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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Spicy margaritas are the new espresso martini

    As New York's bar luminaries recently raised spritzes to toast "King Cocktail" Dale DeGroff and collaborator Ted Breaux on their new spirits line, we took the opportunity to query the pros: What are customers ordering these days?

    "New York has been stricken with agave mania," says Robert Struthers, beverage director of Gair in Brooklyn's Dumbo neighborhood. Both of their most popular cocktails are agave-based: Under the Influencer (mezcal, lime, passion fruit, cayenne, lager, celery bitters) and Jalisco Sol (tequila, pineapple, lemon, apricot, chamomile, red bitter aperitif).

    Kind of as Frank Sinatra sang: If you make it here, it'll soon be made anywhere, with cocktail trends radiating across the U.S. Particularly in New York, anything remotely resembling a spicy margarita remains the drink du jour, as new data bears out.

    According to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis statistics released Wednesday, in terms of cases sold in the U.S., tequila volume growth handily surpassed that of vodka in 2022, rising 12% year over year, while vodka eked out a 1% increase. Looking ahead, the compound annual growth rate for tequila from 2022 to 2026 is expected to rise an additional 8% while vodka flatlines.

    At Williamsburg, Brooklyn's Maison Premiere, where ice-cold martinis and oysters are the draw, the pink-tinged Margarita de Jamaica "became a top seller in no time," says bar director Will Elliott. Made with tequila, racilla and Empirical Spirits Ayuuk, a chile pepper distillate with a "tingly" quality, Elliott imagined the floral drink as "a Victorian notion of a margarita with hibiscus." He put it on the menu, "knowing agave is absolutely booming."

    Why spicy margs in particular? It's not a new drink: With roots in the mid-aughts making it sufficiently familiar to be the cocktail equivalent of comfort food, it has enough capsaicin-laden novelty to hold interest.

    "It has the DNA of a margarita, but it's more sophisticated," explains Alex Valencia, bartender at La Contenta, a Mexican restaurant with two Manhattan locations. There, the jalapeño watermelon margarita sells "a lot, a lot, a lot," alongside the Mezcalita, aka a mezcal-based margarita.

    Still, according to our bartender straw poll, another retro-tinged cocktail is never far behind: That 1980s baby, the espresso martini, is starting to feel like vodka's last stand in the cocktail sphere. Measured by consumer spending, vodka retained its longtime leader position in 2022 as the most-purchased spirit by value, although IWSR predicts tequila will overtake vodka to become the most-valuable spirits subcategory in 2023.

    At El Quijote, the venerated Spanish hideaway off the lobby of Manhattan's reborn Chelsea Hotel, both margaritas and espresso martinis are "served by tray-full," says Brian Evans, director of bars for parent company Sunday Hospitality. (The Spanish-style gin and tonic holds the No.1 spot at Quijote). And at Mister Paradise, a raucous, high-volume bar in the East Village, the top seller is the Party Lobster, a spicy, sweet-tart spicy marg with a split base of blanco tequila and mezcal, plus habanero and salted watermelon.

    "It sells the most, I think, because it seems most approachable, and most of the ingredients are recognizable," says owner/beverage director Will Wyatt.

    That said, "once we get cranking on a weekend night, no one wants to see a menu. It's all espresso martinis," sats Wyatt. The caffeine pick-me-up is part of the draw: "It seems like people are viewing it as a classier vodka-Red Bull."

    Conspicuously missing from the bartender hit lists are whiskey drinks, including the juggernaut that was the Old-Fashioned. While warmer weather typically signals the onset of bright, refreshing drinks made with lighter spirits, whiskey usually tends to figure somewhere in the mix.

    Might agave's ascension signal the end of the whiskey boom? Not completely - but whisky should watch its back. Tequila leapfrogged it to become the second-most-valuable subcategory in the U.S. in 2022, according to the IWSR data, even as whiskey surpassed vodka in volume growth (3% to 1%, respectively) for the first time in almost two decades.

    Note that whiskey is not a monolith. American whiskey, particularly bourbon (up 8% by value), is doing just fine, while whisky — Canadian and Scotch single malts, except for those at the highest, super-premium end — has lagged in recent years.

    So what does it mean that tequila is edging out both vodka and whisky?

    Potentially more situations like that seen at SoHo's Principe, where the Calabrian chile margarita gets sweet heat from a red bell pepper syrup blended with Calabrian chile peppers. "Week after week, this spicy margarita variation outperforms the second-best seller by nearly three times," says beverage manager Alan Wither.

    That second-best seller? The espresso martini, natch, but with a twist: "Oddly enough, many of them are requested with tequila."

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