The Back Bar at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco, presided over by Julio Bermejo, who contributed to the rise of tequila in the U.S.
Spirits & Liqueurs Tequila & Mezcal

An Oral History of the Rise of Tequila in Modern Bar Culture

As told by the bartenders and other industry pros who helped fuel it.

These days, tequila is an absolute juggernaut: It’s poured at every bar, hawked by celebrities, mixed into a seemingly endless number of cocktails

Further, there’s no denying that both the quality and quantity of tequila available in the U.S. has skyrocketed. Liquor-store shelves and back bars are filled with plenty of 100% blue agave—not mixto. And there are plenty of spirits geeks and educated consumers who know why that matters.

But it’s been a long journey to get here. The bartenders and key influencers responsible for the spirit’s rise talk about the roles they played and the view from their front-row seats to tequila’s ascent. 

(Note: the quotes that follow have been edited for length and clarity.)

Before the Boom

In the 1980s and 1990s, and even as late as the early 2000s, tequila didn’t get much respect from American consumers. Much of the tequila on liquor store shelves was “mixto” (a mix of agave spirit and neutral grain spirit); Jose Cuervo was the best-known tequila brand, and the spirit was generally regarded as a shooter for parties or something to mix into Margaritas, masked by cheap sour mix and sugary orange liqueur.

Lynnette Marrero
Lynnette Marrero. / Laura Sant

Lynnette Marrero, co-founder of Speed Rack and an instructor at Masterclass, NYC: It was about what was available. Most people who have an aversion to tequila had really crappy tequila in the ’90s, in college. It was wrapped up in a pre-batched mix, and you’d get a bad hangover. The flavors too—the kinds of tequila—in the early 2000s when I was going to bars, you’d be like, “Oh, why am I paying for this? Get the house tequila.” You didn’t know much about the category.

Ivy Mix, proprietor of Leyenda and Fiasco, Brooklyn, and author of Spirits of Latin America: Back when I was first starting to do bartending, that was the era of the Vodka Soda—drinks that taste like nothing. The whole perception of tequila was, people didn’t touch it. When I was a cocktail waitress at Mayahuel, we had to tell people this was not the tequila that they knew from their youth or from college.

Ryan Fitzgerald, managing partner at ABV, San Francisco: Everyone knew Jose Cuervo. No one knew of the other beautiful tequilas that were being made, or the history of tequila, or where it comes from. The lack of focus on the cultural identity of what it really is seems like a shame right now. But obviously at the time, people weren’t really interested in spirits in that way, even in the 2000s. The interest was out there, but not as big as it is right now.

Guadalajara-born David Suro-Piñera, who played a key role in the tequila revolution as an advocate for the agave spirit, is now the president of Suro International Imports and the founder of Siembra Azul tequila. He recalls what it was like in the 1980s, when he moved to Philadelphia and took a job at a Mexican restaurant there. In 1986, he bought out the owners of the restaurant and changed its name to Tequilas.

David Suro-Pinera
David Suro-Pinera. / Laura Sant

David Suro-Piñera, president of Suro International Imports, Philadelphia: In the ’80s, Mexican food in the Northeast and the tequila category was in a whole different status. Mexican food was pretty much fajitas and burritos and chimichangas. And tequila had a very negative connotation.

Opening the restaurant [in Philadelphia, in 1986], I was pretty much focusing on my version as a Mexican who just migrated to the U.S. I decided to call the restaurant Tequilas. After we opened, I very quickly began to learn about the connotation.

People said I should change the name… Instead of changing the name of the restaurant, I wanted to change how people thought about the cultural and culinary aspects of Mexico. And to preach about agave spirits.

I remember we had access to only five tequilas in those years. Out of those five tequilas, there was not one I [would] feel comfortable drinking. The only ones I [would] drink were the ones I brought myself from Mexico. I was drinking scotch back then. We were doing studies and trying to learn as much as we could.

When good tequilas became available [in the 2000s], people said, “This doesn’t taste like tequila.” I said, “What you’ve been drinking, that is not tequila.”

Building a Better Margarita

Of course, those who had spent time in Mexico knew quality tequila existed and that there were ways to enjoy it beyond shooters with a lime wedge and a lick of salt. Tequila’s revival in the U.S. was driven by two key groups: those who produced and imported the agave spirit, and the bartenders who evangelized tequila and mixed it into cocktails. Their stories are intertwined.

