The agave spirits explosion shows no signs of abating, and nowhere is that more evident than at the sixth annual Spirits of Mexico Festival and its fourth annual Tasting Competition, held in Old Town San Diego in August and September (full disclosure: I lead the judging at the competition). The two events – grand consumer tasting with seminars and the competition – have grown so large that the producer of the event, Dori Bryant of the Polished Palate, has spread things over a monthlong period, with new tweaks including the Sangrita Cocktail Competition in August and the charity auction of meals with tequila distillers, among other innovations. It seemed like a good time to check in with her about the way tequila and mezcal are booming in this country.
NCB Mix: You've been hosting the Spirits of Mexico competition for four years now — what are the big changes you're seeing in the way tequila producers view the U.S.?
Dori Bryant: The growth potential in the U.S. is beyond calculation; it’s most akin to the vodka explosion in the ’90s, with new brands being introduced almost weekly. Bloggers and aficionados are spurring that growth. There are more of them, they're well educated and they're prolific. And now, some of them are brand owners. This phenomenon is largely [happening in the] West Coast and border states and, as agave spirits gain distribution in other key areas, even non-agave spirits consumers are hopping on the tequila train. Consumers are purchasing from one extreme to the other — mid-priced tequila is not selling like it used to. Consumers are either buying the inexpensive 100 percent agaves or the higher-priced reposados and anejos. The good news here is that they’re consistently upgrading from mixtos to 100 percent agaves.
Interestingly, during the Spirits of Mexico Festival this year, Juan Francisco Collado Lorentzen, owner of Casa 1921 Tequila, will be hosting a seminar geared to the producers on obtaining entry into the U.S. market. The Tequila Chamber will also be represented for those interested in possibly owning brands.
NCB Mix: Some spirits gain popularity because brands spend big money, but in the case of tequila it seems to be based more on the enthusiastic consumers — is that what you're seeing at your event?
DB: The best analogy I can point to is how the whisk(e)y industry blossomed here since the mid-’90s. What Malt Advocate [magazine] started back then with WhiskyFest was not merely a “Fest” — they started a movement. For example, prior to the ’90s, we were “Scotch drinkers,” not Laphroaig or The Dalmore or Ardbeg, and then we became Laphroaig 15 and The Dalmore Gran Reserva and Ardbeg Uigeadail [drinkers] (any of which you can buy me for Christmas). The more we learned, the better educated we became, and the more we consumed. Distillers fed that thirst producing new and different styles: longer agings, variations in casks, etc.
It's easy to draw parallels with the agave industry, as both come with credentials/certification and watchdog institutions, and both have clearly defined parameters.
Tequila consumers now make their preferences known — instead of “I like tequila,” it’s morphed to brand preference, to specific expressions within brand choices and so on. The phenomenon is that they’re not simply name-dropping or buying into marketing — they have well informed, educated palates and know the spirit in that glass.
NCB Mix: Each year at SOM, I see more and more women attending — is that a big part of the fan base?
DB: Since around 2007, the Festival began attracting a fairly even mix of men and women. While each station at the festival features a full line of tequilas, women tended toward the blancos and men toward the anejos and up. That distinction has been melting away in recent years. What we are seeing are more women aficionados, such as Rachel Nicholls-Bernyk (TequilaNuts.com) and Diana Barrera (AgaveGal.com), distillers (Ana Maria Romero Mena, who is also judging this year) and distillery owners (Carmen Villarreal from Casa San Matias) finally coming into their own. It’s long been held that women’s palates are more refined; producers look to them for their opinions.
NCB Mix: The folks who attend seem to have an incredible thirst for knowledge about tequila, mezcal and other agave spirits and how they are produced, yes?
DB: Most certainly! As the festival’s producer, it’s become much more challenging for me to keep the aficionados and experts actively involved and interested, while at the same time introducing budding aficionados to the spirit. The worst thing you can subscribe to being is “all things to all people.” But the SOM does have something for everyone. We always host seminars and this year, [we’re hosting] the most ever, largely due to increasing consumer demand for more information. Topics now cover every facet of agave spirits, from first planting to the cocktail on the bar.
We’ll feature introductory sessions along with sessions taking the consumer in for a deeper look-see. For example, Mario Marquez, tequila ambassador at Café Coyote in Old Town, will be addressing the evolution of tequila, taking guests back before agave was used for production of tequila, mezcal and other Mexican spirits. We have also added seminars focused on mezcal and sotol spirits.
The festival does not include cocktails — it’s purposely designed as an opportunity for guests to become intimate with each selection, so sipping is the order of the evening. But what do you do when the evening is over and it’s back to reality? We’re including mixology sessions with Gaston Martinez, Milagro ambassador, and Manny Hinojosa, Tequilas Cazadores and Corzo ambassador.
NCB Mix: Has the introduction of extra anejo tequilas changed the way consumers view tequila?
DB: Without a doubt. And, again, here’s that parallel with whiskies. I drink nothing younger than 12-year-old single malt and am likely among the first to buy 18-, 21- and 25-year-olds. To me, an extra añejo is akin to well-aged whiskies and Cognacs. The delicate agave juice, distinct from most other spirit bases, purportedly does not sit well when aged much past seven years, although I have tasted some aged longer, such as Clase Azul and t1 - Tequila Uno, and both are testament that going beyond the minimum three, eight or nine years of aging can produce fascinating, often spectacular results.
NCB Mix: Back East, at least, we're seeing more bartenders using mezcal in cocktails. Is mezcal finally ready to shed its rough and tumble image, and if so, why?
DB: Mezcal intrigues me. I tend to have more heavily peated whiskey styles in my liquor cabinet. So, segueing to mezcal is more like a dancing a samba. It’s the oldest consumed spirit in North America — so how did tequila outpace mezcal? Mezcal generally assumes some “smoke,” from the production process but now there are mezcals such as Fidencio, a variety ‘sin humo.’ And while tequila can only be made from the Weber Blue variety, mezcal can be made from more than a dozen varieties. The most popular, espadin. forms the basis for most, but newer introductions such as those made from the Tobala variety are being produced. Mezcal does bring several interplaying elements to cocktails. If I were a mezcal, I’d concentrate on dropping myself into cocktails that are variations on whiskey-based ones such as the Blood & Sand.
NCB Mix: What's your favorite agave cocktail right now?
DB: I am more of a sipper than a cocktailian. However, I find the combination of pulp fruits, like mango, with a few jalapenos tossed in, suits my palate. Tequila versions of Mojitos are high on my list as they’re soothing and refreshing for this unbearably hot summer.
For more info on the Spirits of Mexico Festival and Tasting competition go to www.polishedpalate.com/events/som/2010/sd/index.html.