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BANKING ON BLANCO



Banking on Blanco

How do the shortage of agave, and the continuing controversy between blanco and anejo, affect America's Tequila-smitten consumers?.

Covering the Tequila beat right now is a little like riding the rapids down the Rio Grande at the height of spring snow melt: Tequila's inflatable raft first bolts through fast water, then smashes into rocks and is occasionally grounded on sandbars. One thing is certain, though: It's anything but a dull ride.

Tequila, the distillate that's made from the agave plant (a bluish, bulbous member of the lily family that looks a spiked, obese pineapple) in west-central Mexico, is troubled by a couple of hot-button issues this year: Is blanco a "truer" Tequila than anejo? And what are the repercussions, if any, of the current agave shortage on the Tequila industry today?

Before we discuss these issues, let's review: there are two fundamental varieties of Tequila. The first is mixto, a Tequila that's at least 51 percent agave distillate (the rest is granulated-sugar-cane distillate). The other type is the higher-end 100 percent agave, which does not, by definition, contain anything but agave. Mixtos are typically less expensive and less robust than the all-agave Tequilas; however, the original Tequilas (which were introduced to Mexico by the Spanish in the 17th century—commercial Tequila trade didn't start up until the late 1700s) were made with 100 percent agave.

Which Tequila is "Truest" of Them All?
Because today's consumers are on the prowl for more authenticity in all their beverages—they're drinking everything from unfiltered wines and whiskies to single-estate Cognacs and single-barrel Bourbons—it stands to reason that their preferences lean toward authentic Tequilas, too. "Authentic" and "unadulterated" seem to be the buzzwords for what constitutes drinking satisfaction today. So which of the 100 percent agave Tequilas qualifies as the "truest"—in other words, which most closely mirrors the style in which Tequila was originally made four centuries ago? Is it blanco (unaged), gold (unaged with caramel added), reposado (aged in wood from 3 to 10 months) or anejo (matured in wood at least 12 months)?

Before the introduction of wood-aging half a century ago, all Tequilas were fiery, intensely herbal blancos with rough-and-ready character. Increasing numbers of wood-aged Tequilas (the reposados and anejos) have been exported to the United States over the last several years, and, as a result, blanco Tequila's popularity has been waning. And it's not hard to see why wood-aged Tequilas have become so popular during the last five years. The United States, Tequila's largest export market, has evolved into a middle-class, quality-conscious culture that places enormous, if sometimes misguided, value on the premise that if it's been aged in oak and is outlandishly expensive, it has to be better. Ludicrous as this sounds (at least I hope it sounds ludicrous), many consumers actually make purchases based on that myopic perception.

After sampling scores of 100 percent agave Tequilas from all classifications—blanco through anejo—I prefer the most natural Tequilas: the colorless, sassy blancos. (And no, my decision isn't influenced by the fact that Mexicans themselves, who happen to know a thing or two about their native drink, consume more blancos than oak-aged tequilas by a ratio of 8 to 1.) To my mind, blancos are hands-down the truest, most authentic tequilas one can imbibe. Why do I say this?

Simple. Tequila, made from agave, is not made like brandy (most brandies are made from grape wine), or Cognac (distilled grape wine), or Bourbon (distilled grain mash) or Scotch whisky (again, distilled grain mash). All of these wonderful spirits have natures and chemical properties that benefit from extended periods of maturation in oak barrels. This is just not the case with Tequila.

Tequila's two greatest virtues—namely its piquant, peppery aroma and intense, pulpy flavor—are most prevalent when it is fresh, and has experienced minimal amounts of human intervention. The herbal, vegetal qualities of the agave are easily masked by wood. When I sampled new releases of anejo Tequilas (from both well-known and unknown distilleries), I found that some have either been overoaked or overcaramelized, or, in the worst cases, both. In their quest to market 100 percent agave Tequilas with higher profit margins, some distillers, I believe, are trying to attract the affluent consumers who would chase blindly after socks, toilet tissue or Snickers Bars if they were oak-aged.

Maybe my concerns about overoaking don't matter that much: 100 percent agave anejo Tequila accounts for less than 3 percent of Tequila sales in the U.S., anyway. But I couldn't help asking what some of my Tequila-savvy colleagues thought about the great blanco-versus-anejo debate.

Tony Abou-Ganim, the award-winning beverage specialist at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, says that "to truly appreciate and understand the heritage of the Tequila-makers' art, one must drink blanco. It's the most honest expression of the plant, the soil, the climate, the region, and the art of making a great spirit."

