Beverage company hires tequila expert to tap growing market

Talk to Kevin Vanegas and his love for tequila and Las Vegas quickly becomes apparent.

He can’t decide which type of tequila is his favorite, and he gives solid reasons why blanco, reposado and anejo all have their place at different moments of the day. Vanegas is a certified catador, which is kind of like a sommelier, but for tequila.

At 31, Vanegas already has worked for Jose Cuervo, Diageo and Don Julio, but recently took a position to capitalize on his specific expertise. The Nicaragua-born Vanegas was hired recently as the master of tequila at Wirtz Beverage Nevada, a newly created position.

Drew Levinson, Wirtz’s beverage development manager, said the position was created to bring a more hands-on approach to the tequila category.

“It’s huge,” Levinson said.

In 2011, tequila sales increased 6.4 percent to 12.8 million 9-liter cases sold, according to the Technomic’s Adult Beverage Report. Tequila comprises 6.4 percent of all spirits sold in the United States.

Because brands and customers are becoming more sophisticated, Levinson said it was time to bring in someone with an intimate knowledge of tequila.

“He has to have an understanding of the entire process,” Levinson explained.

Vanegas has earned accreditation by the Columbia University School of Mixology, Academy of Tequila Catadores and Mexican Academy of Tequila and has also been trained by the Council Regulatory of Tequila. His catador certification comes from the Academy of Tequila Tasters.

“For me it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” he said. “I’m so happy and proud and humbled and blessed.”

When he started in the beverage industry, Vanegas worked for a Champagne company, but it wasn’t where his heart was.

“I remember thinking, ‘Champagne’s great, but it’s not who I am,’ ” Vanegas said.

Tequila, though, makes him feel things. When he walked through agave fields in Mexico, Vanegas said he felt goosebumps.

But his journey hasn’t always been rosy.

When he first started studying tequila, Vanegas said the drink was growing in popularity, but still had the stigma as being a hangover producer.

“Tequila back then had a bad rap,” Vanegas said. “I became the tequila therapist.”

He emphasizes using the agave-based beverage in moderation, and using it as an ingredient, not just as a shooter.

“Don’t be afraid of tequila. It’s not just for margaritas and shots,” Vanegas said.

For the holidays, he suggested making rompope, a Mexican eggnog of sorts, with tequila. Or make a bloody Maria for brunch.

While Vanegas talked, glass cases filled with spirits of all types – vodka, tequila, rum – glittered behind him in the Alchemy Room at Wirtz Beverage Nevada. The company carries 27 brands of tequila and Vanegas is looking to acquire more when he’s not creating new drink recipes or working on company accounts.

Contact reporter Laura Carroll at or 702-380-4588.


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