Trouble in Tequila-ville

By David Alan

Texans have a special relationship with Mexico and its native spirit, tequila. Like many songs tell us, across the border is where cares (and sometimes spouses) are left behind, and where a unique kind of magic awaits. A few sips of tequila and a little mariachi music is about all it takes to lift us out of our chairs to dance and shout strained gritos into the air; Old Mexico is a panacea to Texans, and tequila takes us there.


But just as the reality of Mexico differs from its idyllic portrayal in song lyrics, the same is true of tequila. I recently had the opportunity to travel to Jalisco with a group of spirits-industry professionals to get a behind-the-scenes look at the tequila industry. Our guide was David Suro, Philadelphia restaurateur, and founder of Siembra Azul tequila. This was no brand trip, however; Suro is a charter member of the Tequila Interchange Project, a collaboration between academics, tequila producers, bartenders and others who advocate on behalf of traditional tequila. As Suro took us around his native Jalisco—touring distilleries and meeting with regulators, distillery owners and historians—it became apparent that the reality of tequila is no fiesta.

One of the most troubling developments in the tequila industry lies with agave plants themselves. According to regulations, 100 percent agave tequila (the good stuff, and the only stuff worth drinking) can only be made from Weber blue agave—one of hundreds of agave species found in Mexico. Though there are millions of agaves in the ground right now—more than at any other time in history—the genetic diversity of the plants is at an all-time low. This is, of course, partially because of the aforementioned tequila-agave regulations (other agaves are used in the production of sotol and mezcal). The more genetically uniform a plant population is, the more uniformly susceptible it is to disease or pests—increasing the likelihood of a devastating event like the phylloxera epidemic that wiped out European vineyards in the late 1800s.

Another contributing factor is how the Weber blue agaves are cultivated. Instead of allowing the plants to sexually mature and go to seed as in the wild, the quiote (flower stalk) is cut back and offshoots, known as hijuelos, are collected from around the base of the mother plant and then planted. This practice saves time because the hijuelos already have a head start in their life cycle. It also saves money because when the mother plant goes to seed, it siphons off energy from the piña (the core, where fermentable sugars are stored), leaving behind fewer fermentable sugars and rendering the plant useless for tequila production.

Another strike against tequila is that agave plants take a long time to mature—sometimes well over a decade. Distillers today must forecast tequila consumption in 2018 or 2022. If they underestimate demand, there will be an agave shortage, as there was in the late 1990s. If they overshoot it, there will be a glut of agave, as there is now. Unlike with some grains and commodities, agaves cannot be stored in silos. The only thing to do with a ripe one is distill it. When an agave is at optimal ripeness, there is a window of less than a year to harvest it; the longer a grower waits to harvest ripe agave, the higher the chance that their plants will have started decaying—sometimes even fermenting in the fields. When driving through the growing region, it’s saddening to see endless hectares of neglected agave fields—overgrown with weeds, damaged by pests or overripe and rotting in their own footprints after all those years in the making. When agave prices are especially low, as they are now, it may cost a farmer more to harvest the plants than the trimmed piñas could be sold for; thus, it makes better economic sense to leave the plants to rot in the field. Other fields are ripped up before they mature and replanted with food and other crops that can yield a higher or faster return. The glut affects growers large and small. Well-known tequila producer Herradura, an operation that oversees tens of millions of plants, built colossal storage tanks that are said to house a year’s worth of tequila—or more—and they lost millions of plants during the latest glut.

One of the hosts of our group was Tomas Estes, a restaurateur who has opened more than a dozen venues in Europe and the U.K. Estes first developed a love for tequila while vacationing in Mexico in the 1960s, and the spirit has always been a focus at his restaurants. Having lived and worked in France for 16 years, Estes is intimately familiar with the notion of terroir—the idea that the flavor of grapes (and subsequently the wine) is heavily influenced by the climate, soil and other natural and human factors around them. Given that agaves spend as much as a decade or more in their environment, it makes sense that they would be influenced by their surroundings, perhaps even significantly so.

In recent years, some spirits professionals have begun to distinguish between tequilas made from agaves grown in the highlands (los altos) and those grown in the valleys around the town of Tequila. Estes wanted to take this a few steps further—along the lines of French wines that are produced from a single vineyard. His longtime international advocacy eventually led to a partnership with the Camarena family, producers of Tapatio, Tesoro and other traditional tequilas in the Arandas area. Together, they developed the idea for Tequila Ocho, the world’s first single-estate tequila. The Camarena family produces the tequila from only their own agave fields. Production methods are organic, though they are not certified as such. Each bottling of Tequila Ocho is labeled not just with the name of the ranch where the agaves were harvested, but also its vintage. When comparing tequila from several estates side by side, the difference in flavor is striking.

