When he opened Moreno’s Liquors in the Little Village neighborhood in 1977, Mike Moreno knew little about tequila, liquor named for the Mexican city where it is widely produced.
“I wasn’t a drinker at all,” he tells me as we sit on cases of Corona beer for an interview at his store on West 26th Street.
He started with 16 varieties of tequila to go with several varieties of Mexican beer to cater to the increasing population of Mexicans in Chicago. His father had run a successful grocery store in Little Village, and Moreno wanted to carve his own niche as a store owner.
Before he launched his new business, Mexican beers and liquors were hard to come by in Chicago, Moreno, 62, says. “For tequila, you’d have to go to a bar,” he says.
Gradually, his inventory of tequila grew, and he became an expert taster. “I started taking pleasure in telling about the different flavors and its history,” he says.
Today, Moreno has about 650 varieties of tequila displayed on shelves that extend the length of his store or stored in glass cases to protect the most expensive bottles that range from a few hundred dollars to $10,000. There are bottles made of handblown glass and crystal.
His son, Mike Jr., has checked around and believes the family’s store offers the widest selection of tequila in the Midwest. “My dad likes to say biggest in the nation,” the younger Moreno says. “I don’t have the evidence.”
What fine wine is to Americans, tequila is to Mexicans. But its popularity has taken off globally in the last decade or so to make it a billion-dollar industry. Celebrities George Clooney and Justin Timberlake have partnered with companies for their own labels.
You can swig the cheap stuff from shot glasses, accompanied by salt and lime, and in margarita drinks, but finer tequila is sipped from a snifter. The liquor has evolved from being mass-produced to being produced craft style. “It’s like drinking a fine bourbon or cognac,” the elder Moreno, an immigrant from Mexico, says.
Like quality wine, tequila aromas and tastes can be spicy, fruity, sweet, earthy, smoky and so on. “It’s really, really cool,” the elder Moreno says of the tasting process. “It’s like cooking in the kitchen.”
Mike Jr. says tequila suppliers will sometimes ask his dad to taste a tequila before it is brought to market. “They respect his palate,” he says. “They want to know what he thinks.”
A few companies have created special edition batches of the liquor for the Morenos’ store with Mike Sr.’s input. Other limited edition batches arrive numbered and signed by the founder, similar to a piece of art. Invitations to tour distilleries in Mexico come frequently, and with Mike Jr., 24, now helping his dad run the business, Mike Sr. says he will accept more such requests in the future.
I marvel at mom-and-pop stores and restaurants that boast longevity when so few make it beyond a few years. This store is opened daily by Moreno Sr.’s father, Jose, who is 92. Moreno’s wife and other children also mind the place.
“My mom says it’s a hidden gem,” Mike Jr. says.
I’d driven past it dozens of times, unaware of the expertise inside.
Follow Marlen Garcia on Twitter: @MarlenGarcia7777