Agave Spirits Tequila or Mezcal, it’s a growth market

By Hoke Harden

Anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention the last ten years or so has noticed the explosive growth of Tequila in the U.S. market. 
Here’s some more news: that growth is going to continue. But it isn’t just Tequila that’s going to continue, and not just in the U.S. Mezcal has entered the mix, so it’s now about the entire agave spirits category. And agave has gone global, so it’s a worldwide phenomenon.

When Tequila did that, and became “respectable”, it encouraged the emergence and growth of many smaller artisanal brands in the market. Store shelves and back bars are

virtually bulging with a proliferation of Tequila brands. And the rollouts show no signs of slowing down; indeed, lately it has seemed to speed up.

Once consciousness was raised, and people became more educated and informed about Tequila, this allowed the humble Mezcal to emerge from its obscurity of being “that stuff with the worm in the bottle” and show its own particular and distinctive qualities. The U.S. market is just now beginning to see superb quality Mezcals from Oaxaca show up in creative cocktails in the trendsetting bars, and that means the retail shelves will see those same products as well.

But with all this proliferation of brands comes a bit of understandable confusion: how does the basic buyer figure out what to choose from all that is available?
Herein is a basic primer for Agave Spirits:

Tequila is a product of Mexico and can be made only in the state of Jalisco and small denominated portions of surrounding states. If it’s not from the delimited area, it’s not Tequila.
The base spirit of Tequila must be made from Tequila Weber Azul Agave, commonly known as “Blue Agave”. Agave is not a cactus, but a member of the same succulent family that includes the amaryllis and lily flowers. 

The agave root bulb is roasted, shredded, mixed with water to create a wash and then fermented. Following fermentation the product is distilled, usually twice, until it becomes clear, or silver, Tequila.
Tequila versus 100% Agave Tequila

Tequila has two types. When labeled simply ‘Tequila’, it is required to contain at least 51% blue agave spirit; the remainder can be derived from any fermentable substance, but is most usually made of sugar cane products. In other words, a type of rum. Although you won’t see the word appear anywhere on the package, this is colloquially called a “mixto,” because the two products are mixed before distillation.

When the Tequila is made from 100% Blue Agave (Agave Azul) it is labeled either 100% Agave or Puro de Agave. Naturally the higher quality and greater price is associated with the Puro de Agave…the pure expression of Agave.

Regular Tequila is considered suitable for frozen margaritas and such; it still represents the bulk of Tequila consumed in the U.S. However, most of the recent growth and proliferation has been in the Puro de Agave sector.

The Designations of Tequila
Gold/Oro/Joven Abocado: this is a young, fresh Tequila that may be colored with caramel coloring, and is allowed only in the Tequila classification, never in the Puro de Agave type. Caramel coloring is allowed to make it “Gold.”
Silver/Blanco/Plata: Freshly distilled Tequila with no appreciable age or processing, from the still to the bottle. This classification is considered the finest expression of “pure Agave”.
Reposado: in Spanish, ‘rested’. Silver Tequila is allowed to rest and undergo some delicate oxidative changes for anywhere from 2—12 months to mellow and round out. This is the most popular designation of Tequila in Mexico.
Añejo: from the Spanish word for year, año; Tequila which has been matured in oak casks for a minimum of one year. This designation shows as much of the expression of wood maturation as the natural agave flavors, and since old American whiskey casks are most often used, Añejo often shows whiskey-like flavors of vanilla and spice.
Extra-Añejo: a relatively small category, this Tequila must undergo a minimum of three years of barrel aging before bottling. Because of cost and prestige, this is invariably the most expensive and rare Tequila a house produces.

Most Tequila houses produce the Silver, Reposado, and Añejo versions, so it’s interesting to taste them side by side and track the changes of the same spirit from one style to the next, from the pure expression of agave to the mellowed Reposado to the wood-aged Añejo.

Mezcal, long considered the rustic country cousin of the more highly regulated Tequila, can be produced all over Mexico, but most of it comes from Oaxaca, a southern province. Where Tequila may use only the Blue Agave, Oaxacan Mezcal is allowed to use up to six different varieties of agave, although the most commonly used type is Espadin, a smaller agave with a more pungent natural flavor.
Historically, the agave in Oaxacan Mezcal was roasted in fire pits or underground ovens in the presence of charcoal, which imparted a rather distinctive smoky character to the finished spirit. One of the nicknames of Mezcal amongst aficionados is “Scotch Agave” for that smoky nuance.

Until recently, few Mezcals were imported to the U.S., and they were not of the best quality. Indeed, most of them were valued more for the gusano worm placed in the bottle than the quality of the spirit. That is changing, however, under the influence of more quality-conscious producers and the Oaxacan authorities have recently taken the initiative to ban the use of the worm altogether.

For those who still think of Mezcal as a rough and inexpensive version of agave, the quality of the higher grade of Mezcals is quite a revelation; some Single Village Mezcals are now considered amongst the finest possible expressions of agave available.

Tequila Brands
There are more Tequila brands than ever before—and it seems there are more being created every day. One need not have a distillery to have a brand, after all, since Tequila can be purchased in bulk and bottled under different names. Tequila “mixto” may be shipped in bulk and bottled in the U.S.; Puro de Agave must be made and bottled in Mexico before shipping.

There is a requirement, however, that the producing distillery’s code number must be present on the label regardless of the brand name. The informative www.tequila.net website maintains a comprehensive list of those codes amongst all the other information available, so you can discover who made that Tequila you’re drinking.

