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Why mezcal could cure the ‘tequila timebomb’

Published:  12 February, 2024

If you’re an avid agave fan or have been subject to any of my previous tequila musings of the last few years, you might have heard the phrase – ‘the tequila timebomb’. For a few years now, the boom in tequila’s popularity has been well documented, as have the numerous voices warning that, to keep up with this demand, producers are irresponsibly damaging Mexico’s agricultural and civil landscapes. In 2022, my article on the subject talked about monocropping practices of enormous agave cultivations, cloned plants, and the dangerous effect these were having on biodiversity, agriculture, and even water availability for local communities. So, 18 months later, have we managed to dispose of the tequila timebomb?

The remaining threat

To recap, here are a few key points. Tequila can only be made from 100% of the tequilana Weber Blue variety of agave, grown in a specific number of Mexico’s regions thanks to the Geographic Appellation of Origin. It has its own governing body in Mexico, Consejo Regulador del Tequila known better as the CRT and growth isn’t slowing, with the category estimated to be worth $15.5bn by 2029.

It’s also worth recounting why it’s so popular. Beyond tasting great and being incredibly versatile, it’s got a coolness about it – it’s chic, with plenty of associations with music and art. There’s also been a growth in appreciation for Mexican food and culture globally – and not the quasi-Mexican junk food wraps served with fries, but true cuisine; premium dining experiences that offer a real taste of Mexico. And of course, part of that cultural appreciation has to come from imbibing a local tipple.

But back to the threat. The problem begins with the time that agave takes to mature – between eight and 12 years. And with staggering amounts of Mexico’s Weber Blue agave having already been harvested to fill tequila bottles – we’re running out of mature plants and have an abundance of younger agave that won’t get the chance to reach maturity as the tequila boom continues its growth. And of course, the tequila ‘boom’ has made agave a hot commodity. It quite literally is worth its weight in gold to farmers and producers alike, which means deforestation or biodiversity reduction becomes an option, to make way for abundant agave monocrops.

All in the name of progress

My colleague and friend Ivan Saldana, a biochemist, agave expert, and founder of spirits company Casa Lumbre, has taught me lots about the agave plant, and it has some extraordinary qualities. It has the highest water use efficiency on earth – an incredible option in a world getting warmer. Where other crops need fertilisers and pesticides to grow, agave rarely does. It’s pretty self-sufficient, will grow in harsh climates and as the climate changes, it’s a great base ingredient for lots of different spirits, so long as you have plenty of it and give it time to mature.

Because of its ability to grow in harsh climates, we’re now seeing agave distillates coming out of unexpected regions like Australia’s Act of Treason, plus varieties from South Africa, Canada and California. This is good news as it takes the pressure off supply and the agave cultivations in Mexico.

Because the tequila timebomb became so notorious, we’re also seeing a lot of stellar producers at work with great eco credentials, and they’re doing their best to dismantle the bomb. They’re looking at new technologies to draw out more sugars from less mature plants, new ways of cultivating agave, and shifting their focus away from tequila, to use other varieties to create mixtos and mezcals – some of which are just as delicious as your favourite tequila.

The question of quality

But, for all that's being done, there’s an education piece required. As consumers, I think we’ve adopted a fixation around tequila. We’ve come to view the word tequila as the only agave spirit without really understanding the category and ignoring quality distilled agave spirits from other regions or other agave spirits such as mezcal often with an inference about these being of lower quality. That is absolutely not the case.

Whilst other agave distillates can use varieties of plants other than the Weber Blue, there’s a good chance these plants have had more time to mature (due to less demand) and have received the same care and attention as your favourite tequila. Mezcal has a more challenging, complex flavour profile, there’s a real skill in the production process and distillers are starting to get really creative with different extraction and ageing processes. Other countries are producing some amazing agave distillates using the same production processes that can be found in Mexico. Of course, tequila is delicious and it’s also the OG – it’s one of my favourite tipples at the moment. I’m simply saying that other agave spirits are just as delicious and just as premium.

So, what’s the solution?

So, problem solved, right? We’re growing new agave all over the world, everyone’s aware of the problem and we’re doing lots to fix it. If only it were that simple.

There is so much glorious global agave available and yet, the majority of consumers and venues still only want tequila and often at a low cost. If you’re a tequila drinker, start diversifying into other agave spirits. Be a little daring and buy a new bottle to sit aside your favourite blanco or reposado. If you don’t know where to start – ask your local bartender. And a word to the on-trade – you know there is good and not-so-good in every category, especially tequila. You already appreciate a good mezcal or sotol, so lead the charge and get it on your menus, encourage people to sample and spread the good word that there’s more to agave than just tequila.

With the adoption of other agave distillates from Mexico or elsewhere maybe we have a chance of defusing the bomb.