Dom Costa meets Julio Bermejo
A chat between Dom Costa and US tequila ambassador Julio Bermejo to learn about the recent history of the agave spirit in the United States starting from where it all began: Tommy's in San Francisco
In the late 1980s, a just-graduated Julio Bermejo began to work in his family-owned restaurant, Tommy's Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco. He immediately enlarged the selection of 100% agave tequila – something quite rare at the time – rapidly turning Tommy’s into the city's go-to place for tequila lovers. In 1990 he came up with an idea for a variant of the classic Margarita recipe, replacing Triple Sec with agave syrup. It was immediately a success and the popularity of Tommy's Mexican Restaurant spread like wildfire across the United States. In 2003 the Cámara Nacional de la Industria Tequilera appointed him Tequila Ambassador for the United States.
Today Julio tirelessly continues to promote tequila - not just in the United States, but anywhere his presence is required around the world. The Wall Street Journal referred to Tommy's as "the epicenter of tequila in the United States", and CNN terms it the "Ground Zero of Tequila".
I first met Julio by chance in Las Vegas back in 2003. I was there for the Las Vegas Barshow. One day I sneaked into an event, and that’s where the famous London bartender Andre Masso introduced me to Julio. After chatting for just an hour, it already felt like we had known each other forever.
I invited him to Italy and he didn't think twice about accepting. Two months later he held his first seminar on tequila to a packed house. He presented his Tommy's Margarita and told the audience fascinating stories and legends about tequila, but most of all he talked about agave, a plant that was virtually unknown at the time.
He has been back to Italy several times since then and his contribution to the growth of the tequila market has been very influential. He also regularly participates in the Agave Experience, an event organized by Bartender.it for six years now, always dispensing advice, little secrets and fun facts about the Mexican spirit par excellence.
DC: Let's start with your origins. Your family owns Tommy's, a Mexican restaurant in San Francisco and a hotspot for both tourists and locals.
JB: Yes, my parents opened it in 1965 when I was six months old.
DC: So when did you start working there?
JB: I started when I was 5 or 6. I would peel potatoes, bone chickens and so on. I remember as a child I hated grating cheese.
DC: You graduated in Political Science from Berkeley University. Did you aspire to a career as a diplomat?
JB: I didn't want to be a cook. When you're young and insecure, it's scary to become an adult. What made me change my mind was the bar, it gave me confidence. It was divided from the restaurant by just a wall, and I used to hide there so my friends wouldn't see me working at the restaurant. I was embarrassed because I didn’t have an important job and it humiliated me to have to clear my classmates’ table. But while hiding at the bar I discovered tequila, and I fell in love with spirits. Everyone expected me to become a lawyer or a professor. But I hated the idea of working as a professor, and I never loved the law very much. Indeed, I've broken the law more often than I've obeyed it...
DC: Who introduced you to tequila?
JB: No one in the trade. It was my friends and cousins. We started drinking very early, around thirteen or fourteen. We were from Yucatan where people mostly drink beer because it's hot, and rum and brandy because they're cheap. We would get very drunk and feel awful the next day. We called it 'crudo', a terrible hangover. In San Francisco, as the owner's son I could steal drinks from bottles here and there. One day I decided to try tequila and chose Sauza Tres Generaciones. It was delicious and I got drunk. It was probably mixto, but it made me feel better than beer, brandy or rum. Then I tried Herradura Reposado produced by the Romo de la Pena family, and that changed my life. It went down like fresh water. It was very expensive, but it was paid for by the restaurant. Which was lucky, or I would have ended up broke.
DC: Then, in the 90s, you created the Tommy's Margarita. Can you tell us how it happened?
JB: In the early 90s we were already making the Fresh Lime Margarita, which you could only drink at one other place in the world: El Sombrero, California. But we had our own variant, we wanted it more acidic than sweet while Americans typically drank their Margarita very sweet and we didn't like that. And so we changed the game by using fructose made from agave itself as a sweetener. We used to joke about the Margarita at Tommy's being not just 100% agave but 200% agave, because the sweetener was also made from agave.
DC: In Italy we call this product agavose...