When the question of terroir was brought up at one of the major distilleries we toured, the factory director said that their data did not support the concept of terroir in tequila. For a large producer, consistency—across production batches and over many years—is the most important factor. The ideas of vintage and terroir are understandably vexing to them. However, while the data may not yet confirm it, the evidence in the glass is resoundingly affirmative.

Thanks to the status of our hosts, we were granted an uncommon level of access—not just at the distilleries, but also at the regulatory and marketing agencies we visited. El Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), the tequila-regulatory council, enforces the policies governing tequila through laboratory testing, field inspections and other assessments. And the Cámara Nacional de la Industria Tequilera (CNIT), the tequila chamber of commerce, markets it. The potential problem with both organizations is that the regulations—and enforcement thereof—are heavily influenced by the producers themselves. The CNIT is funded based on tequila production; therefore, the more tequila a company produces, the more it contributes to the CNIT. This sets up the potential for a scenario where the more a company contributes to the CNIT the more influence it might wield over the regulations—including what techniques can be used and what additives are allowed.

Tipsy-Texan-Tequila-still

One of the most controversial topics in tequila production is the use of modern technology in place of traditional methods. Whereas traditionally agave piñas are roasted for a day or more in brick ovens, the introduction of autoclaves—essentially giant pressure cookers—has significantly sped up the process. Some modern factories have started to use diffusers—machines that wash out fermentable sugars and are said to yield 3 percent more sugars than traditional methods. One factory spokesman referred to a diffuser as a “giant power washer for agave.” Some companies don’t roast the agaves before running them through the diffuser, turning the entire process on its end. Others use chemical agents to help the diffuser do its work. Lastly, whereas only traditional copper-pot stills were used in the past, modern column stills—which further refine the alcohol and are thought by some to diminish the flavor of the finished produce—have been introduced.

The effect of the new developments is debatable, and theoretically, none of the technologies are necessarily bad. To the proponents of such technologies, they’re a natural step in the evolution of tequila production and keep them competitive in a global marketplace. To the connoisseurs, the big companies are in a race toward the bottom—with the regulatory agencies toeing the line. In one tasting, we sampled tequilas from one house—the same mark but from a decade apart in age. The older tequila was much more flavorful and the younger one more neutral—less tequila-y. When we mentioned this quality difference to one of the industry spokesmen, he corrected us with a masterful spin: “[The new technologies] do not affect quality,” he said. “They affect profile.”

The early 1990s saw the rise of so-called premium and super-premium tequilas. Sold in fancy glass bottles, they captured the hearts of drinkers and transformed the way the world viewed tequila. The premium brands fetched hitherto unimaginable prices, and consumers had a seemingly insatiable demand for the new tequila. No label better exemplifies this than Patrón. Originally manufactured through a contract with the González family at the Siete Leguas distillery in Atotonilco, Patrón was created as a brand for the American market and came to define the super-premium category. Eventually the demand for Patrón exceeded the capacity of Siete Leguas, and the company built its own modern distillery, though not without a lengthy legal battle. Although some tequila aficionados deem it too smooth and less vegetal than a premium tequila should be, Patrón has performed spectacularly at reorienting the public perception of tequila and driving demand. While perceptions about the juice are a matter of opinion, there is a crucial difference between Patrón and its former manufacturing partner: Patrón is a brand—a label, a bottle and a brilliant marketing campaign. Siete Leguas is the product of a family’s passion, a trade passed from parents to their children that’s rooted in traditional methods. When I asked Fernando González, current patriarch of Siete Leguas, about getting started in the business, he said, “I was eight years old when my father died, but I believe that tequila is in my blood.”

As economies are globalized, so is the drinks industry—with the tequila industry following suit. As family-owned tequila companies transfer into the hands of much-bigger companies, they cease to be the sole force of a family’s being—the singular focus for generations of families like the Camarenas and Gonzálezes. They become a small piece in a corporation’s much bigger puzzle. It is often said of such transactions that control of the company has been transferred to the accountants. In the interest of appeasing shareholders, and of satisfying an ever-increasing demand for tequila, loving and time-consuming traditional methods are replaced by the time-saving (and cost-cutting) industrial techniques of modern manufacturing. Tequila, in short, becomes a victim of its own success. But ultimately, this question must be asked: if it no longer tastes like tequila, does it matter how high the “quality” is, or how much of it we can make?