The bar world has been left reeling by the news that Tomas Estes, the tequila ambassador and pioneer who helped shape the modern perspective of the agave spirit in Europe, and indeed the world, has died.
Tomas Estes was best known as the founder of Tequila Ocho and of his group of Café Pacifico restaurants, which introduced Europeans to the Mexican way of drinking and dining. But as the news of his passing was announced, it became clear that his open, adventurous and generous spirit and passion for people is perhaps what he will be best remembered for. The Estes family asked for people to share their memories and photos using the hashtag #RememberingTomas – a quick search on social media reveals quite how far around the world this man’s arms reached.
Estes, as he often recounted, grew up in the east side of Los Angeles, an area boasting a huge Mexican population. As a child, he gravitated towards Mexican children and their culture, and a first visit to Mexico cemented his affinity with the country. “From these early initiations I was bitten, grabbed and captured by the romance and realness, the brightness and dark magic that, to me, is Mexico,” Estes wrote in his book The Tequila Ambassador.
“By 1965, when I was 20 years old, I was regularly going to Ensenada, in Baja, California, for what I call my informal or alternative education. I would stand in the back of Rafael Perez’s Licores Gloria liquor store and drink tequila from the bottle, with him watching out for the polícia so that neither of us got into trouble…by this time, Mexico was deep in my heart and the blood which pumped wildly through it.”
Alongside his “alternative education”, Estes was engaged in an unlikely high school and college pursuit, given his diminutive frame. “Wrestling was a great challenge for me – imagine training all year, making weight, then facing someone who wanted to kick your ass,” he once told Drinks International. “I won 98% of my matches but I didn’t wrestle to win, I wrestled to experience wrestling and do it with style.” He didn’t go professional; against the background of the war with Vietnam in the 1960s, Estes decided he wanted to give back to society, becoming an English teacher in LA for seven years.
It was a trip to Europe in 1970 that began his career in tequila, however. He fell in love with Amsterdam, and in 1976 moved there to open his first Café Pacifico restaurant, serving Mexican cuisine and agave spirits. The venue took Europe – which had never seen anything like it – by storm. “Tina Turner was there, Debbie Harry from Blondie waited three hours one night at the bar for a table,” he once said. In 1982 he brought the Café Pacifico concept to London, and in the ensuing years opened 18 venues in Cologne, Milan, Sydney and Paris.
As well as importing Mexican cuisine to Europe, Estes found himself talking about tequila to both customers and fellow on-trade professionals. He would organise tastings and events, and give presentations at bar shows around the world. He taught the difference between mixto and 100% agave tequila, on why this was a spirit that should be sipped and savoured, and much more besides.
He would travel to Mexico to visit distilleries and learn as much as he could in order to spread the gospel of this spirit. Estes was a brilliant, eloquent and enthusiastic orator, inspiring generations of new tequila enthusiasts who would lap up his thoughtful, philosophical and vital musings. In 2003, Francisco Gonzalez, the then President of the CNIT (Mexican National Chamber for the Tequila Industry), officially gave Estes the title of Ambassador of Tequila in recognition of his work. It was an honour that Estes took extremely seriously, a mantle that he carried out until the very end.
While living in Europe, Estes took yet another trip that would come to shape the next chapter of his life. “I started going to Burgundy in 1984, and fell in love with that spot,” he told me in an interview in 2019. “This is the way that I arrived at my interest in terroir: for 19 consecutive years, starting in 1989, I went every single year to taste the wines en primeur. In June or July, I would go and see the producers, including Bruno Clavelier in Vosnes-Romanée and Franck Grux of Olivier Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet, and often walk their vineyards with them. I became fascinated with the idea, and it was the basis on which my idea formed – to look at the role of terroir in agave.”
Fast-forward two decades, and master tequilero Carlos Camarena approached Estes about creating a tequila brand together. “I said to Carlos, ‘Can we make a single-field, technically single-vineyard, tequila?’ and he said, ‘Yes we can, but be careful, because they’re going to be different.’ And I thought, bravo, let’s go against conformity.
And so Ocho, a single-field vintage tequila brand, was born. Tomas’ son Jesse joined him, and will no doubt successfully oversee the continued growth of the business.
With his open heart, encyclopaedic knowledge of tequila, impish grin and sense of adventure, Estes was a much-loved fixture in the international bar circuit. “Tomas meant so much to me. His love and passion for Mexico, for life, for travel, for people and their different cultures, and of course for tequila,” recalls Stuart Ekins, co-founder of Cask Liquid Marketing, the UK importer of Ocho. “He brought people together from across the world, who he captivated with his knowledge, stories, mischief and fun.”
Tristan Stephenson, author of The Curious Bartender book series, concurs: “The Estes family, the drinks industry, and the world lost a legend this week. Tomas was one of those rare individuals who radiated a warmth from the soul that energised those around him. He brought out the best in people, because he knew that was best for everybody. There is no greater trait in a human being than this.”
Drinks historian and Sipsmith distiller Jared Brown remembered some of the jet-set travels they shared. “Tomas Estes was a dear friend and drinks-industry compatriot for so long, it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t part of our lives. He was family. So many wonderful memories of good times in London, on Paxos, in Berlin, Moscow… we toasted around the world over the years. Life was always good around Tomas.”
His gentle, open nature caused everyone who met him to turn themselves to him as if they were turning their faces to the sun’s light. In an announcement about Tomas’ death, his son Jesse declared: “To those of us who knew him well, there now is – and forever will be – a Tomas-sized hole in the universe.”
Tomas Estes (1945-2021) leaves behind four sons – Tommy, Luke, Max and Jesse – and a legacy of tequila lovers around the world.
The inspiration to remember
To open to life
To reach for feeling
Across the forehead
Down the arms
In my centre
So that when even the stain of beets
In the salad on my plate
Says something, anything
Then I realize, remember