Agave fever: how London fell for Mexico’s wealth of spirits

As a festival dedicated to agave spirits returns to London, Laura Foster takes a look at how Tequila, mezcal and fellow agave-based drinks took a hold of the UK capital

Words by Laura Foster

hacha london agaveria and its agave list shelf

Last autumn, a host of drinks enthusiasts descended upon London’s Tobacco Dock to celebrate all things agave at the inaugural iteration of La Piñata. Tequila and mezcal producers and importers showcased their wares underneath brightly fluttering papel picado, the paper bunting synonymous with Mexico, to a crowd that was thirsty for both knowledge and fine spirits made from this most distinctive of plants.

‘[We wanted to create] a fun environment where sampling is accessible to all and being done in a way that builds both category and brand-specific education,’ explains Emile Ward, the co-founder of La Piñata. For the event’s return in May this year, punters can expect ‘lots of stands, each with passionate producers giving guests one-on-one time,’ says Ward. It seems like a deep, almost forensic approach to Tequila, mezcal and other agave-based spirits. But according to Ward, the appetite is there. ‘I do think the London consumer is more switched on than ever before,’ he says. ‘The work that so many top-end bars across London have done to show the versatility of Tequila is helping drinkers here move beyond the Margarita to explore further.’

customers at la pinata agave festival in london's tobacco dock
Agave spirit producers offer 'one-on-one' time to festival attendees keen to learn more at London's La Piñata

Deano Moncrieffe, founder of London’s duo of Hacha ‘agaverias’, agrees that the capital is having a bit of a Mexican moment and that an increasing roster of bars and restaurants are responsible for the wave of agave fever sweeping the city. ‘Mexican culture is one hundred per cent on the rise. With [top Mexican chef] Adriana Cavita’s restaurant opening, El Pastor’s expansion and Santo Remedio opening a second venue in Shoreditch, I personally see that a lot of this is down to the growth of Tequila and mezcal.’

This isn’t about sniffy, reverent sampling. This is about fun.

When Moncrieffe opened Hacha Dalston in 2019, his aim was to bring agave spirits to as many people as possible. The venue uses all manner of neat tricks to lift the veil on not just Tequila and mezcal, but also lesser-known categories such as raicilla, sotol and bacanora. From ‘flavour enhancers’, where small snacks are paired with spirits – such as peanut M&Ms being served with a reposado Tequila – to help unlock the liquid’s character; to tasting flights; by way of Tequila and mezcal cocktail competitions, Hacha brings the joy of agave spirits to its guests. This isn’t about sniffy, reverent sampling. This is about fun.

deano moncrieffe
Tequila ambassador and IWSC judge Deano Moncrieffe is the co-owner of Hacha, which has spawned two London 'agaverias'

‘The thing that surprised and pleased me the most is how many flights of agave spirits we sell a week,’ Moncrieffe declares. ‘Sometimes we can sell 20 flights a night across both venues. We used to sell approximately five a night at weekends when we first opened, so it shows how our customers are embracing exploration of the categories.’

Another person at the forefront of the UK’s agave revolution is bartender Jon Anders Fjeldsrud, who started working at Café Pacifico, the atmospheric Covent Garden cantina that was London’s first serious Tequila mecca, back in 2005. He’s been spreading the gospel ever since – and agrees that the momentum for these drinks is finally gathering. ‘Over the last year, people have really started talking about [Tequila]. You see it in papers, magazines, on TV and the movies,’ he says.

Last autumn, Fjeldsrud launched a series of talks called the Agave Apostles at FAM bar, one of his places of work: ‘We did a few [virtual] distillery tours live from Mexico. With Fortaleza and El Tequileno, they walked through the distillery on a quick 10-minute tour, and then did an online tasting. It worked very well. As a concept it’s incredibly efficient, because you see it, and then you try it. We started to get a following of people coming back.’ The talks are currently on hiatus, but likely to be resurrected at some point later in the year.

Across in Notting Hill, spirits hub The Distillery offers a three-hour session on agave every Saturday afternoon. Over numerous Tequila cocktails and plenty of delicious Mexican food, guests learn about the agave plant. They’re educated in production processes and there’s a blind tasting of eight different agave spirits, as well as education on the history of the categories. ‘It’s a full immersion into agave spirits, from how they’re made and their place in different cultures. Everyone leaves with a full bottle of Tequila, a belly full of Mexican food, a smile on their face and hopefully renewed passion for the category,’ explains The Distillery co-founder Jake Burger. The weekly sessions are often sold out, a sign of the increasing interest in agave.

agave sessions the distillery
The Agave Sessions at The Distillery in London's Notting Hill helps showcase how these drinks are made

‘We’ve got people attending who have Tequila collections at home in the same way that people have gin collections,’ says Burger. ‘There’s certainly some Tequila heads out there, more than we’d have seen five years ago.’

Where to fall in love with agave in London