Don’t Call It Tequila: The Global Agave Boom Is Here
While agave has been grown and distilled into tequila, mezcal and other spirits in modern Mexico for millennia, the plant is now grown and distilled in California, Australia, South Africa, Peru, Venezuela, India and elsewhere.
What’s behind this globe-trotting expansion? The growing popularity of tequila and mezcal, which by definition must be made in Mexico, with agave grown in Mexico. This success has prompted growers around the world to experiment with growing agave wherever the climate is hot and arid enough to support the prickly plants, then fermenting and distilling the pinotas in alcoholic spirits.
Just don’t call the resulting liquid tequila.
A taste of agave terroir?
At first glance, the vast rows of blue agaves growing on Eden Lassie Farm in far north Queensland, Australia, certainly look like fields you see in parts of Mexico.
“Jalisco is 20 degrees north of the equator,” says Trent Fraser, president of the Australian Agave Project, which oversees these more than 500,000 agave plants and will soon pave the way for a nearby distillery. “Our Eden Lassie farm is 20 degrees south of the equator. We believe the next chapter in agave is outside of Mexico.
Fraser, who previously built Moand Henessey’s Volcan de mi Tierra tequila brand plans to launch an Australian agave spirit in the second half of 2023.
And yes, it sips differently than the Mexican original, he says. Although still in its infancy, Fraser describes Australian Agave as exhibiting a “robust cooked agave backbone” and pronounced citrus and grassy notes.
Australia is the newest comer to the agave growing game, but California was arguably the pioneer. The state’s earliest experiences date back to 2007 when Lance Winters, Master Distiller at St. George Spirits, trucked agave from Mexico, then processed and distilled it at the Alameda Distillery. The impetus came from founder Jorg Rupf’s quest to make an agave spirit in California, although Winters’ version was never sold commercially.
Today, several brands distill California-grown agave as climate change, including rising temperatures and drought, has prompted some to re-evaluate the crops they grow.
“A lot of farmers in California want to maximize what they can get out of every acre, every foot of water they have on their land,” says Winters.
On May 24, a group of California agave growers and distillers gathered at UC Davis for a symposium to discuss these opportunities and challenges. Some of the growers represented have “thousands of acres” of agave, Winters says.
Currently, there are a wide variety of agave varieties growing in California, drawing parallels to mezcal, rather than tequila, which is made only from the blue weber variety, says Craig Reynolds, who grows the succulents. on his Sacramento property since 2014. Reynolds is now founding director of the California Agave Councila trade association for agave growers, craft distillers, and retailers in the state, and an early advocate of “Mezcalifornia” movement.
The Agave Americana species, for example, has shown great promise in California due to its resistance to both heat and cold, Reynolds explains. Some growers have as many as 10 varieties of agave planted, and the state may be home to multiple agave terroirs.
“We don’t know for sure what grows best where,” says Reynolds. “It’s kind of an exciting stage now, where people are discovering that. It’s not just about what grows well, but what produces distinctive spirits that are as distinctive as the varietals.
Growers are also pushing locally grown agave in new directions. Winters cites soil scientist Joe Muller, who experimented with roasting batches of his agave with eucalyptus and almond wood. “It was really exciting, they smell and taste phenomenal,” says Winters.
Although it produces spirits with very different profiles from traditional Mexican spirits, Winters is confident about the market potential. “Put that on with this seemingly insatiable thirst for agave in this country, and you can see it’s all going to explode,” he says.
Of course, just typing “agave” on a bottle isn’t enough to boost sales. Consumer confidence is essential. In February a new invoice, AB2303, was introduced to set labeling requirements for agave spirits produced in California and establish quality standards. It passed the California Assembly in May and the state Senate in late June and is expected to go to the governor’s office in August.
Adjacency of agave
Although Mexico sotol is made from the desert spoon shrub (Dasylirion wheeleri), not agave, international distillers are also experimenting with it. American-made versions in Texas have had a similar trajectory to American-grown agave.
Mike Groener, president of Austin-based Genius Liquids, has been making Terra’s Desert Spirit, a sotol-like spirit made from a Texas-grown desert scoop, for more than a decade.
The shrub-like succulents grow wild throughout the Chihuahuan Desert, which stretches from the northern tip of Mexico to western Texas and parts of southern New Mexico, Groener says. Compared to the piny notes typically found in Mexican sotol, the Texas versions lean more toward grassy, grassy notes, Groener says. He likens the flavors to “bay leaf, sorel [and] toasted oatmeal.
In the middle of a backlash to some Texas producers making sotol, Groener encourages its Texas counterparts to use another name for the spirit. “We probably shouldn’t call it sotol,” he says.
“They can’t call it tequila”
What do producers and tequila advocates think of this global agave boom?
David Suro-Piñera, President of Suro International Imports and Founder of Siembra tequila and mezcal, is unfazed. He suggests it could even ease the pressure on Mexico’s monoculture (the overgrowth of a single plant species, which can potentially deplete the soil and cause other environmental problems) and help ease concerns about the overharvesting of olive plants. slow growing agave.
“I’m totally okay with that,” he says. “Agaves grow in different parts of the world… I guess the agave doesn’t recognize borders, it doesn’t recognize walls. If they grow healthy and abundant and develop properly, and [it’s distilled by] someone with imagination and knowledge, why not? »
Still, to be clear, he’s only optimistic about it as long as it’s not distorted.
“If someone is distilling outside of Mexico or the denomination of origin, they can’t call it tequila,” he says. “But, it’s distilled agave.”
Meanwhile, Lou Bank of Sacred, a Chicago-based nonprofit that supports rural Mexican communities making heritage agave spirits, agrees.
“I love seeing agave being used in places outside of Mexico to make spirits,” Bank says. “I think, in fact, that could be a strategy to preserve Mexico’s cultural heritage.”
Creating a market for agave spirits outside of Mexico can help “bring more attention to Mexican families who are the keepers of mezcal traditions,” Bank says.
Others, like Marco Ochoa Cortes, an Oaxaca-based mezcal educator and co-founder of mezcal bar Mezcaloteca, worry that the rush to capitalize on agave-based distillates could exacerbate monoculture problems. The introduction of non-native species on a large scale can create biohazard and long-term consequences on surrounding ecosystems, he says.
Agave may be planted responsibly, he says, but that means taking the time to study and prevent adverse effects. Driven by those looking for business opportunities, that’s unlikely to happen, he says. “Time is money.”
More options for tequila fans?
Those who make agave spirits insist that they are not trying to replace tequila but to create something new.
“We’re not here to steal shares,” Fraser says of his Australian agave spirit. “We’re here to add to the category, and to do it in a respectful way at the same time… We want to start a new chapter.”
Reynolds feels the same way about the initiatives developed in California.
“We want our agave to be its own thing,” he says. “We are not trying to replace or duplicate mezcal or tequila. We want to be on the shelf alongside them, not in their place. We want to develop our own characteristics.
Although California has been the leader in US-grown agave spirits, Reynolds also speculates that New Mexico or Arizona could be next out the door, perhaps producing a spirit in the style of bacanoras, a type of mezcal made from a single variety of agave, native to Sonorayaquineor agave Angustifolia.
Winters believes these developments will ultimately benefit legacy tequila and mezcal fans.
“That means there will be more variety,” he says. “What the agave lover should hope for are more interesting choices.”