In 1986, just one year after immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico, and at a mere 23 years of age, David Suro-Piñera opened Tequilas Restaurant in the Rittenhouse Square area of Philadelphia.
White tablecloth Mexican was a rarity in the U.S. at the time, and tequila was even rarer, especially in a control state like Pennsylvania. So rare, in fact, that the Guadalajara native, from the epicenter of tequila no less, briefly had to switch to drinking Scotch — it was better than the headache-inducing mixto that was the only tequila available in the Northeast. That was another reason why even calling his restaurant Tequilas seemed to be a bit of a gamble. The word still conjured up bad memories in the minds of many shot-shooting Americans.
“I decided I wanted to help change people’s misconceptions,” Suro-Piñera recalls. “From chimichangas and piñatas and sombreros on the walls.”
One hundred percent agave tequila, like the kind Suro-Piñera desired to drink, was still mostly unknown to Americans back then. Slowly and surely he began building a collection at his restaurant, first sneaking bottles back from Mexico, and then as key brands finally began distributing to America. At its height, the collection ballooned to 150 tequilas, but recently Suro-Piñera has decided to cut back.
“We started to get very strict with protocols with what we pour at the restaurant,” he says. “Over the years we have gotten to be very picky, shrinking our selection to only the highest-quality.” This curation is something Suro-Piñera prides himself on, especially as the category continues to expand.
Today he offers around 60 to 70 tequilas and over 150 total mezcals. Since 2005 that has included his own, Siembra Spirits, which Suro-Piñera created by traveling back to his motherland to find quality producers that distilled what he wanted to drink; noted for its incredible transparency and traceability, products like Siembra Valles Ancestral Tequila have become connoisseurs’ favorites.
“I used to wonder how my ancestors would have tasted tequila,” he says of commissioning the project. First released in 2017, the Ancestral used painstaking, machine-less production methods — hand maceration of the roasted agave, ambient yeast fermentation, a pine wood still — more akin to modern mezcal. “It was completely the opposite of the way the industry is going with mass production.”
Some 36 years after opening Tequilas there are actually now tequila aficionados in America and the category’s explosion is both surreal and spectacular, yet a little disheartening to Suro-Piñera. He fought so hard to get agave spirits to this point in this country, but both tequila and mezcal are at critical junctures. Multinational conglomerates have turned mom-and-pop distilling operations into industrialized plants while short-changing farmers, cash-grabbing celebrities have flocked to the category simply because it’s trendy (and they’ve willfully appropriated the culture to boot), and Mexico’s agave sustainability is increasingly at risk both ecologically and socioeconomically.
Suro-Piñera’s next battle will be preserving the future of this category he helped boom. In fact, next spring he will publish a book with ecologist and culinary historian Gary Nabhan, “Agave Spirits: The Past, Present, and Future of Mezcals.”
“I think education is the only way we can balance the invasion of this marketing tsunami around these spirits,” says Suro-Piñera. And with his continued efforts, agave spirits will prevail.