Move Over Gin; Tequila's The New Kid On The Homegrown Alco-Bev Block

Charred Jalapeno Margarita from Ouro Bangalore, Tequila Reposado from Maya Pistola Agave.
L: Cocktail from Ouro Bangalore R: Pistola Agave Reposado

As someone with limited knowledge of craft liquor, my understanding of tequila was largely based on pop-culture driven associations. They were either staple shooters on a girls night outs in movies, celebratory toasts in amongst South-American folks, or allusions to 'taking shots like it's Patron' via Taylor Swift. But for those in the Indian alcohol beverage industry, Tequila might be the hottest thing right now. From homegrown brands making agave spirits (since tequila is a location specifi drink), to the growing presence of tequila cocktails across drink menus in India's leading culinary establishments. But before we have deeper conversations, for the sake of those who’ve tried to figure out the nuances of what seperates agave spirits from tequila and failed miserably like me, I found the answer with Rakshay Dhariwal, the founder and director of Maya Pistola Agavepura.

"Not all agaves are tequilas. tequila is native to Mexico, and its production is highly controlled and regulated by the CRT (Consejo Regulador del tequila), the official body governing the production and distribution of the spirit," says Rakshay, starting our conversation with some much needed education. "By regulation, tequila can only be produced from a specific subspecies of agave called the Blue Weber (also known as agave tequilana). Furthermore, tequila can only be made and aged in designated regions or appellations in Mexico, as recognised by the CRT (this means you cannot label your product as Tequila if it is not made in the designated regions in Mexico). But like Blue Weber, there are 150+ species of agave plants worldwide – and spirits produced from any of these species can be called 'agave spirits' instead of the loosely used word tequila.” Pistola as a brand uses the specific agave found in the Deccan Plateau called Agave Americana, and make agave spirits with many flavour variants.

"Being a highly appreciated spirit in the spotlight, agave’s increasing popularity can be attributed to what the liquid has to offer. It pairs great with Indian food, is a phenomenal substitute to other spirits in cocktails and is versatile to accommodate multiple tastes and preferences."

Rakshay Dhariwal, Founder of Pistola Agave

A New Spirit Towards Agave

Rakshay helped us better understand the market by underscoring the enthusiastic reception that his brand has received in India. As the first premium 100% aged agave spirit produced locally, Pistola has carved out a niche by offering distinct variants that cater to diverse palates. Rakhsay mentioned, "Consumers have been very receptive to Pistola especially due to the fact that each of our five variants has something distinct to offer."

From the minimally aged Joven to the smokier Extra Añejo, Pistola appeals to both agave aficionados and newbies alike. He elaborated further on the broader appeal of Agave Spirits in India, attributing their rise to similarities between Mexican and Indian palates, which both favour spicy and tangy flavour profiles. He pointed out that the cocktail culture in India has significantly evolved, shifting the perception of agave from a mere shooter to a balanced, preferred spirit. This is exemplified by the addition of more craft cocktails to the menus of leading fine dining establishments across India.

Charred Jalapeno Margarita from Ouro Bangalore, Tequila Reposado from Maya Pistola Agave.
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From Shooters to Craft-Cocktails

Tequila was once pigeonholed as a shooter. But today, it is experiencing new-found popularity and loyalty in India. This change is evident not only mere consumption statistics, but also the loyalty seen towards Homegrown brands like Pistola Agave, as well as the craft cocktails being featured in places like Roxie or Ouro in Bangalore, Otra in Mumbai or Tesouro in Goa. From our many conversations with industry experts, the surge in Tequila’s popularity in India can be distilled down to its versatility, the cultural and flavour resonance, and most importantly the growing appreciation for sophisticated cocktails. 

Pankaj Balachandran, the co-founder of Countertop India, a leading alco-bev consultancy, shared his overarching observation about the changing attitude towards Tequila based drinks in India.

According to Pankaj, "Tequila's popularity has been steadily increasing, with India's bartenders playing a pivotal role in educating consumers about its nuances and promoting it as a flavorful spirit capable of enhancing cocktails. Brands have also contributed significantly by hosting events and festivals to raise awareness about these liquid delights." He also mentioned how Celebrity Tequila variants like Casamigos by George Clooney or 818 by Kendall Jenner may have helped popularise the spirit globally as well.

"As bartenders move away from bottled juices and artificial syrups, focusing instead on character-driven spirits to infuse flavors, a shift has occurred. Now, they can craft cocktails that highlight the bold flavor profiles of spirits like Tequila."

Rakshay delved further into the phenomenon by explaining that, "With options of tequila, mezcal, and agave spirits - fuelled by the entire cocktail evolution in India has changed the perception of agave from being a shooter to being an extremely balanced and preferred spirit for consumption. In fact, according to most, the cocktail of this year is a spicy Picante, which is a signature Agave serve." This was seconded by Panjak who reafirmed that the quickly evolving landscape of the Indian alco-bev industry is catering to modern India's love for premium, artisanal spirits and craft cocktails that complement meals and elevate unique flavours.

"As consumers seek complexity in cocktails akin to their preferences in food, there's been a shift towards character-driven mixology. Tequila, often celebrated for its low-calorie profile, has emerged as a favored spirit. Its unique ability to impart layers of flavor and character distinguishes tequila from other white spirits, offering a depth that's typically associated with darker spirits like rum."

