Neil Burruel of Savannah Tequila Co. thinks we should all give it a shot

JULY 24 IS NATIONAL TEQUILA DAY

The South has long been a bastion of cocktails featuring more traditional regional liquors, especially bourbon. However, according to one of Savannah’s experts on another spirit, he asks everyone to. “Give tequila a shot.”

The Savannah Tequila Company at Plant Riverside District boasts 126 tequilas. And Neil Burruel, lead bartender, knows everything there is to know about each one, where it was made, and loves sharing his knowledge and experience. 

Here’s a Q&A with Burruel about the oft-misunderstood spirit.

So, July 24 is National Tequila Day.  When one hears tequila mentioned, they might think of a wild spring break or remember doing too many shots. Can you address the misconception?

First, shooting tequila followed by lime and salt is 100% an American thing.

How did your life and tequila merge?

I came here looking to restart [my career] 

People seem to think about tequila as a party drink, take a shot, or even, it’s something they “broke up with after college…”

 A lot of people say that.

But… with what you’re doing here with the tequila forward focus, do people really know tequila?

 The first thing that’s going to set the tequila apart is the maturation of the agave, depending on who’s making it, they’re going to let it mature for 5-7 years. There’s a lot of time invested in the products. Beyond that, depending on who’s doing the distillation, they break the agaves down, cook them, get the sugar, and then start the fermentation, distillation, and all the fun stuff begins.

As far as spirits go, it is one of the most regulated due to the strict rules. The liquor is called tequila in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas, but in other countries, it is called Mezcal.

The whole process is about time. It’s definitely a labor of love for the Jimadores—the skilled farmers who tend to the agave—and what I like with them is it’s such a well-respected job having these 100-pound agaves, breaking them down, hauling them to the ovens, tossing them in. It’s a job passed down from generation to generation and isn’t automated. As tequila has been modernized, some have picked up different processes, but typically, they use a tahona which is a large stone rotating in a circle, crushing the agave to get the sugars down. Add the yeast to get it going and you start seeing the tequila forming its delicious boozy sugar.

It’s fascinating how the traditional process continues. Talk about tequila in comparison to the more standard spirits.

I think, naturally, when you’re enjoying tequila—the way you’re supposed to enjoy it—you will understand the complexities and underlying notes and all we’re doing with different tastes. Don’t drink it as a shot because there’s so much going into it. It’s a complex process and plant—the agave.

So, it’s about doing something fresh a new, while still honoring the makers and traditions. You’re bringing a unique twist to cocktails.

 We want Savannah to... give tequila a legit chance… a real shot. (But, come on… not a shot.)  We’re not serving watered-down lime or tequila mix. We’re using all fresh lime juice. There are no additives or premade sour mixed. We’re taking the time to curate our entire drink menu using items we make in-house.

For example, in our spicy margarita, we take jalapeno, serrano, and habanero peppers, boil them with brown sugar and then we let the tequila infuse with the mix for 24 hours. It’s not your run-of-the-mill bottle mix. We’ve got some classy cocktails.

One of your most popular cocktails is the Smoked Old Fashioned. Can you tell us more?

 The Smoked Old Fashion is going to be tequila, agave, and mescal, and we’ll cook it on top of some cedar wood here at the bar to give it a smoky taste.

I love how the entire drink is literally infused with the aroma of the smoke. This is incredibly smooth. I would never know that’s tequila. I do, now.

My big thing is people showing an interest. Most people come in and want Patron off the bat—which is fine—but there’s so much more. 

I want people to try other variations, that’s my big thing. I’m hoping they’ll expand their palate and see how complex and delicious tequila actually can be.

With the amazing smells wafting from the kitchen, how do you work pairing the food and spirits?

 The back of the house—the chefs—run everything with the food. Then, we’ll pick the tequila based on that. On our cheesecake, we soak our strawberries in tequila… and it’s just… wow. The chefs have brought with them authentic, family recipes. We want everyone to have fun. It’s great food and awesome tequila.

You put a lot of yourself into your job and it shows how much you enjoy it.

 Well, we have to know everything that’s in our drinks so we know what separates our Paloma from, say, a bar on Congress Street. Some of our drinks come off a keg, but there’s a reason behind it. It’s not deluding the product; rather it’s making it better.

As for me, I love the interaction with customers and other staff members. The best thing, though, is when I recommend something for someone [to try] and I can see the reaction on their face. The “wow, that’s awesome.”

I’ve met a lot of awesome people and I feel I’ve found the right industry for me. I’m where I finally belong.

Swing by the Savannah Tequila Company and have Neil or any of his fellow bartenders give you a new taste experience that will have you bypassing the salt and sliced lime and giving something different a shot. 

STC is located in the Three Muses Building at Plant Riverside District. Visit them online at plantriverside.com

Follow Neil Burruel on Instagram @neilb2384

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