The old cliche involves an ill-advised night out and a bottle of tequila, the apparent bane of otherwise reasonable drinkers who would never find themselves waking up in compromising situations if not for that agave spirit.
Fortunately, tequila has experienced a major reputation boost in the past decade, earning its way on to high-end cocktail lists and enjoyed by spirit enthusiasts across the globe. Its cousin, mezcal, has perhaps come even further, shedding its stigma as the "stuff with a worm in the bottle" and getting attention instead for its smoky complexity, akin to peated Scotch.
There are a few places to really dig into quality tequila, but after visiting El Agave Bar on St. Pete Beach, I'm not sure I need to look further. This is the best tequila bar in the area.
A reader tipped me off to this low-key spot, opened some nine months ago as a liquor lounge of sorts to its related neighbors, Pappy's Liquors and Agave Restaurant. Rather than stock a typical bar selection, El Agave is almost entirely tequila- and mezcal-focused, giving them a dedicated spotlight and a setting that all but guarantees you'll leave with a new appreciation for the spirits.
Owner and bartender Gerardo Hernandez is from Mexico, so there's some personal pride in the lineup at El Agave. The bar's dozen bottled beers are all Mexican, and there are half that many non-agave spirits available, along with four house wines selected by Hernandez's uncle, who owns the liquor store next door. The rest? Tequila and mezcal. Lots of it.
A quick primer: mezcal is a spirit distilled from fermented agave nectar. Tequila is a form of mezcal that enjoys a regional appellation — it must be produced in Tequila, Jalisco (a state in Mexico) entirely from the nectar from the blue agave plant.
Non-tequila mezcal, on the other hand, can be produced from a variety of agave plants that are often roasted in an earthen oven pre-fermentation, giving the resulting spirit a pronounced smokiness. Mezcal is typically produced in the state of Oaxaca.
Knowing what you're drinking goes a long way, and a great atmosphere helps too. That's where El Agave shines. The bar's sunny interior is decorated with colorful paintings of farmers harvesting agave piñas, hanging above oversized sofas and lounge chairs, with a red-felted pool table in the front and an intimate bar in the back. At night it's less beachy, featuring weekly entertainment ranging from Latin DJs to live salsa music.
I won't spend much time talking about the tequila and mezcal selection, as it'll be a lot more fun for you to go and discover it. All I'll say is that you can expect to try several new varieties. There's a lot to choose from, and Hernandez is handy with an informed recommendation, should you need one.
Instead, let's dig into the cocktail menu, which is an entirely tequila- and mezcal-based list of 10 fantastic drinks.
Take the classic margarita. You could order The Don, a premium version made with Don Julio and Grand Marnier. Or, you could choose from 16 different flavors to create your own custom margarita combo. Watermelon-serrano-hibiscus? Sure! Get creative.
An alternate take: go margarita-adjacent and try the Picosita, made with Kimo Sabe mezcal, puréed strawberry, muddled mint and jalapeño, agave nectar and a Tajín-spiced rim.
There's a riff on the manhattan made with Hornitos Black Barrel in place of whiskey, as well as a tequila cosmo. The Smokey Orange is a must-try, combining Rayu mezcal with fresh orange juice, lime, agave nectar, served in a clay mug with a spiced rim.
The best might be the Oaxacan Old Fashioned, which uses both El Mayor reposado tequila and Amantes mezcal, balanced with agave nectar, orange bitters and an orange twist. One sip of this drink will erase any lingering prejudices you may have about agave-based spirits.
It's cool seeing tequila and mezcal in a starring role here, rather than taking a backseat to more common cocktail bar favorites like bourbon, rum and gin. Hernandez has done justice to thes e spirits, showing just how well they fit into the craft cocktail format, and how diverse and complex they can be on their own, too.
Whether you're a tequila convert or merely tequila-curious, visit El Agave. Everyone's heard a story about a night out drinking tequila — rest assured that a night out at here will end a heck of a lot better than those ones.
— Contact Justin Grant at email@example.com. Follow @WordsWithJG.
El Agave Bar
6410 Gulf Boulevard, St. Pete Beach. facebook.com/ElAgaveBarSPB
The vibe: A cozy beachside lounge focusing almost exclusively on tequila and mezcal.
Booze: Beer, wine and liquor. Beer, $5; wine, $7; liquor, $7-$45.
Specialty: Tequila and mezcal are the focus here, including many varieties that you'll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Choose from a list of 10 house cocktails, build a mix-and-match margarita with 16 different flavoring additions or have a look at the ever-growing bottle list, which includes nearly 50 varieties of agave spirits to try.
Hours: 5 p.m. to midnight Monday-Saturday; closed Sunday.