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Nick Gillett: Tequila’s dance with environmental vandalism

Published:  05 September, 2022

In the first of our new critical mini-series, penned by Mangrove UK’s MD Nick Gillett, tequila’s crumbling environmental credentials come under the spotlight.

The tequila timebomb. I’ve used this phrase to refer to the surge in global demand for Mexico’s quintessential drink and the environmental harm that the rush to meet this demand is causing. But as time goes on and practices don’t change, I become increasingly uncomfortable with the effect that growing tequila production is having on Mexico’s natural – and civil – landscape.

Now, before I continue, I’m going to preface this article by saying that, for the avoidance of doubt, I love everything about tequila. I think it’s one of the most exciting drinks categories out there. I’m delighted that it’s finally being appreciated for its complexity, as opposed to being a shot that people throw back without appreciating its nuances. But my conscience is becoming an issue.

In this world where we’re becoming increasingly conscious of sustainability issues and planet-harming production (rightfully so), is there a place for consuming, in increasing amounts, a spirit which is quite often manufactured downright irresponsibly? Is there such a thing as a responsible tequila drinker? Or are all of us tequila drinkers just environmental vandals? As expected, I have more than a few thoughts on the matter.

The fundamental supply issue

First of all, let’s start by addressing the snobbery surrounding tequila. For the aficionados, a tequila must be made from 100% agave to be deemed ‘high-quality’. But Agave plants themselves need to be ‘mature’ (between seven and twelve years old) before they have the appropriate qualities for harvesting.

There is a tequila boom happening right now. Production volumes have doubled in the last decade, with super premium tequila production increasing by 83% between 2020 and 2021 alone. And it’s not slowing down. The tequila market is set to be worth US$15.5bn by 2029. To meet the current global production demand, Mexico needs tens of millions of agave plants each year – but given it’s a plant that takes so long to mature, we have a significant delay between planting and production.

Environmental damage

So, the first thing to note is that, fundamentally, there are appropriate protections in place that mean we should be able to ‘drink responsibly’ when it comes to tequila. The CRT is the Mexican governing body for tequila production and has oversight of pretty much everything agave related within the country.

So far, 200 million agave plants have been planted to tackle the growing demand, and so the environmental issues begin. There are only certain designated areas within Mexico where agave can be grown, and deforestation and the changing of crops has been a significant part of the mass planting process.

The humble agave plant then becomes a hot commodity – as precious as gold to both farmers and distillers. The agave plant itself flowers once in its lifetime – between anywhere from 10 to 100 years before you’ll see it in full bloom. It’s safe to say there’s a lot of guesswork when it comes to when it will flower, but tequila producers don’t like guesswork! The agave loses lots of its precious liquid once it flowers, so farmers want to harvest before that flowering.

They’ve developed cloned plants to get around this, clones that don’t flower or flower incredibly late, but this, in turn, is severely disrupting biodiversity and pollination across Mexico. There’s also the issue that with hundreds of millions of plants with the same genetic code – spread across the country – there will be severe damage done to ‘organic’ agave populations.

The final environmental issue (that I’ll mention) is to do with the water-intensive distillation process. One single litre of tequila takes 15 litres of water to make. It doesn’t take a scientist to see why, in a drought-ridden country like Mexico, this is an issue. Local populations are desperate for water whilst volumes of tequila production increase and increase to meet this global demand. Without doubt, there’s a civil issue there.

And so, we set out a solid argument for tequila being the most irresponsible of drinks (and I’m not talking about shots again). Instead of saying I agree, however, I think we should examine a solution or two.

Potential solutions

The first solution I’ll mention is mixto tequilas (hear the gasp from those tequila snobs). Mixto tequilas only need to take 51% of their sugars from the agave plant – the rest can be sourced from other organic materials. Rather than seeing this as a dilution of purity, can’t we view this as an opportunity to enjoy some diverse and complex spirits? Plus, if we know that a lot of 100% agave tequilas are using low-quality, pre-maturation agave plants, is 100% tequila really that valuable? I’ve tasted some poor 100% tequilas and some terrific high-quality mixtos – in this case, I say ‘down with the purists!’.

One of the determining qualities of tequila, is that it uses agave from one of five Mexican regions. With countries across the world offering similar climates that are suitable for growing agave, perhaps we should increase our demand and taste for 100% agave distilled spirits from countries with similar climates and conditions? And whilst I’m confident that even the most discerning tequila connoisseurs couldn’t tell the difference between a 100% agave tequila distilled in Mexico and one from another geographic region, would the consumer demand be as high for the former as it is for true tequila? I’m unsure.

Now, I’m fairly certain that the CRT won’t be relaxing the agave geographical appellations any time soon, so our final solution could be to limit the supply, much like the Champagne market. To avoid this whole boom and bust demand that tequila is experiencing, should we simply be producing as much tequila as the land can handle. I see a number of benefits – sustainable employment for the local area, competitive pricing for producers (assuming demand maintains) and significant environmental benefits.

Don’t be a vandal – drink responsibly

While all the above solutions are largely outside of our control, there is one solution I foresee as being transformational for the market: being a conscious consumer.

As it stands, our demand is outstripping a natural product, in a country that is already facing a number of environmental and economic challenges. If we, as consumers and industry professionals, place more value on sustainable practices, do our research, and favour the brands who are doing things right (and they are out there) then who’s to say that we can’t change the current trajectory?

Where to start with your research? I think a lot of us in the on-trade are becoming increasingly clued up on spirits’ sustainability creds, so start by asking your local bartender. is also a great site that lists every spirit that’s registered with the CRT and includes a list of details and stats relating to the distillation process.

We can still enjoy tequila and it still very much deserves its moment in the sun. All I’m saying is that with a little bit of education and conscious consumerism we could have a more sustainable ‘boom’ period whilst protecting the natural environment which has given us this delicious drink.

Something to think about the next time you’re enjoying a refreshing glass of the Mexican nectar.