Frank Arcella, whose company, Arcella Premium Brands, imports Tequila Corazón de Agave, says diplomatically, "I believe that the true Tequila is blanco. But from great blanco you can produce great reposado and great anejo. Producers do run the risk, however, of their Tequila losing much of its essence by aging it too long."

Julio Bermejo owns Tommy's Mexican Restaurant, a San Francisco shrine to 100 percent agave Tequila. He told me that he currently lists some 206 100 percent agave Tequilas on his menu. Bermejo had this comment about the blanco/wood-aged issue: "There's no doubt that blanco is Tequila in its most authentic form. Aging in wood didn't start until the 1960s…I don't think that we really know yet how far Tequila can age in, say, different types of oak. It's still unexplored territory. While I love the blancos, you can argue that not everybody is suited to the raw, hearty taste of 100 percent agave blancos and, therefore, the reposados and anejos offer consumers other choices, choices that are less emanding."

Kevin Richards of Sazerac Company, which imports Herradura, had this observation: "Clearly there are some anejos on the market that are perhaps aged too much, resulting in
an almost non-Tequila-like taste. However, by and large, the more respected anejos still represent an outstanding Tequila option…While blanco may be Tequila in its purest form, I think consumers appreciate the category because of the wide range of taste-profile selections."

I may not agree with all of these experts, but I do like what each has to say about Tequila. These blanco Tequilas aren't matured in oak barrels and don't display a yellow-amber tint, but they shouldn't be dismissed as silly, unsophisticated spirits suited only to shooters and recent college grads. If you're intrigued by 100 percent agave Tequilas, the best thing you can do is sample lots of them—from blancos to reposados to anejos—to decide what you like best. After all, what else matters?

Agave: Dearth or Rumor?
You may have heard rumors about agave and its alleged shortage (because of disease, frost or poor planning, depending on whom you talk to), and how this shortage will affect U.S. Tequila sales and prices. What's true?

When I asked Tequila pros whether there is, indeed, an agave shortage (and what could have caused said shortage), all said they believed that the deficit of properly ripened agave that became apparent two years ago (the average agave takes 8-10 years to mature) is still a problem for Tequila producers, and will continue to be a problem for the foreseeable future.

According to an August report by the Reuters news service, figures supplied by Mexico's Tequila Regulator Council (CRT) show that Tequila production dropped by almost 16 percent in the first half of 2001, compared with totals for the same period of 2000. The article indicated that "Tequila production fell 15.87 [percent]…as it continued to suffer from a shortage of blue agave plants, the alcoholic drink's main raw material." Similarly, Drinks International's May 2001 issue reported that "the [agave] crop is down by 30 [percent]." If that isn't enough proof, the website just-drinks.com recently reported that "the shortage of agave impacted the Mexican spirits market during 2000 with the Tequila sector contracting by almost 2 million cases." Is there a shortage of agave? By all accounts, yes.

The causes of the shortage, however, differ, depending on whom you talk to. Peter McDougall, spokesman for Jose Cuervo, Mexico's largest Tequila producer, says that there was a surplus of agave in the early 1990s, but no one "expect[ed] the kind of explosive growth that Tequila was to experience in Mexico, the USA, and some European countries," and that, a few short years later, "there were simply not enough agaves planted in 1992-1995 to satisfy current levels of demand."

Tom Valdes, president of Todhunter Imports in West Palm Beach, Florida, which imports Porfidio, says that "the crisis was real but was compounded by the bigger players. Supply and demand were heightened by ever-increasing prices and less availability…this was a classic case of the biggest players squeezing the trough dry."

Sources close to the agave shortage say that the roles of disease and frost were perhaps overplayed by the CRT so that they could paint over their own faulty projection figures for the agave crop. One told me that "the bug factor damaged less than .001 of 1 percent of the agave crop during its worst period."

That said, will the current agave shortage be over anytime soon?

Sazerac Company's Kevin Richards says that "the CRT badly miscalculated the amount of available agave a few years ago, which gave the industry a false sense of security…Our sources suggest that the 'hard times' should subside in two years."

Frank Arcella of Arcella Premium Brands adds that the skyrocketing retail prices may well be a result of the agave shortage—but we should approach the issue from the agave farmers'
perspectives: "Until 1997 the producers of Tequila squeezed the farmers that grow agave because generally there was a glut. Now, the farmers are getting even."


