Sales in Flight

History paints it as a miscreant muse to be sure, but drink pros are all pleased and proud of how far the tequila category has come. Boasting quality and flavor on par with fine wine and the best of bourbon and Scotch, tequila is today a platform for educating and impressing patrons.

No longer is a deep tequila selection considered only appropriate in Latin restaurant concepts. A strong tequila program can generate revenue in any venue — even as a complement to sushi or to Italian fare. Bolstered by heavy brand marketing and word-of-mouth buzz, tequila continues to raise its profile and, as with other spirit categories’ high-end segments, piques patrons’ fascination with its romance and the subtleties of its various expressions.

The other happy product of the advent of premium and super-premium tequila offerings is the profit of the pour. The key to unlocking those revenues is engaging the guest with the category. Borrowing a page from the wine mavens, operators are finding tequila flights powerful in driving both the excitement and revenue potential of the category.

Knowledge Grows
If you are serving a Latin-based menu of food items, tequila is an obvious and necessary spirit behind the bar. However, grasping the nuances of presenting a flight is crucial, primarily because you are opening the door for both a chance to educate and to upsell. Second, while patrons are probably somewhat familiar with the cuisines of Central and South America, the average consumer over 30 is likely unfamiliar with premium and super-premium tequilas.

“I remember years ago, you would go to a restaurant and see maybe Jose Cuervo,” says Dan McClain, general manager of Cantina Laredo in Huntsville, Ala. “Now you see three or four high-end brands at least.”

Cantina Laredo, a 26-location concept of Dallas-based Consolidated Restaurant Operations, offers gourmet Mexican cuisine, with edibles such as from-scratch sauces and guacamole mixed tableside. More than 30 tequilas reside on the back bar, presented in a multi-level bottle display in ascending order of quality.

“For us, it’s more than just being able to offer tequila and say ‘This is good,’ McClain explains. “We want to educate patrons. When a guest arrives, the bartender or server points out our tequila display. That is a lead-in to get the guest to try several types in a flight. We use a three-slotted wooden paddle that holds caballito glasses — short shot glasses — and the guest picks one blanco, a reposado and an añjeo. The price is $20 for three samples, and the pour is one ounce.”

McClain’s staff is well versed on all of Cantina Laredo’s brands, and it pays off. Most patrons find one brand they like in a flight and then order a secondary cocktail or Margarita made with that brand, he says. The restaurants also hold quarterly tequila dinners, where attendees are often loyal patrons previously educated via the tequila flights.

Strategic merchandising also pays off. Tequila bottles are displayed from least to most expensive on a multi-level showcase wall at Cantina Laredo. When the servers pull a bottle from the highest shelf, guests watching know it’s something special, questions ensue and orders for that brand rise.

“Some of our most popular brands are Cabo Wabo, Patrón, Cazadores and Herradura, but we offer an añjeo and a reposado made by Corralejo that I personally love,” McClain admits. “That and the Don Julio are on the top of my list.”

Late-Night Flights
If your concept is not devoted to Latin atmosphere and cuisine, flights are still a strong tool for selling tequila. Obivia, located on Lafayette Street in New York City, is a terrific example. The concept is upscale lounge, divided into three separate rooms. With a capacity of 175, Obivia caters to Manhattan’s trend-setters, offering private bartenders in the VIP area, bottle service throughout and chic comfort foods such as mini hamburgers and filet crostinis. Co-owner Michael Matzo offers flights of almost every spirit, including two separate tequila flights.

“I have done flights since opening in 2005,” Matzo says. “Originally, we set the shots into a block of ice, but the ice presentation melted way too fast and was very high maintenance. Now we use a paddle inspired by something I saw Grand Marnier doing with their original label, the 100 and 150.”

The visual impact isn’t lost on the crowds at Obivia. “Because we are in a nightclub setting, there is the domino effect,” Matzo explains. “Once someone sees another table order something like a tequila flight, then suddenly everyone wants one.”

