Tequila rides a Mexican wave

Living in a country where tequila is still considered by many as only for shots, it is no surprise that eyebrows are raised when you order a glass to sip with your meal. If you have dinner with Ruben Aceves – global brand ambassador for Herradura tequilas – expect him to suggest a tequila to match each course of your meal, from a blanco to complement a plate of oysters to an añejo to accompany a rich dessert. “In Mexico, we sip it from a wine glass,” he explained earlier this year at a dinner for the bar trade at La Bodega Negra, the Mexican restaurant in Soho, London. He promotes the use of a wide-bottomed glass with a slightly narrow top which means you can enjoy the aroma as you would with a fine wine.

It will be some time before tequila is commonly drunk in this way in the UK, but increasing numbers of bars and restaurants are championing the Mexican spirit through interesting serves and extensive lists. In fact, it is restaurants that are taking much of the lead. La Bodega Negra boasts over 60 different products in its “tequila and mezcal cellar”, including the super-premium Herradura Selección Suprema plus Tapatio in the speed rail. Most of the cocktails are made with tequila or mezcal including an Ancho Mojito, substituting rum for tequila, and the Pepino – a mix of tequila, mezcal, cucumber water, agave syrup and jalapeño.

Restaurateur Tom Conran has become so passionate about the category that he is now importing a super-premium tequila, Chamucos, and has converted the basement of his restaurant Crazy Homies in Bayswater, London, into a tequila lounge bar, Chamucos Clubhouse (pictured above). The tequila is made 100 per cent from agave plants grown in the tequila region of Jalisco but, unusually, they are transported to the Quiote distillery up in the pine forests of nearby Mazamitla. Named after the Spanish for “little devil”, it is available as an unaged blanco, a reposado rested in white oak barrels for seven months and an añejo, aged in barrels for 18 months.

His new lounge bar is decorated with street art showing the devil – in the style of Mexico’s Day of the Dead – alongside a mural of the lush Mexican jungle and beach. All the drinks are made with Chamucos tequila, from the signature Chamucos Margarita combining the blanco, lime juice, triple sec and agave syrup, to The Devil’s Punchbowl, a sharing drink made by mixing the blanco with hibiscus juice and flower, lime juice, agave syrup and tamarind. Other cocktails include The Toreador, based on a recipe invented in 1937 at London’s Café Royal, combining tequila with fresh lemon juice, apricot liqueur and sugar syrup.

The latest menus at the 65-strong Chiquito restaurant group promote tequila as “a fine and complex liquor and should be sipped slowly to fully enjoy the aroma and flavours”. Listing brands from Jose Cuervo and Cazadores to Don Alvaro and Gran Centenario Reposado, it offers a “tequila sampling board” for £9.99 made up four different tequilas, served with lime and orange wedges, cinnamon and salt to enhance the flavours. Its Margaritas include twists such as adding elderflower cordial, mango puree or chilli, while the newest addition to its menu is the Lolita, mixing Jose Cuervo Especial tequila with cranberry juice and a sweet and sour mix, topped up with lemonade.

Latin American restaurant chain Las Iguanas has just opened its 28th site, creating a 150-capacity bar and restaurant in Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey. As well as specialising in Brazilian cachaça, it offers a good range of tequilas from Gran Centenario to Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia Platino. Its menu promotes appreciation of tequila with tasting notes, describing Sauza Hornitos as having “sweet pear flavours with a warm spicy tingle”. It also lists liqueurs Patrón XO, made with natural coffee essence, and Agavero, which is made at Los Camachines Distillery in Jalisco from a mix of reposado and añejo blended with the locally grown damiana flower.

Alongside a classic Margarita, Las Iguanas cocktails include a Smoked Margarita made with Gran Centenario Añejo and a “mist of whisky”. The Tequila Raspberry Smash is made by adding crushed mint, lime, sugar and framboise, while an Apricot Rickey combines the tequila with crème d’abricot, lime, sugar and soda. A new drink created by the bar team at Las Iguanas in Leeds is the Café de Olla, made by shaking tequila with Kahlúa, agave nectar and orange juice.

