by Elyse Glickman
Tequila has become one of the world’s best selling spirits. But as much as your customers like tequila, do they really understand it? And more importantly, do you? Do you know the categories and types of what has become a back-bar favorite? Or how about the best way to use each type of tequila in the cocktails you serve?
“Mixologists must learn where the tequila they use comes from, and the aging process [each tequila goes through] so they can play with the flavors accordingly,” says Ciro Garzòn, general manager and beverage director at New York City’s Pampano Restaurant.
The basic definition of tequila is a quite simple one: it is a distilled beverage made from the blue agave plant, primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila northwest of Guadalajara (the lowlands), and in the central western state of Jalisco (the highlands, or Los Altos).
Tequilas from the highlands contain more sugar and are cleaner on the palate than their lowland counterparts, which impart a grassy, peppery flavor, Garzòn explains.
But those differences are just the tip of the tequila iceberg when it comes to understanding the nuances of the two categories (100% Blue Agave and Tequila Mixto) and five classes (Blanco, Joven, Reposado, Añejo and Extra Añejo) of this Mexican-made spirit.
Experts Asking Experts
Nick Digiovanni, bar manager at Público in St. Louis, is the face of the restaurant’s bar program. In that role, DiGiovanni believes one of his main responsibilities is to educate his bar staff and servers about what differentiates one agave spirits product or portfolio from another.
“It is a good idea to spend time with brand reps who are passionate about their brand. If you are unfamiliar with a given tequila, they can be great resources,” Digiovanni says.
The knowledge the reps bring, he stresses, is about much more than marketing their particular brands. They can keep managers and staff up-to-date about issues such as distillation, usage, how and where the agave plants and piñas are grown, and how soil content affects each spirit’s flavor.
“While they may be tied to brand, loyalty-wise, they still offer a wealth of information,” Digiovanni notes. Cody Pruitt, bar manager and part owner of Casa Neta, a new mezcaleria and tequileria in New York City’s flatiron district, concurs.
“The bigger brands are not so much spending money on production as they are spending it on marketing,” adds Pruitt. “The marketing people [the distilleries hire] are paid to learn and convey as much about the tequilas as possible, but it will be your bar that also benefits.”
Aging: More Than a Number
The way each of the five classifications of tequila is aged significantly impacts its appearance and flavor profile. At one end of the spectrum is Tequila Blanco, clear, un-aged tequila normally bottled right after being distilled; at the other end is Tequila Extra Añejo, which is aged for at least three years. (For more specific information on aging by tequila category, see sidebar at the bottom of this article).
“The Western palate is leaning more towards aged spirits,” Pruitt reports.
The type of barrels in which the tequila is aged also has an impact. Although bourbon barrels are a popular choice for some distillers, others are going a bit further to establish their “street cred” as artisanal producers, Digiovanni says.
“While bourbon barrels give certain tequilas American whiskey notes, there are [tequilas] that are rested in cognac casks, port wine casks, and so on,” Digiovanni adds. “If you are planning to use a reposado or añejo [in a cocktail], pay attention, as some barrel-aged spirits may lend a more harmonious character and flavor profile than others. Cognac cask-aged tequilas will have heavy notes of vanilla, brown sugar and creaminess, whereas bourbon cask-aged spirits will have a finish with an oakier, drier mouth. Port wine casks add a sweetness.”
It is important to understand how the flavor notes and finishes each type of tequila imparts affect the taste of cocktails made with tequila. Both Pruitt and Garzon recommend turning to blanco tequila for common Mexican/Latin cocktails because of its pure, specific blue agave flavor and compatibility with citrus fruit.
“Once you start working with aged spirits, you are starting to deal with the vanilla, oaky and tannic notes from barrel aging that may not be harmonious with the lime juice characteristic in Margarita and Paloma recipes,” Pruitt says.
“For stirred drinks, treat aged tequilas as you would bourbons, whiskey, rye or cognac depending on how peppery [the tequila] is. If you try building a Manhattan or Old Fashioned-type recipe with an un-aged spirit, you encounter weird flavors because of the natural citrusy notes,” he adds. “You need those brown sugar and vanilla notes of the aged tequilas to work with such accents as vermouth and amaro.”
Inventory and Storage
Digiovanni notes that as the back bar space at Publico is limited, everything new needs to be tested and tasted before he decides it will make the menu.
“It is important to do your homework to ensure well-rounded flights and cocktail menus,” he says. “I am not out to have the largest collection of agave spirits, and sometimes having too much available means some perfectly good tequilas will get lost in the crowd. It’s better to have a better thought-out, curated list as opposed to just snatching up anything you can get your hands on just for the sake of having a full bar.”
Although Pruitt’s venue has over 180 different agave spirits, it is inevitable some customers’ favorites— including nationally known brands—will not necessarily be available. However, this presents Pruitt an ideal opportunity to expand his customers’ palates and vocabularies.
“A lot of [what we stock] are true artisanal products, and encouraging customers to taste the agave expressed in these artisanal products provides an interesting learning experience for the customer,” Pruitt says. “Remember, agave spirits are some of the oldest distillates in the world and one of the most diversified spirits categories.”
While creative displays of bottles seems to be a no-brainer when it comes to catching customers’ eyes, the experts advise to proceed with caution, especially when heat and light-conducting windows and glass are involved.
“When you can drive past some of these corporate restaurants and see the bottles on display, it seems like it would be a great way to literally expose your tequila menu to guests,” says Ryan Sharpe, director of beverage and specialty projects at Real Mex Restaurants (a group that includes El Torito, Chevys Fresh Mex and Acapulco Cantina). “However, the direct exposure to sunlight will actually kill those flavor profiles.”
Sharpe also says extremes in cold can diminish the effect of a gorgeously crafted añejo.
“Do not chill añejos or encourage people to shoot them,” he warns. “If your customers are planning to spend money on and savor higher-end añejos, encourage them to slowly sip and savor them at room temperature. Blancos and silvers are more appropriate for chilling and shooting.
Tequila—Beyond the Margarita
In 2008, Los Aangeles bartender Marcos Tellos was hired to consult for the bar program at Malo in the arty-bohemian Silver Lake neighborhood. With the restaurant’s ambitions to take Mexican cuisine to a new, fashionable place, Tellos teamed with fellow bartenders Damian Windsor and Chris Ojeda (now a Southern Wine & Spirits mixologist) to elevate the tequila bar experience, too.
“Tequila has always been prolific as far as bar staples go,” says Tellos, now the director of education at El Silencio Mezcal. “The number one cocktail across the United States in bars has been the Margarita for the last two, maybe three decades. To say that we did something revolutionary for Malo by creating tequila cocktails would be a falsehood. However, what we did was vary the cocktail program so we weren’t just doing Margarita variations. We decided to use tequila just like a whiskey for stirred and shaken cocktails, and bring in other ingredients beyond triple sec, agave nectar and lime—including honey, ginger and lemon juice.”
The Medicina Latina (a riff on the Scotch-based drink called Penicillin) is one of Tellos’ best-known cocktails. For Malo’s menu, he kept the ginger and honey, but used lime instead of lemon juice, and replaced Scotch with aged tequila and a float of mezcal. The drink remains a fixture at Malo; was added to sibling restaurant Mas Malo and to cocktail menus throughout Los Angeles; and has appeared in books by craft cocktail pioneer Sasha Pestraske and U.K. mixologist Robert Simonson.
SIDEBAR: Tequila Categories