A shot of tequila is par for the course in college, which partly explains why it’s the fourth fastest-growing spirit category in Canada after bourbon, Irish whiskey and spiced rum; it’s also boasted a steady double-digit growth rate since 2007, according to Ottawa’s Association of Canadian Distillers (ACD). ACD figures also show the market is still dominated by inexpensive mixto tequilas, namely Jose Cuervo Gold, Sauza Gold and Sauza Silver (made with 51-per-cent agave or more), which are three tequilas that make up more than 50 per cent of sales. That said, the premium and super-premium tequilas are making an impact, too.
There’s now more product variety, more small-batch distilleries and quality tequilas in our market than ever before. Ontario is driving the overall growth up 13 per cent, with the largest volume of sales (more than 100,000 nine-litre cases) and more than 70 different brands in the market; B.C., and Alberta take the second and third spots in sales in volume and dollars, according to ACD. However Canada is still way behind the U.S. in selection. For example, Scottsdale, Ariz.’s Relish Bistro at the Phoenician Hotel has more than 250 tequilas (ranging from about $9 a shot to $400 for two ounces of Clase Azul Ultra Anejo).
Reposado Bar in Toronto, which specializes in tequila, offers approximately 115 selections of the spirit, and business seems good, according to bartender and long-time employee Kit Birchard. “There was a hole in the marketplace when we first opened,” he says, continuing on to explain a supply problem. “We can only private order so much. It’s much easier to acquire tequila in the U.S.,” he admits, adding that the bar is stocked well with high-end tequilas. “We have a very strong top shelf now.” Its most expensive tequila is Clase Azul Ultra Anejo ($140 an ounce — a bargain compared to Relish Bistro’s $400 price for two ounces). Birchard’s easiest premium sell is Don Julio 1942 ($17 an ounce).
Meanwhile, the margarita (traditionally made with tequila, triple sec and lime juice) has made a comeback in Toronto, thanks to the taco craze and popularity of premium cocktails. At La Carnita, a taqueria on College Street, owner Andrew Richmond sells “a ton” of margaritas and mixes them with quality tequila. “We only buy 100-per-cent agave tequilas,” he says. “Most bars use a mixto tequila as their rail. Our rail tequila is the premium Tromba. We start with good product.”
The market for high-end tequila in Quebec is also budding, according to Lawrence Picard, a Montreal mixologist. “What’s trendy in Quebec is very light tequila that doesn’t taste so agave,” says Picard. “Cazadores and Patron really do well, because, while they’re 100-per-cent agave, they’re light on the agave taste.” And, that’s not just true in Quebec. ACD figures show Patron, El Jimador and Cazadores are growing by the double-digits, driven by B.C., Alberta and Ontario.
Bartenders and brand managers alike agree the biggest challenge with tequila is overcoming the stereotype perpetuated in college that it’s a harsh spirit best consumed with a lick of salt and a bite of lime. Former students who knocked back rough shots of poor-quality tequila often retain bad memories of the spirit, but the premium and deluxe tequilas in the market now are changing that nightmare into a dreamy taste experience.