Restaurants are seeking more nuanced, elevated options of the classic.
Tequila is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. What was once considered a party liquor has quickly become one of the country’s favorites, with sales climbing more than 30 percent between 2020 and 2021, per the Distilled Spirits Council. The only category that outperformed tequila was premixed cocktails, which were helped by pandemic-related demand.
Coupled with tequila’s surge is the rise of mezcals, another spirit made from agave. While tequila must be made from blue agave and produced in a designated region of Mexico, mezcal can use a variety of agaves and is produced in a separate region in Mexico. Mezcals are usually described as having a smokier flavor than tequilas.
Discussions around such differentiations are becoming more commonplace.
“Today’s tequila is elegant. It’s complex,” says Ricky Camacho, director of culinary operations and corporate chef at Añejo Restaurant, which has two locations in New York City and a third in Philadelphia.
Camacho says he believes tequila’s burgeoning popularity can be attributed to America’s love of margaritas. According to a 2021 report from market research firm CGA Strategy, 49 percent of cocktail drinkers order a margarita when dining out.
Camacho adds that the ubiquitous cocktail has acted as an entry point to Mexican culture for most consumers and, in his opinion, led to more Mexican concepts being introduced throughout the country. “The No. 1 driver is margaritas,” he says.
“Ten to 12 years ago if you wanted exceptional Mexican food and tequila, you’d have to go out to Los Angeles,” Camacho adds. “Now, you have Mexican concepts with Michelin stars. Tequila used to be associated with terrible hangovers and pounding headaches, but now it’s looked at in the same light as bourbon or cognac.”
Margaritas are also being looked at in a new light. He says while the premixed frozen margaritas of yesterday are still around, fresh versions of the classic cocktail are making waves in more modern establishments. By using seasonal produce and a bit of imagination, he says, restaurants can create margaritas worthy of today’s elevated Mexican concepts.
“I love to experiment with different sweeteners,” he says. “Whether you’re using a house-made simple syrup or a natural sweetener, you’d be surprised at how much that can elevate a margarita.”
The Añejo chef says elevating tequila-based cocktails, like the margarita, is the next logical step, but he doesn’t want to see the drink altered to the point where it becomes unrecognizable. At that point, creating an entirely new drink would be a better option.
“It’s a staple cocktail. It’s refreshing, and it’s satisfying,” he says. “I’d rather not change it a whole lot.”
Camacho adds that today’s drinkers aren’t settling for rail tequila. Instead, they're opting for high-end and lesser known versions. Customers are delving into a variety of styles like blanco, reposado, and añejo, which are distinguished by how long they’re aged. Blanco, also known as silver tequila, is unaged, while reposado is aged in American oak barrels between two months and one year. Añejo is also aged in American oak barrels but requires at least a year of aging.
One of the ways customers are beginning to sample these different styles is through flights. Restaurants like Añejo have started offering small sizes of various tequilas and mezcals, allowing customers to taste expensive and rare varieties without breaking the bank. One option at Añejo is the Wild & Rare flight, which comes with specially produced mezcals like Pierde Almas Tobaziche.
Camacho says serving tequila and mezcal in this form is good business for several reasons. First, it allows operators to move high-end products with a good ROI. Smaller servings priced accordingly can generate favorable margins, and, he says, as customers become more intrigued with top-shelf tequilas, this type of service will become more commonplace.
“You’re going to start seeing tequila as a high-end option in most places,” he says.
Flights of tequila also serve as an educational opportunity. When customers come in and try a new brand or style, bartenders have the chance to steer customers in the direction of new products and spark demand.
For Camacho, the rise of tequila is just beginning. “We’re just getting people to start looking at tequila,” he says. “It’s just scratching the surface.”
Katsuji Tanabe shares Camacho’s enthusiasm. In addition to being the executive chef of newly opened a’Verde in Cary, North Carolina, Tanabe is also the curator of the restaurant’s tequila library. He says people love tequila for its versatility and complexity. Whether it’s mixed in a cocktail or served neat, the spirit's popularity has been aided by the many different ways restaurants can serve it, he adds.
“It’s relaxing,” Tanabe says. “If you’re drinking it by itself, it’s great. The No. 1 drink in America is the margarita, and it’s great like that, too. When you’re having tequila, you’re having a good time.”
Tanabe, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 18, believes tequila is finally getting the respect it deserves.
“I started going to nightclubs around 1999–2000, and that’s when I first really saw people drinking tequila,” he says, adding that the tequila back then was not of the same quality found today. “I think Mexico invested a lot into the region where tequila is made to help market it to the world. The same way people from France proudly say they are French and they drink champagne, now Mexicans can say, ‘I am Mexican, and I drink tequila.’”
At a’Verde, guests can sip on a handful of tequila-based cocktails, like the So Basic, an elevated take on the margarita, featuring Espolon Blanco, orange liqueur, lime, Meyer lemon, and agave, as well as the Ghosted, with pink peppercorn–infused Lunazul, pisco, white vermouth, Dom Benedictine herbal liqueur, lemon, rosewater, and egg white.
Tanabe thinks mixologists should also try giving classic cocktails a makeover fronted by the agave spirit.
“People have begun ordering tequila old fashioneds,” he says. “It works so well. We’re taking classic cocktails that didn’t belong to tequila, and now they’re tequila.”
Perhaps what's most fulfilling for Tanabe is how tequila is now being respected as a pairing with food.
“At my restaurant I want people to say, ‘My god, this particular tequila went really well with this dish.’”