Tequila bars are wonderful places. Like the distilleries in Jalisco, they’re packed with people who have a passion for tequila. One of the best and most well-respected tequila bars in the country is Northern California’s Tres Agaves, which boasts locations in both San Francisco and Roseville, just outside Sacramento. After dining and drinking at the Roseville location, I was curious to hear more about their tequila program. I was privileged to speak with Executive Beverage Director Ashley Miller about how she got involved with tequila and Tres Agaves, and how she stokes the flames of passion for tequila amongst her staff.
A self-described “tequila nerd” and tequila “hoarder” (yes, she’s even got some in storage), Ashley oversees tequila selection, training, and much of the marketing for both Tres Agaves locations. She has over 65 bottles of tequila at her house, mostly rare bottles she can only get in Mexico. “And I wonder why everyone loves to come to my house!” she jokes. Ashley was away on a staff retreat at the time of my visit to Tres Agaves, so we weren’t able to share a glass of tequila together but instead spoke over the phone right before happy hour.
Ryan Kelley, Tequila Aficionado: Where did you discover your passion for tequila, and how did you come to work at Tres Agaves?
Ashley Miller: Like everybody else, I had my bad experience with tequila. Mine was actually when I was in high school – I was an early bloomer – when I had my bad experience with mixto tequila. I pretty much swore it off and then, right when I turned 22, I was bar managing while I was in college at a small little dive bar in Reno, NV. It was there where my interest with tequila sparked. There wasn’t very much [tequila] behind the bar, but there was Cazadores, Patron, pretty much your standards. And then, surprisingly, one bottle of Don Eduardo – which was before Don Eduardo was Brown-Forman and has grown what it has to today. I started drinking tequila and it became my drink of choice and I started doing research on my own, more out of curiosity than anything else.
I moved to San Francisco in 2006 and wanted to bartend because I was broke and just wanted to make money. I was walking down in SOMA where the Giants play and thought, ‘that has to be good money’ and then stumbled across Tres Agaves. I took one step inside and saw the tequila selection and said to myself, ‘this is where I want to work.’ I was really fortunate because I got hired on the spot. I was the only girl bartender that lasted more than two weeks. The Mixology industry in San Francisco is much more male-dominated and what we put our bartenders through is difficult. It’s squeezing fresh juices; there’s a lot of lifting; it’s not an easy job. I managed to make it past the two weeks and bonded with the staff. I knew after two weeks that I was home.
With hard work and determination, I got to go on my first trip to Mexico with the company only a few weeks later. The General Manager at the time was impressed with my dedication to the company. I did a couple projects – marketing efforts – and he offered me the bar managing position. I got to go to 7 distilleries on my first trip [to Mexico]. Only a few weeks after my return, I was offered the beverage directing position. Before you know it I took on the marketing, the beverage program, and I ended up opening our other location [in Roseville].
I consider it to be the luckiest stop I ever made. I wouldn’t change anything. I’ve learned more working for this company than I can even credit to my four years of college, my degree, and my two minors. I’ve learned so much and I think I can only continue to learn with this company. If for any reason I left this place, I know I can do anything. I’ve learned everything here.
RK: What are you responsible for in your position, and how do you choose which tequilas to bring in to Tres Agaves?
AM: My job is to select the tequilas and bring them to the staff, although we decide together. I do all the staff training and a lot of marketing. I work on our global marketing, employee relations, the tequila program, and all the training.
I don’t believe in the “I” philosophy, I believe in the “we” philosophy – I think it’s really important that it’s not one person making the decision because at the end of the day tequila is very diverse. There’s a lot of history behind it … I believe it’s very important that the bartenders/mixologists and the staff are behind every tequila we carry.
I research the tequilas and bring them to the staff, but we work on [selecting] them together. We both talk to the brand representative and we come up with a mutual agreement. Our beverage program is designed based on this system. To be a strong brand that we believe in, [like] Siete Leguas or Herradura – brands that are untouchable because they have a great flavor/taste that we really enjoy on the palate and can easily recommend – you have a great history, or story, and people behind the brand.
The distillery and support are also very important. Visiting [distilleries in] Mexico is one of the most important parts of our training program. All our tequilas on the back bar we like to be able to go to the distillery so we can experience how it’s made.
RK: What’s involved in training a new employee?
