And this is not a unique case either. IWSR, which tracks and analyzes beverage market data, predicts sales of agave-based spirits will reach $13.3 billion next year, overtaking vodka as America’s top-bought spirits and pushing whiskey in third place.
This is wonderful news for Mexican distillers, who have a lock on the production of most agave spirits due to international “denomination of origin” agreements. Just as sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it is produced in the French region of the same name, a distilled agave can only be labeled mezcal if it comes from one of the nine specific states of Mexico. And only blue agave distilled from one of Mexico’s five states can be called tequila.
DO status for both spirits was enshrined in the North American Free Trade Agreement, so there can be no American tequila or mezcal. But American companies are allowed to import the spirits from Mexico and bottle them here, as long as the labels clearly indicate them as “imported.”
Thanks to DO protection, Mexican exports of agave spirits have soared: according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, 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 margarita-fueled spring break staple, the smokier, funkier mezcal is a relative newcomer, but it’s quickly becoming mainstream. Americans now drink more than Mexicans.
Full Disclosure Time: As a long-time mezcal enthusiast, I have mixed feelings about my fellow Americans’ newfound passion. For one thing, my favorite drink is now easier to find: When I first moved to New York 15 years ago, none of the bars or restaurants in my Upper East Side area had mezcal; now some of them list dozens of brands on their drink cards. But popularity comes at a price: the occasional bottle of mezcal that ended up in my neighborhood liquor store sold for well over $30; today, most are closer to triple digits.
The popularity of agave spirits is opening a market for other Mexican drinks, like raicilla and bacanora – and not all of them have DO protection. This opens up new possibilities for American distillers as well as American drinkers.
Take the case of sotol, which is produced from an agave-like plant of the genus Dasylirion, more commonly known as “desert spoon”, which grows wild in parts of Mexico and the southern United States. United. A clear spirit like tequila and mezcal, it has a more botanical taste, with flowery notes that one expects from a quality gin.
Sotol was considered a kind of moonlight in Mexico until it was legalized in 1994; a decade later, the government moved to obtain DO status, limiting “legal” sotol to the states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Coahuila. But that status is not recognized in the United States-Mexico-Canada deal, President Donald Trump’s renegotiated version of NAFTA.
Much to the chagrin of Mexican producers, American distillers like Desert Door, based in Driftwood, TX, can use the term sotol as well. Perhaps inevitably, the company has been accused of cultural appropriation; more charity reviewers call their product inauthentic.
In some ways, their arguments remind me of the outrage in India, my homeland, in the late 1990s when another Texas company, RiceTec, sought to label one of its lab-developed products “basmati.” , after the long-grained aromatic. grape varieties from the foothills of the Himalayas.
But Judson Kauffman, one of three military veterans who founded Desert Door in 2017, has none of that. The desert spoon bush is native to Texas, he points out, and there is plenty of evidence that Native Americans were distilling there long before Mexico or the United States existed.
Plus, Kauffman tells me, American moonshiners were making sotol decades before the spirit was legalized in Mexico, and long before the concept of DO existed. “We respect the Mexican sotol tradition, but we have our own,” he says.
During a recent visit to the Desert Door distillery in Driftwood, near Austin, Kauffman and fellow founder Ryan Campbell argued that, like wine, sotol is heavily 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 of it also tastes different, Campbell says.
In the interests of journalism, and as a service to you, dear reader, I have put this claim to rigorous test. And for what it’s worth, the Texas version is flowerier than the dozen Mexican sotols I’ve tried. Equally important, they were all quite delicious, especially when pure, which is how I learned to love my mezcal.
The taste-testing process also resulted in an epiphany. I suspect that, like me, many people who try Texan Sotol will be intrigued to measure it against the varietals of Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila. This means that south-of-the-border sotol has more to gain than lose from the rise of the American version, just as it benefits from our growing thirst for Mexican spirits.
More from Bobby Ghosh on food and drink:
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of the Hindustan Times, Editor-in-Chief of Quartz and International Editor of Time.
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