based cocktails,” says Lee of Grey Ghost and Second Best. “Across all of the different expressions and styles there are so many flavors to build on. And with guests understanding Tequila a bit more, it helps to break the stigma around it and allows us bartenders to feel more confident when putting Tequila cocktails on our menus.”