Drink, Features

How agave spirits took off

Tequila and mezcal are the coolest bottles on the back bar right now – and there’s not a salt shaker in sight. Here’s what they’re all about

Most of us, at some point, have suffered a tequila-related trauma, swearing never to touch it again. But the spirit has shaken off its shooter image and is now the coolest thing to be seen sipping on. Sales of agave spirits are soaring, with the global market set to hit 35 million cases by 2021, up from the current level of 30 million, according to one market researcher.

Cocktails have helped to the trend – just look at the Picante de la Casa, a summery blend of reposado tequila, chilli, lime and agave nectar created by Soho House West Hollywood’s Chris Ojeda that is now one of Soho House’s bestselling drinks around the world.

“We started putting it on the bar top at Ocho and people were coming back for more”

But more and more of us are savouring high-end tequilas neat or on the rocks, and enjoying the bold flavour of tequila’s smoky cousin, mezcal. There are mezcal and tequila selections on the menu at the Soho Beach House in Miami and Little Beach House Malibu, and demand is growing. “We started putting it on the bar top at Ocho and people were coming back for more, asking about the tradition. The staff have really got behind it,” says Chris Hudnall, bars manager for North America.

“It’s far and away my favourite spirit category to drink,” says Spenser Genesy, bar manager at Little Beach House Malibu. “It has been wild to watch it really take off in the past five years.”

The trend has grown as palates have changed, believes Chris. “You see people drinking more bitter spirits now. It used to be that tasting the alcohol content scared people away.”

It also helps that consumers are getting more curious about the origins and production methods of the food and drink they buy. “There’s more awareness of what you put into your body. Tequila and mezcal are pretty much the rawest ingredients put into a bottle. Agave and water, that’s it,” says Chris.

Both tequila and mezcal are made from agave plants and can only be made in certain states of Mexico, set out in Denominacion de Origen rules (much like those for the production of champagne). Plants take years or even decades to mature, at which point the “heart” is crushed to produce a sweet juice that is fermented and distilled, then aged.

Inevitably, we are now seeing the rise of the agave nerd, with drinkers seeking out small batches and rare, wild species, or spirits that have been aged in old whisky or wine barrels.  Blanco, or silver tequila, is aged for just a couple of weeks, and is considered the best type for cocktails such as margaritas, while reposado is “rested” for up to a year before being bottled, taking on a golden hue from the oak barrels they are aged in.  Anejo – “vintage” tequilas – are darker in colour, aged from one to three years and are considered the best for sipping. “It’s lighter to drink than whisky,” says Chris Hudnall.

While tequila is made only from the agave tequilana, or blue agave plant, mezcal comes from a wider variety of species (the vast majority is made in the region of Oaxaca). It’s a different taste, but is becoming very popular as drinkers adjust, says Chris. “It’s one of those flavours you’re not ready for. It’s smoky, and can have some fruitiness. It’s almost like there’s a rubber to it, but with finer mezcals that turns earthy.”

Unlike tequila, most mezcal is still made in small family distilleries using traditional techniques, though the new craze is seeing wealthier, larger firms and American companies arriving in Oaxaca with new ideas. Spenser is a fan of Gem + Bolt, a mezcal made from the common Espadin varietal that is infused with Damiana, a herb thought to elevate serotonin and increase joy.

“It is starting to drift the same way as wine”

But you can’t go wrong with a traditional Mexican agave spirit, says Chris. “Alipus mezcal is really great: it’s a small company that uses different farms and blends, producing jobs for the local area.” Another small company, Casa Noble, has produced two tequilas blended specially for Soho House, now available on all back bars in the US.

As the varieties grow and become more widely available, Spenser thinks even more people will recognise the versatility of agave spirits: “It is starting to drift the same way as wine with different terroirs, varietals, and process having great effect on the final result in the glass.”

Next, both men are excited to watch this ancient firewater gain a global following. “Families have been making them for decades, and finally they’ve arrived,” says Chris. “Agave spirits are going to be hottest thing on the back bar in the next two years.”

Words: Chloe Lambert

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