AM:We believe that [training] is the most important part of our restaurant; it sets us apart from other tequila bars (which are sprouting up everywhere) because people are developing a greater appreciation for tequila every day. The training extends not just from our bartenders and waiters, but to our host staff and even to our bussers and kitchen members so that they know the basics of tequila and our tequila program. It’s important they be able to tell you the history and flavor profile for each and every brand we carry …
… Once every two months or so, I go through the basics with all the employees – explaining mixto versus 100% agave, the process of making tequila, denomination of origin, everything that makes tequila stand out from other spirits. We always connect it back to the culture because our cooking focuses on the cuisine of Jalisco – so we always bring it back to the food. I pull about 15 different brands off the back bar and we discuss them openly as a group. ‘Why do we carry this brand?’ and [then] we build on that. We taste a lot of tequila!
The idea of the training program is to get the staff on board and excited. Some employees aren’t confident in their ability to even drink tequila, but even those who are hesitant to drink tequila end up ordering tequila neat and that’s all they drink. It … becomes a part of them.
When we opened our Roseville location we held a 2-day seminar [for] three hours each day. We started with the basics of tequila and introduced the beverage program. Then we went highlands, then lowlands, and for six hours each day we connected everything they learned with their taste buds.
If staff retains 10% of what they learn, that’s great, but repetition and follow-up are equally important. We do a pre-service [meeting], which is a gathering [of staff] we do before the shift. It might be in relation to the distillery of the month program or a brand we are considering carrying or is new to the restaurant. It’s an open-forum discussion to talk about the brand, ask ‘what does the staff think, what do they like, what do they taste, etc.’ We [sometimes] do blind tastings … The idea is to get them so drawn into the tequila world and the culture and everything that has to do with Jalisco and the tequila region that they want to be the best server and want to have the knowledge of our best bartenders. We constantly challenge them with the blind tastings, making [each meeting] different so that it’s not a routine and they’re not just coming in and going through the motions without gaining any new knowledge.
After an employee has stood out and rose to the challenge [by] showing they are passionate about tequila, we reward them with a staff trip to Mexico, which we do once a quarter.
RK: How long does it take to get to the trip?
AM: It takes about six months, but if an employee really makes an effort and stands out; coming in early before their shift to read the ‘Tequila bible,’ which we keep behind the bar as a quick reference so staff can refresh themselves on a brand. Or maybe they wait around after their shift to ask questions about a brand. These employees stand out as dedicated and what we’re trying to accomplish.
RK: What do you do when you’re in Mexico with the staff? Any highlights or favorites?
AM: It’s really important when we go to Mexico to have a balance of culture, food, and tequila. Depending on the trip (it’s usually 5-8 days) we have about ten people on one trip from both [Tres Agaves] locations. We fly into Guadalajara and usually spend a couple days in Los Altos, averaging about 2 to 3 distilleries in one day. We then spend a couple of days in the Valley of Tequila. The goal is that at the end of the week we’ve visited at least 8 to 10 distilleries. It’s also important to experience the food, from eating to taco carts to old, historic restaurants to experiencing some of the classic cocktails of Mexico. We go to the oldest bar in Guadalajara … I always like to add one additional thing on each trip that’s unique. For example, on our last trip we went to the Corona distillery on the very last day. Sometimes we go to the CRT, the regulatory council for tequila, and tour the building to get an idea of what the CRT is responsible for doing. On our latest trip we are going to see a soccer game. It’s always something different because at the end of the day we want people who are as well-rounded and as experienced as possible – we want them to have a greater appreciation for everything at our restaurant. Everything at our restaurant comes from Mexico, from the furniture to the lighting fixtures to the food and drink.
When it comes to tequilas and how we pick [which distilleries to visit], it’s tricky because most of the time we have new employees, so we’ll often start with our tier one tequilas and then branch out to our portfolio brands and favorites. One of my favorites is Siete Leguas. I’ve never been on a trip where we haven’t gone there; the brand is a big part of our beverage program at both locations. El Tesoro, Don Julio, Herradura, Arette, Fortaleza, and Partida are all brands that are special to us, in addition to many others. These are brands we try to visit and offer a totally unique visit when we tour the distillery – from culture, family, brand size, production processes, etc. … it’s important that every brand stands out and our staff gets a good idea of the variety of ways tequila is produced to ensure they have a well-rounded experience.
RK: Do you visit Cuervo?
