Julio Bermejo is the creator of the Tommy’s Margarita cocktail, one of only 16 cocktails that have been officially recognised as ‘New Era Drinks’ by the International Bartenders Association.
Julio’s parents, Tommy and Elmy, founded Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco in 1965.
Under Julio’s influence, Tommy’s moved towards a singular focus on 100 per cent agave tequilas, as opposed to what are known as mixto tequilas, in which distillers supplement the agave with cheaper sugars.
This crusade brought global recognition for Tommy’s as the world’s leading tequila bar, honoured six times in The World’s 50 Best Bars list since 2000.
Julio was in Australia recently to judge the Patron Perfectionists cocktail competition, and thanks to Patron Tequila, I was able to catch up with him to record this interview that I’m delighted to share with Drinks Adventures listeners.
Help us fund Season Four of Drinks Adventures by purchasing your limited edition drink coasters here.
Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.
Julio Bermejo, creator of the Tommy’s Margarita cocktail: Full transcript
JAMES ATKINSON VO: Tommy’s Restaurant was founded by Julio Bermejo’s parents Tommy and Elmy in 1965.
JULIO BERMEJO: When I start to take an interest in tequila and in the margarita is when our bar starts to change. So we switch over to 100% agave, and right then and there, it was just so radical, the flavour profile change, that there was no more room for regular tequila in my life, or, in my opinion, in the lives of my guests. The argument of the industry had always been, the American consumer does not understand 100% agave, because it has a taste that’s too unique for them. And what a bunch of bullshit! I started to stock as many 100% agave products as I could, and we went from 3 or 4 to 24 to 48, 60, 80. Right? And then, eventually, the largest vintage selection of tequila in the world, representing more distillers than any other bar in the United States. And that became the focus.
JAMES ATKINSON VO: Alongside Tommy’s move to 100% agave tequila, Julio turned his attentions to another ingredient in the margarita cocktail. There were several iterations of what eventually became known as the Tommy’s margarita cocktail, in which Julio replaced the triple sec orange liqueur in the original recipe with agave syrup, to further accentuate the flavour of the tequila.
JULIO BERMEJO: We, as in our family, our staff, and myself at Tommy’s, never called the margarita that we made the Tommy’s Margarita cocktail. I didn’t go out and go, “Today, I’m going to make a better margarita.” It started out as, “We use this product in our margarita and is that what we should be doing?” Remember, agave fructose was incredibly expensive. So the iterations were finding out what worked, right, and what worked economically. Because, we only raised the drink price 50 cents, which is crazy. Right? When bottle cost went from $5 to $19 a litre. And so, when I take that step and stop selling regular tequila, it was an insane idea. I mean, if I had been working in a corporate environment, I would have been fired. I mean, two seconds after making that decision.
JAMES ATKINSON: What did your father say to you at that point?
JULIO BERMEJO: “Oh, you’re fucking crazy. I mean, I want to kill you.” But it worked out. It was the right thing to do. And now, luckily, we started something in San Francisco that many people have emulated, and that’s great. But also, San Francisco today is arguably, after Mexico, the most sophisticated tequila market in the world, where we are, and we’re a part of that.
JAMES ATKINSON: How did you think that became such an iconic cocktail?
JULIO BERMEJO: It took two bartenders. It took Dre Masso and Henry Besant, who had started a consultancy company called The Worldwide Cocktail Club in London, to go all over the world and say, “You know, when it comes to making the margarita, the margarita that should be made is a Tommy’s Margarita cocktail. When I start working in London in 2001, I started giving seminars to London’s best bartenders. I was blown away by the fact that these people were asking me questions that were never asked for in America. For example, “Hey, I want to make a cocktail with some fresh basil. What kind of tequila would you recommend?” And I’m like, “Okay, let me think about that.” Right? Then when I met these people in England, I decided to start taking professional tours to visit distilleries. Then when we took them to Mexico, it kind of made everything fit, and a lot of those people became true agave lovers and tequila lovers.
JAMES ATKINSON: It sounds like you had quite an effect on people, then?
JULIO BERMEJO: Well, it looks like we did. The important thing was just sharing something that really hadn’t been fully understood, and still to this day isn’t fully understood, and, honestly, underappreciated. Because what people have failed to realise all along is this is the most terroir driven spirit on Earth. It’s all about the plant, all about the soil. If tequila was made in France, I could not afford to drink it. It’d be 500 bucks a bottle.