On the bartender side, one of the earliest and most important tequila pioneers was Julio Bermejo, who built a better Margarita. At his family business, Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, in San Francisco, Bermejo pioneered the Tommy’s Margarita: 100% agave tequila, fresh lime juice in place of sour mix, and agave syrup in place of orange curaçao. The ingredients served to spotlight good tequila.

Ryan Fitzgerald
Ryan Fitzgerald. / Laura Sant

Ryan Fitzgerald, now the managing partner at San Francisco bar ABV, learned about tequila from Bermejo and his team at a later concept, a bar near Giants Stadium called Tres Agaves, which opened in 2005. He went on to become a passionate agave expert and advocate.

Fitzgerald: It’s hard to believe that [Bermejo] could make the world’s most popular cocktail even more unique and ubiquitous.

He just focused on teaching people about tequila. His dad’s restaurant had so many different tequilas, but people didn’t seem interested in trying the variety of them. He created a tequila club, basically try three per visit, punch your card. You get through 30 and you get a special diploma. It was a great way to make business happen, but also a way to create acolytes—tequila disciples, I guess. Everyone from bartenders to normal customers and guests really learned a ton about tequila and grew their passion for it.

Tommy’s is a church of tequila where you can sit and ruminate. Everyone in there is there to learn and teach.

Better Tequila Starts to Arrive

In the early 1980s, importers Robert Denton and Marilyn Smith began bringing 100% agave tequilas to the U.S., including brands such as Chinaco, Caliente, and later, Camarena’s El Tesoro. At first, few took notice. But an important foundation was being built for the decades ahead. 

Jimmy Yeager, formerly the proprietor of Jimmy’s American Restaurant and Bar in Aspen, Colorado, recalls that time.

Jimmy Yeager
Jimmy Yeager. / Laura Sant

Jimmy Yeager: In 1983, I was a bartender at a new restaurant bar in Sherman Oaks, California. I was one of the first buyers of a new style, or a new quality, of tequila being brought to the market by Bob Denton of Denton Imports. 

At the time, I was a whiskey drinker. When Bob came to the restaurant, I was doing the buying for the restaurant. He asked me if I was interested in tasting a new spirit. He said tequila, and I pretty much wanted to show him the door. He said, no, really. He had a four-year-old Chinaco and something called Caliente. It put me on the path to tequila from a very early time.

1986 was one of the lowest production points for tequilas. Mexico was going through a difficult economic time. Several distilleries closed. Big companies like Cuervo even shut down some facilities. It was a very interesting time in tequila. 

Fitzgerald: Patrón had the most marketing behind it and really turned people on to 100% agave tequila. There would be no Patrón without Herradura and El Tesoro and Bob Denton. He gets a huge piece of credit for turning people on to what tequila was. Without him importing Chinaco and El Tesoro, Patrón wouldn’t exist.

The Patrón Effect 

Pros are quick to name quality brands they enjoy that helped move the tequila revolution forward: Chinaco, Camarena and El Tesoro, Tapatio, Siete Leguas, and Herradura (with some adding the caveat, “before Brown-Forman bought them”) were among the influential brands mentioned multiple times. Yet, American drinkers still didn’t have much affinity for tequila until Patrón launched in 1989. The brand played a key role in branding tequila as a “luxury” spirit and attracted mass-market attention. 

A brief bit of context: Casa 7 Leguas (aka Siete Leguas), one of the oldest distilleries in Mexico, originally distilled Patrón. The brand rights were purchased by Martin Crowley and John Paul DeJoria (also the co-founder of the haircare company John Paul Mitchell), and production was moved to a new distillery in 2002. Patrón Tequila launched in 1989; the brand was sold to Bacardí in 2018. For a while, Siete Leguas was available only in Mexico, but it is now available in the U.S. as well.

Marrero: In the early 2000s, it was usually Patrón [that guests] called. It wasn’t thought of as tequila, but [rather as] a luxury spirit for after-work finance guys and their people. They weren’t thinking about it; it was a name brand, not an actual spirit. 

There was so much focus at that time on “How many times is your vodka distilled?” but not on highlands vs. lowlands or which family is making the tequila. Those conversations weren’t being had.

