Sometimes the difference between just having a drink and really enjoying what you taste is the influence of a great bartender. A great bartender can help you discover new brands, learn a little history, and figure out your own tasting profile so you don’t end up ordering and paying for something you don’t like. After all, there’s nothing worse than ordering a $15 shot and not liking what you get!
And given the complexity of flavors in tequila and the sheer number of new brands on the market these days, educated tequila bartenders are essential. That’s why we appreciate knowledgeable and passionate tequila bartenders, the ones you’ll find at Tres in San Francisco, Cantina Mayahuel in San Diego, Agave in New York City, and Masa Azul in Chicago.
Although the best tequila bartenders study the spirit for years, and often make pilgrimages to Jalisco, Mexico, where tequila is made, we wanted to know what the most basic elements that every bartender should know about tequila.
To get to the bottom of this, we went to a passionate tequila bar expert, our energetic friend Mark Alberto Holt, creator of the SFT Tequila Bar in Sayulita, Mexico, and host of the “Tequila Traveler” video series. We asked him to give us a list of:
The 10 Things Every Bartender Should Know About Tequila
1.) What is tequila?
Sounds elementary, right? You might be surprised to know how many people confuse mezcal with tequila (“Where’s the worm?”), or ask questions like “Is this made in Mexico?” It’s important for every tequila bartender to have a succinct explanation of what makes tequila “tequila” and why it’s not just an agave spirit.
2.) Where is Tequila?
This relates to the “Was this made in Mexico?” question. Tequila has an important history in the town of Tequila, Mexico. Knowing where Tequila is located and how it fits into the history of tequila is important. Visiting Tequila is even more eye-opening!
3.) Tequila’s denomination of origin
Knowing which regions in Mexico can legally call their tequila “tequila” is also essential knowledge. Why? Because you want to let your customers know that if they buy something labeled tequila but it is made in Texas or China they do not have the guarantee that it is true tequila made under the guidelines stated by the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT).
4.) Understanding tequila’s different flavor profiles
All tequilas do not taste the same. Many people say that they can tell the difference between tequila made in the different regions of Mexico, which is another location detail that relates to the flavor of tequilas. The Highlands of Jalisco have a distinct soil and agave growing landscape that generally produces sweeter agaves with less fiber and more floral and herbal aromas. The Tequila Valley (or lowlands) tends to produce less sweet agaves with more mineral characteristics. The Tequila Valley also has a water source favored by some distillers.
So, why is this important for a bartender to understand? Because, Mark says, if you notice a client tending toward highlands or lowlands tequilas you’ll be better at selecting other tequilas for them to try.
5.) Which tequila brands don’t share a distillery?
Some labels change, have checkered pasts, or take interesting turns, so it’s helpful to know the evolution of different labels. For instance, a customer could say that they tried a brand several years ago and really liked it, but if the bartender knows that that label has completely changed—gone to a different distillery or has a new master distiller—you can warn them to expect something different now.
Brands like Fortaleza and Siete Leguas own and operate their own distilleries, and don’t currently produce any other brands.
6.) The history of various tequila brands
Some tequila brands have very interesting stories behind them. One such example is the story of Patron and Siete Leguas. Few people realize that the original Patron was actually made by Siete Leguas. This is no longer the case, because Patron eventually built their own distillery. Patron established their reputation as a quality brand on the skill and experience of Siete Leguas, and today’s product tastes nothing like it once did.
7.) How to figure out a customer’s taste preferences
There are many different tequila profiles – different tastes for the differing preferences of the consumer. When a person is new to tequila, Mark likes to ask a series of questions that may provide the clues needed to solve the puzzle.
“What kind of foods do you like? Do you like spicy food? Do you like sweets? Do you like cake?”
Obviously, it’s important for the bartender to know what each tequila tastes like – and a good bartender should be able to describe the differences between the products on their shelf.
8.) How to prepare a customer’s palette
Having a good first experience with tequila requires a little preparation, especially if that person is new to tequila, or distilled spirits in general. The concept and process of “warming up your mouth” is something we’ve covered on the blog before, and Mark feels it’s important for each bartender to know and use.
By preparing a customer’s mouth before they begin to fully taste the tequila, the bartender is both educating the customer and improving their overall experience. Thus increasing the chance that they will turn into a repeat customer.
9.) Breathing techniques
This is especially important for people who are new to tequila. Since tequila has a lot of alcohol content in it, if the customer doesn’t breath properly as the drink it, they could end up gagging because of the alcohol.
Mark says he teaches people to breath properly, and says the proper way to breath is this: when the tequila is in the mouth, take a breath in through the nose, swallow and then exhale.
10.) Teaching a customer to slow down and sip
To many people, tequila is still that crazy stuff they would only drink at the end of a night of college partying. It tastes bad, requires salt and lime, and you’re supposed to get it over with as quickly as possible. A good bartender encourages a customer to slow down and taste the tequila in the way they would with a fine wine.
By striking up a dialog about the tequila, and making a point of finding the right tequila for them, you’re already setting the tone. By not serving the tequila in a shot glass, and not rushing them away from the bar, you should be able to get them to slow down and reintroduce them to tequila.
It’s also a good idea to explain that there are 2 types of tequila – 100% agave tequila, and “mixtos” – that contain other non-agave sugars. That unpleasant taste and nasty hangover they experienced in their college days was because they were probably drinking a cheap mixto.