Matzo’s flights are highlighted on the menu, which also lists the 15 tequilas available for cocktails or shots. His standard flight features inocente Platinum (a silver tequila), Patron Reposado and Partida Añejo. The price is $27 for 1 1/2-ounce pours. Matzo also offers a $35 “Extra-Aged Tequila Three Years And Older” flight. Its three extra añejos [a denomination referring to tequilas aged three years or more] include a Gran Centenario Leyenda and a Cielo Añejo — both three years — and a Casa Noble Añejo, which is aged five years.

“The five-year-old Casa Noble is wonderful,” he explains. “It was hard to get tequilas three years or older out of Mexico until last year. I believe that was the first year they released them for sale in America.

“We pour the flights at the bar to save time, and we usually don’t serve them cold,” Matzo continues. “For the most part, I serve tequila at room temperature so the natural taste can come out, but I do have chilled shot glasses upon request.”

Matzo is a proponent of new brands, and Obivia is a place educated consumers come to find out about special spirits.

“For example, inocente is new and a very up-and-coming, strong brand. We haven’t gotten to Mezcal yet, but I would consider it,” he adds. “I change the menu every three months, and I just bought a case of reposado and blanco from Lunazul that will be on our next tequila flight.”

Pairing Like Never Before
Breaking barriers surrounding tequila and enlightening patrons to the nuances of flavor in the category is Sushi-Teq, located at the InterContinental Boston Waterfront Hotel in Boston. The venue’s cornerstone is the staff’s ability to pair the seemingly odd coupling of sushi and tequila, giving guests an experience they’ve never had before and would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. It’s not that far fetched when you consider that ceviche is a form of raw fish, but crossing the subtle flavors in a super-premium aged añejo and a nori-wrapped spicy salmon roll does take finesse.

You can’t merely stock a deep lineup of premium tequilas. You’ve got to educate the patron to really make it sell, as the Catina Laredo chain staff knows and executes well.

“We opened intending to be a tequila bar with sushi appetizers,” says bar manager Wayne Duprey, “but now we do an equal amount of sushi and tequila. We did a lot of study between pairings and tastings, and we’ve had a fabulous opportunity to take two cultures and blend them. It shocked people at first, but we have found a very pleasant harmony with flavors, styles and execution.

“We try to guide guests through the experience here rather than leaving it open, and we put flights together with tequilas that complement each other in the flight and pair well with the fish.”

For example, Sushi-Teq offers a course in one of its special dinner events pairing Sauza Hornitos Añejo with Sweet Shrimp. “As the name suggests, Sweet Shrimp is praised for its clear, sweet aftertaste,” the tasting menu explains. “The Hornitios Añejo is also known for its smooth sweet taste. It contains hints of vanilla, toasted wood and chocolate.” The tastings match añejos with smoky, meatier flavors such as torched sushi items and tuna while pairing blanco tequilas with sweeter fare such as salmon or eel sauce.

For fish that doesn’t go as well with straight tequila, some tasting courses match sushi with cocktails — for example, the marriage of citrus-based tequila cocktails with Sushi-Teq’s signature 510 roll, which features shiromi (white fish) covered with juice of yuzu (Japanese citrus) and sea salt.

Outside of pairings, of course, Sushi-Teq does flights without the fish. Like Cantina Laredo and Obivia, Sushi-Teq’s tequila flights are all listed on the menu and poured at the bar, and the staff is happy to switch out brands upon request. A paddle-styled presentation goes one step farther by coupling the tequilas with spices and acids.

Each flight comes to the table with a plate of orange slices beside cinnamon and limes beside Margarita salt. A small shot glass of Sangrita also accompanies the flights as it would traditionally in Mexico. Each pour is 3/4 of an ounce, and the price points range from $14 to $18.

“I did a little research and found out that we are selling most of them between 7 and 9 p.m., with about 350 flights sold since we opened in March 2007,” Duprey says. “I think we have the most success with the customers who don’t have a lot of experience with tequila. It’s a good opportunity for them to explore.

“People often come in because they want sushi,” he notes, “but they leave having had a unique experience regarding tequila.” NCB

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