Yeager: Patrón had the masterful marketing of an experienced Jean Paul DeJoria with the Paul Mitchell products. One of the things they were able to do that changed the landscape of tequila: They never even called Patrón “tequila” in the beginning. All of their marketing was “the world’s greatest spirit.” They created a broader appeal. That’s one of the things that set off the huge increase of volume of tequila for the industry. They were able to bring in a group of spirit drinkers who may not have been tequila drinkers by marketing it as the world’s greatest spirit, and not necessarily marketing it as tequila. It was an interesting time. It ended up being one of those stories that was a rising tide lifting all boats.

Mix: Tequila became a status symbol. You can thank Patrón. I don’t know who they paid or what they did; the second it appeared in rap songs, the whole image of Patrón changed. 

Patrón was the one that made tequila a status symbol. And all those celebrity brands that came after that. But they were all trying to be Patrón, I think.

Yeager: There were a few bars like mine that continued to sell Patrón, but only as a way to sell Siete Leguas, because when a guest would order Patrón, we’d say, “Do you mean the original Patrón? Because we recommend the original,” and we’d sell the Siete Leguas.   

Tequila and Terroir 

While Patrón continued to drive awareness of tequila, smaller brands found a market among aficionados and brought to the forefront the concept of terroir in agave spirits. Suro-Piñera’s Siembra Azul, launched in 2005, was influential in this aspect, as was Tequila Ocho, launched by Tomas Estes and Carlos Camarena in 2008.

Tomas Estes, a Los Angeles native, opened Café Pacifico in Amsterdam in 1976, which eventually became known for its strong selection of tequilas. He’s cited as an inspiration for a new generation of agave-loving bartenders, including Leyenda’s Ivy Mix, who worked with Estes before opening her South America spirits-focused bar. Estes died in April 2021.

Mix: Carlos and Tomas, they made people understand the benefit of having estate-grown agave and the concept of terroir with tequila. 

Phil Ward
Phil Ward. / Laura Sant

Phil Ward, bartender at Long Island Bar in Brooklyn who was co-owner of the now-closed Mayahuel: When Tomas came out with Ocho, I thought that was an important brand. It really got people thinking. It was doing single-year, single-vintage, single-fields to show there is terroir in tequila. Tequila really opened the door for people to get so obsessed with mezcal.

Marrero: Tomas was one of those people going to Mexico and bringing back really beautiful products. … It was ahead of its game. It was very different in the way it was expressed in Europe. There, it was used a lot in the well. Here, it’s considered higher-end. 

Cocktails: Beyond the Margarita 

A key driver of tequila sales: cocktails. While Margaritas were still among the most popular drinks in the 90s and 00s, and remain so today, bartenders were starting to think about more creative ways to use the agave spirit.

Marrero: The first time I saw a lot of tequila being mixed was at the Flatiron Lounge [which opened in 2003 and closed in 2018]. We’d have our flight of the day and there’d be the Adelita, I think that was a Dale DeGroff drink, with muddled strawberry and blanco tequila. And then Katie Stipe created the Siesta [2006] based on the Hemingway Daiquiri. It was such a good drink—amazing, balanced, super-delicious, pretty to look at. That’s where I first started seeing tequila cocktails as a full base. In addition to the Paloma, I think the Siesta (tequila, lime, grapefruit juice, simple syrup, Campari) is becoming integrated into the repertoire of top tequila cocktails. 

Marrero: In London, I remember the Pink Chihuahua—that was Dick Bradsell, the craziest after-hours bar in all of London! He was making Brambles, but also tequila cocktails. All my UK friends said, “This is where I learned to drink agave spirits.” 

Ward: Anything you made with tequila was put in this box as “a kind of Margarita.” That always annoyed me. It always enraged me that any drink with tequila was “a type of Margarita.” A stirred drink doesn’t have lime, but a lot of tequila drinks always had lime. But they’re totally different animals.

When people started making cocktails with it, people started to see tequila differently. Bartenders started to see that it’s a good-quality spirit. Sip it neat. … The most important brands were starting to bring in more quality tequilas. Bars were recognizing that and utilizing them in cocktails and getting [people] to drink them the right way. 

Mayahuel y Más 

In the aughts, bartenders increasingly began to work with tequila in cocktails. Many traveled to Mexico (often on trips funded by brands), and preached the gospel of drinking better tequila in general. Influential names in the agave world included Misty Kalkofen, then of Boston’s Drink; Junior Merino, aka the Liquid Chef, a Mexico native consulting with restaurants like Rayuela and cruise ships (and now based in Dearborn, Michigan); Houston’s Bobby Huegel, and San Francisco’s Ryan Fitzgerald. But perhaps the most groundbreaking was Phil Ward.

