With a host of favourable factors, tequila has finally managed to throw off its past image as a drink used for shots. How did this spirit become mainstream amongst Indians? We find out.
The rise of tequila has been a long time coming, but India finally seems set for a tequila revolution. And no, we aren’t talking about the popular cocktail Tequila Sunrise, made with orange juice, grenadine syrup, and tequila.
Tequila brands have made a beeline into the country ever since a host of favourable factors have led to the audience discovering the spirit — and consuming it the right way. Over the past four years, tequila, which is distilled from the blue weber agave plant grown primarily in Mexico, has entered markets in Asia before catching on in India.
In a happy coincidence, importers have started bringing in high-end tequila brands, while Indian bartenders are experimenting with the spirit in inventive cocktails that go beyond Tequila Sunrise and Margaritas, two drinks that are intricately linked to the spirit.
“If you look at the cocktail culture in the country, there has been tremendous growth over the last two-three years. Bartenders exploring different spirits, and making their own concoctions, the industry’s growth has been phenomenal,” Kunal Patel, managing partner of Mumbaibased Monika Enterprises, which imports tequilas such as Jose Cuervo and 1800 Tequila, affirms.
Arijit Bose, who has worked with worldfamous bars like 28, Hong Kong Street, and currently co-partners Goa-based bar Tesouro, concurs saying that Asians, including Indians, have now become appreciative of high-quality drinks. “People want flavours to come through. They don’t want the spirit to get diluted in the drink anymore.”
The sudden rise of quality bars led by qualified bartenders across the country made everyone thirsty for different kinds of spirits and cocktails, with tequila leading the charge, whilst the nation went through a gin revolution.
Tequila’s sudden rise came on the back of celebrities who either owned or were brand ambassadors for the spirit. The most famous name belongs to Dwayne Johnson and his tequila brand, Teremana, but the roots of the revolution were sown in 2013 when George Clooney co-founded Casamigos tequila that he eventually sold for a billion dollars to Diageo in 2017. Clooney became the highest paid actor that year, without having a single release hit the screens, guaranteeing blockbuster returns for tequila.
Since then, celebrities like Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ husband Nick Jonas with Villa One, P Diddy with DeLeón, or Kendall Jenner with 818 Tequila to name just a few, have made it impossible to escape the tequila wave. Even Elon Musk couldn’t resist having a tequila brand. Last year, Elon Musk launched Tesla Tequila after tweeting about it on April Fool’s Day in 2018. While everyone assumed it was a joke, the only person laughing at the end of the day was Musk, when his heftily priced $250-a-bottle of Tesla Tequila sold out in seconds.
“Celebrities have added a whole lot of awareness about tequila. Today, I don’t have to educate people about the difference between pouring and sipping tequilas, for example. In fact, the whole trend of sipping tequilas did not exist earlier,” Patel says.
Tequilas come in different variations, depending on how long it’s been aged. Freshly distilled tequila is called Blanco Tequila or Silver Tequila and is a clear, light spirit used for mixing cocktails. When it is kept in oak barrels for two to twelve months, it is called Reposado (literally meaning Rested) Tequila.
If tequila is rested for one year to three years, it is called Añejo Tequila, while tequila that is rested for over three years is called Extra Añejo Tequila. Añejo Tequilas are meant to be sipped to enjoy their complex flavours.
There is also a new type of tequila that has caught on in the West, growing at an impressive rate of 60 per cent over the last couple of years. Called Cristalino, it is made by filtering Añejo tequila and turning it into a clear spirit. Patel says his company had initiated talks with suppliers to bring Cristalino to India in early 2022.
While gin has gotten all the attention in the Indian spirit market over the last couple of years, Patel believes that all that attention has not translated into sales. He attributes this to tequila’s base agave spirit. Tequila has a GI, and is only produced in select regions in Mexico, but has become popular worldwide after first making inroads in the USA, and commanding celebrity attention.
As a spirit, it is closer to whisky and rum than gin that needs tonic water to appreciate its botanicals. Patel says that tequila can also be had with any number of mixers, be it soda, cola, or tonic water, while sipping tequilas can be enjoyed just like whisky on the rocks. “Unlike G&Ts that have a bitter and complex taste, tequila is much easier on the palate because of its single agave spirit. It is impossible to have a bad experience with tequila,” he affirms.
Already there are signs of tequila overload in India, and the rest of the world. Mexican tequila is in short supply globally, in part because of the supply chain problems plaguing the world in the aftermath of Covid-19. “I predict prices of tequila will go up next year. I also feel personally that, just like Japanese whisky, people want more of tequila just when bottles are in short supply,” Patel says.
For a three-day pop-up in Ladakh with Prateek Sadhu of Mumbai-based fine dine restaurant Masque in September this year, Patel brought in super-premium 1800 Milenio Tequila, and could only get three bottles even though he had prepaid for many more bottles. “I’m hoping to get anywhere between 80 to 300 bottles next year,” he says.
It wouldn’t be surprising to find 100 per cent agave brands in Indian bars such as DesmondJi or the upcoming Pistola Agavepura slated for launch in Goa in lieu of tequila from Mexico. Rakshay Dhariwal, MD of Passcode Hospitality that runs bars and restaurants across Delhi, Kolkata, and Goa, is also the brains behind Pistola Agavepura. He says that he saw the need for an agave spirit almost a year before the lockdown. “Prices of Mexican agave have skyrocketed. I wanted a nice 100 per cent agave in my own bars, and that led me to creating Pistola Agavepura,” he says.
The question of how tequila will progress from hereon is anyone’s guess, but most people in the industry believe that shots will gradually die down as more premium variants of the spirit come to bars. “We need brands like Purasangre Tequila and Tequila Ocho that are real tequila brands, not more marketing brands to move the spirit away from it being a party drink. With Bacardi picking up Patron Tequila and Monika Enterprises bringing in quality brands, this will now begin to happen,” Bose of Tesouro says.
Tesouro’s third-highest selling drink is a cocktail named Salcete Salsa, a veritable feast in a glass with ingredients such as lacto-fermented jalapenos, tequila, Himalayan salt, and guava in a martini-style drink. As Bose says, “Since people can’t travel right now, they want international experiences within India.”
Patel of Monika Enterprises says that there is a category of patrons that still associates tequila with shots. “Some older people still like to take tequila shots. But that section is not growing anymore.” As a benchmark, industry folks speak highly of Coa, an agave spirit-focused bar run by Jay Khan in Hong Kong that has been winning highly coveted awards over the past year.
As Bose says, “We need to create agave appreciation joints like Coa in India too, something that Jay has done very well. Once people get bored of gin here, agave spirits will sit very well with the audience.”
From amazing tequila cocktails across various bars to high-end releases coming soon, there can be no doubt that India is on the cusp of a tequila revolution.