A Visit With Julio Bermejo, Creator of Tommy’s Margarita
Mar. 14, 2016
From the Margarita of the Year SeriesSee more
While there are hundreds of variations on the margarita, arguably one of the most popular recipes is the “Tommy’s Margarita.” We recently caught up with Julio Bermejo, the creator of this world famous drink, at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in the Richmond district of San Francisco (in the shadow of hundreds of bottles of tequila on the bar)…
PATRÓN: Julio, thank you for taking the time to visit with us. You’re truly an important part of margarita history!
Julio Bermejo: Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say.
PATRÓN: Tell us about Tommy’s. What year did the restaurant open?
JB: My parents Elmy and Tommy Bermejo started this restaurant in 1965. We just celebrated our 50th Anniversary, always here in this same location.
PATRÓN: You have one of the finest selections of tequila in the world. When did you start to focus on tequilas here, and the margarita specifically?
JB: When we first opened, we had a competitor called El Sombrero, which was the hottest restaurant in San Francisco. It was a great place. They made all their tortillas by hand. And they sold margaritas. So my parents knew they wanted to sell margaritas. But we didn’t get our liquor license until 1972, and even then it took us a while to really begin to focus on tequilas and margaritas. In 1972, the bar at Tommy’s looked like any bar in the U.S., we had all spirits – gins, whiskies, cordials. That was the norm for most bars. And of course we made margaritas, but it wasn’t our primary focus like it is today. And then in the late 1980’s I started to visit tequila distilleries, and learn more about tequila, and that’s when our love for tequila and margaritas really started.
PATRÓN: So in what year did you create the signature “Tommy’s Margarita?” What’s unique about this recipe?
JB: It was around 1989 or 1990, we were starting to find more 100 percent agave tequilas, and around that same I was introduced to agave fructose. But back then agave fructose was so ridiculously expensive that we couldn’t do 100 percent agave fructose, so we cut it with a little simple syrup. And that was the “Tommy’s.” It just seemed so logical to use agave nectar in a margarita, because it really allowed you to taste the tequila. That was so novel. To me, “Tommy’s Margarita” is the best margarita in the world because it tastes of the base spirit you put in it.
PATRÓN: You were really before your time in popularizing agave nectar, weren’t you?
JB: That’s right. We were arguably the first bar in the U.S. to use it as a sweetener in a cocktail. Nobody else was doing that.
PATRÓN: How did Tommy’s Margarita generate such worldwide fame?
JB: Well, you know, nobody ever does anything on their own, there’s a lot of people who help. In 2001, I was privileged to be asked to travel with the President of Mexico at the time, Vicente Fox, and several owners of tequila distilleries, to the United Kingdom and France to sign agreements recognizing tequila’s denomination of origin status. One of my responsibilities on the trip was to be the liaison with European bartenders. London especially is one of the capitals of great cocktails, and I got to meet all the top bartenders there at the time and make margaritas and tequila cocktails with them. I made some great friendships; I brought a lot of them to the U.S., and to tequila distilleries in Mexico. Through that, these bartenders saw what I was doing with the “Tommy’s Margarita,” which was to highlight the base spirit in the margarita. Nobody else was doing that at the time, and that’s how it grew from there. I especially give credit to two bartenders, Henry Besant and Dre Masso, they really took the “Tommy’s” all over the world.
PATRÓN: That must make you proud, to know that so many people around the globe enjoy “Tommy’s Margarita?”
JB: It’s funny, at first I really didn’t want to share my recipe and tell people what I did because I was scared that it would hurt my business. But what I didn’t realize, and I learned this from my friends in Europe, is that old adage that you will find greater success if you teach people how to fish, instead of giving them the fish. I am so humbled that so many people know the “Tommy’s Margarita” recipe, and I’m grateful to everyone who puts it on their menu. The highest accolade in the bar business, in my opinion, is to be recognized by your peers. And that’s why I’m so proud that the IBA, the largest bartending organization in the world, in 2008 named the “Tommy’s Margarita” a “New Era Classic” – the first and still the only venue-specific cocktail to be included in the manual of the IBA.
PATRÓN: Let’s talk about PATRÓN. When were you first introduced to PATRÓN tequila?
JB: It was also around 1989, when PATRÓN first came out. A bartender friend of mine from Berkeley named Brad told me that I should really go to his bar and try this tequila called PATRÓN. I had never heard of PATRÓN, but I respected him and he knew how much I enjoyed tequila so I drove over there. I’ll never forget it; I was driving this old 1982 orange Mazda GLC. So I go over there, and I’m blown away by what PATRÓN tastes like. We were one of the first places in San Francisco to have PATRÓN.
PATRÓN: What was it like back then, before tequila became as popular as it is today, to promote tequila?
JB: It was very hard to sell high-end tequilas back then because nobody knew them. We didn’t know how to get guests to be enthusiastic about trying new tequilas. I went to school at UC Berkeley, and I remembered there was this beer bar called Raleigh’s, and they had this program where if you tried all of their beers – I think it was called “Beer Around the World” or something like that – they’d give you a t-shirt or a hat. So I modeled my program on theirs, to try to get people to try different tequilas. We did a lot of comparisons with our customers, with PATRÓN and other tequilas, so that they could really taste the difference in various tequilas.
PATRÓN: So back to margaritas… There’s much debate over who exactly invented the margarita. What’s your opinion?
JB: I really don’t know. It’s always going to be a shroud of mystery because nobody knows. But I don’t think there’s any disputing the fact that the margarita is one of the greatest cocktails ever created, it’s a classic. I think we should all be grateful to all of the contributions over the years to the margarita. And “Tommy’s” has its place there. What’s most important is that people, in all of their margaritas, drink really good tequila! That’s the crux of the battle for me. Drink the best you can!