AM: We have in the past, but it’s not one we go to every time. Usually when we go to Cuervo we focus on their 100% agave tequilas more than the mixto. There are some other distilleries that produce mixtos and we always try to touch on that to get a good idea of how that is actually done, and why we carry only 100% agave tequila.
RK: How about another biggie, Patron?
AM: At the end of the day it’s easy to target the big dogs. Patron gets a lot of credit for getting the tequila industry to where it is today. We carry it because people who don’t know tequila will see Patron and then feel a bit more comfortable. From there we use it as a launching point – the last thing anyone wants to hear is that they don’t know anything. We ask if it’s a brand they always drink or if they have tried any other tequilas. We get them started with Patron but suggest they try something a little different to experience tequila beyond Patron.
RK: It’s what my friend Jason Lerner at Depot Nuevo calls a “Gateway Tequila?”
AM: (Laughing) Exactly!
I went to the Patron distillery three years ago – we were actually the first group from the U.S. to visit their new distillery. They had just opened the doors about a half year prior. It was an interesting experience and I haven’t had the opportunity to go back since that visit; it definitely put things into perspective.
RK: Can you explain how the Distillery of the Month program works?
AM: We’ve been doing this program for just over two years now … it was something to do that was different and unique … It’s a way of bringing Mexico here. It starts on the first and runs all the way through the month. We have a specialty menu that offers a bit of history of the featured brand, a special margarita, a special cocktail, and also a flight. At the beginning of the month we do a training with all the staff and [invite] the local brand ambassador to ensure our staff will be able to talk to the guest about the tequila and the distillery.
The third Thursday [of each month] is our main event in San Francisco: a five course dining experience with a flight of the tequila. Guests learn about the tequila and we bring in entertainment to make it fun. Roseville doesn’t have the space and the audience is not as well-educated [about tequila] – they’re getting there but it’s not like San Francisco, which is one of the leading cities of tequila knowledge and experience in the country … Roseville is much more marketing driven …
If I’ve learned anything about being in Mexico it’s that it’s laid back and fun. It’s bottles of tequila on the beach, everybody talking; it’s music and it’s culture. There’s so much more to [the distillery of the month program] than trying to throw this fancy schmancy dinner. It’s about talking to the person you may not know next to you and meeting them and getting an autograph from the master distiller. We might start the dinner at 7 and it’s suddenly 11 o’clock and you don’t know where the time went. You have a bottle of tequila in front of you and life is great …
One of the most memorable [events] was with Tequila Antiguo in May . Antiguo is a sister brand to Herradura. We were so lucky because Brown Forman flew up one of their jimadores and he brought a bunch of agaves and he did an agave harvesting demonstration right here in San Francisco. It was one of the most fun experiences, watching our biggest tequila lovers as they hack an agave!
Another one that comes to mind is Siete Leguas last April … it was such a sense of family … very inviting.
Nine times out of ten we do bottle signings because we get the owner of the distillery … with Corralejo we sat everybody down and made the perfect margarita. We poured the Grand Reserve and then another round of margaritas and we did it all over again!
RK: What was it like to select the Casa Noble Single Barrel for Tres Agaves?
AM: We did that a couple years ago; we were one of the first groups to do it. They were ahead of the game with their single barrel program. Myself and about 7 employees went down [to the Casa Noble distillery] together – it was really fun. We got to taste seven tequilas without talking about them – we felt like we were master distillers for an hour. We went back to taste them again, and then let our palates cool off by eating and getting all the spice off. We stayed there [at the distillery] and then we went back to taste again. Throughout all the tastings we had the scent kit out, as well as a variety of other tools to help us to make the right decision. We all finally agreed on barrel number 4.
It was so much fun because the staff got behind it so much, and we all contributed equally. It was a program I’d like to continue. I’m discussing a single barrel reposado with Herradura and something special with Siete Leguas. Each one would be unique and special, and is an opportunity for the employees to be a part of selecting the barrel.
RK: What are the differences between the two Tres Agaves locations?
AM: San Francisco is very different [from Roseville] because we’re right by the baseball stadium, but we’ve found a way to balance that. There are Giants or Dodgers fans breathing down your throat, demanding shots of Patron, or people who shy away from tequila due to a bad experience. I love the way the staff members handle that. Roseville is more marketing driven. Whatever is on the nearest billboard is what they’ll order and they were less open minded. But now that we’ve been here for a year, we’ve gotten people are finally opening up so we’re expanding and expanding. That’s where our passport program is tremendously successful, we have over 600 passport members there.
