Juan Bonilla is on a mission to debunk the notorious myths surrounding tequila—and he's doing a damn good job.
Let’s face it—when we hear the word tequila, the things that come to mind are as follows: tequila shots (and probably one too many, while we’re on the subject); a drunken night involving tequila (where the tequila was to blame for your actions, obviously); margs from your favorite Mexican restaurant (which, again, probably ended with you drunk and blaming the tequila); and, if you’re a country music fan, “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” by Joe Nichols. It turns out there’s a whole different side to the infamous spirit that most Americans aren’t aware of, and Juan Bonilla, aka Mr. Tequila, is on a mission to spread the good word.
It all started a little over 15 years ago. Bonilla, being the businessman that he is, was helping his friends in Mexico sell their tequilas wholesale to restaurants in the States. Somewhere along the way, he caught wind of the lack of knowledge around the popular spirit here. “The biggest need that I realized is that people need education. They need to figure out why the tequila costs $1,000 versus $10,” starts Bonilla. “Also, a lot of people here are used to seeing tequila shots. But there’s a level of tequila that you prefer not to do this. You actually eat with it; you have a nice cigar with it. It’s just nice to enjoy,” he continues.
Then a lightbulb went off in his head, and Bonilla conceived the next phase of his new business, Viva Tequila: the Dinner Series. Bonilla would convince chefs in and around Atlanta to host a group of five to 10 guests at their restaurants for a five-course, curated dinner with complementing tequila pairings, where Bonilla, being the aficionado, would educate diners on the unknowns and fun facts about the spirit. “A lot of people were very skeptical and scared. It was a huge learning process for everybody. I was against an industry that is very well-established, showing up with the alcohol that represents shots and partying. And then there were the misconceptions that you only drink tequila when you’re eating Mexican food and that it’s cheap,” Bonilla says. “I know the chefs were absolutely saying, ‘There’s no way I’m going to put my absolutely beautiful risotto with tequila.’ But, after sitting down with them and creating the menu and walking them through the tastings, every one of them started to open their eyes and start talking about the perfect dish for each course. We now have around 100 restaurants that we’re partnered with.” And, as an extension of these small, intimate dinners, Viva Tequila added another sector to the tasting series better equipped for much larger groups, the Corporate Dinner Series. “We become one more activity during their conference, a highlight group activity to look forward to,” adds Bonilla.
Believe it or not, the dinner series is just one of Viva Tequila’s now five pillars. Another, even more lavish, tequila-focused offering is the Mexico Tour, a completely curated, luxury trip to Mexico to become fully immersed in the culture and, of course, the tequila and its origins. “The curation goes far beyond accommodations: where to eat, what tequila to pair with what course, the timing and breakdown of each day, the activities—horseback riding, going to the spa, touring the tequila factories—and every second in between,” says Bonilla.
The third pillar serves as a stark contrast to both the dinner series and the Mexico tours. Now in its sixth year, the annual Viva Tequila Festival (@vivatequilafestival), which started in a park with four or five restaurant sponsors, welcomes thousands of people; upward of 30 handcrafted, small-batch tequila brands; and countless restaurants to The Battery Atlanta for a one-day tequilatasting celebration. “The festival was an organic extension and a ‘must’ for the brand because how else can I convince thousands of people at a time that this is an amazing drink?” says Bonilla. “It also gives the brand owners an opportunity to expose their products and the chefs to expose their food,” he continues. Rounding out Viva’s offerings is pillar No. 5, the membership program. “A lot of our customers kept asking us, ‘Where can I buy this tequila?’ because our brands are oftentimes rare and hard to find,” shares Bonilla. The solution was a monthly membership program where you can pay a flat rate (Gold Membership, $40, and VIP Membership, $116) and have a new tequila delivered to your door every month. Further, Viva Tequila also offers single-bottle purchase options for those looking for a specific item.
With the heart, soul and overwhelming passion that Mr. Tequila emits through Viva Tequila’s many offerings, we have no doubt that Atlantans left and right will be ordering tequila with every meal before long. Salud!
Photography by: Enrique Aguilar/Unsplash