While agave has been cultivated and distilled into tequila, mezcal and other spirits in modern-day Mexico for millennia, the plant is now being grown and distilled in California, Australia, South Africa, Peru, Venezuela, India and elsewhere.
What’s behind this globetrotting expansion? The rising popularity of tequila and mezcal, which by definition must be made in Mexico, with agave grown in Mexico. That success has spurred producers around the world to experiment with growing agave anywhere the climate is sufficiently hot and arid enough to support the spiky plants, and then fermenting and distilling the piñas into alcoholic spirits.
Just don’t call the resulting liquid tequila.
A taste of agave terroir?
“Jalisco is 20 degrees north of the equator,” says Trent Fraser, president of the Australian Agave Project, which oversees these 500,000+ agave plants and will soon break ground on a distillery nearby. “Our Eden Lassie farm is 20 degrees degrees south of the equator. We think the next chapter of agave is outside of Mexico.”
And yes, it sips differently from the Mexican original, he says. Though it’s still early days, Fraser describes the Aussie agave as showing a “sturdy cooked agave backbone” and pronounced citrusy and grassy notes.
Australia is the latest entrant to the agave-growing game, but California was arguably the pioneer. The state’s earliest experiments date to 2007 when Lance Winters, master distiller at St. George Spirits trucked in agave from Mexico, then processed and distilled it at the Alameda distillery. The drive came from founder Jorg Rupf’s quest to make an agave spirit in California, though Winters’ version was never sold commercially.
Now, multiple brands are distilling California-grown agave as climate change, including rising temperatures and drought, has prompted some to reevaluate the crops they grow.
“A lot of farmers in California want to maximize what they can get from every acre, every foot of water they have on their land,” says Winters.
On May 24, a group of California agave growers and distillers met at UC Davis for a symposium to discuss these opportunities and challenges. Some of the growers represented have “thousands of acres” of agave, says Winters.
Currently, there’s a wide variety of agave varieties growing in California, drawing parallels to mezcal, rather than tequila, which is made solely from the blue weber variety, says Craig Reynolds, who has been growing the succulents on his Sacramento property since 2014. Reynolds is now founding director of the California Agave Council, a trade association for the state’s agave growers, craft distillers and retailers, and an early advocate of the “Mezcalifornia” movement.
The species Agave Americana, for example, has shown early promise in California due to its hardiness for heat as well as cold, Reynolds says. Some growers have up to 10 agave varieties planted, and it’s possible the state will harbor multiple agave terroirs.
“We don’t know for sure what grows best where,” says Reynolds. “It’s kind of the exciting stage now, where people are figuring that out. It’s not only about what grows well, but what produces distinctive spirits that are as distinctive as grape varieties.”
Producers are pushing locally grown agave in new directions, too. Winters points to soil scientist Joe Muller, who has experimented with pit-roasting batches of his agave with eucalyptus and almond wood. “It’s been really exciting, they smell and taste phenomenal,” says Winters.
While it produces spirits with very different profiles from Mexico’s traditional spirits, Winters is confident about marketing potential. “Put that together with this seemingly unslakeable thirst for agave in this country, and you can see it’s all going to blow,” he says.
Of course, just slapping “agave” on a bottle isn’t enough to drive sales. Consumer confidence is key. In February a new bill, AB2303, was introduced to set labeling requirements for California-produced agave spirits and establish quality standards. It passed the California Assembly in May and the state Senate in late June and is anticipated to head to the Governor’s office in August.
Although Mexico’s sotol is made from the desert spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri) shrub, not agave, international distillers are experimenting with it as well. American-made versions in Texas have had a similar trajectory to American-grown agave.
Mike Groener, president of Austin-based Genius Liquids, has been making Desert Spirit de Terra, a sotol-like spirit made from Texas-grown desert spoon, for more than a decade.
The shrub-like succulents grow wild throughout the Chihuahuan Desert, which stretches from the northern tip of Mexico through West Texas and into parts of southern New Mexico, Groener says. Compared to the piny notes typically found in Mexico’s sotol, Texas versions tend more toward grassy and herbaceous notes, Groener says. He likens the flavors to “bay leaf, sorel [and] toasted grits.”
Amid a backlash to some Texas producers making sotol, Groener encourages his Texas counterparts to use another name for the spirit. “We probably shouldn’t call it sotol,” he says.
‘They cannot call it tequila’
What do tequila producers and advocates think of this global agave boom?
David Suro-Piñera, president of Suro International Imports and founder of Siembra tequila and mezcal, is unfazed. He suggests it might even take some pressure off Mexico’s monoculture (the over-growing of a single plant species, which can potentially deplete soil and cause other environmental issues) and help allay concerns about the over-harvesting of slow-growing agave plants.
“I’m perfectly fine with it,” he says. “Agaves grow in different parts of the world… I guess agave doesn’t recognize border lines, it doesn’t recognize walls. If they grow healthy and plenty and develop in the proper way, and [it’s distilled by] someone with imagination and knowledge, why not?”
Yet, to be clear, he’s only sanguine about this as long as it’s not misrepresented.
“If somebody distills outside Mexico or the Denomination of Origin, they cannot call it tequila,” he says. “But, it’s agave distilled.”
Meanwhile, Lou Bank of Sacred, a Chicago-based nonprofit that supports the rural Mexican communities that make heritage agave spirits, agrees.
“I love seeing agave being used in places other than Mexico to make spirits,” says Bank. “I think, in fact, that this could be a strategy for preserving Mexico’s cultural heritage.”
Building a market for agave spirits outside Mexico can help “bring more attention to the families within Mexico who are stewards of the mezcal traditions,” says Bank.
Others, like Marco Ochoa Cortes, an Oaxaca-based mezcal educator and cofounder of mezcal bar Mezcaloteca, are concerned that the rush to capitalize on agave-based distillates could exacerbate monoculture issues. Introducing non-native species on a large scale can create biological risk and long-term consequences on surrounding ecosystems, he says.
It’s possible for agave to be planted responsibly, he says, but that means taking time to study and prevent adverse effects. Driven by those seeking business opportunities, that’s not likely to happen, he says. “Time is money.”
More options for tequila fans?
Those making agave spirits insist they’re not trying to replace tequila but create something new.
“We’re not here to steal share,” says Fraser of his Australian agave spirit. “We’re here to add to the category, and to do it in a respectful way at the same time… We want to carve out a new chapter.”
Reynolds feels similarly about California-grown initiatives.
“We want our agave to be its own thing,” he says. “We’re not trying to replace or replicate mezcal or tequila. We want to be on the shelf alongside them, not instead of them. We want to develop our own characteristics.”
Although California has been the leader in U.S.-grown agave spirits, Reynolds also speculates that New Mexico or Arizona might be next out of the gate, possibly producing a spirit in the style of bacanora, a type of mezcal made from a single variety of agave, Sonora’s native yaquina, or Angustifolia agave.
Winters feels these developments will ultimately benefit fans of legacy tequila and mezcal.
“It means there will be greater variety,” he says. “What the agave enthusiast has to look forward to is more interesting choices out there.”