Mex factor: The tequila trends pushing the category forward

Laura Foster

Laura Foster

04 January 2019

Forget slammers and partying, the trends in tequila are all heading resolutely upmarket nowadays. Laura Foster heads to Jalisco, Mexico, to discover a region where producers are moving from fast fashion to haute couture

It’s boom time for tequila at the moment, with signs of affluence and expansion everywhere you look.

During my recent time in Mexico, Patrón Tequila announced that it’s spending $120m (£94m) to double its production capacity; relatively new brand Código 1530 showed us the plot of land where it will be building its very own distillery in partnership with the Perez Ocampo family, who currently contract distil for the brand.

Even Tequila Fortaleza, a brand that is limited by the size of its tiny, traditional distillery and bottling facilities, has bought a property across the road to increase its ageing capacity. ‘We run out of the Añejo all the time,’ explains Fortaleza brand ambassador Stefano Francavilla.

With great power, however, comes great responsibility, and as the rivers of money continue to flow into the region, it will be interesting to see how the brands react. Signs suggest that it will be a race to the top rather than the bottom, with an increasing focus on super-premium products, while mixto gets largely kicked to the sidelines.

That’s not to say there aren’t some rather questionable developments – the rise of cristalino tequila being one. But more on that later. Here are my key takeaways from an intensive week-long tour round Jalisco.

The agave issue continues

It feels as if everywhere you drive in Guadalajara, new fields of agave have been planted, with row upon row of young plants stretching up towards the bright Mexican sky.

Thirty years ago, agave was sold for two pesos per kilo. Fifteen years ago, it was fifteen cents. Today, it’s just over a dollar

Arantxa García Barroso

The spike in demand for tequila in recent years has caused huge agave supply issues, which is unsurprising for a product made from a raw material that takes seven years to grow. Equally unsurprisingly, the shortage has pushed prices up.

‘Thirty years ago, agave was sold for two pesos per kilo. Fifteen years ago, it was fifteen cents. Today it’s just over a dollar,’ says Arantxa García Barroso, production representative at Patrón Tequila.

It takes an average of seven kilograms of agave to make one litre of tequila, so the raw material represents a considerable proportion of the production cost.

Peek behind the curtain

It’s always worth checking up on the production methods that producers use. Some, for instance, officially claim that they don’t use diffusers when the eyes of an independent observer would come to a very different conclusion. So it’s more important than ever to educate yourself on the products you work with. We think you’ll find the resources below really helpful.

The Tequila Matchmaker website and mobile app is a tequila enthusiast’s bible. Simply search for any product and you’ll be told the distillery it’s made at, the region the agave comes from, and the cooking, extraction, fermentation and distillation methods, among other information.

You could also try the Know Your Nom website when trying to work out which distillery has made your bottle of tequila.

‘We’re trying to reach an average price for agave, but it’s going to take 20 years to sort,’ says García Barroso.

In the meantime, the planting drive continues. Fortaleza started a programme to plant with seeds this year, while planting of hijuelos, the baby agave that grow at the roots of the mother plant, continues apace.

What was of particular concern was the size of the agaves I saw waiting to be roasted at one of the distilleries of a particularly large tequila brand – some were no bigger than a basketball, about half the size you normally see. When I questioned my guide about this, they insisted that the agave was mature, and had the required sugar levels to be used.

Speaking off-the-record to a different brand owner later on, he confirmed that the use of much younger agaves – he mentioned three- and four-year-old plants – has been adopted by some of the less reputable companies in the region. This unripe agave doesn’t have the required sugar levels to make a quality product, and premature harvesting continues the vicious cycle of insufficient agave stocks, leading to a lose-lose situation.

To learn more about the background to the agave supply issues, read Clinton Cawood’s excellent Mexican Plant-Off: Agave Genetics, published on in July 2017.

Cristalino tequila

There was one ‘category’ of tequila that was on a lot of lips when I visited: cristalino. These tequilas are aged liquids that would normally be sold as añejos, but which undergo filtration – usually through charcoal – to make them clear again.