JAMES ATKINSON: Was there a point when the Tommy’s kind of got so much traction that your dad sort of went, “Okay, I can kind of see what you did there.”?
JULIO BERMEJO: Well, here’s a funny story. In 1999 was the first time I was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street Journal does two fun columns. The right-hand column is just fun. The far left-hand column is fun, but it’s serious. It’s a business trend. I was on the left-hand column, and there it said, “Tommy’s epicenter of tequila in the United States.”
JULIO BERMEJO: Now, when this article came out in April of 1999 or May of 1999, I happened to be in New Orleans for Jazz Fest, that I attend every year. It’s my vacation. I’m walking down Canal Street, and a friend of mine just goes, “Hey, Julio, did you get The Wall Street Journal today?” I mean, I never buy The Wall Street Journal. I don’t have any money. Right? What am I buying the Journal? I go, “No, of course not.” He goes, “Well, you ought to get it.” I’m like, “All right, whatever.” So I go to a five-star hotel, and I steal The Wall Street Journal. I’m not fucking paying for one, right? I get The Wall Street Journal, and I go, “I’m off on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.”
JULIO BERMEJO: So anyway, I go into a Jazz Fest, and I come back home to my father, and I go, “Dad, we’re on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.” And my father put down his newspaper, and he goes, “Where were you?” “Well, I was in New Orleans.” “What were you doing there?” “I was at Jazz Fest. I mean, I heard some of the greatest music in the world.” My father goes, “How many margaritas did you sell over there?” “None.” “How many enchiladas did you sell over there?” I go, “None.” And he kept reading his paper. He didn’t give a shit. All right? It meant nothing that, I mean, we just $50,000 in free press, you know what I mean? He couldn’t care less.
JAMES ATKINSON: Get back to work.
JULIO BERMEJO: Yeah, “Get your ass back to work. Sell something. All right? We can quantify that.”
JAMES ATKINSON: What’s the strangest or the furthest afield place from San Francisco or Mexico where you’ve seen a Tommy’s Margarita, and it’s kind of blown your mind that your cocktail spread that far?
JULIO BERMEJO: Well, I took my mother … My mother is 85. She’s going to be 86 next week. But about three years ago, we took her to South Africa for a wedding of a family friend. I took her to a bar that I had never been to and, I personally, we walked up to the bar, and the barman is right there, and I never been to this place. I just go, “Can I get two Tommy’s Margarita’s?” And the gentleman just said, “Sure.” And my mother almost went white. Like, “How does this gentleman, and halfway around the world, if not more, know about something that we’re doing a million miles away in San Francisco?”
JULIO BERMEJO: But it really hit home, honestly, the first time I was with my wife … I was working on Crystal Cruises. It’s a luxury cruise line, and we had docked in Lisbon. It’s about seven or eight years ago. I had asked my friends in Portugal, “Hey, I’m going to be in Lisbon. What’s the best cocktail bars to go to?” Everybody told me, “Go to Cinco Lounge. You got to go to Cinco Lounge.”
JULIO BERMEJO: So I go to this place purposely when they opened, so it’s quiet, and you get a feel for the place. I asked for the cocktail menu, and they showed me this really cool book, and I’m thumbing through it, and there’s nothing that interested me at that particular moment. And so, I’m with my wife, and I asked the bartender, there is a really young guy, and I go, “Hey, excuse me, can I just get a Tommy’s Margarita?” And the kid looks at me and he goes, “Why do you want to drink a drink that you can get anywhere in the world? Let me make you something original.” And my wife starts laughing, “Ah, ha ha.” Like this guy is like, “Is this guy dissing me? Gee, I don’t even know this guy.” And so, anyway, so I go, “Sure, please. Go to it.” And this gentleman got some peppers, he sauteed them, he muddled them. He made a beautiful, beautiful drink.
JAMES ATKINSON: As long as it was good.
JULIO BERMEJO: Oh yeah. No, it was great. And then, so it obviously came time to pay, I paid, and then I put my business card down, and I left. And then I go, “Hey, we got to go back there. Those guys are cool.” So I went back the next day, and the guy was there, and he apologised. I’m like, “Hey, no need to apologise. Thank you very much.” I thought that was pretty humbling, someone would think that it was pretty ordinary.
JAMES ATKINSON: Having focused Tommy’s on 100% agave tequila, Julio narrowed its focus further to supporting tequilas that are distillery owned and operated, rather than contract distilled, which is something I discussed in the Australian context with Kathleen Davies of Nip of Courage back in Season Two of this podcast.