JB: Nice, I like it! Today everyone makes Margarita with agavose, but we were the first. Then, over time, fructose from agave began to be used for a lot of other products as well. As you know, the life cycle of agave has a distinct pattern, and whenever supplies are short tequila becomes expensive and brands disappear. But when there’s a lot of agave going around, instead of prices going down brands start multiplying. Also, the biodynamic and health food industries use agave syrup (or agave fructose) to sweeten everyday products like bottled iced tea or peanut butter and jelly. That's why peanut butter used to cost a dollar and now costs five ...
DC: Five dollars! Like the famous Pulp Fiction milkshake...
JB: That's right. Honestly, I can't take full credit for inventing our Margarita. As you know, there are 4 people I'll always be grateful to: Dre Masso, Henry Besant, Giorgio Fadda and one Dom Costa, I'm sure you've heard about him ... We hadn't actually given Tommy's Margarita a name, it was just the Margarita we served at our family restaurant. Then Dre and Henry started advertising it through their consultancy Worldwide Cocktail Club, which specializes in bartender training and brand strategy creation. Then you and Giorgio presented it to the IBA [International Bartender Association, ed], the world's largest bartender association, and gave it global fame.
DC: Maybe the real breakthrough for you came in 1999, when you were in the Wall Street Journal. Can you tell us about it?
JB: At the restaurant we had what we called the “Tommy's Blue Agave Club”. It was a kind of game we played with customers, we would ask them to try the many kinds of tequila we had. We were hoping they would learn more about tequila brands they had never heard of, but our plan didn't seem to work very well. Then, years later, someone brought the “Tommy's Blue Agave Club” to a close by winning the title of Tequila Master, and we had a proclamation ceremony at the bar. That's when the news started to spread about this San Francisco bar where you could not only buy tequila and Margaritas, but also get an education on the culture behind tequila. And so, one day we got a call from the Wall Street Journal asking us for an interview with the bar manager.
DC: And they interviewed you...
JB: Yes. We didn't have a bar manager at the time, so it was up to me. We started talking about tequila, going into more and more detail. Having a deep, complex conversation about tequila was something new at the time, no one knew anything about it. The story came out on the front page in the left column – a section reserved to new industry trends. The day the story came out, I was in New Orleans for a jazz festival. I was walking down Canal Street in front of the Sheraton, when a friend stopped me and said, "Did you see the story?" I couldn't believe it: one of the most widely read newspapers in the country described Tommy's as "the epicenter of tequila in the United States."
DC: And then, in 2003, you becametequila ambassador ...
JB: Yes, it all started in 2001 at an event. I was part of the entourage of the president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, on his trip to the UK to sign agreements with the EU to give tequila designation of origin status.
DC: Before saying goodbye, I'd just like to talk about what we call a consortium. Can you explain what it is?
JB: We call it Consortio sin fronteras. You even designed a logo, but it's nothing official. Let's just say it's a nice way we came up with to trade products. Many don't understand, especially the Americans. The idea came from my personal experience. As a bartender, I realized at an early age that drinking bourbon, gin or vodka, or too much beer or wine, would make me feel sick. Only tequila made me feel good. But traveling around the world I soon learned that good tequila was very hard to find. So I started carrying some with me, and I didn't mind sharing it. In London I was known as the guy carrying a backpack filled with tequila, which of course I shared with other people. I've always liked to introduce nice people to other nice people, and bringing gifts from their native land is a common tradition among Mexicans and the people of South America. When someone brings a small gift like tequila, it can start a beautiful friendship and thankfulness leads to reciprocation. This is what the consortium is all about. We call someone who is willing to carry good things from his country around the world a 'mule'. Sometimes it's the best way to learn about new products, for example those from a developing country like Cuba, where many products are difficult to come by...
DC: Do you remember how many bottles of champagne the consortium brought for your wedding?
JB: For my wedding, 65 cases. We drank about 660 liters of 100% agave tequila. It was amazing. You were there too. I remember the largest Margarita in the world, it even got blessed by the priest. I was very impressed with what you arranged for my wedding, especially the ambulance waiting outside, ready to take people to the hospital...
DC: Just to be safe.
JB: Just to be safe, yes.