Taking more than a shot in the dark

The breadth of flavours available is bringing tequila to a wider audience

A glass of tequila is sitting by a bar wedged with a lime.

TEQUILA has had something of a reputation in the UK for being a spirit that bar and pub customers shoot first and ask questions about later (or not at all).

However, tequila – and its smokier sister, mezcal – has always had its supporters among bartenders and other spirits aficionados, who argue that the spirit has a breadth of styles and flavours to match anything else on the back-bar.

And the appeal is said to be growing steadily, according to brand owners and distributors.
Clayton Thomson, premium brands manager at C&C Group, the distributor of tequila brand Aqua Riva, said tequila “has long been seen either as the ‘never again’ spirit or somebody’s absolute favourite”.

“The market always lists to the younger age brackets, a large proportion of which tend to be discerning female drinkers looking for a quality spirit that can be sipped and savoured rather than shotted,” said Thomson.

“We do believe, however, that there is a tequila serve out there for everyone, and it is merely a matter of persuading our consumers to be a little adventurous in their drink choices.”

Oliver Pergl of Proximo Spirits, a distributor of tequila brands including 1800, Jose Cuervo and Gran Centenario, agreed.

He said that, in recent years, the category “has seen an entirely new wave of customers eager to experience tequila in different ways to what they’ve been used to or have seen in past visits to their favourite haunts”.

“The whole image and yesteryear idea of tequila being enjoyed purely as a shot is simply not the case for everyone anymore, as more people explore the category and get to grips with the craft-like nature behind one of Mexico’s greatest gifts to the world,” said Pergl. Tequila, distilled from blue agave, is generally available in four varieties: blanco (unaged); reposado (rested in oak barrels for up to a year); añejo (aged in oak casks for one to three years) and extra añejo (aged in oak casks for over three years).

Mezcal, meanwhile, is spirit distilled from any type of agave (technically meaning all tequilas are mezcals but not all mezcals are tequilas).

As with Scotch whisky, there are differences between spirits produced in different Mexican regions.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that malt whisky fans are said to be one of the main target markets for tequila and mezcal in the on-trade.

Michael Ballantyne, founder of Storywood Tequila, said the brand’s main target market is whisky drinkers, “as they understand a lot of the in-depth discussions we have when it comes to talking about our ageing process”.

“I always say to people to treat tequila the same you would any fine whisky because after all it takes up to ten to 12 years just to grow an agave plant to make tequila,” said Ballantyne.

“With that being said things like flights are a great way to offer consumers something fun and different, but you have to be prepared to educate people at the same time.”

While there will be customers keen to try spirits neat or in long serves, cocktails have become one of the most common entry routes into tequila.

Thomson said, pre-pandemic, it was common to see twists on classic tequila cocktails the Margarita and the Paloma on cocktail lists, with some venues substituting mezcal “for a smokier, heftier flavour”.

Pergl of Proximo Spirits said cocktails often serve as the “gateway” into the category for some bar and pub customers, highlighting the various flavour profiles present in the spirit, after which the “natural step” for many of those customers will be pairing the tequila or mezcal with a favourite mixer.

The key here, said Pergl, is to regard different ages of tequila as different types of spirit.
“Treating different ages of tequila differently works well,” he said.

“For instance using a silver (blanco) tequila as a general white spirit, or an añejo tequila as a dark spirit will allow people to understand how best to use them.”

For those customers keen to try tequila neat, pairing with food can help make the spirit more accessible.

“Regarding neat serves, this is where I like to introduce the concept of food pairings to really bring to light the true nature behind tequila and how it’s enjoyed back home in Mexico,” said Pergl.

“Sipping tequila neat from a Champagne flute is a hugely impactful technique to assess the true aroma and taste credentials behind the spirit and also showcases the luxurious nature behind a spirit that can take as much as six to eight years to produce.

“Following a few of these key techniques will allow our clients to highlight easier the true accessibility that tequila can offer, in many different and enjoyable ways.”

While the category is arguably as broad and complex as any other spirit, stocking a small range needn’t be complicated.

Ballantyne, at Storywood, recommended licensees consider “a selection of unaged/aged tequila and mezcals in the 40% ABV and even a couple high-proof ABV styles for sipping and mixing premium cocktails”.

And Thomson at C&C advised a core range of three “base tequilas”, encompassing a blanco, reposado and añejo, as well as a coffee tequila for shooter fans and “one good quality mezcal”.

“There is an absolute myriad of tequila flavour profiles out there, ranging from sweet honey notes to stronger mineral and smokier tones, without even regarding the age ranges,” said Thomson.

“The best advice to give to an operator regarding tequila and mezcal is to start slow – do not over-purchase.”