While the tequila category has seen explosive growth over the past couple of years, slowly but surely a new trend is beginning to form: the rise of the “spirit of agave”.
It has long been a general term for distillates made by cooking, grinding, fermenting and distilling agaves, which includes both tequila and mezcal. But it’s also a term that’s starting to appear more frequently on bottles in the United States and Mexico, not only to describe regional spirits (including raicilla and bacanora), but also as a category in its own right.
“The initial cultivation of mezcal led to more interest in other agave spirits from Mexico,” explains Andres Moranbartender, brand representative and spirits educator based in Guadalajara.
“But the more recent boom in tequila is what drives the category of ‘agave spirits,’ because anything with that label is considered more artisanal than tequila and mezcal seem to be today. “, he adds.
Indeed, Zack Romaya, owner of Old Town Tequila in San Diego, Calif., has watched this trend closely. “We see anything labeled as agave brandy flying off the shelves,” he says.
This interest may be because the popularity of tequila has led to more industrial production practices and smoother, milder taste profiles designed to appeal to mass market customers. This is underlined by the booming sales of products like Casamigos And Cincoro.
“The question then is: if the official category is dominated by products that bear no resemblance to traditional tequila, if ‘tequila’ ceases or has ceased to be a symbol of quality or tradition, what replaces it?” he pondered. Clayton Czechtequila specialist and owner of Discover the agave.
“At the moment the answer seems to be ‘agave spirits’,” he adds.
Mass marketing leads to a (small) revolt
The massive commercialization of tequila has already moved beyond the category of mezcal, which has long been considered by some to be the most artisanal agave distillate due to its traditionally small and artisanal production techniques. But in recent years, big players in the spirits industry, including Diageo and Pernod Ricard, have added mezcal brands to their portfolios, lured by the category’s burgeoning success, artisanal image and high prices.
This has caused smaller mezcal producers to be wary of the direction the market is taking. In fact, some are pointing the finger at mezcal regulators within the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM), saying they are ignoring the needs of small producers when they paved the way for the profits of large international conglomerates.
“The rules do not consider small producers and do not take into account their opinions,” says Graciela Angeles Carrenogeneral manager of true miner, a highly respected brand made in Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca. His great-grandfather started the tradition of making mezcal, and in 1978 the family purchased their first palenquebefore regulations are put in place.
“(In terms of regulation) the only ones who are entitled to an opinion are the big producers because they generate more income,” she adds.
Earlier this year, Real Minero decided to decertify, with recent bottles no longer being labeled as mezcal; they now say “aguardiente” or “destilado de agave” (agave spirit) instead. (Aguardiente is a Spanish term for hard liquor.)
“For me, the word mezcal has lost its meaning because it respects neither the culture nor the ecology of our traditions,” adds Ángeles Carreño.
But even before Real Minero decided to change labels, some producers were already giving up certification, according to Max Garronespirits writer and co-founder of Mezcalists.
Brands such as Cinco Sentidos And NETA They adopted the ‘Agave Spirits’ label because they didn’t think the certification was fair and because they thought the producers they were working with were already producing a truly traditional spirit, he adds.
“Instead of fighting over the word mezcal, they chose this other path,” says Garrone.
This rejection of official labels is particularly stinging given that both mezcal and tequila have a designation of origin, which in theory is designed to protect and preserve local traditions and products, as well as to give back to the communities where they are made.
While Real Minero takes a tough stance in the mezcal world, the tequila world has its own rebel when it comes to regulation: Caballito Cerrero. This now cult brand is produced by the Jiménez family, who also started making tequila long before regulators intervened.
In fact, the Jiménez family is linked to the founder of tequila Herradura, dating back at least to the late 1800s.
“Becoming an agave spirit was the best decision for us because we don’t have to deal with the CRT (Consejo Regulador del Tequila) and their special rules for small businesses,” says Javier Jimenez Teran, manager of the parent company of Caballito Cerrero, TCC de Amatitan SA de CV. They stopped using the word “tequila” on their labels in 2018.
Like Ángeles Carreño, Jiménez argues that the bigger brands have a regulatory advantage since they pay them more money and therefore receive favorable treatment. (The CRM and the CRT both levy a tax on every liter produced, which means that high-volume producers contribute significantly more.)
Fortunately for Caballito Cerrero and Real Minero, their reputation in the market meant that consumers continued to seek them out, even as their labels changed.
“The work we’ve done over the past 20 years has reassured us that consumers won’t really notice the labeling change,” says Ángeles Carreño. “We produce everything ourselves, including the raw materials… and we have built trust over the years. »
Of course, the semantics of agave spirits distracts from a deeper conversation about what makes a product “artisanal.” Is it traditional, small-batch production, or something else, like having the freedom to evolve a product without being restricted by creators or regulators of the past?
“Not following the official tequila category rules means we can play around with our products more and use different agaves,” says Jiménez Teran. Caballito now offers products that are not exclusively made with blue weber agave, such as its Blanco Chato, made from the Angustifolia species of agave, which is normally used for mezcal.
The new agave spirits
Being able to innovate and play in the world of agave spirits also attracts newcomers, such as Ventura Spirits in California, which makes an agave liquor called La Paloma from locally grown blue weber agaves. They follow the path traced by Spirits of Saint-Georges in the San Francisco Bay Area, which first produced its “Agave Azul” products in 2008, using agaves imported from Mexico.
And more recently, spirits manufacturer Top Shelf International announced that it was taking advantage of an abandoned Australian government project to experiment with blue weber agave. She harvested hijuelos and bulbils from agaves that the government had planted a decade earlier and used them to plant new fields on a former sugar cane estate in Queensland. Their intention is to produce a typically Australian agave spirit that reflects the local terroir. Production will begin in the second half of 2023, when a new distillery will be completed and the planted agaves will be more mature.
“The world doesn’t need another brand of tequila,” says Trent Fraser, who leads Australia’s Top Shelf Agave project. “There has been absolute saturation since the celebrity movement and unfortunately the credibility of product creation has been compromised,” he adds.
Until recently, Fraser was president of Mid Tierra Volcano, the premium tequila from the luxury group LVMH. But Fraser sees this move as an opportunity to reshape the category.
“We have an entirely blank canvas,” says Fraser, adding that while they include the best of older traditional methods, they are not limited by outside influences or authorities.
Will consumers notice or care how these new agave spirits are labeled? Some of them will, and that will be an advantage, according to Szczech.
“There is a small, relatively affluent niche market that has learned primarily via social media about non-certified quality agave spirits. This niche is big enough to make a real difference for small, traditional distillers,” he says.
This is the market Caballito is targeting. “It’s not a bottle you find at Walmart,” says Jiménez. “Our brand is rare and unique. People are thrilled…because it reminds them of old fashioned tequila.
And, as Szczech points out, there is a certain cachet that producers and consumers can lay claim to by being outside the certified grades.
Romaya of Old Town Tequila agrees. “Agave spirits consumers love that these spirits are like the outlaws of the Wild West,” he says.
As for the rest of the market, exposure to agave spirits will likely depend on the influence of bartenders, says Garrone.
“It’s really the bartender who guides the customer to new products and gets them excited,” he says. “If the bartender picks up a bottle and says, ‘I have a great new mezcal to try!’ does it really matter if it says “agave spirit” on the label? I do not think so.”