At last count the official Tequila NOM database listed 1,323 separate brands of Tequila. Even though many of these are not exported, that allows for a great number of potential brands in the market.
First there are the old and revered houses of Tequila, many (most?) of which are now owned or controlled by the world spirits conglomerates. These ancient houses tend to produce and distribute a full range of Tequila types and classifications under a variety of brand names.

Jose Cuervo, the first licensed Tequila distillery, produces and distributes a wide range of types, styles and price points of Tequila, but the bulk of their sales remains in the ubiquitous Cuervo Gold, a Joven Abocado mixto. At the top of the range is the highly regarded Reserva de la Familia, with many notable brands in between.

Sauza, one of the older and larger houses, formerly had a full line of mixto and Puro Tequilas, but was divided into separate brands, with Sauza becoming all mixto, and the Sauza Hornitos stepping off on its own as a Puro de Agave brand.

Puro de Agave Tequila Brands
Today most of the attention is concentrated on the Puro de Agave Tequila brands. There the biggest player is also the newest:  Patron.  Patron, a brand created by a U.S. entrepreneur and adroitly marketed to the U.S. consumer, has been enormously successful, and its iconic bottle with the rustic but stylish handcrafted look appears everywhere in the U.S.

Did you know….there are six different agave spirits produced in Mexico?  Tequila, Mezcal, Sotol, Raicilla, Bacanora, and Comiteca.  The only two exported in significant numbers to the U.S. are Tequila and Mezcal; the others remain largely local.  So far.

Tequila successfully navigated through the dangers of being identified as shots for
college students or slushy frozen fruit-flavored margaritas from a machine and managed to transcend those dismissals to become identified as a quality spirit.

The revered house of Casa Herradura, with its iconic blue horseshoe symbol, now owned by Brown-Forman Corporation, altered course under its new owner and dispensed with mixto Tequila entirely to return to 100% Agave in its flagship Herradura line as well as the Antiguo and top-selling el Jimador brand, a favorite with bartenders around the country. El Jimador also has the distinction of being a top-selling popular brand in both Mexico and the United States. Cazadores, marketed by Bacardi, is a favorite both in Mexico and the U.S., and enjoys widespread distribution. The offshoot of the original Sauza Tequila, Hornitos, continues to thrive in popularity as well.

Other brands, such as Chinaco, El Tesoro de Don Felipe, Don Eduardo, Siete Leguas, Don Julio, Casa Noble, Cabo Wabo, Camarena, Corazon, Corralejo, La Fortaleza and Partida—to name just a few---have their loyal followings. A new artisanal brand, Tequila Ocho, even produces a range of vintage dated Tequilas. 

To add to the proliferation of brands, Tequilas can be divided into sub-regions as well. The Blue Agave is as sensitive to terroir as wine grapes, and a clear distinction between valley floor Lowlands and mountain Highlands tequilas is emerging, with the Lowlands showing more herbaceous, salty and earthy aromas and flavors, and the Highlands more fruity and rounded character. Generally, the smaller and more artisanal producers reflect the different regional characteristics, since the larger distilleries tend to blend a combination of the two to reach their house style.

Mezcal Brands
There are fewer Mezcal brands of note, simply because Mezcal is still emerging from under the shadow of the often execrable cheap brands which were the usual imports for many years. Some quality brands have begun to emerge, however.

The most notable and widespread at this point is the exceptional line of specialty and Single Village Mezcals from Del Maguey. Each release is distinctive and flavorful, and the quality level is outstanding.

Illegal Mezcal, a new brand on the market, is a series of small-batch, artisanally crafted Mezcals, each one with its own marked style and flavor. (The interesting name ostensibly comes from the fact that some of the original batches were disputed by the governing authorities, so for a short while, they were, technically, “illegal.”)

Another newcomer gaining a great deal of attention is Sombra Mezcal, a project of Master Sommelier Richard Betts. The Sombra is aggressive, big and bold—it has been referred to as a ‘smoke bomb’ of agave for its smoky, fire-roasted aromas and vegetal palate, and one taster commented that “this is what Mezcal would taste like if they made it in Islay, Scotland.”

Agave Mixology
The ubiquitous Margarita is still the odds on favorite for agave drinks in the U.S.—although perhaps not as many frozen ones and more “Up, Rocks, Salt” versions are becoming popular. Likewise, shots are common too, but more in the way of sipping rather than gulping, so as to savor the flavor of the finer agave spirits. It’s also common to see flights of Tequila featured to showcase the different styles and brands.

With the throng of craft bartenders these days feeding the cocktail culture, agave spirits are finding their way into some compelling and creative concoctions. Silver agaves—both Tequila and Mezcal—are finding their way into fruit-driven drinks such as the popular La Paloma, similar to the Cuban mojito, with a combination of Tequila, grapefruit and soda in a tall glass on the rocks.  An even simpler variation is the mixture of Silver agave and Squirt Grapefruit soda. (This is the most popular form of Tequila consumption in Mexico; the majority of Squirt in Mexico is consumed in La Palomas.)

The Reposado and Añejo grades of agave are finding their way into more substantial versions of classic cocktails, with quite a few agave spirits mixing with Bourbon and Rye Whiskey, or alternately with Gin.

The other great traditional way to enjoy Reposado and Añejo agaves is as a sipper with the Mexican chaser called Sangrita, which can be either a pomegranate or tomato juice base mixed with lime, hot chilies, and orange juice, with the agave showing off wonderfully against the fruit juices and spices of the sangrita. There seem to be as many versions of Sangrita recipes as there are Tequilas, so you can pick your favorite.

Any way you look at it, under the heading of “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” you’re going to be seeing more and more agave spirits in your future, from sleek Silver Puro de Agave sippers to robust and smoky Mezcal caballitos. And who knows what else the future of agave holds in store for us?

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