A tequila bar features in the pop-up Wahaca on London’s Southbank until September 9, serving up a selection of tequilas and single-estate mezcals such as Olmeca Altos, Calle 23, El Tesoro, Don Alvaro, Herradura and Don Julio tequilas and the rich and smoky ForeverOax reposado mezcal and the aromatic and spicy Del Maguey Vida single-village mezcal. This aspect of the restaurant group’s business has been growing since founders Thomasina Miers and Mark Selby opened a mezcal bar at Wahaca in Canary Wharf in London’s Docklands two years ago. Last year, the basement bar at Wahaca in Soho was relaunched as Azulito and offers 80 different products, said to be the largest collection of 100 per cent agave tequilas in the UK. A new restaurant and bar is set to be opened in Charlotte Street in London’s Fitzrovia at the end of August.

Wahaca’s commitment to only 100 per cent agave tequilas reflects a growing appreciation of the provenance of the spirit. Many bars are now turning their backs on mixto tequilas where the blue agave spirit is mixed by up to 49 per cent with other sugars. Some mixtos are highly regarded, however, and include expressions from three of the leading brands, such as Jose Cuervo Especial Gold, Sauza Silver and Olmeca Blanco and Reposado. Pernod Ricard has responded to bartenders’ desire for a smooth mixable 100 per cent agave tequila with Olmeca Altos, developed with mixologists Henry Besant and Dré Masso.

Tequila ambassador Tomas Estes, who owns London restaurants La Perla and Café Pacifico, continues to highlight the provenance of good-quality tequila through his own brand, Ocho, which is made at La Alteña distillery – also the home of Tapatio, El Tesoro and Villa Lobos under master distiller Carlos Camarena. After his innovative approach to single-ranch tequilas with vintage, he has introduced Ocho Curado, a blend of 100 per cent single-estate agave tequila infused with 100 per cent pure cooked agave. “It’s crazy no-one’s done Curado before since it’s such an obvious winner,” Tomas says. It is distributed in the UK through Cask Liquid Marketing.

Another ambassador for tequila is Cleo Rocos, star of Celebrity Big Brother and the Kenny Everett Television Show and now president of The Tequila Society which imports and promotes tequila in the UK. She and business partner Stuart Freeman have taken the next step and worked with master blender Carlos Perez to develop a 100 per cent agave tequila range, AquaRiva, specifically for bars. “Talking over the years to bartenders, I was hearing about their frustration that, a lot of the time, they were having to work with inferior products,” Cleo explains. “We developed a 100 per cent agave tequila that is designed for bartenders so they can be proud of the cocktails they are making and serving.”

The AquaRiva Bar tequilas feature a blanco, which has citrus and white pepper notes with a light spiciness, and a reposado which is smooth with hints of ripe fruit and caramel biscuit. Alongside these, they have created an AquaRiva Premium reposado which is aged in American oak for at least six months to produce a smooth and elegant full flavour – with no burn – for sipping or mixing in cocktails. “I wanted to make tequilas that were interesting and complex and would work well in cocktails,” Cleo says. “Some tequilas are really made for sipping and don’t work so well in a Margarita.”

Consumer education has been a strategy for leading brands such as Cazadores and Patrón as they seek to show that tequila is a mixable spirit that is not just for shots. UK distributor Cellar Trends’ brand experience teams have been visiting bars across 18 cities to grow the Patrón brand, focusing on driving trial and sales of Patrón XO Café. Its UK brand ambassador has also been carrying out tasting and training sessions with bartenders to improve their knowledge of the Patrón range, focusing on high-end accounts and the mixability of Patrón Silver. Partnerships with festivals and high-profile bars include Paul Daly’s new Rattlesnake in Islington, London, where the opening party last month featured Patrón cocktails. “With Patrón’s popularity increasing, so too are the types of venues that are coming on board,” adds brand manager Craig Chapman at Cellar Trends. “For silver, reposado and añejo, the focus is still the top-end clubs and bars alongside a select range of premium mainstream accounts that are looking at a more premium spirit offering. For Patrón XO Café, however, we’re seeing more and more momentum in mainstream accounts as the product’s reputation grows within the trade.” This has resulted in XO Cafe growing at over 100 per cent year on year.

