Tequila: Mexico’s party spirit finds respectability

An age-old question in the drinks trade is whether tequila will ever be able to shed its negative image, although some in the industry would argue it is already well on the path of transformation from boisterous party drink to respectable spirit.

In recent years there has been a raft of celebrity endorsements for tequila – George Clooney, AC/DC, P-Diddy, Justin Timberlake and Santana, to name just a few – and this has all helped spread the message that a good tequila doesn’t need to be masked with salt and lime.

And alongside the celebrity-backed brands there have been a number of newcomers in the UK targeting the premium end of the market.

Dan Bolton, managing director of Hi-Spirits, says that premium products are a key driver of growth in the category, which prompted the company’s decision to launch the four-strong range of Corazon single estate tequilas last September.

“In the on-trade there is a renewed interest from bartenders and consumers in quality tequila cocktails and that translates across to the off-trade as an expectation that there will be a choice of premium tequilas available,” he says.

Bolton notes that the UK spirits sector is increasingly being driven by younger people, and these consumers are very happy to move between brands and categories as part of a spirits repertoire, including tequila, both on its own and in cocktails.

The growing interest in premium brands led the UK’s tequila market to grow by 12.2% in the off-trade in the year to August, with particularly strong growth at the top end, and in particular, from premium white tequila (Nielsen).

Nick Gillett, managing director of Mangrove UK, whose portfolio includes El Jimador and Herradura tequilas, says interest in cocktails such as Margaritas, an increase in global travel and the popularity of Mexican cuisine in the UK are all factors in tequila’s growth.

“Modern day pop-culture is also a strong influence,” he adds, “with Mexican cultural events being brought to the forefront with films like Spectre and sugar-skull pattern designs. This fuels interest in the exotic spirit category.

“But the greatest underlying factor is the significant increase in both trade and consumer knowledge of the category.”

Justin Horsman, director of Dreamweaver Brands, says there are clear indications of positive change in the tequila market but “there is still a lot of work to be done” compared to rival premium spirits categories.

Dreamweaver’s Pancho Datos was launched in the UK in the second half of last year and the brand has been working hard to educate consumers on how it can be served with tonic.

Horsman adds: “A brand like Pancho Datos provides high quality 100% agave tequila options for both mixing and enjoying neat. There is no need to lower the quality just because it is in a cocktail.”

Indie Brands, the distributor of Arette and Fortaleza tequilas, also notes that premium tequila is gaining traction but that the vast majority of people still have very limited understanding of the drink.

Matt Hill, regional sales manager for London and South East England, says: “Unfortunately, tequila is historically associated with shots, salt and lime. This is beginning to change slowly.

“With a better understanding of the category, seeking out premium options is certainly on the rise in cocktail bars, and here it is a well-respected, and often favourite, category.”

Bolton agrees that premium tequila is in growth through cocktails and sipping grades of the spirit, but points out that there will continue to be consumers who enjoy adding a slice of lime and salt to their tequila ritual.

With Corazon, Hi-Spirits sees “real potential” to broaden the market by bridging the gap between the premium end and the shots market with a wider range of mainstream serves.

Bolton says: “We are offering information about the heritage of premium tequila and the terroir of agave, tapping into that artisan spirits trend.

Highlighting premiums

For retailers who want to get into premium tequila, the first thing to check is whether it a brand is made from 100% agave, as opposed to containing a high proportion of “mixtos”, which can sometimes account for 50% of a lower-grade spirit’s ingredients.

There is a global shortage of agave supplies so 100% agave styles will command a higher price.

Stocking premium brands with a strong background is another way retailers can develop a good range.

Indie Brands’ agave sales manager Paola Bridge-Collyns recommends the “bartenders’ favourite” Fortaleza, which she says is “made by the fifth generation of the Sauza family, using traditional methods from 140 years ago, offering notes of black pepper, earth and butter”. She also highlights Codigo 1530, which is new but seeing strong demand, and has five expressions.

She recommends mixing it in simple serves, such as with tonic, rose lemonade or pairing it with grapefruit soda in the Mexican way,

Mangrove managing director Nick Gillett suggests retailers think about simple off-shelf displays around key theme days. “El Jimador does a themed bottle wrap for stand out shelf presence,” he says.

Mantas Zlatkus, global brand director at Rooster Rojo tequila supplier Amber Beverage Group, says: “Ideally retailers should present the full range of all tequila and mezcal levels. While blanco is most suitable for shots and cocktails, reposado and añejo are good for sipping, or even pairing with food.”

The Mezcal challenge

Mezcal has a more challenging taste profile, more akin to a peaty whisky, but it can offer a point of difference for independent retailers as it isn’t widely stocked by supermarket chains.

Nick Gillett at Mangrove says: “We still view this as a fledgling category offering an artisan product – and consumer awareness is much lower.

“We offer Montelobos Mezcal, which is produced with 100% cultivated organic agave. Mezcal is an expensive spirit so we are anticipating a trend towards smaller bottle sizes to enable trial by consumers.

“It is certainly an extension of the growing trend towards tequila, so watch this space in 2019 and beyond.”

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