As a bartender is there something that you feel really strongly about in bar culture? Something that, given the opportunity, you would like to change? Thanks to Altos tequila and the Tahona Society Competition that’s exactly what you could do. With an extraordinary prize of $50,000 to invest, as well as expert coaching, this could be your chance to make a genuinely positive impact. And who better to explain how it works than Altos tequila co-creator and the Tahona Society co-founder Dré Masso? We spoke to him about this life-changing cocktail competition and how you could be part of it.
Dré, first of all can you share a little background on the creation and the ethos of Altos?
I first met Jesús Hernández, Maestro Tequilero, in 2001 while I was working at LAB, one of the most ground-breaking bars of the time, when he came in to check out what we were doing and find out more about our approach. Our conversation soon turned to the importance of 100% agave tequila and that was how the journey began.
Over the next few years I met with him several times, had a pretty serious tasting of the very best expressions of 100% agave tequilas from the leading distillers, then joined him in San Francisco for six months to learn more about the subject.
Together with the late Henry Besant, my interest kept on growing. We wrote a book called Margarita Rocks and opened a tequila bar in London called Green and Red. Then in 2007 we were back in Mexico when Jesús was working on a new expression. He asked us to be part of the tasting panel because he wanted to understand what we, as modern bartenders, wanted to do with the product. And then he asked if we wanted to be part of it. The result was Altos, a 100% agave tequila that we could use in our cocktails and had an accessible price, so we could really recommend it to our guests.
Following the creation of Altos how did the Tahona Society Competition come about?
After we launched Altos I continued to learn more about tequila and realised there was a lot of incorrect information out there. So we started the Tahona Society to share knowledge. To be honest, it was quite intense at first, with a two-day course delving into Mexican culture. While the accompanying website contained a lot of great expert information we realised in the second year that it needed to evolve and for us to relax the subject a little.
Was that where the competition came in?
Yes, in 2010 we started what was basically a Margarita competition with bartenders from a few countries such as the UK, Russia and Turkey. The original emphasis was very much on locality and seasonality, etc. and over the following years as it evolved, we looked at how we could make it more relevant. We started working with different movements like slow food and food truck culture to pair drinks. Then in 2017 we knew we wanted to make it significantly different.
Sounds like a pivotal moment in the competition’s evolution?
The thing was that the kind of cocktails that won the competition were great but ultimately probably didn’t find their way into a bar. We felt this was a contradiction to our ethos of making a positive impact in real life. It was then that I decided to introduce a business element into the competition. So it was no longer about creating a cocktail recipe, but getting bartenders to put their business hat on, to make something which would improve their situation and their industry in some meaningful way. Whether helping people or the planet, it had to make some kind of positive impact within the environment of bar culture. So in 2018 it all changed.
Tell us about the winner of the first new style competition…
It was a team from Canada who won with a project called Mind The Bar. It was a fantastic idea that focused on mental health within the bar community and with their $50,000 prize money they started an app. The reaction from the bartending community was so positive because it was something that they really wanted. And not only has the app has been incredibly successful, the team have grown to include talks, seminars and all kinds of support for people within the hospitality industry. They used the money really wisely to set up a really positive thing which continues today.
Which brings us to the Tahona Society Competition 2023 and the UK kick-off session…
Yes, we had a gap for a couple of years because of Covid, but came back in 2021 when a really inspirational team from Cuba won (pictured above). And with the experience we gained from the last two global finals we’ve continued to refine the competition, so it’s really important to explain the format to bartenders, stressing that this is not a typical cocktail competition. Which is why we’re having a UK kick-off session.
And this is when bartenders can really start to get involved?
Absolutely. When we come to London on February 14 we hope to have about 50 or so bartenders join us. It’s going to be a fantastic session, covering examples of the kind of projects they could develop, and the critical timelines. We’ll also have some very special guests, including Julio Bermejo, creator of Tommy’s Margarita and beverage manager at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco, as well some other people doing cool stuff in London. Most importantly it’ll be stressing to the bartenders that the competition is all about stepping out of their comfort zones. From previous experience this session helps them look at their current situation to see if there is anything that needs fixing. And that’s what the competition is all about – how they can have a positive impact.
And after this kick-off session, what happens next?
The bartenders will have a month to submit the idea for their project. Importantly, during this time they can work with their local Altos ambassadors who are really keen to help. This initial collaboration is a very important part of the process.
As you say, these aren’t cocktail recipes, they are projects, so who will be judging them?
All the projects and proposals are submitted to an amazing company in Mexico called Agenda 28. It’s a company founded by one of our key coaches Valerie Kramis. She and her team are all Harvard graduates and are the panel that will select the winner from each participating country. They will be looking for the projects that are most relevant to bar culture today, as well as having the most chance of success should they win and take it forward.
What’s the next step for these chosen finalists?
After being selected, the finalists from each country have until the end of June to engage in sessions with Agenda 28. These are vital because this is a company that advises top businesses, so what they can offer the finalists will help them be as best prepared as possible for when they head to the final in Mexico. For instance, the Cuban winners in 2021 really got a lot from these sessions and actually asked for more – so they really did all the homework! Moreover, it’s an incredible opportunity to develop a business plan for the future.
Next stop Mexico?
Yes, and when we take the finalists to Mexico there will, of course, be fun stuff, like harvesting agave in the field, experiencing the production of tequila at the distillery, listening to mariachi in the agave fields and eating the best tacos. But more importantly, the time there is packed with motivational sessions. It’s also the time when they can really develop the plans for their projects.
They’ll have coaching seminars, which are really inspirational, and also one-on-one sessions. For example, Luis Espino, who used to write speeches for the former Mexican president, will be talking about public speaking, the importance of eye contact and understanding body language.
I’ve seen in the past how the results of these seminars and sessions can be really amazing. The finalists get to delve deep into why they are passionate about their project and why they believe in it.
They arrive on the first day pretty inexperienced and by the fourth day they are delivering Ted Talk-quality presentations in front of an audience, the other finalists and a panel of judges.
And this year one of those judges will include a woman called Kiren Miret who is also a key judge on Shark Tank (the Mexican version of Dragon’s Den). She’s an incredibly successful entrepreneur who will rattle their cages but in a really good way. That’s the level we’re talking about.
It sounds like a life-changing experience?
It is. At the end of it all someone will take away $50,000, along with incredible experience, to make their project a reality and really make a positive impact on the world.
The Tahona Society Competition UK Kick-off Session
Tuesday, 14th February, 12pm-4pm, Juju’s Bar Shoreditch, Ely’s Yard, 15 Hanbury St. London, E1 6QR
- 12.00 – Arrival and welcome drinks
- 12.30-13.15 – Welcome from Dré Masso and introduction to Tahona Society Competition
- 13.15-14.00 – Panel session with sustainability and responsibility guest speakers
- 14.00-14.30 – Julio Bermejo Q&A
- 14.30-15.45pm – Food and drinks
- 15.45-16.00 – Closing words
Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org by Thursday 9th February
Closing date for project entries: 20 March
Global final in Mexico: last week of June