Fueled by a slew of celebrity releases and consumer curiosity, tequila and mezcal are growing faster than almost any other spirit. Nowhere is the category’s breadth and depth showcased more completely than at Ámbar Restaurante in the Plaza Hotel Pioneer Park in El Paso, Texas, which boasts a stash of around 800 agave spirits—purportedly the largest in North America—illuminated in a towering, 40-foot-high back bar fashioned out of amber glass and stainless steel.
Responsible for building this vast assemblage of bottles is hotel manager JR Rodriguez. Having previously worked as a wine importer and for Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, Rodriguez says that Ámbar’s devotion to tequila directly reflects consumer interest. As soon as it opened in June 2020, the revamped hotel—a former Hilton and historic playground for celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor—swelled with guests and locals eager to pair Ámbar’s Mexican cuisine with its range of agave spirits.
“At first, the hotel’s vision was to highlight rare tequila, but then it grew into having the largest list out there,” explains Rodriguez, noting that at its peak there were 809 different SKUs on offer, spanning tequila, mezcal, bacanora (an agave spirit from the state of Sonora), raicilla (sometimes described as “the mezcal of Jalisco”), and sotol, the non-agave desert shrub distillate.
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His struggle? Availability. “I’m limited by what is imported to Texas, and there are also many shortages, so right now I’m down to about 798,” he explains. “Even though we’re right over the border, we’re having a hard time getting around a dozen brands of the tequila that we normally stock.”
Curating a One-of-a-Kind Collection
Developing Ámbar’s focus was a huge undertaking for Rodriguez, who nurtured relationships with producers, importers, and distributors to bring together bottles “that can’t be found elsewhere.” Allocation is key to a program of Ámbar’s scope, and Rodriguez emphasizes the importance of snagging, say, Clase Azul—(a hot commodity that sells in two days when they get it, he says)—or a limited-quantity (and pricey) Patrón en Lalique.
A Methodical Approach to Staff Training
On Fridays and Saturdays, Rodriguez conducts tastings of Ámbar’s massive collection with his staff, and they are making their way across the vast array and poring over tasting notes Rodriguez has written up. “Seventy-five percent of our employees have been at Ámbar from day one, and they have tried 150 different varieties already,” he points out.
Educating Curious Guests
Tequila comprises 80 percent of Ámbar’s agave SKUs, and for many of the restaurant’s customers, getting to know these products happens via informal flights. “Often, when a server is interacting with our guests, they’ll call us over to conduct a tasting for them. They want to learn about new tequila options, ones that aren’t mainstream,” Rodriguez explains. “I start with a reposado and then we work our way up.”
Encouraging Trial through Cocktails
One of Ámbar’s best-selling cocktails, unsurprisingly, is the classic margarita, made with tequila. But mezcal, which accounts for 15 percent of the selections, is fast becoming a go-to choice for many. “A lot of people aren’t familiar with the spirit when they come in, but our guests are open minded, so they’re willing to try it when they see it in a cocktail,” says Rodriguez. One such libation is the Rosemary Mezcal Negroni, for which the bar uses up to 15 bottles of mezcal in a week.
Calls for bacanora and raicilla typically require staff education and encouragement. Sotol sales, however, are gaining traction because of its presence in the Matador, a cocktail featuring pineapple and lemon juices and a habanero tincture. “We don’t have a lot of people asking for sotol,” Rodriguez admits, “but they love the cocktail it’s in and we go through eight to 10 bottles of it a week. I think that’s a big leap.”
Alia Akkam is a writer who covers food, drink, travel, and design. She is the author of Behind the Bar: 50 Cocktails from the World’s Most Iconic Hotels (Hardie Grant) and her work has appeared in Architecturaldigest.com, Dwell.com, Penta, Vogue.com, BBC, Playboy, and Taste, among others, and she is a former editor at Edible Queens, Hospitality Design, and Beverage Media. A native New Yorker, Alia now calls Budapest home. Follow Alia @behdria.