Over the years, tequila’s profile has matured from fuel for making bad decisions to a spirit worthy of impassioned connoisseurship. Tequila has soared in popularity recently, bringing more local spots that stock copious amounts of it, along with its relative mezcal.
Tequila and mezcal are both distilled from the fermented nectar of the agave plant. Tequila is a form of mezcal that comes entirely from the nectar of the Blue Weber agave plant and is produced in Tequila, Jalisco in Mexico. It used to have the regional designation of being produced only in Tequila, but now spirits produced in four other Mexican states are also called tequila.
Mezcal can be produced from a variety of agave plants and is most often roasted before fermentation, giving many versions of the spirit a smoky flavor. It’s typically produced in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Three types of tequila offer different flavor profiles. Blanco (also called silver) tequilas have been aged for less than two months, giving a crisp, light taste. Reposado (which means “resting”) tequilas have been aged from two months to a year and have a deeper flavor than blancos. Añejos (which means “connected”) have been aged for one to three years in barrels and have a woody flavor. Extra añejos are aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels.
A proper tequila should come from a fully matured agave, one that has been around for seven to 10 years. Because of the high demand for the spirit, some popular brands use younger agave plants and rely on additives to mask the bitter flavor produced — often using sweet flavors like vanilla.
Bacanora is another agave-based spirit, produced in Sonora, Mexico. Sotol is a spirit distilled from the desert spoon plant, a succulent that is similar to the agave.
If all of this information is slightly dizzying, take a trip to Pappy’s Liquor in St. Pete Beach, where owner Rick Madison stocks hundreds of varieties of these spirits and is extremely knowledgeable about them. So is his nephew, Gerardo Hernandez, who runs El Agave Bar — which is right next door and has been a local pioneer for tequila- and mezcal-forward bars. On the other side of the store is Agave Restaurant — run by Madison’s wife — which also has a robust selection.
Hernandez recently went to Mexico to visit distilleries to find out what’s new. He said that añejos and reposados have been difficult to get because of the time needed for aging in addition to the plant reaching full maturity. But since the price of agave went down, there’s been a planting boom.
“People say when you start drinking tequila you go for reposados and añejos, and then when you become a tequila drinker, you start appreciating silvers — the ones who have the real flavor of the agave,” he said.
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Tequila has become much more refined, Hernandez said. He thinks it could soar in price the way some bourbons have.
Look no further than two new Tampa Bay spots serving tequila for proof of its growing popularity.
Lona, Water Street Tampa’s newest addition serving Mexican fare, boasts a list of more than 200 tequilas and 40 mezcals. Chefs Richard Sandoval and Pablo Salas are both from Mexico, so the spirits are at the core of the spot’s concept. In homage to the Mexican tradition of the worm in the bottle, mezcals here are served with sal degusano, or worm salt — a concoction of dried red worms, sea salt and chiles.
“America’s growing infatuation with tequila shows in the numbers,” Sandoval said in an email. “Some say tequila may surpass vodka by the end of this year, to become the top spirit of choice.”
In St. Petersburg, brand-new bar Tequila Daisy stocks a whopping 605 agave spirits including mezcal and sotol. Melissa Powell, who co-owns and operates the bar with Monique Grespan, said she got turned on to tequila about two years ago.
Powell, who also owns St. Petersburg bar Pour Judgment, was a whisky drinker but found that she could also drink tequila neat, and it didn’t give her a hangover. She said she’s tried about 300 of the ones at Tequila Daisy, and the staff gets trained regularly on the spirit.
“To me, tequila is a journey,” she said. “Everything tastes so different, even if it’s a slight change. I love the journey and taste experience of all of it.”
Here is a list of tequila-forward spots where you can take your journey.
El Agave Bar, Agave Restaurant and Pappy’s Liquor
Find tequilas, mezcals and sotols at these related businesses. Don’t miss the house margarita at the restaurant. Try the bar’s tequila-based twist on classic cocktails like the Manhattan or the Cosmopolitan. Pick up a Bacanora — another agave-based spirit at the liquor store — and really impress your friends. 6400-6410 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach. facebook.com/ElAgaveBarSPB.
In addition to the current selection of tequila cocktails and tequila-based sangria, three types of margaritas on draft will soon be available, as will sotols. You can also stash bottles from the spot’s collection in private tequila lockers. 505 Water St., Tampa. 813-204-6390. lonatampa.com.
The new spot celebrates its grand opening today with festivities. Try the Tequila Daisy margarita, which swaps out orange liqueur for a blood orange foam. The bar offers a list of additive-free tequilas, which bartender John Record called a sub-fad of the current tequila craze. 120 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg. @tequiladaisystpete.
This spot at the Clearwater Beach Marina offers a robust list of tequilas and mezcals and offers flights. Or try one of the 10 variations of margaritas, like the Blackrose, with blackberry, fresh rosemary and ginger beer. 25 Causeway Blvd., Clearwater. 727-443-1750. marinacantina.com.
Red Mesa Cantina
This popular downtown St. Pete spot has more than 425 tequilas and 100 mezcals. Ask the bartender from one of the multiple bars for a full list. 128 Third St. S, 727-896-8226. Sister restaurant Red Mesa has a smaller selection but offers a variety of margaritas, like the Floridita, with hibiscus-infused agave and hibiscus water. 4912 Fourth St. N, 727-527-8728. redmesacantina.com.
Miguel’s Mexican Seafood and Grill
This iconic Tampa spot has a long list of tequilas, most of which can be blended into the house margarita. It also serves the Azulita — a small bottle of Clase Azul Reposado that makes about four drinks. 3035 W Kennedy Blvd. 813-876-2587. miguelscafe.com.
Miguelitos Taqueria y Tequilas
This sister restaurant to Miguel’s is home to Tampa’s only negative-five-degree tequila tap. 2702 W Kennedy Blvd. miguelitostampa.com.
JoToro Kitchen and Tequila Bar
This Sparkman Wharf spot has flights of tequila, including frozen margarita ones, that come with a chaser of sangria. 615 Channelside Drive, Tampa. 855-352-8676. jotoro.com.