How Tanteo Tequila Is Shaking Up an Industry Built on Tradition
This cooperatively run, bartender-friendly, controversially infused spirit has no need for tradition
“There are still some haters, even to this day. People who believe tequila can’t have innovation.”
Neil Grosscup is the CEO and Master Blender of Tanteo Tequila. He’s extremely generous with his time, super chill and not afraid, good-naturedly, to take some pot shots at the tequila industry.
Tanteo isn’t your usual tequila, and it’s also not your typical boozy success story. Although the brand just released a well-received blanco that would do quite well with old-school agave purists — and it has (in many places) — everything about the company feels more like a disruptive, millennial-run startup that just happens to deal with one of the world’s most beloved and protected spirits.
Essentially, Tanteo offers a product that wasn’t even allowed to exist until a few years back — a 100% agave tequila infused with natural flavors (for now, that’s jalapenos, habaneros and chipotles). It’s excellent stuff and ideally suited for spicy cocktails — again, not where most tequilas like to make their claim to fame.
After attending a fun and illuminating cocktail competition at the brand’s HQ — located in a semi-secret loft deep in the heart of Brooklyn — we decided to head down to Mexico in early March with the brand’s team to see how Tanteo is shaking up traditional tequila culture.
With the advent of COVID-19, Tanteo has been hit particularly hard, as they had made their name primarily in bars, which are now temporarily shuttered or severely reduced in service. But the brand, like any good startup, continues to show an innate ability to innovate and pivot when needed.
(Don’t care for the origin story? We’ve got easy make-at-home recipes with Tanteo at the end of the story.)
Tanteo was originally inspired (and frustrated) by a drink at a legendary NYC cocktail bar
A spicy tequila and Chartreuse cocktail at Death and Co. was the original inspiration for Tanteo, which at its inception wasn’t even going to be a tequila company. “That cocktail we had was delicious, but even a top-notch cocktail bar can’t make that consistently,” says Grosscup. The company originally wanted to build a tool to make it easier to make spicy margaritas; they ended up forming a relationship with a distillery in the town of Tequila and setting out to make their own product.
Male CEO aside, the company’s structure is decidedly female and egalitarian
The company later moved its operations from Tequila to the tiny village of Juanacatlán, and in doing so, upended the traditional model of the distillery-farm relationship. “I never liked the relationship with our old distillery — it was run by an aristocratic, arrogant man who didn’t treat the workers that well,” says Grosscup. Instead, Tanteo now works with a cooperative of 85 different families of agave growers, a unique partnership in the tequila world. As well, 80% of the workers identify as female, and there’s an emphasis on hiring single mothers and widows. As Grosscup notes, “This all allows for more working-class individuals to share in our success.”
Infused tequila is a relatively new and somewhat controversial idea
The classification for tequila changed in 2006 that opened a pathway to infused, 100% agave tequila. Some bartenders originally questioned the need … until they realized it was making their lives better. “I think all those bars that were taking pride in making their own infusions realized it was a pain in the ass to do that every day,” says Grosscup. “What they did wasn’t always consistent and it was just easier to outsource the process to us.”
Tanteo is a tequila designed for cocktails and bartenders
Doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it neat or at home, but the brand has gone out of its way to be the ideal mixer for spicy tequila drinks, and their laser focus has been on getting it into bars. “You can even see that even in our bottle design,” says Grosscup. “Other premium tequilas don’t fit into a well and they piss off a lot of bartenders; with so much of our tequila going into specialty cocktails, we designed the bottle to be bartender friendly.” So they’re narrow-based with long necks and color coded to their infusion. On our trip down to Mexico, we were joined by three dozen bartenders from around the country to learn more about their product.
Their young CEO was possessed by spirits. In two ways.
A priest walks into a bar … Grosscup originally showed a keen interest in theology. But while attending Georgetown, he built a functional bar in his apartment, which quickly led to a side business building custom bars for friends. “So as my love for all things cocktail-related grew, I found myself reading more about the history of cocktails and less about religious studies,” he says. “Then I decided the priesthood wasn’t for me.”
Starting as an intern at Tanteo after moving to New York, Grosscup eventually moved into the role of CEO and later Master Blender by the tender age of 29, in part due to the untimely passing of the company’s founder.
Grosscup still stays on the front line. “The first time I made the habanero infusion, I was worried it was going to be too spicy and we’d all get a bit of Montezuma’s revenge. So I intentionally got rip-roaring drunk to test it out to make sure it was safe.”
They’re not afraid to take on tequila purists
The brand harvests the agave at the age of five years — which is pretty much sacriledge in the tequila world, where six or seven years is considered young. And for all the talk about the differences between highlands and lowlands agave, Grosscup is a bit dismissive. “Terroir is a bit overdone,” he says. “This isn’t as complex as land is in wine.” That said, the blender notes that they are harvesting from a nutrient-rich soil in a diverse ecosystem, and the plants they’re harvesting are “sweet and full-sized.”
The company also hasn’t given too much thought to making waves in tequila’s home of Mexico, where the cocktail scene is young and therefore not necessarily ready to embrace a spirit built for margaritas (an American invention). “We had margaritas the other night in Guadalajara, but it was definitely a case of ‘making drinks for the gringos,’” says Grosscup.
The brand has (and is) pivoting quickly when faced with extreme difficulty
As a reminder, we went down to Mexico in early March. It’s now the beginning of May, and in the six weeks in between, Tanteo’s had to undergo a rapid 100% shift to targeting households and liquor stores rather than bartenders. They’ve started a digital version of their Mexican Standoff bartending competition for Cinco de Mayo, launched an e-commerce store, partnered with the cocktail delivery kit Saloon Box as well as Twisted Alchemy cold-pressed juices to develop and send out cocktail kits, and they’re also delivering fresh cocktails in New York with the help of the bar the Wayland.
Speaking of cocktails … if you want to make something with a bit of a kick on Cinco de Mayo, try one of those concoctions.
Via Neil Grosscup
1.5 oz Tanteo Jalapeno
.5 oz crème de cassis
.5 lime juice
3 oz ginger beer
Pour the tequila, creme de cassis and lime juice into a shaker filled with ice. Shake well. Strain into a collins glass filled with ice and top with the ginger beer.
The In-This-Together Spicy Marg
Via Randy Thais of The Bungalow (Huntington Beach and Santa Monica, CA)
2 oz Tanteo Jalapeno
.5 oz Cointreau
.75 oz fresh lime juice
.75 oz agave nectar or simple syrup (equal parts refined sugar and water)
Add all ingredients into a shaker and shake vigorously.
Via Lex Sol of Sun of Wolf (Palo Alto, CA)
1.5 oz lemon juice (zest beforehand)
.5 oz fresh or concentrate pink grapefruit juice
2 oz Tanteo Chipotle
Shaken all ingredients with ice. Top off with Squirt. Garnish with lemon zest from lemon and slap a mint sprig for extra bartending flare.
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