The art of tequila

12 June, 2015

With ‘artisan’ the watchword across all spirits categories, tequila is coming into its own with discerning consumers, finds Richard Woodard


THE RISE OF CRAFT DISTILLING IS THREATENING TO TRANSFORM THE LEXICOGRAPHY OF SPIRITS BRAND COMMUNICATIONthese days, you can’t get through the first sentence of a press release without tripping over the words ‘hand-crafted’ and ‘artisanal’.

As the language descends rapidly into cliché, the overall trend ought to be positive for tequila, with its back-story of carefully nurtured agave plants, the impact of terroir, tahona stones and hard-handed jimadors.

Declaring craft distillers “a force to be reckoned with”, Anja Weise-O’Connor, senior marketing manager at Jose Cuervo International, says: “Small distillers have had a significant effect on the overall spirits business in at least one way – forcing the large players to be on top of their game. Consumers are demanding experiences, not just products; they are looking for brands with substance, exciting stories and a deeper meaning.”

“The growing interest in craft spirits overall has helped to shape consumers’ evolving taste for tequila,” adds Gary Ross, senior brand director of tequila at Beam Suntory. “Following along with the characteristics of ‘craft’, today’s tequila drinker has demonstrated a strong interest in distillery heritage and authenticity.”

Sophisticated palate

And here’s a third voice in broad agreement. “The consumer’s palate is becoming more sophisticated,” ventures John Tichenor, global brand director at Brown-Forman’s Casa Herradura. “There is a sense of exploration of character. People are becoming more attracted to the story of authenticity and craft, so we continue to see greater appreciation for premium and super-premium tequilas.”

But hang on a moment. The combined annual sales of Cuervo, Beam Suntory’s Sauza and Herradura are – what? – close to 8.5m cases? Throw in Patrón and we’re comfortably over 10m cases. Can that really be called craft?

“Arguably we’d fit the definition of a craft spirit – though our volume has grown significantly over the years, Patrón is still hand-crafted [there’s that word again] in small batches, using small capacity ovens, fermentation vats and copper pot stills,” says Greg Cohen, VP corporate communications at Patrón.

“As we’ve grown, instead of building bigger, we simply replicated that original small batch process so that today we essentially have 12 small distilleries under one roof. A ‘craft’ spirit shouldn’t necessarily relate to volume, but rather how the spirit is produced.”

OK, but if we accept tequila’s craft credentials, here’s another question: how many people know about them? Here we inevitably run up against tequila’s huge geographical imbalance, with more than eight out of every 10 bottles sold within the borders of the US and Mexico. Two mature markets, everywhere else – on a charitable interpretation – ‘emerging’.

Tichenor, however, insists that’s changing. “Although the US is the largest tequila market, this is not solely a US phenomenon,” he says. “We are seeing consumers globally trading up and premium-plus tequila is growing at record high rates.”

Ross goes further. June sees the largest-ever revamp of the Sauza range, including the rebranding of 100% agave Sauza Blue as Sauza Signature Blue to coincide with its launch into China, coming just after the brand’s Japanese debut. “As consumers continue to trade up worldwide, we anticipate 100% agave tequilas will become the category standard, and Sauza Signature Blue will become the heart of the Sauza brand,” he says. 

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