Artisanal Trends in Agave SpiritsWhat's Old is New Again
Agave spirits are undergoing a renaissance, at both ends of the chain, from producer to consumer. New brands coming onto the market are now more than just some celebrity’s latest package containing tequila previously marketed as something else, or a “gold” tequila bottled at lower than 100% agave (although these both still exist). Instead, the renaissance is among small producers of tequila, mezcal, and sotol making products artisanally−processing using cooking and fermentation methods going back thousands of years, and crushing, distillation, and aging methods going back hundreds of years!
Tequila, mezcal, and sotol all have appellation of origin protections as do scotch, cognac, armagnac, champagne, etc. They differ in three primary ways: cooking method, agave species, and region−with the first of these being most noticeable in the glass. Of these three spirits, mezcal is currently the fastest growing category.
Mezcal is made from agaves cooked in a fire pit in the ground for 4-6 days, primarily in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, with other states like Durango, Guerrero, Puebla, Tamaulipas, and Michoacan also producing unique and esoteric mezcals with smoky and sometimes fruity, herbaceous, and/or floral flavours and aromas. Mezcal is also allowed to be produced in Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, and Zacatecas, but these states generally use the more modern methods of production synonymous with tequila, such as steam cooking instead of firepit roasting. Therefore, these mezcals will not have the notes of smoke found in firepit roasted agave mezcals.
Around 40 different species of agave (out of the ~230 species known) may be made into mezcal and are generally bottled as “single species” products. Occasionally they are bottled as an “ensamble” or blend following specific, time-honoured proportions. The most commonly used is Agave angustifolia (Espadín in Spanish), due to the high sugar/brix content of this species and its propensity for maturing “quickly”−as little as 6-10 years as opposed to 14+ for Agave potatorum (Tobalá) or an astounding 20+ years for Agave marmorata (Tepeztate) or Agave americana var. oaxacensis (Arroqueño).
Tequila – This spirit is made from a single agave species Agave tequilana Weber blue variety (a.k.a. blue agave). This species is effectively a narrow genetic strain of A. angustifolia and does not grow in the wild. To make tequila, the agaves are cooked in a steam oven−rather than a firepit−for around 36-79 hours depending upon the recipe of each master distiller. All tequila must come from the state of Jalisco, or small areas of Guanajuato, Nayarit, Michoacan, or Tamaulipas. The best unaged tequilas will generally exhibit herbaceous, grassy and sometimes floral notes. Those steamed slowly at low temperature will even show a hint of baked yam or caramelized sugar notes.
Sotol – Finally, sotol is a spirit made from a plant called the Desert Spoon in English, and simply sotol in Spanish. It is primarily derived from the species Dasylirion wheeleri, but also from other species in the Dasylirion genus. Both Dasylirion and Agave genera are in the Agavaceae family−making them effectively cousins. Sotol comes from the states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Coahuila in northern Mexico. It is a true desert plant and desert spirit, and often has a taste reminiscent of both the resinous plants of the area and the rocky, sandy soils in which it grows. Sotol plants may be cooked in either a firepit or in a steam oven, just like the methods used for its cousins tequila and mezcal.
Crushing Method – Other differences between agave spirits are due to the crushing method. Most mezcal and artisanal tequilas (only around 3-4% of all tequila brands) will employ a large round stone wheel called a tahona to crush their cooked agave after it’s removed from the firepit or steam oven. In some cases, the stone will be pulled around by a horse or mule, and in very few cases by a motor.
More commonly for tequila, a mechanized roller/shredder/water-sprayer method will be used. This still makes great tequila as long as a slow, low-temperature cooking process is used.
Another process used employs a diffuser−a high-efficiency, high-speed process which shreds the raw agaves first and then uses high-pressure steam injection for maximum extraction of the agave sugar. This generally gets the job of shredding + cooking done in about five hours, and is usually is applied only to low-cost products.
Ask your agency representative which methods apply to their products so you can share the process with agave spirit aficionados.
Eric Lorenz is owner of Lorenz Agave Spirits and is founding partner of the Vancouver International Tequila Expo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.