Pankaj Balachandran, Co-Founder, Countertop India

The Growing Love For Mexican Flavours

To get a better understanding of how tequila has been taken up by the people, especially as a cocktail, we also spoke to Smrutesh Pitale, Senior Beverage Manager at Ouro, Bangalore. According to him, tequila's versatility is what has made it a favourite among mixologists crafting innovative cocktails that appeal to modern tastes. Some of the cocktails at Ouro include the tropical ‘Coco-oh’ - a coconut fat washed tequila, paired with apple juice, vanilla and almond syrups and fresh lime juice and ‘The Earthy Twist’ which features tequila with grapefruit, fresh thyme and thyme syrup with a splash of tonic water.

An inspired mixologist through and through, Pankaj Balachandran mentioned how a personal creation of his dubbed 'Salcette Salsa' has become a fan-favourite at Tesouro in Goa. The drink features a delightful blend of tequila, bloom-fermented guavas, and jalapeno - a combination that Pankaj is personally proud of.

Smruthesh mentioned how as a Mexican joint providing authentic fares, they wanted to offer a variety of Tequila and Tequila-based drinks to provide guests at Ouro with an authentic drinking experience. Pankaj reinforced the same thought - that the popularity of Mexican cuisine in India has been a key factor in propelling the trend, making tequila cocktails a fashionable choice among culinary enthusiasts.

Charred Jalapeno Margarita from Ouro Bangalore, Tequila Reposado from Maya Pistola Agave.
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A Seamless Transition

While craft gin has enjoyed a significant rise in popularity over the past few years, the people we spoke to mentioned how the Agave era is not a replacement but a complementary trend. Rakshay underscored how "the Gin Revolution that started 5 years ago opened the doors to the now fast-growing Agave era." He substantiated this by mentioning how the tequila category in India is growing at a remarkable 12% annually, outpacing the global average.

Smrutesh also added that Tequila’s increasing popularity is driven by evolving consumer preferences, a cosmopolitan culture, and an appreciation for authentic, bold flavours. The rise of premium and super-premium tequilas has also contributed to this trend, offering discerning consumers high-quality options that enhance their cocktail experiences. "The rise in popularity of tequila for cocktails signifies modern India's love for authentic and bold flavours in the beverage industry," says Smrutesh. "Tequila, with its distinct agave taste, fits perfectly into this trend.”

The rich cultural heritage of agave spirits and the increasing awareness about the modern Indian consumer’s knowledge of where their alcohol comes from has factored into the popularity. Pankaj also echoed in this thought, explaining that the changing customer preference for inspired cocktails is leading the charge in the rise of tequila-based cocktails.

From a macro prespective, he 'gin boom' took around 8 years to assimilate into the Indian market. The Tequila and Mezcal boom in India is catching up to the global trend. But despite the global rise, Pankaj is unsure about the entry of more homegrown tequilas in the market, although he thinks the tequila cocktails might be here to stay. "I believe that despite the global rise, India may not become a hotspot for Indian-made agave spirits," he says. "Currently, only Pistola and Desmondji are available, but India will likely continue to consume high-quality tequila and mezcal already present on Indian shores, with more expected to follow in the future."

"With the burgeoning popularity of cocktail culture, consumers seek drinks where ingredient flavors take precedence over mere intoxication. This shift has fueled a rise in tequila-based drinks, nearly becoming a standard with at least 3-4 options appearing on every menu. Cocktails such as the picante and the paloma, gaining traction in recent years, have contributed to this cultural shift."

Pankaj Balachandran, Co-Founder, Countertop India

Rakshay agreed to the the same thought while adding, “Consumers today are fuelled by choice – they are hyper aware of trends and new offerings, very selective with their engagement with new spirits. We see that with an increase in cocktail culture, there is a growing exposure to different kinds of spirits – and agave has a widespread audience looking to experiment further with the liquid.”

The Road Ahead For Agave Spirits

The future of tequila and agave spirits in India definitely looks promising according to these industry experts. “Agave as a spirit of choice stems from a deep understanding and appreciation to relish the spirit, and will solidify as a culture – it isn’t a mere trend that the audience is hopping onto. From a cocktail perspective, we’re bound to see a number of dedicated agave menus across the country,” Rakshay mentioned.

Pankaj Balachandran is excited about the potential for a vibrant market in craft agave spirits, which is yet to fully materialize, but maintains that wild agave continues to thrive across India. He added on, "Tequila is just the beginning; there's a whole world of mezcal styles waiting to make their debut in India, including Sotol, Raicilla, Pechuga, and Bacanora from Mexico. I eagerly look forward to the day when these diverse agave spirits make a significant impact in India, bringing with them a boom for the agave consumption across the country."

From Mezcal Negronis to an Agave Old-Fashioneds – there are new twists being given to classic drinks thanks to the liquor’s versatility. But all these industry experts envision a continued expansion of tequila’s presence, not just in bars and restaurants, but also in households. The discerning Indian consumer's love for small-batch, local, and artisanal spirits is likely to fuel further growth in the agave category

Here’s to more homegrown tequilla infused cocktails and more homegrown agave spirits joining the fold in the years to come.

Follow Pistola Agave here.

Follow Ouro here.

Follow Countertop India here.