It’s hard to overstate just how explosive agave is in the American market. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, tequila and mezcal (far and away the two biggest agave spirits on shelves) together accounted for nearly one-third of the total increase in domestic spirits revenue last year. All that success is to say, if you’re launching a new brand in the category these days, it’s hard to stand out—especially if you’re not backed by an A-list celebrity.
But one former bartender out of Boston has found a novel way to spice things up in the space. Chris Moran launched Ghost Tequila in 2016 and it’s already become one of the fastest-growing brands in the industry. It’s distilled from 100% blue weber agave, which is then infused with one of the world’s spiciest chili peppers: the ghost pepper.
Inspiration was born during his time behind the stick, mixing up spicy margaritas. That special combination of sweet, spicy, and savory has long been a crowdpleaser at bars across North America. But fixing them can often be a labor intensive process for the bartender. Moran’s realized that if he could craft a tequila that already held the heat, there wouldn’t be a need to muddle chilis during drink prep.
He just needed to ensure he was starting with a beautiful base. For that he turned to Destiladora del Valle in the town of Tequila. The facility purports to be the most awarded tequila distillery in all of Mexico. After a double distillation here, Ghost Tequila is infused with the essence of its namesake pepper, using a proprietary process, just before bottling.
Below Moran reveals more details about this methodology and also spills some secrets about the product’s journey—from conception to reality.
Where did the idea for Ghost come from?
Chris Moran: “I like to say that Ghost Tequila was born in a bar, not in a boardroom. I was bartending in Boston when I came up with the idea for it. Guests at my bar were ordering vodka sodas and Bud Light rather than one of the 100 tequilas behind me on the wall. So, one of the many things I did to lure people to tequila was to create a spicy infusion, and it really started to take off. Other bars and bartenders in town soon started asking me how to make it, or if I could make it for them too, and that’s when I realized that there was a real place in the market for a spicy tequila. So, I decided to create one. I went to Mexico to find a distillery that could make top-quality tequila, because my goal, first and foremost, was to create a great-tasting 100% agave tequila, and then make it spicy.”
You’re from Boston. Is there a big demand for tequila and tequila-based cocktails in that city? Did this background help shape your journey into the world of tequila production?
CM: “Tequila is in demand everywhere! It’s incredible to see how quickly this category has grown, and how many great brands of tequila have been introduced lately. But at the time when I started tinkering with the idea for Ghost, tequila was really just starting to get on people’s radar in Boston. As a matter of fact, I worked at one of the first tequila bars in the city. It was the perfect time to create a spicy tequila because the 100% agave tequila category was starting to become better understood, spicy margaritas were starting to get popular, and overall people were starting to get more interested and more excited about new and different cocktails.”
What is the process like for infusing the pepper into the tequila?
CM: “We produce and bottle Ghost Tequila at a distillery in the town of Tequila, in Mexico’s Jalisco state. It’s distilled in small batches, after which our proprietary Bhut jolokia [ghost pepper] essence is carefully blended into the finished tequila before bottling. We use a precise, trace amount of pepper to achieve just the right amount of heat.”
Why ghost peppers, of all the peppers you could have used? And how is it that you introduce the heat without making it overpowering on the palate?
CM: “Before launching Ghost, I spent almost a year experimenting with different peppers. I discovered that ghost peppers really worked well because you can use such a little bit of the pepper to add heat without having an effect on the natural flavor of the tequila. Jalapeños or habaneros creates a vegetal taste, and that’s exactly what I wanted to avoid. Ghost has a very clean heat which complements, not overpowers, cocktails.”
What’s an unexpected cocktail preparation that people wouldn’t think of when thinking of spicy tequila?
CM: “My favorite Ghost Tequila cocktail is a spicy old fashioned. Even though Ghost is a blanco tequila, the spice just works so beautifully in this classic drink. Add a few dashes of chocolate or mole bitters and you’ve got an amazing cocktail!”
What is the biggest misconception about spicy tequila that you’d like to clear up?
CM: “Tequila has been my spirit of choice since I was maybe a little too young to have a spirit of choice. It was extremely important to me when I was creating Ghost that it had to be a quality 100% agave tequila before a spicy one – I think the common misconception is that flavored means less quality, and I admit having the same prejudice. As a bartender I was a bit snooty toward flavored spirits which is why I really focused on keeping the spirit in line with a nice tequila while adding just the sensation – not the flavor – of heat and spicy. Ghost Tequila is a 100% agave spicy tequila, not a flavored tequila. You’ll notice when you drink Ghost that the spicy is really just a sensation on the back end of a fantastic tequila. Also, spicy tequila isn’t just for margaritas—though it’s great in a margarita! Tequila is such a versatile spirit, pretty much anything you can make with vodka or gin tastes better made with tequila, and then you add in the spicy element that Ghost Tequila delivers and you have added an extra dimension to any cocktail.”
Any plans to introduce barrel aged tequila into your lineup? Is there a reason why it works best with blanco?
CM: “We’re always experimenting, but at the moment we’re only focused on our blanco tequila. It just made sense to start with a blanco, as a white spirit is the base of so many favorite cocktails.”