Interview: Talking Tequila with Justin Timberlake’s Personal Mixologist

Celebrities have taken to the alcohol industry in recent years as both brand ambassadors and owners. From Diddy and Cîroc to Dan Akroyd and Crystal Head Vodka, the stars-turned-alcohol-entrepreneurs are growing in numbers.

This now includes Justin Timberlake. The singer/actor first launched his own tequila in 2009, before rebranding it as Sauza 901 in a 2012 deal with Beam Suntory. The three digits in the name refer to JT’s Memphis hometown zip code.

Sauza 901 is triple-distilled and made from 100% Blue Weber Agave. It has a suggested retail price of $29.99 per 750-ml. bottle, and is 80 proof.

We recently caught up with Timberlake’s personal mixologist, Eddy Buckingham, to talk about premium tequila, Sauza 901, and what JT likes to drink.

BD: What has fueled the rise of premium tequila?
EB: Everyday drinkers are becoming more knowledgeable about their drink order and, consequently, their preferred spirits.

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Eddy Buckingham

For informed American drinkers, tequila has moved beyond the traditional margarita or shot spirit and has elevated to a premium sipper or high-end cocktail mixer. This represents a big shift.

There’s been a tequila boom, so to speak, and these discerning drinkers are insisting on brands that are high in quality. The raised status of tequila can also be attributed to the spirit’s growing popularity among the A-list, with several celebrities getting involved in the category, like Justin Timberlake.

BD: Is tequila at the point of being a premium sipper like whiskey?
EB: Tequila has already been making progress in repositioning itself as a premium sipper. I’ve noticed it first-hand when people have subbed vodka for tequila in their Moscow Mule or opt for drinking tequila on the rocks.

Similar to whiskey, tequila brands are experimenting with flavor profiles and different aging techniques. As more consumers enter the premium tequila category, they begin to recognize the spirit’s true potential and seek out brands like Sauza 901 Tequila.

BD: Where does premium tequila fit into the craft cocktail movement?
EB: The craft cocktail movement has created a shift in consumers’ perceptions on how drinks should be prepared and enjoyed. Similarly, premium tequila is challenging perceptions of how tequila should be consumed. With a focus on innovation, the cocktail experience has become just that – an experience, and tequila is enjoying an ever-increasing role.

Super-premium tequila brands like Sauza 901 closely follow the craft cocktail movement. In my work with Sauza 901, I help to create cocktails that complement the spirit’s flavor profiles, its floral, citrus and peppery notes and 100% Blue Weber Agave. I focus on incorporating fresh, flavorful ingredients, but I also enjoy recreating classic cocktails, such as an Old Fashioned.

BD: What cocktails best utilize premium tequila?
EB: Super-premium tequilas are best when served straight up or on the rocks. With our tequila, rather than a standard lime garnish, consider a grapefruit twist. The oils of the grapefruit rind open the aromatics of the tequila and further elevate the drink.

If the drinker prefers a mixed cocktail, it is best to match premium tequila with premium ingredients that showcase the spirit’s versatility and smoothness. Updated versions of classic cocktails and interesting blends of flavors, such as tart and sweet, are great ways to ensure the tequila’s notes are not masked; rather, they are enhanced.

BD: What trends will define 2016 for craft cocktail?
EB: Consumers are staying away from “stuffy” cocktails and heading back to the basics, seeking cocktails that offer accessibility and simplicity. I try not to get too caught up in any rules or convention, and rather focus on what the drinker is looking to experience and a sense of fun.

The craft cocktail movement is really enjoying broader popularity and no longer represents a niche sector or consumer base.

BD: Where’s the best place for a nonprofessional to start in mixology?
EB: For a nonprofessional, it’s best to start simple when crafting cocktails. Using easily sourced ingredients and premium spirits leaves little room for error. And the best place to start is the kitchen!

The first step to crafting cocktails at home is ensuring your at-home bar or kitchen is prepped with traditional cocktail staples. Bitters, fresh juices and agave syrup are essential to creating craft cocktails at home. Beyond mixers, experiment with interesting cocktail garnishes such as fresh fruits and herbs.

In my work with Sauza 901, I’ve noticed that our most popular cocktails are those that are easily recreated and use accessible ingredients. Two of our most popular cocktails the “Memphis Mule” and the “Zarza,” utilize easily sourced ingredients and with a basic bar set-up can be reproduced at home and are guaranteed to wow your guests.

Memphis Mule

1 part Sauza 901
2 parts ginger beer
Juice of ½ lime

Preparation: Combine Sauza 901 Tequila and lime juice in a highball glass. Add ice. Pour ginger beer into glass. Garnish with fresh lime wedge.

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The Zarza

The Zarza

2 parts Sauza 901 Tequila
1 part simple syrup
1 part fresh lemon juice
Blackberries
Float: Blackberry liqueur

Preparation: Combine all ingredients, excluding blackberry liqueur. Shake well. Strain and serve over crushed ice in a rocks glass. Float blackberry liqueur on top. Garnish with fresh blackberries.

BD: What kind of cocktails does Justin Timberlake like?
EB: One of the most notable cocktails I created for Justin was the Sauza 901 Club, a remake of the John Daly cocktail that also played up the tequila characteristics. I added in agave syrup instead of simple syrup and garnished with both a mint sprig and lemon slice.

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Sauza 901 Club

I crafted the cocktail exclusively for Justin Timberlake during the American Century Championship Celebrity Golf Tournament and it was later named his summer cocktail-of-choice.

Sauza 901 Club

1 part Sauza 901 Tequila
2 parts iced tea
2 parts lemonade
¼ part agave syrup

Preparation: Combine all ingredients. Stir well. Serve over ice in tall glass. Garnish with mint sprig and lemon wedge.

Kyle Swartz is the associate editor of Beverage Dynamics Magazine. Contact him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or follow him on Twitter @kswartzz

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