What You Should Know About Flavored TequilaBy Anna Archibald
In just about any liquor store you can find vodkas, rums and whiskeys flavored with everything from citrus and cucumber to cotton candy and maple syrup-smothered pancakes. But in recent years another spirit category has crept in amongst the usual flavored suspects: tequila. Flavored tequila could not legally be labeled as tequila—instead, it was a “tequila product”—until the Tequila Regulatory Council of Mexico updated its regulations in 2004.
Since then, the availability of and demand for flavored tequilas has grown. Naturally, this has encouraged more companies to get in on the action, particularly for the U.S. market. (Tequila drinkers in the spirit’s home country are typically more traditionalist about their agave spirits.)
Inspiration for Flavors
“When we started the company, our inspiration was the spicy Margarita,” says Neil Grosscup, CEO of Tanteo since 2014. He adds that a tequila, jalapeño and Chartreuse cocktail at Death + Co. in NYC was the first drink that got him and his late business partner Jonathan Rojewski interested in the category.
“Even a top notch cocktail bar like Death + Co. couldn’t always do it consistently—the [spice] could vary from cocktail to cocktail,” says Grosscup, who is based out of Brooklyn, NY. “[We wanted] to make a tool that made it easier for bartenders to make spicy Margaritas.”
Tanteo’s lineup included chocolate, tropical fruit and jalapeño flavored tequilas when it launched in 2009, but Grosscup dropped the chocolate and tropical fruit flavors when he took over as CEO. Instead, he’s honed in on the spicy flavors, launching habanero and chipotle tequilas.
About the Proof
All of these peppery spirits are infused with fresh peppers, which Grosscup says helps to control the spice without needing to soften it with sweeteners. It’s bottled at 80 proof in narrow, speed rack-friendly vessels.
“The high alcohol content is going to intensify the flavor[ing], so what most brands do—and you see this with flavored rums or flavored vodkas—the cheap ones are always 60 proof, 50 proof and they add a lot of sugar to it,” says Grosscup. “They’re trying to hide the flavor with a bunch of added sugar. You can’t do that in tequila. A few of the other spicy [flavored tequilas on the market] cut it with pineapple or mango or something else, but we get around that by just using real peppers.”
Tanteo, however, isn’t the only company that’s honed in on the American drinker’s desire for hot pepper tequila. YaVe Tequila launched in 2017 with two flavored tequilas—jalapeño and mango. Agave Loco and Playa Real also launched in 2008 and 2018, respectively, with flavored tequilas that slightly tone down the heat with a secondary flavor. Even giants like Patron and Sauza Tequila have flavors in their lineups.
YaVe founder Joe Cruz Jr. sees flavored tequila as the logical next step in the category’s growing popularity in recent years: “The U.S. market was already very familiar with vodkas, rums and whiskies so flavored versions were a natural progression,” says Cruz, who’s also based in New York.
He also believes that being able to use fresh flavoring elements have, “helped us break down some barriers and shift mindset from skepticism to embracing our flavored tequilas.”
This approach has proven successful. Prior to the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Grosscup expected to sell 60,000 cases of Tanteo this year, mostly within the flavored spirit-loving United States.
Made at the Juanacatlán distillery cooperative just outside of Guadalajara, which also produces a handful of other unflavored and locally distributed tequilas, the success of Tanteo’s flavored tequilas has bolstered the 85 member cooperative as a whole and has also led the brand toward an unusual progression, with the launch of its first traditional tequila, a blanco, in January 2020.
“We came on and we understood the American market a little bit better, understood how we could build a tequila that was meant for cocktails and we’ve been able to commercialize,” says Grosscup. “We’ve gotten big enough with our spicy infusions that now we have an opportunity to tell the story of [Juanacatlán’s] traditional tequila as well.”
Curious to try some of what the growing flavored tequila market has to offer? Here are a few bottles to seek out, whether you love the hottest hot or dialed down tropical fruit.
While Tanteo’s jalapeño tequila was the first spicy option in its lineup, it has since added two even hotter varieties. The habanero tequila is infused with fresh peppers that clock in between 100,000 and 350,000 on the Scoville scale. But you needn’t fret. The tequila retains more of the sweetness of the pepper’s outer fruit than it does the spiciness of the seeds inside.
The result is a 100 percent agave, 80-proof tequila (a rare combination within the flavored tequila category). It has a light aroma and punch of (reasonably) spicy flavor that’s ideal for mixing into a Margarita. Alternatively, you can mix with tonic or into other drinks needing a little tang. Fans of spice will also find that this could even be sipped neat or over ice.
Similarly to Tanteo, Playa Real is making 100 percent agave and 80 proof flavored tequilas. But instead of focusing on hot and spicy, the brand went all in on fresh fruit. Playa Real offers pineapple and mandarin flavors in addition to a classic blanco.
The pineapple in particular, which infuses natural pineapple flavoring into its blanco tequila, provides a consistent burst of tropical fruit flavor whenever you need it in a cocktail. But the flavored tequila is also balanced enough with the agave flavor that it’s a pleasing solo sip.
When YaVe first launched, its initial goal was to create and bottle a blanco tequila. It would also serve as the base for the flavored tequilas to follow. “Once we achieved the perfect blanco, we were able to focus on the sabores (flavors),” says Cruz. “We macerate the mango separately and naturally infuse it with our blanco inside of stainless steel barrels.”
He adds that finding the perfect sweet, fruity mango flavor took four tries. Its sweetness, coupled with the slight bite of peppery tequila flavor, gives another option to flavor a basic tequila cocktail that isn’t ultra hot and peppery. The mango tequila, which is a mild 70 proof, is also a good candidate for cooking. “We’ve seen some very creative uses of YaVe including foods like a YaVe Jalapeño Tequila infused cornbread or YaVe Mango Tequila infused salsa,” explains Cruz.
Launched in 2015, this double duty tequila from Sauza was the brand’s first foray into flavored expressions. Its goal is to create a base for cocktails that dials down the heat with the addition of refreshing cucumber. Its spice is also kept in check thanks to its slightly lower proof, clocking in at a chill 70 proof. Mix this tequila with soda and a squeeze of lime for a quick, simple summertime refresher.
At first glance, the golden hue of this tequila appears like one sip would overwhelm your palate with spice. While that might be true, its color also indicates a bit of barrel age. Agave Loco is a 100 percent agave reposado tequila that’s infused with six different kinds of peppers. The recipe includes jalapeño, habanero and serrano peppers—spice haters beware!—as well as three different varieties of sweet peppers. It’s best mixed into cocktails for a tongue tingling, slow build type of burn.
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