Tequila may have the terroir of a fine wine but the category lacks a serve that illustrates its sense of place. Until now. Here, we chat with Tom Bishop and Jack Vereker, co-founders of contemporary Tequila brand El Rayo – Spanish for ‘the lightning’ – who have made it their mission to refresh the category, one Tequila and Tonic at a time…
Peanut butter and jam. Macaroni and cheese. Tequila and Tonic. It seems so simple, but all this time we’ve been putting two and two together and making five. The category needs a hero serve, and it’s been right under our noses the entire time.
“When we first started drinking Tequila, we realised there was no simple way of drinking it,” says Vereker. “Do you get the pub to make you a Margarita? It’s a simple cocktail, but no one knows what the ingredients are. Tequila and Tonic highlights the flavours of the agave – those delicious vegetal notes pair really well with the tonic – but it’s also a long refreshing drink. It has all the same elements of a Gin and Tonic but it’s a different experience.”
El Rayo’s strategy couldn’t be any further from the lime and salt ritual Tequila has become synonymous with. But then, its founders aren’t Diageo or Pernod Ricard alumni, nor are they bartenders-turned-brand ambassadors. Bishop, an ex-insurance broker, and Vereker, formerly the strategic consultant for a tech firm, are just two childhood friends with a penchant for Tequila.
It started with a bottle of Siete Leguas Añejo, a gift from Bishop’s brother, which had been aged in whiskey barrels for two years. The bottle sat gathering dust on a shelf until the future co-founders returned home from a night out in Peckham to find they’d run out of beer. “The first sip completely smacked us around the face,” Bishop continues. “At that stage we’d had similar experiences with Tequila to a lot of people, we’d had a lot of fun with it – probably too much fun in some instances – but this was like nothing we’d ever tasted before. And it lit a spark in us.”
They began roaming around London trying different brands and chatting to bartenders, and were surprised to find a category that was “over-reliant on a lot of dated stereotypes about Mexico”, Bishop says, “it didn’t add up with contemporary Mexican culture, which is so much more than just sombreros and cactuses.” It was a lightbulb moment. “We wanted to create a complex and delicate Tequila that really excites people, but at the same time is also really approachable, smooth and easy to drink,” says Vereker.
After a year of research – and more than a dozen distillery visits in Jalisco, from very traditional, old school production lines “all the way up to what was essentially a science lab”, Bishop says – they teamed up with Maestro Tequilero Oscar Garcia at Hacienda La Capilla to develop El Rayo; the first brand to use a blend of highland and lowland agave.
“It takes eight years for blue agave to grow before it’s harvested for Tequila production,” Bishop explains, “so, much like wine, where it grows is important to the overall flavour and taste of the end product. In the highlands you’ll find really fruity, sweet notes; in the lowlands there are more vegetal, spicy, peppery notes – it’s all to do with the amount of sugar and water the plant retains.”
El Rayo is made up of 70% highland-grown agave and 30% lowland-cultivated agave, resulting in a Tequila that’s soft and approachable with subtle pepper and spice and a really clean citric, grassy flavour. The piñas are roasted for 12 hours, crushed, and the juices twice distilled in 105-year-old copper stills.
There currently are two varieties of El Rayo: the buttery, herbaceous, floral Plata, with its notes of pepper and pineapple, and a vegetal, slightly smoky Reposado, rested in American white oak whiskey barrels from Jack Daniel’s, with notes of salted caramel, almond and orange zest. A third, Añejo, is still ageing in barrels and will be sampled once more before summer is out.
The beautiful bottles, designed and created in Guadalajara by local design agency Toro Pinto, give a nod to Mexican folklore that credits a rogue lightning bolt and curious campesino with the invention of Tequila. While both styles are delightful served straight up – we can attest to that – El Rayo’s signature serve, the Tequila the Tonic, is the highball drink we didn’t know we needed.
While El Rayo is certainly good enough to be sipped, the duo are realists: people don’t generally sip premium Tequila on a night out – certainly not in the UK, anyway. “It’s about creating something approachable,” says Bishop, “the way I see it being adopted is mainly at home first, and I think that’s a big challenge for Tequila as a product. You might be brave and make some Margaritas if friends are coming round, but there’s no simple way to serve it.”
The most important thing, he says, is that the Tequila and Tonic really champions the agave, as opposed to those traditional serves (hello, Paloma) which almost exist to mask the flavour. Could the serve spell the end of salt and lime-tinged regret and reframe Tequila as a spirit to savour? We certainly hope so.