Ward: I started barbacking at Flatiron Lounge. When it was slow, I’d start playing with the booze. Through that, I learned to make drinks really well. And I learned there were no classic tequila drinks.

Whenever there was time to make a drink, I’d use tequila, because [I’d think], there’s something new there that hasn’t been done before. There were tons of gin and cognac cocktails, but not a lot of tequila drinks. I said, “I can do something new and original.” I gravitated toward it because I really liked it, and because it was really versatile. And most importantly, because they worked: They had great flavor profiles and stood up in cocktails. 

I think the first drink I got on the menu was the La Pera, a pear Margarita, even though it wasn’t a Margarita: muddled Bartlett pear with some pear liqueur.

After Flatiron Lounge, Ward worked at Pegu Club for a year and half, then went on to Death & Co. Among the numerous agave drinks he created there, the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, made with both tequila and mezcal, was considered a particular groundbreaker.

Ward: Death & Co. was the first time I was totally in charge. I was in charge of making the menu and everything. I could do whatever I wanted. I was creating drinks like no one’s business. And it was the height of my Mr. Potato Head phase.

Obviously, we had an agave page [on the menu at D&C]. At one point, the menu was almost 60 pages large. Most nights at Death & Co, over a quarter of the drinks we were selling a night were tequila. At some point, we started doing more mezcal too. 

At Death & Co, I started mixing [tequila and mezcal] together. That was the Oaxaca Old Fashioned. I always joked that using mezcal was like using tequila on steroids. If you added a little, it gave it more body and flavor. 

Fitzgerald: Phil’s Oaxaca Old Fashioned changed a lot of things. Jacques [Bezuidenhout] had an incredible cocktail, La Perla, that was well-known, too. Reposado tequila with some pear liqueur and manzanilla sherry. That was a beautiful stirred cocktail. 

But Phil really was the one who took that and ran. Phil and Mayahuel, that was where tequila and agave mixology was happening. Otherwise, it was mostly the Margarita that was doing the heavy lifting out here. 

In 2009, Ward opened Mayahuel, the first notable cocktail bar in the U.S. to focus specifically on agave spirits. 

Ward: When Ravi [DeRossi, the co-founder of Death & Co.] asked me if I wanted to open a bar—what kind of bar?—it took me three seconds to say: A tequila and mezcal bar; tequila and mezcal need a home. They need a cocktail bar where you can prove this stuff works really well in cocktails. That’s how Mayahuel came about. 

Tequila was doing pretty well for itself by the time Mayahuel opened. [At first] the cocktails there were mostly tequila. Then I started doing a lot of cocktails [with mezcal], and it became 50/50. At that time, the core villages [expressions] of Del Maguey, they were $55 a bottle wholesale. We charged $13 for a drink. We couldn’t do a lot of mezcal drinks by themselves; it was too expensive.

That was the first agave cocktail bar. We were the first to focus on just that and just make cocktails with those spirits. It shouldn’t be looked down on, what we did for tequila. We made really classic-style cocktails with tequila and put them in a box they’d never really been in before. Most places had a Margarita, a flavored Margarita. But we had classically styled tequila drinks with amaros and bitters. We gave [tequila] an opportunity to prove it was a very important cocktail ingredient.

A New Generation of Tequila Drinks (and Tequila Drinkers) 

Ivy Mix
Ivy Mix. / Laura Sant

Ivy Mix was among those working at Mayahuel during its early days. In Guatemala, she attended college and worked in a bar that specialized in tequila and mezcal, and thus developed an affinity for agave spirits. Around 2009, she moved to Brooklyn and took a job at Mayahuel.

Mix: I got the job cocktail waitressing at Mayahuel because I had some tequila knowledge from Guatemala.

At Mayahuel, it was about educating people about tequila being a quality product and being more than they thought it was. There were lots of parallels being drawn between vodka: [You can buy] that handle of vodka—you won’t feel so great after drinking it—or you can buy this bottle of Grey Goose. There’s the same thing happening in all spirits, but with tequila it was an uphill battle. 

After Mayahuel, Mix went on to work at Julie Reiner’s now-shuttered NYC bar Lani Kai, a job she describes as her “big break,” followed by four years at Reiner’s Clover Club in Brooklyn. When a space opened up across the street from Clover Club, Reiner tapped Mix to open Leyenda, a bar focusing on south-of-the-border spirits and cocktails.