Blue agave, from which Tequila is made, is one of 400 agave varieties identified by botanists. It is not a cactus, but was once classified in the lily and aloe families
Arcella's point is an important one, but that hasn't kept Tequila prices in America from climbing. Prices on some medium-priced brands have risen by more than 50 percent during the last 12 months. This is why the price on that frozen margarita at the Mexican restaurant down the street from your house has leapfrogged from $3.50 to $5.50. One importer told me that a situation like this also "invites cheating" by unscrupulous bars and restaurants that may serve margaritas mixed with cheap Tequila substitutes. If this worries you, order your margaritas at the bar, name your ingredients, and watch the bartender make your drink.

The agave deficit fallout has extended to brands that have small profit margins. A good example is Sauza, owned by Allied Domecq Spirits USA, which recently discontinued the low-end Giro line as well as Triada and Galardon, two pricey niche entries, to conserve dwindling agave supplies for its big name brands, Conmemorativo, Hornitos and Tres Generaciones. The representative closest to the situation declined to comment.

Kathleen DeBenedetto, group product director for Jim Beam Brands, which imports Chinaco and El Tesoro de Don Felipe Tequilas, believes that fine Tequilas will continue to attract new audiences. "While we certainly push our brands to purveyors that focus on Mexican and Southwestern fare," she says, "it's not unusual for me to see Chinaco or El Tesoro in steak houses like Morton's or Ruth's Chris. This shows how far 100 percent agave Tequilas have come since the early 1990s."

So, what's a savvy consumer to do during this period of tightening inventories and ballooning prices? Experiment with 100 percent agave reposados and anejos in bars, and even at home. More than a few of these Tequilas are very good—some are even brilliant. I still stand by the 100 percent agave blanco, though, for drink quality and bang-for-the-buck. Use it in margaritas and Tequila sunrises and as a straight drink. And, of course, keep your eye on the bartender while he makes your margarita.

BLANCOS THAT WILL KNOCK YOUR SOCKS OFF

Be aware that some blancos are labeled "silver." It means the same thing: A clear, unaged Tequila that, by law, must be bottled no longer than 60 days after distillation.

Chinaco Blanco 100% Agave Tequila; $45. Owns one of the more seductive blanco aromas, ripe with sweet notes and zesty dill. In the mouth, it's mannered, sweet and delivers some old-fashioned agave heat and loads of chewy texture. My choice as the quintessential margarita base.

Espolon Silver 100% Agave Tequila; $30. Starts off invitingly fresh, vibrant and even flowery in the nose. The taste is mildly sour and lean at first, then it turns moderately sweet and medium-oily. The finish is dry, oily and svelte. A solid new-generation blanco.

El Tesoro de Don Felipe Blanco 100% Agave Tequila; $40. Doubtless, the most elegant and stately blanco one can find. Unusual scents of orange peel, pineapple and hard candy pave the way for the graceful, off-dry flavors of anise, brine and dill. The textbook on what blanco Tequila should be about. Surprisingly versatile and just as comely in a cocktail as it is served neat with a slice of lime. You'll soon come to adore it.

Don Julio Silver 100% Agave Tequila; $40. Smells of roasted almonds, nail polish remover and buttered popcorn. Incredibly fat and oily on the tongue. A full-bodied, richly textured and multilayered blanco masterpiece. Drink all on its own, very well chilled.

Herradura Silver 100% Agave Tequila; $35. If not my all-time favorite blanco, damn close. The most distinctive of this group. It alternates between being like bittersweet chocolate one moment and citrusy/herbal the next. A genuinely divine experience with which to wrap a lazy evening and a lazier companion around. Devilishly delicious.

Cesar Monterrey Blanco Reserva 100% Agave Tequila; $25. Subtle perfume of dill, brine and salt. Dry and prickly in the mouth, with a sweet, vegetal taste. A stellar foundation for a classic Tequila Sunrise. Good value.

Corazon de Agave Blanco 100% Agave Tequila; $50. Lovely aromatics of black pepper, chili pepper and fresh herbs. Defined flavors of licorice, oil, honey and ripe agave. Superb served well-chilled on its own. Have plenty of lime and salt to lap up before downing this beauty.

Casa Noble Crystal 100% Agave Tequila; $40. Owns a genuinely intriguing and harmonious aroma of lead pencil and dried herbs. One of the sweeter ultrapremium blancos I've evaluated. A deft touch of oiliness completes the experience with class. A dandy blanco.

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