As the UK starts to see a slew of new mixto Tequila brands entering the market, we examine the perception of mixtos, speak to the people making them and ask the experts if it’s time to reevaulate this maligned category.
In her book, Spirits of Latin America, New York-based agave spirit expert and bar owner Ivy Mix categorically tells her readers not to drink mixto Tequilas. It’s no secret that this style of Tequila has its haters (so much so one Tequila and mezcal expert declined to be interviewed for this piece).
Yet as new and previously unavailable brands start to make their way into the market, it’s time to take another you at this oft-slated style of the Tequila category.
What is mixto Tequila?
Since the 1970s, when the rules changed, Tequila only has to be distilled with 51% agave. The rest of the alcohol can be derived from any type of sugar, most commonly piloncillo, a type of unrefined Mexican sugar. Mixto is a term, often used disparagingly, for Tequila that isn’t made from 100% agave. Its reputation has plummeted as consumers become more knowledgeable and move away from drinking Tequila in shots.
“When I started my career the majority of house Tequilas were mixtos because people didn’t really have that understanding of luxury agave spirits,” explains owner of agave-focused bar Hacha, Deano Moncrieffe. How times have changed – sales of premium tequilas have rocketed in recent years and many customers can now tell their añejos from their reposados. So, what will it take to put mixtos back on the map?
“I think we need to reframe them as regular Tequila – the term ‘mixto’ is one we’re moving away from,” says Hannah Lanfear, spirits educator and director of The Mixing Class. For Lanfear, what is more important is quality. And what’s the most important factor in a Tequila’s quality? The maturity of the agave. “You can make a proper shitty 100% agave Tequila if you’re using bad-quality agave,” Lanfear says.
It was this very point that got Paul Hayes, co-founder and CEO of premium Tequila brand Vivir, and a new mixto brand called El Sueño, into Tequila 16 years ago. Having spent years believing an allergy to Tequila was a reaction to certain, cheaper styles (ie. mixtos), it was only after further investigation that he was in fact allergic to underaged agave. “Tequilas that came from diffusers were my main problem. They don’t cook the agave but can extract sugars from much younger agaves – that’s the allergy I had. So I can drink cheaper Tequilas as long as they’ve gone through the proper process.”
To make El Sueño, 70% agave and 30% locally-grown cane sugar is used. The latter is an important factor for Hayes as it carries a slight flavour, is sustainably grown and representative of the local community and environment. The agave is cooked in hornos and autoclaves, while he uses natural volcanic water (which is also used to clean the equipment). Hayes says he and co-founder Navindh Grewal like to know where every single part of their Tequila comes from.
Good basic Tequila
Bringing a mixto to market was actually not what Hayes and Grewel had in mind. “When we were creating Vivir, we went through the same process of developing a quality mixto, more for selfish reasons as I live in Somerset and I thought it would be great if we could produce a high quality, entry level Tequila.” When pub buyers tried Vivir, they loved it, but wanted to have a more accessible Tequila in order to upsell to their customers. After winning blind taste tests, El Sueño became part of the range.
Lanfear namechecks El Tequileño as another brand going to “extreme lengths to get good quality, sourcing top quality, slow-grown agave.” 2021 saw El Tequileño enter the UK market, bringing its 70-year-old history as well as one of Mexico’s most famous mixtos with it.
For Becky Davies, owner of Ten Locks which imports the brand, bringing in high quality mixtos is important for the Tequila category as a whole. “There’s a risk that an influx of poorly made mixtos and diffuser Tequilas, made to deliver at a price point some grocers demand, will undermine the true, high quality nature of the spirits. This is not good news for Tequila, where producers have spent such a long time trying to re-establish how wonderful the category is.”
Mixing with mixtos
During a tasting with bartenders and journalists on Margarita Day, Steffin Oghene, vice president of global marketing and business development at El Tequileño, was keen to impress that mixtos have a place in the Tequila market.
The brand dates back to 1959 when it was founded by Don Jorge Salles Cuervo. It is the Tequila of choice at the famous World’s Top 50 La Capilla Cantina. The bar’s signature La Batanga cocktail uses El Tequileño.
Mixto’s place as a cocktail ingredient has been its primary use compared to more sippable 100% agave liquids. There are some cocktails that can carry a mixto – larger formats like big batch Margaritas – while others need more body or flavour. “To make a Tequila Manhattan or Martini, then you may not have the body of flavour you’d need with a mixto,” admits Lanfear, but she sees ABV rather than the style of Tequila as a more important factor when it comes to cocktail structure. To use a lower ABV Tequila in a cocktail, she says, is “like using your finishing salt to season your pasta water.”
Is mixto more sustainable?
Conversations around sustainability also bring mixtos into the mix. Agave takes a minimum of seven years to mature – if mixtos use less agave, surely that makes them more sustainable? While Ivy Mix doesn’t see the need to make mixtos due to the sheer abundance of blue agave in Mexico, Hayes thinks the growing agave crisis is an important factor to take into account when we think about the future of the category. Lanfear agrees – anything to slow down the industrialisation of Tequila – but Moncrieffe isn’t so convinced. “It is maybe more sustainable, but what if you’re using twice the amount? It depends on the size of your operation. I understand the argument, I’m not 100% sure it’s legitimate.”
Mix instead is far more interested in hybrid Tequilas that use less agave. “I think there could be ways for sure to make a product that was interesting. Imagine if I took some sort of ideally Mexican product, for instance some of the amazing rums coming out of Mexico, and made a 51% lowland tahona-milled excellent Tequila then made the other bit an amazing Mexican rum. As far as I know nobody is doing that.”
When it comes to looking at the future of mixtos, Hayes is not unaware of the challenges his brand faces, but early interest is quelling some of those fears. “We’ve been inundated, two or three request a week, with people wanting to import El Sueño. They’ve just taken on ex-bartender and mixto cynic Jo Wilde on board as an ambassador (“he used to be that guy, – I think he actually had a T-shirt saying ‘No mixto’ on it), while a NYC distributor of Vivir recently took on El Sueño too. It’s just launched in 1,000 venues in Australia as well.
Mixtos may still have a way to go to change its image – but it looks like the tides might (slowly) be turning. Pass me a lime juicer.