JULIO BERMEJO: Distillery owned and operated is critical. If you have the guts, the balls, to go put money in infrastructure and believe in what you do, it’s a completely different level than testing the waters by, “Why don’t I start a gin brand, and find a gin distiller, and give him or her a recipe, and let’s see if it goes okay.” When you decide to put a brick down, and then you decide to buy a stone oven or an autoclave, you buy a fermentation tank, you buy a pot still. Then depending on what you buy that pot still of, I mean, you’re very vested and serious. And the minute you start hiring people and families, and then thinking, “Oh my God, I have a little business, and not only am I responsible for my livelihood, but I’m now responsible for the livelihood of all these people that I want to work for me.” You are now truly vested. Contracted products, if the contractor’s distillery burns down, the guy who contracted goes to that guy and says, “I hope you had fire insurance.” And he finds another person to sell him or her juice. if you are selling the profile of a particular product, if someone else makes it, even if it’s with your recipe, it tastes differently. Because of the water, because of the yeast, because of the size of the fermentation tank, because of the area that it’s being fermented on, because of the size of the distillation still, because of the material of the pot still, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Right? You-
JAMES ATKINSON: You have to trust that they’re telling you everything true about how they are making it, as well.
JULIO BERMEJO: 100%. Honestly, I think that’s another issue. When you contract, most people deal in fair ways, but you don’t have ultimate control.
JAMES ATKINSON: Is having those sorts of principles become even more important in recent decades with more money coming into the category, and celebrities being associated with brands, and all those sorts of things?
JULIO BERMEJO: Well, to me it does. Because, don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that celebrities want every kind of whatever, imaging and branding, but it’s also about having a business that doesn’t last five years, that doesn’t last 10 years, that lasts a couple of generations. Right? And that is part of a community. We’ve seen phenomenal business examples of people start brands of tequila and cash out unbelievably well. Right? And more power to them, and God bless them. But I wish some of those people would care a little bit more about the community, and lay roots down and if they have such a great idea and a great vision, they should be able to do that, as well.
JAMES ATKINSON: 100% agave is an important thing for people to select, to know that they’re getting a decent product, but it’s not everything. What are the other things that you need to know about what you’re buying to get a good quality tequila?
JULIO BERMEJO: Well, 20 years ago, we would tell everybody, “Look, if it says 100% agave, you’re totally good.” But today there’s a new series of things going on in the industry, and Big Tequila, in order to spread tequila where they want to spread it, in order to spread it at a price point that they can spread it at, has now had to make tequila in arguably new ways. Right?
JULIO BERMEJO: The evolution of tequila from, say, cooking in the ground, like a lot of artisanal and ancestral mezcals, to cooking in oven, to then cooking in autoclave, which was introduced by the Souzas to be more efficient and faster, to then using roller mills instead of tahonas, and then using diffusers. Well, that’s been a big difference.
JULIO BERMEJO: So, if for 500 years people have taken, I’ve been taking steam or direct fire to hydrolosize agave, well, it was a monumental leap in economies of scale, not for the better, in my opinion, to use acids to hydrolosize agave. Right? And unfortunately, no one will tell you that they do that. Right? But the way you get a tequila, that’s 20 bucks and one that’s 40 bucks, it’s usually the cheap one is made with acid. Right? Which is faster, cheaper, 40% more efficient. All right? So if you can, instead of using eight kilos of agave to make a liter of tequila, I mean, naturally, you can use five. You can save money and charge less.
JULIO BERMEJO: But there’s a consequence in taste and in aromatics. Now, once you start oak-aging those, you can cover things up. But if you take the unaged tequilas, one made with a diffuser, one made naturally like Patron, it’s night and day. Right? Cooked agave needs to smell richer, rounder, sweeter. And products used or hydrolyzed with acid smell almost malty, slightly grainy, quite neutral. Right? And again, it is tequila, and it’s 100% agave tequila, but tequila is all about the raw material. Right?
JULIO BERMEJO: And that’s why, on another note, no one in tequila distills to 80% ABV and above. We’re not trying to make neutral spirit like everybody else. All right? I mean, you’re crazy to distill at 55% ABV when, if your job is to make alcohol, you can distill higher and make more alcohol. But why do people do that? To try to preserve the integrity of agave.
JAMES ATKINSON: I know you’ve got a really busy schedule in Australia, so thanks so much for taking the time for an interview. It’s an honour.
JULIO BERMEJO: A pleasure, James, thank you. And you’ve got to let me know how we can tell people in America about the podcast.