Bloomberg Opinion — You may have missed it for all the noise around the culture wars, but Americans are drinking more and more like Mexicans. Agave-based spirits from our southern neighbor are on the verge of a major breakthrough: This year, Americans will spend more money on tequila and mezcal than on domestic whiskeys.
And it’s not a one-off, either. IWSR, which tracks and analyzes drinks market data, predicts that sales of agave-based spirits will top $13.3 billion next year, overtaking vodka as America’s most-purchased spirit, and pushing whiskey to third place.
This is marvelous news for Mexican distillers, who have a lock on the production of most agave spirits because of international “denomination of origin” agreements. Just as bubbly wine can only be called Champagne if it is produced in the French region of that name, a distilled agave can’t be labeled mezcal unless it’s from one of nine specific states in Mexico. And only the distilled blue agave from one of five Mexican states can be called tequila.
The D.O. status for both spirits was enshrined in the North American Free Trade Agreement, so there can be no American tequila or mezcal. But US companies are allowed to import the spirits from Mexico and bottle them here, so long as the labels clearly mark them as “imported.”
Thanks to D.O. protection, Mexican exports of agave spirits have soared: According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the US, Americans bought 26.7 million nine-liter cases of tequila and mezcal in 2021, up from 11.9 million cases in 2011. While smooth tequila has long been a staple of margarita-fueled spring breaks, the smokier, funkier mezcal is a relative newcomer — but has quickly gone mainstream. Americans now drink more of it than Mexicans.
Full disclosure time: As a longtime mezcal enthusiast, I have mixed feelings about my fellow Americans’ newfound passion. On the one hand, my preferred tipple is now easier to find: When I first moved to New York 15 years ago, none of the bars or restaurants in my corner of the Upper East Side had any mezcal; now some of them list dozens of brands on their drinks menus. But popularity has come at a price: The occasional bottle of mezcal that turned up in my neighborhood liquor store used to retail well south of $30; today, most are closer to three figures.
The popularity of the agave spirits is opening up a market for other Mexican drinks, like raicilla and bacanora — and not all of them enjoy D.O. protection. This opens up new possibilities for American distillers as as well as American drinkers.
Take the case of sotol, which is produced from an agave-like plant from the genus Dasylirion, more commonly known as “desert spoon,” that grows wild in parts of Mexico and southern US. A clear spirit like tequila and mezcal, it tastes more botanical, with flowery notes you’d expect in a quality gin.
Sotol was regarded as a kind of moonshine in Mexico until it was legalized in 1994; a decade later, the government moved to secure D.O. status, limiting “legal” sotol to the states of Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila. But that status is not recognized in the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, President Donald Trump’s renegotiated version of NAFTA.
To the chagrin of Mexican producers, American distillers like Desert Door, based in Driftwood, TX, can thus use the term sotol. Perhaps inevitably, the company has been accused of cultural appropriation; more charitable critics label their product inauthentic.
In some ways their arguments remind me of the outrage in India, the land of my birth, in the late 1990s when another Texan company, RiceTec, sought to label one of its lab-developed products “basmati,” after the aromatic long-grain varietals that is native to the foothills of the Himalayas.
But Judson Kauffman, one of three military vets who founded Desert Door in 2017, is having none of it. The desert spoon bush is native to Texas, he points out, and there’s plenty of evidence Native Americans were distilling there long before Mexico or the US existed.
What’s more, Kauffman tells me, American moonshiners were making sotol many decades before the spirit was legalized in Mexico, and long before the concept of D.O. existed. “We’re respectful of Mexico’s sotol tradition, but we’ve got our own,” he says.
On a recent tour of Desert Door’s distillery in Driftwood, near Austin, Kauffman and fellow founder Ryan Campbell made the case that, like wine, sotol is greatly influenced by terroir. And because the desert spoon bush that grows wild in the state is different from the varieties that grow in Mexico, the spirit from it tastes different, too, Campbell says.
In the interest of journalism and as a service to you, dear reader, I put this claim to a rigorous test. And for what it’s worth, the Texan version is more flowery than the dozen or so Mexican sotols I’ve tried. Just as important, they were all quite delicious — especially when sipped neat, which is how I’ve come to like my mezcal.
The process of taste-testing also uncorked an epiphany. I suspect that, like me, many people who try Texan sotol will be intrigued to measure it against varietals from Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila. That means sotol from south of the border has more to gain than lose from the rise of the American version, just as it benefits from our growing thirst for Mexican sprits.
And I say salud to that!
Read more at Bloomberg.com