Think of it as the white rum of the tequila world, with soft, creamy characters from the wood and distinct citrus notes. Tasting Herradura Ultra, an extra añejo and añejo blend that’s been charcoal filtered, reveals a spirit full of coconut, lime-flavoured boiled sweets and citrus sherbet. I’d rather have the straight añejo, if I’m honest.

Herradura's distinctive hacienda
Herradura's distinctive hacienda

Cristalino isn’t currently recognised as a category by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila, but that’s not to say it won’t be in the future.

‘Cristalinos are the latest luxury offering, although they haven’t gained much attention outside Mexico. It’s now the largest super-premium expression in Mexico, surpassing reposado after only six years,’ said John Tichenor, Herradura’s global brand director at Brown-Forman. ‘Only time will tell if it gains traction outside of the country as the next global growth opportunity.’

Some products are already making their way to the US and the UK – notably from 1800 Tequila and Enemigo – and I wouldn’t be surprised if more are to follow, as companies appear to view it as a gateway spirit.

‘It brings non-tequila drinkers to the category. Once they try it and like it, it’s easier for them to migrate to reposado,’ said Mariana Esquinca, Brown-Forman’s global PR manager for tequila.

While brands seem to be viewing cristalinos as a way of hooking consumers into more expensive tequila, the jury’s out on whether the category will improve people’s perception of the drink overall.

The premium tequila wave

Travelling between distilleries, it became clear how much focus is currently being placed on the more premium products.

‘Super-premium tequila is driving global category growth,’ says Tichenor. ‘As mixto tequilas decline, 100% agave brands are now becoming the category entry point. In the largest tequila market in the world, the Distilled Spirits Council noted, super-premium tequila sales have increased 706% in the US since 2002.’

Cristalinos are the latest luxury offering, although they haven’t gained much attention outside Mexico

John Tichenor

Some products aren’t currently exported to the UK, however. ‘The UK tequila market isn’t quite as developed as it is in the US. It’s not quite ready for some of the products that are made,’ said Erick Padilla, operations manager at Patrón, when I asked him why the brand doesn’t currently export its 100% tahona-crushed tequila range La Roca to the UK. I have a feeling that they’ll be exported to these shores at some point in the next few years, however.

Barrel ageing at Herradura
Barrel ageing at Herradura

What is interesting is the way that the tequila industry has stepped into the premium and ultra-premium segments. There’s a lot of emphasis on ageing, especially in unusual barrels, with a sizable amount of premium tequila falling under the añejo and extra añejo age categories, and fancy bottles.

Guillermo Sauza, owner of Fortaleza, sees premium a different way, however. ‘It’s authenticity. When you visit [a distillery], see how it’s produced using traditional methods,’ he says. ‘It’s not mass milled – mass produced can’t be luxury by definition. Luxury tequila is low-volume, with traditional production, and is family-owned.’

Whether you agree with Sauza’s view or not – and there is something particularly magical about seeing how hand-crafted Fortaleza’s products are, while still being reasonably priced – I’d argue that high-quality products can be made by larger producers, if the production methods are to a high standard.

Sustainability in focus

What was really heartening to see was the measures that some of the brands have implemented to try to reduce their environmental impacts. Composting of the spent agave fibres now appears to be the rule rather than the exception, with Herradura and Patrón proudly showing us their facilities – Patrón’s composting area is huge, and they take on the used fibres of other neighbouring distilleries too, resulting in 5,500 tons of fertiliser compost a year.

Water usage has come under the spotlight, too, especially among the big brands, while Olmeca Altos has shifted the focus of its global cocktail competition to challenge entrants to develop a new sustainable initiative, with the winner receiving a $50,000 (£38,000) grant to enact their concept.

The great news is that the lesser long-nosed bat, which pollinates agave, has been removed from the endangered species list this year, following a drive by many producers to allow a portion of their agave’s quiote – the flowering stalk that usually gets cut off to preserve the sugar in the agave – to grow.

While all of these actions are big steps in the right direction, I hope that the tequila brands won’t be resting on their laurels when it comes to identifying even more ways to reduce their environmental impact on the planet.

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