When it comes to agave spirits, John Mayer Spressert is a self-proclaimed hedonist.
Meet the Southie bar manager getting creative at GrandTen
“It goes super well with so many types of ingredients and is just beautiful on its own,” said the spirits specialist at Burke Distributing. “I continue to lean towards agave over everything.”
The former bartender started his career in the drinks industry in the wee hours, contributing to the craft cocktail craze at mainstays like Craigie on Main, Local 149, Capo and Citizen Public House. He joined Burke in distribution and sales after being a client of the spirits portfolio and realizing that his “own tastes were a really good fit with the local business.” Now Expressert hopes to share his own enthusiasm for good tequila.
Expressert 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 opened up about his favorite thing about agave, why most tequilas on the market are “really bad” and how he gets out from behind the bar.
Tell us how you started your cocktail career?
I’ve always been a spirits enthusiast. If you’ve been going to restaurants for a while, if you’re drinking the Kool Aid and you’re into that stuff you’re serving, maybe you’re really into food, wine or beer. Spirits have always been kind of my love, something I just kind of got into.
At the end of the aughts we had this new exploding thing called craft cocktails. Drink appeared in 2008, around the same time as Eastern Standard. A bunch of us budding liquor nerds get a chance to say, “Oh, that’s a shiny penny. That could be really fun.” So while I’m making my career full-time in the hospitality industry, I’m also kind of intrigued by this idea of spirits and craft cocktails. And what are you doing at this point? Find the places that can teach you that. For me, that was 2010 Craigie on Main.
Why quit bartending?
When you get the cocktail thing or the drinks leadership thing, everyone says the next step is a bar manager — to provide some sort of leadership and accountability for a program. That’s a really interesting litmus test of someone’s ambitions in the restaurant industry. [It] a light will come on indicating which lane you want to be on. And there’s a lot of people for whom that’s a starting point. … For me, I knew about myself very quickly [that] Management, leadership, ownership are not what drives me. It’s not something I’m passionate about.
Tell us about Burke and distribute spirits.
Burke is an interesting company. It’s an 85-year-old company, of which we were the largest beer retailer in the state for more than 70 years. … But Burke, as a savvy company, knows that diversity is key to long-term success. And so, about 15 years ago, we decided that we needed to expand. We can’t just be beer. There was always some non-alcoholic stuff in the mix. … They found Dave Catania to help build a small spirits portfolio that has grown significantly over that time. And for me, looking back 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. During the years I really got into cocktails, from 2010 to 2013, I also discovered a love and passion for agave spirits.
Then I figured I’ll take my place in our little Boston cocktail community as the guy who knows these spirits and makes really cool cocktails with the spirits – like what Misty Kalkofen did at Drink was really inspirational to me .
If you were a cocktail what would you be and why?
Something I drink regularly, which is a variation on the Negroni; I call it 1836. I put it together while I was in 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. … It’s got Campari, which is a polarizing ingredient because it’s really bitter. I like bitter things, but I also have a pretty cynical side to me, especially when it comes to the tequila industry. I love and care for tequila more than anyone I know. And I get pulled down by the tequila industry really, really quickly. I think 99% of the tequila on the market is really bad. Honestly, stuff I wouldn’t drink. if you took [1% of those brands] out, I wouldn’t drink tequila.
Favorite thing about agave brandies?
I grew up in Texas and the Mexican culture, food and drink is kind of ubiquitous and has always been something I’ve loved. Well, I’ve always liked tequila, even before I knew why.
From a hedonistic perspective, I find that in terms of cocktail ingredients, I just really enjoy the flavor profile that agave brings to the table. … For example, bourbon doesn’t do the things I want a spirit to do in cocktails. Every time I’ve picked up a bottle of bourbon to try and incorporate it into a cocktail… I just couldn’t find any cocktail uses for bourbon that I liked. And to this day, I don’t like bourbon cocktails. And for the same reasons bourbon doesn’t do it for me, agave hits all of those points.
What is it like selling agave brandies today?
I think Burke has the largest — if not one of the largest — collection of producer-owned, estate-grown, and additive-free tequila brands. So many of our brands meet at least two, if not all three, of these criteria, and that’s something that’s important to me as a consumer. And we really enjoyed it as a portfolio. It’s something to hang our hats on.
If you had one destination for yourself and for spirits enthusiasts, what would it be?
It would be getting people on board with the producers who make spirits as a whole. … As someone who approaches this as a hedonist … I’m doing this because I want better tequila. As a tequila consumer, I’ll be better served when there are more people like Guillermo [Sauza, of Fortaleza], and the Orendains, Felipe Camarena and Sophie Decobecq, Calle 23, who see business value in making things right. I’ll be better served as a drinker when there are more people in the world who think it makes business sense to launch these products. And the only way these people are going to continue to see that it makes business sense is if they’re being rewarded by the market, and that means my mission at Burke is to get the larger consumer base excited about the right types of products .
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https://www.boston.com/community/cocktail-club/meet-john-mayer-spressert-burke-distributing/ Meet John Mayer Expressert, Spirits Specialist at Burke Distributing