Espolon Tequila Forum Asks Key Questions

Espolon Tequila recently launched in the UK and importers Wray & Nephew decided to hold a forum with bartenders to discover the latest tequila bar trends.

All too often when a new brand is launched in the on-trade the direction the brand takes and the areas they focus on have been dreamed up by people in an office who have no direct link to the bar market. This may go some way to explaining why so many brands disappear as quickly as they appear each year.

The brands the group sampled

Wray & Nephew are not one to make this mistake. As it goes they have a team with very strong links to the bar industry (if you have Wray, Appleton and Campari on your books you’d struggle not to), however when they recently launched a new tequila brand they realised this was a new area for them and wanted to find out the trades thoughts.

BarLifeUK were impressed and intrigued by this so when the day long forum took place recently in El Camion we popped down to see what people had to say.

Those in attendance were a wide spectrum of the industry from across the country ensuring the view was nationwide and not just London-centric.

The panel were:

Kyle Gibson – bar manager at El Camion, London
Si Ord – bar owner from Leeds
Chlotilde Lataille – bartender at Hawksmoor
Jamie Kelso – bartender from Tigerlily in Edinburgh
Liam O’Brien – bar manager, Brassmonkey, Nottingham

The day was split into a few sections but to kick it off, get everyone relaxed and in the mood a blind tasting of a range of tequilas was the first port-of-call. The selection contained a variety of well loved and well known brands including, of course, Espolon.

There were 6 Blanco & 6 Reposado and the group were ask to score them out of 5 (from weak to strong) in the following categories – Light body, Floral, Herbaceous, Woody, Full bodies, Peppery/Spice, Citrus/Acid and Salty/Metallic.

This was not an exercise in picking favourites it was an exercise in understanding which brands have which flavour profiles and which of those flavour profiles are most prevalent and most popular.


Once the pallets had been whetted it was time for a good old discussion. First up for consideration were trends within the industry as a whole in the last 5 years. There were many interesting points raised but the three that stood out for us were:

Si and Liam in deep thought

Liam’s observation that consumers were taking much more interest in spirits brands when ordering. This has previously been generally associated with the US and although it is something we know has been on the increase in London it was interesting to hear from those bartenders around the country that it was a trend that wasn’t only happening here.

Si pointed to the number of bars specialising in one spirit and a quick look at El Camion’s tequila selection made that hard to disagree with. In fact it is tequila and rum that have lead the way in this trend for many years but other categories are now finding their own niche followers, helped no doubt by the aforementioned increased customer knowledge.

This led Chlotilde to bring up the big trend in the industry of pop-up bars, where a lot of these specialist bars have had the opportunity to test the water before setting up more permanent sites. BarLifeUK is not completely sold on the whole pop-up fashion (maybe were just too old and grumpy) but it seems, from this group at least, that the trade as a whole see it as a great way to ensure that new and unique concepts can be tested for relatively low risk before setting up more permanently.

Tequila Present

It was then time to focus more specifically on the tequila industry, firstly in the here and now. Immediately when asked about the issues facing tequila there were two answer on everyones lips, the shot and ‘I don’t drink tequila anymore’ attitude the bulk of consumers still have to the category.

It was perhaps a little surprising then, that everyone also agreed that Cuervo should be recognised for all the good work they have done in the UK, and world, market. Of course they get the blame for a lot of the bad press tequila gets but, especially recently, it appears there attempts to educate the bar visitors away from the shot mentality hasn’t gone un-noticed.

It is still the shot mentality that is seen as the biggest issue with regards to tequilas perception by consumers. The lime and salt serve is still the customers preferred way to get agave down their throats despite the general hatred towards it from bartenders.

Kyle pointed out that the lime and salt serve had been banned at LAB, where he was previously bar manager, until he reinstated it. His theory was that ‘….if that is how the customer enjoys a drink then who are we as bartenders to say they can’t, you can try to educate them but at the end of the day it is their money they’ve worked hard to earn’.

Right now it seems that tequila is slowly throwing off the shackles of its past reputations, yes shots are still an issue but the growth of the premium tequila category, the increase in popularity of mexican food and the attempted consumer training by brands and bars such as El Camion and La Perla are all helping tequila be perceived as a mixing/cocktail spirit.

Tequila Future

Last up the group looked at where tequila is heading in the UK, what challenges it faces and where the potential growth areas are.

The influx in the number of and quality of Mezcals into the UK was first up for discussion. It was unanimously seen as good think for the industry as a whole and for tequila specifically.

One of Kyle’s creations

There is a good chance it will become a category that is focused on in the consumer media in the coming months and this education of people in spirits from Mexico and spirits made from Agave is bound to increase people’s knowledge of, and appreciation for, tequila. It is also fair to say that Mezcal is not one of the most easily approachable spirits and therefore tequila can provide a great stepping stone into the new trendy mezcal category.

So assuming interest in tequila increases for all the reasons mentioned previously what did the group think brands and bars could do to latch onto this interest. Once again shots reared its head, it exists and is always going to be a popular way of drinking tequila (most all of the group admitted they regularly drink tequila shots themselves) so where from there.

The first group thought was changing the way people drink shots so they are seen as less of a punishment and more of a treat. Sangrita and it’s variations was unanimously agreed to be the best way to enjoy tequila and something that should be encouraged by more bars who sell a decent amount of tequila. It shouldn’t be a hard sell, it can be pre-batched in advance and is a whole lot easier to serve and to clean up than the old lime and salt (or indeed orange and coffee) serve.

The conversation about tequila cocktails, unsurprisingly quickly moved from the tables to the bar with Kyle jumping behind to have a play. The classics are still popular drinks all over the country but how to move people past the classic margarita and paloma was still seen as an issue.

With time running out the experimentation couldn’t go for too long so the group focused on classic cocktails with tequila being substituted for the main spirit, a long established way to move people over to new spirits. Several ideas were thrown out and Kyle knocked out as many as he could, BarLifeUK were particularly fond of the Corpse Reviver No 2.

All in all it was a fascinating day and one which undoubtedly gave Sam Burke and Jess Gibbons from Espolon some great insights into the market. A big thanks should go out to Espolon for organising this event and I know everyone there got a lot from it.

These are obviously the thoughts and opinions of a small group and you may well disagree with some of the points. That is great news as surely the point here is that communication is being opened up, giving the industry an opportunity to voice options. Perhaps this is an idea that more brands should be looking at.