The number of bars specialising in tequila is starting to grow, from Neon Cactus in Leeds to the new Maya in Liverpool, and consumer perceptions are changing, says Dom Robertson, managing director of marketing agency RPM which has worked with Diageo’s Jose Cuervo. “Rather than a shot to simply neck with friends, it is now a shot that’s sipped cold and a versatile cocktail ingredient and can be paired with beer,” he points out. “Bars such as Trailer Happiness and London Cocktail Club are great in altering perceptions of tequila, offering consumers a great-tasting cocktail while educating them on the flavour notes. These are commonly recognised with spirits such as rum or whisky but undervalued when it comes to tequila.”

Jose Cuervo promotes ice-cold shots
Diageo GB was concerned that Jose Cuervo was losing its share of the shots market to the likes of Jägermeister so enlisted marketing agency RPM to promote an interesting shot ritual to consumers to bring fun and excitement. The result was a touring ice truck with an ice interior and “ice maidens” to represent Jose Cuervo’s “ice cold” shot serve. Consumers were invited on board for a clubbing experience involving being blasted with cooling ice cannons for an “ice cold party”.
In bars, the ice maidens offered free ice-cold samples and approached groups of young men to encourage them to take part in an “ice cold challenge”. Consumers could also put their heads inside a giant ice cube and have a photo taken and uploaded onto Facebook.

Tequila beer
While premium packaged lagers have seen sales fall, tequila-flavoured beers such as Desperados are bringing sunshine to consumers and the category. Global Brands reports that its Amigos tequila-flavoured beer, with an ABV of 5.5 per cent and notes of South American limes, is experiencing growth of 73 per cent in the on-trade. “Sweet-tasting packaged drinks in ‘non beer’ categories are growing both volume and rate of sale, and traditional beers are struggling to justify their space in the fridge to some extent,” says Global Brands’ marketing director Simon Green. An Aztec-themed brand identity has been established for Amigos through back-bar displays, bar runners and in-bar Aztec Spirit parties. “It is unique and fun and resonates with the 18- to 24-year-old market who want to enjoy something new and genuinely differentiated.”

Sweet success for agave syrup
For bartenders making drinks with tequila, agave syrup is fitting alternative to sugar syrup. Its growing popularity in the UK has led to the launch of new products such as AquaRiva Organic Agave syrup from The Tequila Society alongside its new AquaRiva tequilas. As it is 25 per cent sweeter than sugar syrup, less needs to be used. Cocktail specialist Funkin has launched an organic Agave Nectar, made from the same kinds of Mexican blue agave plants used to make tequila and mezcal. It contains 40 per cent fewer calories per serve than standard sugar syrup and is lower on the glycemic index, making it ideal for “skinny” low-calorie mixed drinks. Other products include Opies’ Premium Agave Nectar while Giffard offers Agave Sec – a triple sec liqueur sweetened with Mexican agave syrup

Tequila focus for new Liverpool bar
A new Mexican bar, Maya (pictured below), has opened in Liverpool’s Ropewalks, focused on Mexico’s Day of the Dead and tequila. Downstairs from Mexican restaurant Lucha Libre in Wood Street, it features a taco stand that will also serve passers-by from an opening to the side of the entrance. Director Alex Hannah said: “Having visited Mexico several times and enjoying the nightlife that it offers, we felt completely inspired and wanted to replicate that by creating a bar in the heart of the city that offered everything that we fell in love with. We have spent two years transforming the lower level of the building into a distinct taste of the Mexican underworld, complete with private booths, big leather Doberman couches, riding saddles for bar stools and even our very own shrine.”
Its name is short for Mayahuel, the goddess of the agave plant, and tequila features heavily on the cocktail menu. It includes many of the classics such as a Tommy’s Margarita and Paloma as well as tequila twists including an Old Fashioned made with Don Julio Reposado and a Bloody Maria. Original drinks include a Titty Twister, made with Olmeca Altos Blanco, guava and lime.
Mezcal features in a drink called Seth, made with La Penca mezcal, Giffard apricot liqueur, apple and ginger syrup, and another called Richard, combining Del Maguey Vida mezcal with pomegranate syrup, guava and lime. “Our mission is to bring the energy, feeling, excitement, and the taste of Mexico to our customers.”

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