RK: Are there plans to open any additional Tres Agaves locations?
AM: We just finished remodeling our patio in Roseville, because it gets extremely hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Now it’s a little more year round. We put in a really cool outdoor bar – the coolest place to drink tequila and a beer. There are fans and you can just chill out and talk to the bartender and before you know it you’re there for four hours.
After we get through baseball and the busy season, we’ll look where we’re at as a company. We’ve been building the name and the brand. We were originally looking at a location in Vegas, but we have a couple years due to the recession hitting everyone in the country – especially in Las Vegas. In the meantime, we might open up one more Northern California restaurant.
Our goal is to never be corporate or franchised. We’re not after that at all. We would just like to extend to five controllable locations, probably no more than that. With five we can still maintain the culture, maintain a relationship … at the end of the day, the most important thing about this restaurant is the employees. We have one of the lowest employee turnovers I’ve ever heard of. We still have a big chunk of employees in San Francisco who have been there since our opening five years ago. In Roseville, more than 50% of our employees made it through the whole first year and into our second year.
RK: Why do you think this is?
AM: Our employees love to be here. They get here early; they stay late. They come in on their days off with family and friends. At the end of the day it’s tequila! We drink tequila and we have fun doing it, and it shows – that’s why guests like to be here. People don’t describe us as a sophisticated place or a fine dining experience. Generally, most people say ‘it was fun.’ They come to Tres Agaves for the tequila, they stay for the food, and they always come back for the service. They see how all the employees behave with each other. We joke around, we have fun, and we’ll pour rounds of shots … During an awesome night, we might be really busy, but someone got a great comment or morale is high, we’ll pour a round of shots. It doesn’t have to be much. Two days a year we close the restaurant down for a day to play some softball. We go to Mexico together. It’s just a fun place to work.
RK: And why do you stay?
AM: I’m really lucky that the owner believes in me 1000%. This is the place that I can see myself being for a long time. People ask if I want to be a [tequila] brand ambassador. But it’s not this. Here [at Tres Agaves] I don’t have to pick one brand. I can be friends with all of them – it’s just a totally different thing.
RK: There’s a Tres Agaves brand of tequila. Is it related to the restaurants, or a totally different thing?
AM: The restaurant brand was started by a large group of people – Julio Bermejo and Sammy Hagar both started out with us. When the [restaurant] brand was developed the thought of doing a tequila was in the back of some of those people’s minds. Their driving force to introducing the restaurant brand was to launch a new tequila. A couple of years ago some of them got serious about it, but because of … [California] law we had to separate the partnership – all on good terms – as of 2010. So they are two separate businesses. We’re each sticking to what we’re good at, so it’s the best of both worlds. We all recognize the brands are very similar, so we’ll be doing some things to separate the two a bit more. We want to do things together, but we’re still waiting on getting the ok from the ABC [California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control].
RK: Is there a lot of competition with other tequila bars in town?
AM:At the end of the day we want to promote tequila as an industry. For us it’s not competition, it’s friendship and partnership. We want to team up and do promotions – we just want to sell tequila. If that’s us or another restaurant – it’s the tequila that’s important to us. I’ve had people come in and ask me to help with their [restaurant or bar] training and [to see] our tequila list and I give it to them with open arms – we have nothing to hide and we’re proud of what we’ve done. If someone tries to duplicate what we’re doing, well, that’s a compliment!
RK: Any final thoughts?
AM: I have the coolest job in the world. There’s a lot of grunt work: I do the marketing and spend a lot of time here. But every day is fun and I like to be here. When it comes to our tequila program and what we’re doing, I lead it; I do the menus, I have the final say in everything, but I believe in having the staff as involved as possible. If they support it then I support it. It’s something that’s special about us. It’s not one person – it’s a democracy – to a point. When it comes to the beverage program takes everybody’s efforts and I think it’s exciting to empower them, [to encourage them] to take the next step.
People who started at Tres Agaves have ended up doing different things within the industry. One person is a new brand ambassador for Fortaleza … another one moved to Guadalajara and got involved in freelance work and now has launched his own tequila in the U.S. It’s just amazing! People start here and whatever direction their career path goes it always comes back to tequila!