BY TOMAS ESTES (Munchies)
As one of only two official tequila ambassadors for the Mexican government, 69-year-old Tomas Estes is credited with introducing Europe to agave spirits. Shaped by an adolescence spent motorcycling shirtless and drinking with Beatniks in 60s California, he opened his first bar in Amsterdam and today has a tequila brand, award-winning book on the spirit, and bars in Paris and London to his name. If you cut this guy open, he’d probably bleed tequila.
It all began when I was a teenager growing up in Los Angeles. My friends and I used to hop on over to Tijuana in Mexico and hit the bars. I digged the vibe there. I could do things that I couldn’t do back in the States.
That’s where my love for tequila started. We drank a lot of it. I remember this one bar in Ensenada, it was called Hussong’s and it’d been there since the 1800s. It was full of characters—sailors, rogues, adventurers. This was just after the Beat Generation in the 1960s and just before the hippy movement took off. They were exciting times, and it was a really great place to drink—people used to rock up on donkeys.
Down in Mexico and around California, I explored. This was the 60s, sexual freedom and liberation was beginning. Tijuana was like Sin City. And yeah, we got high, we drank tequila, we went to strip clubs. I carried a switch blade. I learned a lot about life in these years.
I used to just ride my bike in a pair of Levi jeans—no shirt—in the sun. All this helped me forge a career in the bar trade—uncovering the food, really understanding tequila and what it means to Mexico. And just life.
But also, I guess it’s fair to say that I went off the rails a bit and got into trouble back home. I ended up in jail five times—car theft, usually, but a bunch of other things too. I didn’t even keep the cars, I just drove them around a bit and left them.
Tijuana was like Sin City. And yeah, we got high, we drank tequila, we went to strip clubs. I carried a switch blade. All this helped me forge a career in the bar trade.
I got myself together by teaching—I won a scholarship to a university in southern California. I was a wrestler. Afterwards, I taught for a few years and, I think, for awhile, I was good. It was fulfilling. Imparting knowledge, discussing the world, studying life—all these things are so important.
But after a while I got a bit edgy and missed the scene. I needed something more—what is it that Yates said? “Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire.” To begin with, I knew I was lighting a fire. A few years in I felt that fire was gone, so I took a sabbatical and went to Europe.
When I found Amsterdam, I knew that’s where I wanted to live. It was so free, the culture was alive, and I saved up the money and opened my first bar there, Cafe Pacifico, in 1976. There wasn’t a Mexican restaurant in the city, there wasn’t tequila. I took it there and started a new fire.
It was a huge success. It was full of artists, musicians. There were drug dealers and characters. This was Amsterdam.
Cafe Pacifico was a very cool place. I remember Debbie Harry coming in. Everyone knew about it. One time, Queen picked up a platinum record award there. I met the Jacksons, Tina Turner and the Nike bosses used to sit at a table and drink tequila and eat (they probably did a few other things). Basically, it was inspiring to be there—creativity appeared at every turn.
After that, I came to London and opened another Pacifico. Back then, Covent Garden was just a void. You either drank in West London or in Soho—depending on how much money you had—but it took off. A day before I opened, a magazine asked to interview Hunter S. Thompson [there]. We had a full bar but hadn’t served a single drink.
When I found Amsterdam, I knew that’s where I wanted to live. I saved up the money and opened my first bar there in 1976. There wasn’t a Mexican restaurant in the city, there wasn’t tequila.
I remember him, he was everything you thought he’d be—petulant, temperamental. He seemed a bit violent but it was remarkable to meet the man, he had such presence. He also kept storming out of the room—apparently he was trying to negotiate his fee for the article in cocaine.
In the years since, tequila’s just grown and grown. It’s come up with London—the culture has transformed, Covent Garden is nothing like it used to be. Just as we’re finding new bars, people, experiences, we’re finding new agaves all the time.
The most exciting thing in the drinks industry coming out of Mexico right now is finding these little communities making their own liquor. OK, sometimes they get ripped off, but usually people are true to the spirit and true to the people. And that’s amazing.
These isolated villages are producing incredible tequila and mezcal, and every one of them is unique and extraordinary. And it’s great for the locals and strong for the economy.
Since opening Cafe Pacifico, I’ve had around 17 restaurants in total. And I’ve brought these odd and new drinks to each one.
Today, I’ve just got one in Paris, and a few bars here [London]. London is incredibly diverse and there’s a thirst for agave spirits right now—at El Nivel, we’ve got variations like raicilla, which is more acidic, almost vinegar-like.
And there’s sotal, which isn’t actually from the agave plant, but it’s medicinal in flavour and works well in cocktails. Each one has its own aroma and makeup.
This love for the drink isn’t just in the States and not just in Europe—it’s global. We’re all drinking it. And we’ve all got so much more to learn.
There’ll always be slammers, limes, shooters, but sipping proper, authentic, lovingly made tequila is something special.
Most people are only beginning to drink it properly. There’ll always be slammers, limes, shooters, but sipping proper, authentic, lovingly made tequila is something special. There’s no taste like it—something to savour.
I love the fascination for agave right now, it’s the drink of 2015 and I think we haven’t peaked yet. There’ll hopefully be another three or four years left of interest, this hype, before the world moves onto something else.
But agave spirits will always be here.