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Tequila's Big Shot – US Food Trends

16 November 2007
Tequila's Big Shot – US Food Trends

Teach customers to take tequila seriously as a complex spirit.

This article first appeared in the 1 November 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I,visit its website here >>

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Tequila is putting aside its rowdy reputation to run in more-sophisticated circles. The heady Mexican spirit now arrives in style at pairing dinners, in tasting flights and even on premium-brand lists thanks to a growing number of restaurants and bars eager to educate consumers about the spirit's more-serious side.

"We're trying to change the mindset of tequila as just a shot to do with beer," says Frank Tognotti, general manager of Los Angeles' Amaranta Cocina Mexicana, which menus nearly 400 varieties. "Tequila has a lot to offer as far as diversity in flavor profiles and regional varieties. People are finding a lot of characteristics they like, and that's creating a buzz."

That buzz is spreading big time. In 2006, tequila sales jumped 10% over the previous year, an increase second only to Irish whiskey among spirits, according to ACNielsen's Scantrack and LiquorTrack services. Fueling the impressive hike are premium and ultra-premium varieties, for which sales rose 19% and 35%, respectively.

Take three No two tequilas need be alike, but all fall into one of these three categories: 1. Blanco or plata: Clear, unaged tequila bottled directly from the distillery; the spiciest, most intense agave flavor 2. Reposado: Pale golden in color, aged at least 60 days and as long as one year in oak barrels or vats for more-mellow flavor 3. Añejo: Amber-colored and full of rich oak flavor, aged in oak for at least one year

Taste and Learn

Also working in tequila's favor is that more venues are promoting varieties made from 100% blue agave rather than the familiar blends most Americans have experienced, which can contain as little as 51% agave combined with sugars and additives. These higher-end tequilas supply cleaner, earthier finishes that better reflect the liquor's natural flavor.

Monthly educational tasting sessions at Amaranta find Tognotti teaching drinkers to appreciate tequila as they would wine-swirling the golden liquid in special flutes, watching the "legs" (vertical trails) drip down the slides and breathing in the aroma before sipping to savor the experience.

"Now instead of asking for a shot and a lime, people want to know the flavor profiles behind the tequila, whether it's sweet undertones of vanilla and honey or spicy and oaky," he says.

At Southwest-inspired restaurant The Mission Grill in Philadelphia, customers can opt to taste four different tequilas served neat or in cocktails at monthly four-course tasting dinners. For the inaugural event in October, about half of the 50 attendees chose to sample the tequila straight up.

"Not many restaurants in Philadelphia have the variety of tequila we do-there are about 50 on our list-so it's a great way to promote the restaurant," says Assistant General Manager John Krinis. "Tequila is certainly an up-and-coming trend, and people are starting to approach it more as they do scotch and bourbon."

Customers at The Mission Grill also can order flights of any three tequilas on the list except for super-premium varieties, which are priced separately. Manager Dan Nelson says that the 2-ounce pours give drinkers a chance to compare three types of one brand: blanco (unaged), reposado (aged 60 days to 1 year) and aÁ±ejo (aged at least 1 year), or see the differences among tequilas that come from highland and lowland regions of Mexico.

"The highlands varieties are a little more fruity, sweeter, not as dry. In the lowlands you get more of the actual agave taste, a charred, oakier flavor," he says.

Mixing Tricks

Margaritas are the best-selling tequila-based cocktail, but creative bartenders and mixologists are playing off the spirit's distinctive profile to craft more-creative quaffs. The Mission Grill's Rio Grande calls for muddled jalapeÁ±o, melon liqueur and reposado tequila with sliced-cucumber garnish; at Amaranta, the Sangre de Fresa features blanco tequila, orange liqueur, margarita mix, and fresh strawberries and basil muddled with balsamic syrup, topped with a splash of soda.

Eben Freeman, head bartender at recently opened hotspot Tailor in New York City, looks to the Mexican-born spirit's cultural heritage to create innovative cocktails.

The cinnamon-like spice called canella inspires the Bohemio, a mix of tequila, sour orange and cinnamon-inflected bitters. In the Agua Verde, bartender Troy Arcand's play on the Bloody Mary, cilantro and habanero chiles join the tomatillos that stand in for traditional tomatoes.

Blanco and reposado varieties work best in mixed drinks-the deep, complex flavors of aÁ±ejos stand better on their own-and bartenders often recommend reposados specifically for margaritas. Freddy Sanchez, executive chef-partner at Chicago-based Adobo Grill's four locations, says blancos work well for adding spiciness to cocktails, while reposados deliver a touch of oaky flavor.

For regular tequila-pairing dinners at the contemporary Latin restaurants, the liquor often is infused with seasonal fruit such as pineapple, plums, raspberries and peaches.

"When we're serving spicier food, we like to bring it back with sweeter flavors in the drinks," Sanchez says.

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