What can retailers learn from bartenders when it comes to agave spirits, asks Clinton Cawood

If Mexico’s spirits have one channel to thank for their success in the UK, it’s the on-trade, with bars and bartenders consistent and enthusiastic in their support of tequila and mezcal over the years. 

The off-trade is beginning to catch up though, with some recent positive developments, not least a number of prominent supermarket listings, such as El Rayo in Sainsbury’s, its first tequila over £30 a bottle, as well as the addition of the Mirror Margarita to the retailer’s ready-to-serve offering. 

“The change has been quite pronounced, even since we launched in 2019,” says El Rayo co-founder Tom Bishop. “Back then, quality 100%-agave spirits were confined to the specialist spirits retailers and luxury stores, and potentially some harder-to-find Waitrose shelves. Now you’re seeing much more space dedicated across all the major grocery players.” 

Ayako Morita, spirits brand director for Moët Hennessy UK, with Volcan de mi Tierra tequila in its portfolio, agrees. “As global tastes evolve and consumers gravitate towards quality and authenticity, we’re witnessing a surge in demand for artisanal tequilas,” she says. “Retailers have begun dedicating more shelf space to premium options.” 

While the Mirror Margarita pre-mixed cocktail may be a relatively new player in UK retail, co-founder Deano Moncrieff e has the perspective of a number of years working with agave spirits at Diageo. “I’ve seen how much things have changed, with smaller brands with more ethical and sustainable purposes managing to gain and secure strong listings and visibility, to penetrate the UK retail space,” he says. 

Growing demand is encouraging online retailers to grow their agave spirit offerings too. “We have seen strong growth in terms of agave-driven traffic to our online store,” says Drinks Distilled founder Nicola Jones, who aims to expand the retailer’s agave portfolio significantly by the end of the year. 

“The on-trade has owned tequila within the UK, while the off -trade has always tried to appeal to the masses with its spirit offering, rather than focusing on alternative premium spirits,” says Ciarán Smith, co-founder of The Bottle Cocktail Shop & Bar, in Islington, London, which has recently added a Cazcabel Margarita to its range of bottled cocktails. 

“Our consumers are the most educated they have ever been, and this can benefit the off-trade as consumers will be looking for more premium, niche spirits.”

These educated agave-spirit drinkers are a driving force, says Tim Dunlop, European commercial director for Biggar & Leith, which has Butterfly Cannon tequila in its range. “Agave drinks have attracted an army of followers,” he says. 

“Retailers are making a real play, with many stores extending the ranges, brands and expressions they offer. But more needs to be done to engage with the end consumer across all channels, so they can make educated choices.” Jones at Drinks Distilled recognises the on-trade’s advantage when it comes to introducing spirits to consumers. 

“Bars allow consumers to seek out the expertise of bartenders and trial spirits before purchasing,” she says. “This is one of our points of inspiration, to make the process of understanding and selecting agave spirits as simple and personalised as possible.” 

PERSONAL TOUCHES 

To this end, Drinks Distilled offers various beginners’ guides, alongside recommendations and insights from bartenders, bar owners and more. “We think these personal touches will become increasingly important in the off-trade, particularly as consumers are becoming more intrigued by and savvy about agave.” 

Dunlop sees the benefits of this approach for the off-trade in general. “It would be wise for retailers to educate their staff on the various expressions, nuances, ages and flavour profiles of tequilas, so they can share this information with customers at the point of purchase.”

Sukhvinder Javeed, founder of Sphynx tequila, agrees: “Bars have bartenders to guide patrons through their experiences, and in the off-trade we have the opportunity to do the same.” She adds that neat serves are particularly suited to the off-trade. “Bars have a knack for concocting creative cocktails that highlight the unique flavours of tequila and mezcal, yet let’s not forget that the finest tequilas deserve to be appreciated in their purest form.” 

In his agave-specialist Hacha bars, Moncrieffe is seeing significant interest in the category from new drinkers. “We have so many customers who have never tried tequila or mezcal, but are curious to learn more. Having a range of blanco, reposado and añejo tequilas, and different varieties of mezcal, will help consumers understand how versatile the category is.” 

Moët Hennessy’s Morita believes that there’s inspiration to be drawn from the on-trade when it comes to education and storytelling, and ways to serve agave spirits too. “Taking a cue from on-trade venues that have popularised tequila-based cocktails, the off -trade can provide cocktail recipes or DIY cocktail kits,” she says. 

“This not only enriches the consumer’s experience, but also introduces them to the versatile world of tequila.” 

For El Rayo’s Bishop, it’s about accessible serves, “educating consumers that tequila and other agave spirits can be served in simple, long drinks like the Tequila & Tonic, that can be enjoyed easily at home, and are a refreshing change to your usual G&T or glass of wine”. 

As tequila and mezcal’s popularity continues to grow, approachable serves like these, along with education about the category, will be key to their success in retail.