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On an overcast London weekend in mid-September, the Tequila & Mezcal Festival, showcasing premium agave spirits and all things Mexican, celebrated its third edition. Tucked among the gentrifying backstreets of east London’s Brick Lane, 3,000 festival-goers were handed wristbands with tearable tokens, adorned with images of agave plants, to exchange for drinks in complimentary shot glasses.
In recent years tequila has cast aside its seedier associations to enjoy a sophisticated comeback. Instead of sombreros and shots, brand ambassadors in sharp suits pushed tequila’s more delicate aspects. Out has gone the throat-burning glassful, sometimes with the trademark worm lurking at the bottom, and in have come sweeter versions aimed at millennial palates accustomed to longer, more sugary cocktails.
Part of this trend, says Humphrey Serjeantson of alcoholic beverage research company IWSR, is the growth of independent cocktail bars. “Twenty years ago you’d be lucky to find a cocktail outside a hotel bar,” says Mr Serjeantson, “Cocktails are even entering mainstream British pubs.”
This year, Eduardo Gomez Resendiz, the founder of the festival, has made a concerted effort to bring over from Mexico small-batch producers who have been awarded “denomination of origin” status, which guarantees area-specific raw materials, manufacture and labelling. Some labels exhibiting produce only a couple of thousand litres a year, and others brought along lesser-known spirits such as bacanora, a fiery agave liquor crafted in the northern state of Sonora. But inside the venue it was the multinationals that took centre stage, assembling their own pop-up bars to overshadow simpler stands.
Tom Finnon from distributor Marussia Beverages, which imports Lunazul tequila into the UK, argues that provenance is key to the revival of these alcoholic drinks. “People are genuinely interested in how it is made, where it is from and the story behind the brand — something Lunazul, that dates back 250 years, is lucky to have,” he says.
Patrón (Spanish for “good boss”) is a Mexican company which controls roughly 70 per cent of tequila’s luxury segment and has been at the forefront of the spirit’s image makeover. At the festival, it laid on a luminous bar, with neon alcoves cut out to make space for handblown glass bottles of its brands which can sell for up to £2,300. Its virtual reality headset took drinkers on a tour of its Hacienda headquarters in Mexico.
Tequila Fest’s promotional efforts, in concert with a sustained industry push, are paying off. Tequila is now recognised as a premium and versatile “sipping” spirit, and volumes sold across Europe in 2015 increased 4 per cent, the fastest for half a decade, according to the IWSR Global Trends Report. Britain is the largest tequila market in Europe by retail value.
One notable trend is the repositioning of mezcal — once the rougher and more downmarket of the two spirits — as a premium drink. While tequila is made only from the blue agave, mezcal can be made from the heart of any agave plant, called the piña.
A newcomer at the London show was Xila, a lighter mezcal infusion pitched at a female client base. Consumer palates, says the company’s owner, Hillhamn Salome from Mexico City, are evolving and Xila’s sweeter taste is tapping into a younger, more affluent generation.
This year’s festival in London, exhibitors say, was much busier than last year’s satellite event in the northern city of Liverpool. Tequila’s upmarket attack may yet find it difficult to thrive outside of the capital.