The art of tequila

12 June, 2015

The inexorable growth of 100% agave began in the US, but is beginning to gain traction worldwide. “100% agave is a more or less global trend that is on the agenda in almost every conversation we have with existing or potential partners,” says Dr Tina Ingwersen-Matthiesen, board member at Sierra owner Borco, adding that 100% agave is a “must-have” in the US, more and more relevant in Asia, and under discussion in central and eastern European markets too.

This, she adds, increasingly brings the company’s Sierra Antiguo and Milenario bottlings into play – “the very products that, only a few years ago, we were still having to proactively carry on to the markets, and that the markets are now increasingly asking for themselves”.

Amid all this talk of 100% agave, what of mixto? While consumers may increasingly look down on it, Weise-O’Connor and Dale Sklar, MD of Wine & Spirit International (owner of Bambarria and joint owner of Villa Lobos), profoundly disagree. Both make the same analogy, that of blended and single malt scotch whisky, and Sklar says: “I can think of many malt whiskies I would refuse in favour of a blended Chivas Regal. At the end of the day, it’s all about your personal taste and palate.”

In any case, tequileros might have reason to be grateful for mixto’s existence soon enough. The latest agave shortage has seen prices soar to several pesos per kilo, says Erica Magaña, international business development executive at Casa Centinela, thanks to a combination of low plantings, plus increased demand for agave syrup and agave-derived inulin, a prebiotic dietary fibre said to have numerous health benefits.

Armed guards

“Only a few years ago, I recall the agaveros telling me it was cheaper to leave any unrequired agave to rot in the fields than collect it, getting perhaps three to four centavos a kilo, whereas now it’s fetching about MXP7 a kilo,” adds Sklar. “Some agaveros are employing armed guards to protect their agave plantations. In one night, a lorry can turn up and remove $100,000-worth of agave.”

Other consequences can be equally murky, he says – allegations of price rigging among some larger players with huge stocks of spirit; widespread rumours of agave travelling north from non-tequila areas such as Oaxaca and Yucatan. 

“You can see just how volatile the market structure is,” Sklar says. “I was recently asked by a client in Scandinavia to comment on something he had heard about agave juice coming in from Nicaragua. I hadn’t heard that one, but it makes you wonder…”

Regulating production

The response from the Mexican government, reports Magaña, has been to try to regulate production and, in particular, draw up a programme to replant agave. Sklar, meanwhile, would like to see the introduction of a bottling-at-origin rule similar to that used by champagne and cognac – but which was rejected after pressure from the US.

For Raffaele Berardi of Tequila Corralejo, the agave supply struggle is an inevitable cycle that repeats itself every 10-15 years. “Agave will always be a product with cycles and the volume may never grow to the extent to compete with vodka or whisky,” he says.

Most producers would probably agree with that statement, but many would equally argue that it doesn’t matter. In an industry where value is increasingly championed over volume, and the artisanal (yes, that word) wins favour over the mass-produced, tequila could find that status is far more important than scale.

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