When it comes to agave spirits, John Mayer Spressert is a self-described hedonist.
Meet the Southie bar manager getting creative at GrandTen
“It plays super well with so many types of ingredients, and it’s just beautiful on its own,” the spirits specialist for Burke Distributing said. “I continue to gravitate towards agave over everything.”
The former bartender started his career in the beverage industry in the early aughts, and contributed to the craft cocktail wave at mainstays like Craigie on Main, Local 149, Capo, and Citizen Public House. He moved to distribution and sales with Burke after being a customer of their spirits portfolio and realizing his “own proclivities meshed really well” with the local company. Now Spressert hopes share his own enthusiasm for good tequila.
Spressert joined the Boston.com Cocktail Club last week for a virtual class mixing tequila cocktails and discussing the beverage industry. Ahead of the event, the spirits specialist dished on his favorite thing about agave, why most tequila in the market is “really bad,” and getting out from behind the bar.
Tell us about how you started your career in cocktails?
I’d always been a spirits enthusiast. If you’ve been around restaurants for a while, if you drink the Kool Aid and you’re into this stuff that you’re serving, maybe you get really into food or wine or beer. Spirits was always kind of my love, something that I was just into.
By the end of the aughts, we had this new exploding thing called craft cocktails. Drink shows up in 2008, around the same time Eastern Standard does. A bunch of us burgeoning spirits nerds get the opportunity to go, “Oh, this is a shiny penny. It could be really fun.” So at the same time that I am moving my professional career full-time into hospitality, I’m also sort of fascinated with this idea of spirits and craft cocktails. And so what do you do at that point? You go find the places that can teach you to do that. For me in 2010, that was Craigie on Main.
Why transition out of bartending?
When you get the cocktail thing or the beverage leadership thing, everybody kind of says the next step is to be a bar manager — to sort of take some leadership and ownership of a program. That’s a really interesting litmus test for somebody’s ambitions in the restaurant industry. [It] shines a light on what track you want to be on. And there’s a lot of folks for whom that’s a jumping off point. … For me, I realized about myself very quickly [that] management, leadership, ownership is not what drives me. It’s not something that I’m passionate about.
Tell us about Burke and distributing spirits.
Burke is an interesting company. It’s an 85-year-old company that for 70-plus of those years, we were the largest beer distributor in the state. … But Burke, as a wise company, knows that diversity is the key to long-term success. And so about 15 years ago we decided we need to be expanding. We can’t just be beer. There’s always been some non alcoholic stuff in the mix. … They found Dave Catania to build a little spirits portfolio which has grown significantly in that time. And for me, looking at what Burke had in 2013, it was kind of anchored by a couple of brands of agave spirits, namely Fortaleza tequila and Fidencio mezcal. So in those years that I was really going hard on cocktails, 2010 to 2013, I was also identifying a love and passion for agave spirits.
Then I was like, I am going to carve out my space in our little Boston cocktail community as the guy who knows these spirits and is doing really cool cocktails with the spirits — like what Misty Kalkofen was doing at Drink was really inspirational to me.
If you were a cocktail, what would you be and why?
Something I drink on the regular which is a variation on the negroni; I call it the 1836. I put it together when I was at Craigie on Main. It’s simply a negroni that swaps out añejo tequila for gin, and adds mole bitters.
It’s tequila. It’s agave. That’s what I dig on. … It’s got Campari, which is a polarizing ingredient because it’s really bitter. I like bitter things, but I’ve also got kind of a really cynical side to me, particularly when it comes to the tequila industry. I love and care for tequila more than anybody that I know. And I get real down on the tequila industry really, really quickly. I think that 99% of tequila that’s in the market is really bad. Frankly, stuff that I would not drink. If you took [1% of those brands] out, I would not be drinking tequila.
Favorite thing about agave spirits?
I grew up in Texas and Mexican culture, food, and beverages, is kind of just around and has always been something that I’m fond of. So I’ve always liked tequila even before knowing why.
From a hedonistic standpoint, I find that as far cocktail ingredients go, I just really enjoy the flavor profile that agave brings to the table. … For example, Bourbon does not do the things that I want a spirit to do in cocktails. Every time I picked up a bottle of bourbon to try to work into a cocktail … I just couldn’t find cocktail applications for bourbon that I liked. And to this day, I just really don’t enjoy bourbon cocktails. And so for all of the same reasons that bourbon doesn’t do it for me, agave hits all those points.
What’s it like selling agave spirits today?
I think Burke has the largest — if not, among the largest — collection of tequila brands that are producer-owned, estate-farmed, and additive free. So many of our brands meet at least two, if not, all three of those criteria, and that’s something that’s important to me as a consumer. And it’s something that’s been really fun for us as a portfolio. It’s something that we can hang our hat on.
If you had a goal for yourself and for spirits enthusiasts, what would that be?
It would be to get folks on board with the producers who are doing spirits as a whole. … As somebody who comes at this as a hedonist … I do it because I want better tequila. I, as a tequila consumer, am better served when there are more people like Guillermo [Sauza, of Fortaleza], and the Orendains, and Felipe Camarena, and Sophie Decobecq, of Calle 23, who see business value in making things the right way. I am better served as a drinker when there are more people in the world who think that it makes business sense to bring these products to market. And the only way that those people will continue to see that it makes business sense is when they are rewarded by the market and that means that my mission at Burke is to get the greater consumership excited about the right kinds of products.
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