Mix: [Reiner] wanted to open just a tequila/mezcal bar. I said I wanted to make drinks made out of agave, sugar cane, pisco—all the things south of the border, or east and west. That was how the idea came about: It used tequila and mezcal as a jumping-off point. I think of tequila as a gateway into jumping off into all the other spirits that are out there.

Bartenders and cocktail culture continue to play an important role in fostering tequila sales, the pros say.

Suro-Piñera: I always see bartenders as the best educators for the consumer in any category. When the consumers became more knowledgeable, it pushed bartenders to have more in-depth conversations [and develop] more complex recipes for cocktails. I think that’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in the three decades I’ve been involved in the category: the evolution.

Mix: Especially in the aughts, all of a sudden bartenders became knowledgeable. Instead of people asking, “What else do you do; you must be an actor,” bartenders became trusted. People who might otherwise say “Tequila, no,” they say, “You’re a bartender at Death & Co; I trust you—OK, I’ll try it.” I don’t think the tequila industry would be where it is today without the bars. And cocktails had a lot to do with tequila’s popularity. Especially in the States. 

Yeager: When the cocktail revolution hit its stride 15 years ago, tequila on-premise greatly benefited from that creativity.

Ward: When people started making cocktails with it, people started to see tequila differently. Bartenders started to see that it’s a good-quality spirit. Brands were starting to bring in more quality tequilas [and getting] bars to utilize them in cocktails and getting [consumers] to drink them the right way. 

The Rise of Celebrity Tequila

The launch of Casamigos in 2013, backed by George Clooney and Rande Gerber, heralded the rise of celebrity tequila and further pushed tequila into mainstream consciousness. While it wasn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last spirit owned and/or promoted by a celeb, it got consumers talking and spurred numerous other celebrity tequila launches. The brand was purchased by Diageo in 2017, in a deal reportedly valued at $1 billion.

Yeager: In terms of bar culture, I’d say the most significant change we’ve seen over the past 20 years has been the introduction of very popular tequilas that were designed, created, and produced for the non-tequila drinker. It broadened the consumer market quite a lot. Casa Dragones, Casamigos, and Clase Azul, among a few others. Those tequilas were designed to be more “palatable,” and they reached an audience of new tequila drinkers.

Mix:  Casamigos, George Clooney getting involved in the tequila industry was a moment I said, “Oh. Interesting.” Now we have celebrity folks. I don’t remember what it sold for, but it was so much. There was a sense that tequila had entered into the realm of brand alliances, of brand-ness. I said, “I guess you can make this a brand.” It was a little sad. That was the moment I said, “This is another landmark in the trajectory of the spirit.” 

What’s Next for Tequila?

From rising interest among consumers and trade in tequila’s authenticity to longer-term concerns about agave’s long-term sustainability, this is what pros say might be next for the world’s most popular agave spirit.   

Marrero: We’re going to see a big mindset on looking at where things are from, how the agaves are being grown; that’s a conversation more consumers are interested in. There’s also interest in authenticity, who’s behind it. I’ve had more people reaching out to me, more operators, saying, “I’m a Latin American concept, and I want to carry bottles from communities where my cuisine is from.” 

Mix: The popularization of tequila is a double-edged sword, it’s good and bad. It’s good, because people said “I like tequila.” But there’s only five states where you can grow agave, there are shortages, there are problems that come with the shortage of agave. Its popularity comes with consequences.

Suro-Piñera: It’s a category that has accomplished an incredible level of success. It has, on one hand, an increase in consumption. Tequila and mezcal by their nature are categories that need delicate and strategic planning. For tequila, agaves take seven years to develop. For mezcal, they can take up to 30 years to develop. The consumption of both categories is faster than what Mother Nature is asking for. That is one of the big challenges for the future of this category: How can we consume and plan so the raw materials can develop? 

Right now, the category is focusing on efficiency and higher volumes of production, lower costs of production. In the case of tequila, it’s monocultive. We are doing things we know Mother Nature doesn’t agree with. I’m worried about the future of tequila. I also am starting to worry about the future of mezcal.

Fitzgerald: Hopefully, the micro-trend (or mini-revolution?) toward quality continues, even though the majority of the industry is racing towards faster production, blander flavors, and higher profits. For those that have only ever tasted inexpensive, over-marketed tequila, tasting a tequila from Fortaleza, Siembra Valles, or G4 (to name a few) should awaken a passion for the true flavors of tequila. Once you've tried the good stuff, it's hard to go back.