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How Ordering Tequila Became a Status Symbol

Mike Hofman
Tequila has become the spirit of choice for the "wellness-minded" consumer.

Over the Fourth of July holiday, Zoë Kravitz made headlines when she married her longtime boyfriend, Karl Glusman, in Paris. Her famous parents, Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet, attended, along with step dad Jason Momoa, Denzel Washington, Donald Glover, and most of the cast of Big Little Lies, including Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, and Shailene Woodley. The rehearsal dinner held at the storied Restaurant Lapérouse near the Pont Neuf was “a tremendously joyous party,” co-owner Grégory Lentz told People. “There was so much love in the room. There were toasts and they were moving into tequila when I left.”

That comment about tequila caught my eye, and reminded me of another celebrity tidbit from earlier this year: In a Twitter video that went viral on the night of the Oscars, newly-minted best supporting actress Regina King watched in a bit of a daze as her name was engraved on the Oscar statue. She then turns to the camera, points to the entryway to the Governors Ball, and says, “I’m going to have a tequila in there. I’m going with what does me well.”

These two celebrity anecdotes illustrate an interesting fact, which is that tequila is now not only popular and widely served—luxury tequila has been making inroads for at least a decade now—but it is also perceived by many to be “healthy” or at the very least, “clean.” It’s what you drink if you are conscious about "wellness."

Consider the evidence: Actresses who stroll the red carpet in form-fitting gowns drink tequila. So do influencers posting their abs live from Fire Island, as well as Peloton moms from Greenwich, and CrossFitters devoted to meal prep. And these affluent, motivated consumers are just the vanguard of a larger trend. Strong sales of tequila drove overall growth in the spirits industry in 2018, according to Nielson, in particular in restaurants and at luxury or premium price points. There’s plenty of reason to think tequila sales will continue to climb. White and silver tequilas, anejos, and mezcals are the fastest-growing categories in what is shaping up to be a highly-fragmented market.

Once identified with only a few players (Jose Cuervo, Patron) and favored by hard-partying frat boys and bachelorettes, tequila is now the drink of choice for the wellness-minded, educated consumer. When you stop and think about it, that’s a remarkable marketing story.

“People talk about tequila as the only paleo-friendly spirit because it doesn’t use grain or wheat,” says Stefan Wigand, the co-founder and CMO of Madre Mezcal, one of the dozens of small-batch brands growing in popularity. “The wife of our CEO is a big-time paleo expert and, for her, agave spirits are the one and only option.”

How did this come to pass? As likely as not, it started where most wellness trends take root, which is to say Los Angeles. Tequila always had a stronger presence in Southern California, and its cultural caché has only increased in recent years. First there was the explosion of upscale Mexican dining on the West Coast and elsewhere, then there was the headline-grabbing sale of George Clooney’s Casamigos brand, and that was followed by what you might call the “Pujol factor”—the rise of Mexico City as the ultimate restaurant destination.

Meanwhile, interest in paleo and then keto diets infused the tequila narrative with that crucial wellness component, one that transformed having a strong drink from a seemingly guilty pleasure into an act of quasi-discipline. Though the subreddits and online conversations devoted to these diets feature sharp disagreement on the matter, a popular assertion holds that tequila—particularly clear, 100% agave tequila—is made in such a way that your system can process it more efficiently. (Science does not particularly bolster this claim, but that’s not the point.)

Thanks to the idea that you can get a little buzzed without sacrificing your beach body, drinking tequila has become a status symbol, a not-so-subtle flex. “In New York, it’s still, ‘Get me a vodka soda, babe,’ but New York is five years behind us; in L.A., everywhere you turn, it’s ‘Tequila soda, babe,” says Matt Landes, the founder and CEO of Cocktail Academy, an L.A. company that consults on bar programs.

Landes says he now advises clients to devote incremental shelf space to tequila—stocking a wide variety of brands and types—whether a restaurant’s menu is primarily Mexican, or not. The bottles are designed in an interesting way, and stand out against the relatively homogenous rows of vodka and gin. The fact that many tequilas are produced in small batches lends it a farm-to-table vibe attuned to the times, he explains. And more restaurants and bars are creating elaborate, bar-top stations of garnishes like cilantro, cucumber, and chili peppers, to create atmosphere and a sense of theater for diners. Once this beachhead is established, he notes, there will be little incentive on a restaurant’s part to take it away.

The trend is as pronounced at special events, particularly weddings, Landes adds. Where tequila once might be reserved for a round of groomsmen’s shots or that one extra-salty aunt’s extra-salty margaritas, guests now ask for a variety of tequilas by name and as often as not drink it neat. While we have no reporting to suggest that Reese or Shailene toasted Zoë with a glass of silvery-smoky goodness, it would absolutely be on trend for the Big Little Lies crowd to do just that.