We all know that the word ‘legend’ is thrown around way too much these days, particularly thanks to people involved with sport – but I am very confident that using the word as one of the adjectives for Julio Bermejo is safe.
This is the man behind arguably the best tequila bar on the planet. Tommy’s in San Francisco has been named as one of the World’s 50 Best Bars on six different occasions between; first in 2009 and the last time in 2018. To have that level of consistency over such a long period does take something special. Being the birthplace of a classic cocktail – Tommy’s Margarita – definitely helps, but having someone as passionate and engaging as Bermejo as the Beverage Manager is also a massive factor.
Bermejo was in Australia recently for the Patrón Perfectionists National Final, and when Bars and Clubs was offered the opportunity to speak to him, we jumped at the chance.
He explained to Bars and Clubs, that it was a case of love at first taste for him and tequila.
“I just fell in love with tequila in the late eighties. As a very young person in the part of Mexico that I was from, we would drink beer, rum and brandy because it was cheap. And I just saw that unfortunately when I drank those things my head would just pound. Then I started drinking tequila.
“I mean, I am 13-14 and when I started drinking tequila, even though it was not 100 per cent agave, I felt infinitely better and I had no idea why. Then one day, I stole some alcohol from my parents and took a bottle of 100 per cent agave and that was a life changer. I was just thinking ‘what is going on here?’
“Then,” he adds, “in 1989 I had a big epiphany. That’s when a lot of producers, including Patrón, first made it to the United States. There was a floodgate that opened in 1989 and it was an awakening for the entire market that allowed smaller producers to come in and show their products.”
REVOLUTIONISING THE MARGARITA
At that moment Tommy’s became just the third bar in San Francisco to carry Patrón, but Bermejo found that he was tasting new products coming into the market and was finding big differences as he was exposed to the terroir of tequila. So he took it upon himself to visit Jalisco, understand the process and terroir of tequila, which was really the start of this incredible story.
The next chapter in Bermejo’s incredible story is Tommy’s Margarita, and it is fascinating listen to him explain how this came about.
He told Bars and Clubs: “So at my parents’ restaurant we were making margarita and we were making margaritas with fresh lime, with some triple sec and a little bit of lime juice and some pre-made sweet and sour, we were using mixto tequila and they were fair.
“I revolutionised the margarita world in the United States in three ways.
“First, about 34 years ago I was the first venue on a volume basis to stop selling regular tequila in favour of 100 per cent agave tequila. Now, mind you, 34 years ago this was bat shit crazy, because at this time only about three per cent of tequila drinking people are drinking 100 per cent agave.
“We went from paying $5 a litre, 34 years ago, to $19 a litre and only raising the drink price 50 cents. My father went pretty fucking crazy ‘what school of economics did you go to?’
“But luckily they trusted me, because it didn’t hit over night it took a couple of years for consumers to then say that the margaritas taste different here. That then culminates in 1999 when we are on the front page of the Wall Street Journal as the epicentre of tequila in the United States.”
Continuing on with the three-way margarita revolution, he adds: “We were arguably the first venue to adopt agave fructose as a sweetener in the margarita. So I create a margarita that is all based on the integrity of the base spirit. That means our margarita will taste of the tequila that you want to use.
“If you something with a lot of wood then you’d use an añejo or reposado with strong wood influence, if you want a bright and crisp margarita then you’d use a highland tequila and so on.”
THE PERFECT TOMMY’S
Finally we asked Bermejo what is the key to a perfect Tommy’s Margarita and he told Bars and Clubs: “Coming to Australia, I’ve been really blown away by the quality of bartending and the quality of service and how serious people take ingredients, because we do the same. Fresh is like pregnant: you are or you’re not. You are not a little pregnant or a lot pregnant, you are pregnant and fresh is the same and that is crucial to the Tommy’s Margarita. It’s like a plugin recipe; if you plug shitty things into it, you get shit. You plug in really nice things then you get something really good.
“It’s all about the flavour profile you are looking for. In the next month or so and it’s summer in Bondi you want a margarita with a crisp Highland Blanco, that’s bright, fresh citrus. Not only citrus from what you squeeze, but also from the tequila.
“But if it’s two months ago and its colder then you probably want a margarita with more wood, either a reposado or an añejo.
“Just remember the versatility is limitless, not just in margarita but with other cocktails. But there has to be a reason if you are going to take a tried and true classic and substitute something for it. There should be some benefit in terms of the recipe, in terms of the guest’s experience to warrant that change.”
Wise words from a legend.