Distilling Agave Spirits Stateside
For centuries, agave spirits (or Tequila) has been the foundation of Mexican agriculture, but some American distillers wonder what crafting their own spirits made from agave – much like tequila, bacanora and mezcal – might be like.
Mexico’s native agave spirits are some of the world’s most coveted (and feared) liquors. For centuries, Mexican producers have cultivated agave plants to make these liquid assets. Much like other spirits protected by appellation of origin and governed by local law (think: scotch or champagne), they are deeply ingrained in the fabric of Mexican culture. From the bright floral and citrus notes of highland tequila to the earthy, herbaceous undertones of lowland tequila to the untamed spirit of smoky mezcal, each one of these spirits celebrates Mexican history and terroir.
Over the last several years a handful of distilleries have begun releasing agave spirits made stateside, in America. The resulting juice can’t be called tequila for legal reasons, much like blue agave spirits made in Mexico outside the designated region. Only those made from agave tequilana (blue agave) grown and produced in one of five states in Mexico can claim that designation.
American Distillers Imitating Mexico’s Success
American distillers have taken foreign juices and re-interpreted them for ages. (Can you say California Sparking Wine?) But to date, no single distillery is making a product that constitutes an entirely new category of agave spirits made with 100% American ingredients. Instead, most are making spirits that lean towards the genre of generic reproductions, made from agave tequilana imported from Mexico—a surprising discovery, considering the conditions for growing agave in America are more than favorable.
The soil and climate conditions for agave production are prime in the southwestern United States. Agave tequilana could feasibly be harvested in the warmest areas of Southern California and Arizona, as it needs a frost-free environment to thrive. Alternatively, agave palmeri, commonly used to produce Mexican bacanora, grows fruitfully in Arizona, and dasylirion wheeleri, which is not an agave but rather a cousin of the plant used to make Mexican sotol, is abundant throughout West Texas and Eastern New Mexico.
In the late 1990s, a Southern California entrepreneur started the U.S. agave spirits trend when he planted his first crop in Temecula, California. Using a mixture of blue agave plants grown on his property and a percentage of processed nectar imported from Mexico, JB Wagoner says he was able to produce up to 500 bottles of “Temequila” (a name that was later changed to JB Wagoner’s Ultra Premium 100% Agave Spirits) per week by 2005. This was a short lived experiment, as production ceased shortly after but his experiment inspired other American distillers to wonder about the potential for making agave spirits in America.
Since then numerous distilleries have taken on the challenge of producing agave spirits stateside, like Roundhouse Spirits in Colorado, Railean Distillery in Texas and Tailwinds Distilling in Illinois. However they’ve learned from other mistakes by cutting down on time, labor and ingredient costs by importing processed agave syrup, juice or nectar directly from Mexico for fermentation. From there, each distiller shapes the final flavor of the product. Companies such as Venus Spirits in California will use marketing to differentiate themselves from their new uprising of craft agave spirits competitors. Their agave spirit is called “El Ladron,” which means “the thief,” a cheeky nod to the fact that their nectar comes from Mexico—something that isn’t always clearly communicated by other companies.
Given the experimental nature of the current craft spirits boom, it’s practically inevitable that agave spirits will continue to infiltrate the shelf space of Tequila and other Mexican offerings. The toughest piece of the equation to swallow is the investment into the equipment and processes. “If somebody was getting into the business with the idea of making an agave spirit in the states somewhere, there are plenty of places where you can grow agave and probably do a really interesting job with it, so it would have its own sense of terroir,”. “And you just understand that when making the stuff, the investment in the equipment is part of the cost of doing business. If you can set it up, you can do it.” ~ Lance Winters; St. George Spirits
Los Osuna is 100% Blue Agave Spirits, a truly unique product that comes from the State of Sinaloa – just outside the region in Mexico; imported by WRS Imports in Minneapolis.