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Agave-based spirits are fuelling a new Mexican wave

Once relegated to the end of the menu, agave spirits have stormed India’s F&B scene, giving a boost to Mexican cuisine

A selection of drinks and food and Mezcalita in Mumbai.
A selection of drinks and food and Mezcalita in Mumbai.

When asked why he chose to open a Mexican restaurant in Mumbai, Anurag Katriar, the restaurateur behind popular spots like Indigo and Neel, replies: “Look at tequila. It’s trending everywhere.” Katriar opened Tijuana in Mumbai’s crowded Lower Parel business district in October, and he’s not the only Indian restaurateur betting on the growing popularity of agave-based spirits (the most famous of which is, of course, tequila) to give Mexican food in India its second coming.

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Last month, I walked into a Dia de Muertos (Day Of The Dead)-themed evening at Juju, Pune’s first tequila bar, where it felt like I had stumbled on to the sets of Disney Pixar’s Coco. I tried the cocktails and could instantly recognise that we had moved on from Tequila Sunrise and Margaritas. These were second generation tequila cocktails as I sampled ingredients like spicy mole sauce, ancho pepper liqueur, and jalapeno oregano wine.

Across Mumbai, Pune, Goa, Kolkata and Bengaluru, Mexican cuisine is seeing a resurgence led by the growth of tequila and other agave-based spirits. Indian restaurateurs seem to have gone into overdrive opening tequila bars and leading a new wave of Mexican cuisine that goes beyond tacos and guacamole.

Karan Khilnani, partner at Juju, says that they held on to the property where the Mexican bar is located for almost two years while they debated whether to start a robata and sushi restaurant or a trendy bar. And then it was decided for them as they saw serious whisky drinkers ordering tequila. “We realised that Pune had no tequila bar, leading us to open Juju with 27 labels of tequila,” says Khilnani. The bar does its own take on classic Mexican cocktails such as Micheldada, Paloma and Margaritas apart from crafting signature drinks.

In Mumbai, French restaurant Soufflé S’il Vous Plaît in Churchgate gave way to Mezcalita in March. One noticeable difference at Mezcalita is the pure focus on tequila and mezcal, both derived from the agave plant. From the Cha Chinga, made with tequila, charred cucumber and bird-eye chilli, to Oaxaca to Osaka, which blends tequila, sake and the non-alcoholic horchata, the drinks are a burst of flavour and complement traditional Mexican dishes like Aguachile Jícama, Lamb Panuchos and Birria Tacos perfectly.

Rizwan Amlani, partner at Mezcalita, says that agave spirits are now seen as more than beverages thanks to Hollywood celebrity endorsements as well as craftsmanship. “At Mezcalita, our bar purely focuses on mezcals, tequilas and agaves. All our classic cocktails are also made with tequila or mezcal—we call them Mezcalised Classics and they include Negronis, the Old Fashioned, a ‘Bloody Maria’ and even a Sangrita (our version of the Sangria),” he says.

The current rise of agave spirits got a boost with the launch of a new Indian spirit, the Pistola Agavepura, by Delhi-based Passcode Hospitality in late 2021. Made using the Agave americana plant that grows in the Deccan plateau, and aged and bottled in Goa, the spirit has already launched five expressions and is going into new markets. The brand has held masterclasses and bartender competitions with the spirit and launched in Singapore earlier this year as well.

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Sheet Dila, head of marketing at Passcode Hospitality, says that four years ago, bartenders would work with just a couple of tequila brands such as Jose Cuervo and Camino; today, international labels such as Dwayne Johnson’s Teremana and the world’s most awarded tequila family brand 1800 are present in major markets.

For Mexican restaurants, displaying a menu with premium agave spirits is also a shortcut to quicker sales. As Rakshay Dhariwal, co-founder of Passcode Hospitality, says, “Most high-income individuals have moved to drinking premium agave spirits. And since 100% agave spirits aren’t cheap, revenues for restaurants go up when they sell them.”

While agave spirits are easy pickings for restaurants, what is more difficult to shed is the legacy of Tex-Mex dishes loaded with beans and cheese that pass as Mexican food. New restaurants that have opened this year have tried to make a difference even as they acknowledge that Tex-Mex cannot be completely kept off the menu.

Priyanko Sarkar is a Mumbai-based writer covering the F&B industry.

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