How Chipotle Plans to Break Into the Craft Cocktail Market

A Chipotle restaurant.
In Denver, Chipotle is offering a pilot cocktail program, keeping in line with its "food with integrity" ethos. Photo via Flickr/Mike Mozart.

Looking for a cocktail made with organic, small-batch ingredients? If you live in Denver, you can now find it at your local Chipotle. On the heels of Taco Bell's venture into serving mixed drinks, Chipotle has teamed up with master sommelier and distiller Richard Betts on a pilot program that expands the Chipotle's "food with integrity" ethos into its drink menu.

What started out as a conversation with Chipotle's CEO about how to build a better margarita quickly expanded to the chain's entire beverage program. Betts examined everything from ingredients to packaging materials.

Though Chipotle already offers margaritas at some locations, this test menu includes a frozen margarita made with Betts' Sombra mezcal and Astral tequila as well as organic sangria and Colorado-made Oskar Blues Mexican lager. Nonalcoholic drinks include a watermelon agua fresca made with fresh lime and domestic watermelon.

"The idea is to make it smart, delicious and have a positive impact on many levels," says Betts, who is the founder and president of Sombra Mezcal and Tequila Astral. "This includes things such as eliminating nearly all of the glass and choosing organic or responsibly made and packaged beverages. We've also thought about eliminating as much corn syrup and sugar as possible."

Smoky mezcal might pair well with burritos, but for Chipotle, this test beverage program is about more than that. It's also about aligning its drink menu with its values.

"We’ve done it with our food for more than two decades. Our food culture is focused on serving our customers better food from better ingredients raised and grown with respect for farmers, animals and the environment," says Danielle Moore, public relations and communications manager for Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. "[W]e think the same can be applied to beverages."

But how do you take a hand-crafted sensibility and scale it to a Chipotle-sized program?

"Good quality and positive impact are not only desired by the consumer but also possible at scale, says Betts. "We can achieve scale and quality via the method of service. For example, the margarita is batched from great ingredients and then served from a frozen margarita machine so it's consistent, easy and delicious."

The sangria and Oskar Blues beer are both on tap, which not only limits waste but also helps with ease of service. Modela Especial is served in cans, which are easier to recycle than glass. Other exclusive offerings include tea from In Pursuit of Tea, Blue Sky sodas, Coca Cola's stevia-sweetened Coke Life, Izze sparkling drinks and organic lemonade and juice from Evolution Fresh.

This pilot drinks menu is only offered at Denver's 6th and Broadway location. Chipotle has "no immediate plans to expand this test to other restaurants at this time," says Moore. Betts says he's happy about "potentially affecting change in a meaningful way with scale, over time."

Customer reaction to the alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks has been highly positive so far, so the company will "assess the program" at the Denver location before deciding what to do next.

Marcia Simmons is a freelance writer and the author of "DIY Cocktails." She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and would really like a Pimm's Cup right about now.

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