In mid-March, as most North Americans hunkered down at home, they stocked their bars with liquid comfort. Nielsen reported U.S. liquor sales were up 55 per cent that week, with tequila leading the way, selling 75 per cent more than at the same time last year. There’s a growing thirst for spirits made from the desert succulent agave, including tequila and its smoky older sibling mezcal. (Technically, mezcal is the umbrella term for all agave spirits, though the spirit distilled from smoked agave is also specifically known as mezcal.)
Spirits Canada reports that although tequila makes up just 3 per cent of annual spirits sales, the category grew by almost 11 per cent in 2018, outpaced only slightly by gin. Canadian palates and markets have both been opened by travel to, and trade with, Mexico (where all tequila and mezcal must be made). Brands are building on both: Calgary’s Wayne Henuset, for instance, leads an investor group that purchased the El Tequileno brand and built the nearby Casa Salles boutique hotel.
Canadian experts have other theories about the spirits’ upward trajectory. “People are not just expanding their level of taste by going to the beach in Mexico. They’re getting it from our bartenders,” says Vancouver-based Eric Lorenz. The master mezcalero and catador (taster) and diploma-holder from the Consejo Regulador del Tequila, the spirit’s governing body, founded the national distributor Lorenz Agave Spirits a decade ago. He travelled Mexico to hand-select products, such as Alipus single-village mezcals and overproof Tapatio tequila, for mixologists to use in cocktails. “There’s getting to be much more of a market for sipping straight spirits, too,” he says. He’s watched tastes evolve from “easy-drinking” reposado and anejo barrel-aged tequilas to “making vegetal flavours sexy” in today’s quality unaged spirits, which can smell and taste of roasted peppers, grilled vegetables, citrus and botanicals.
Lorenz also says that wellness-conscious imbibers appreciate that high-quality blanco tequila and mezcal don’t have additives. Tavi Eggertson founded Tavi Tequila on that premise after struggling with allergies to most alcoholic beverages. He calls his ultra-premium Platinum “tequila for people who don’t like tequila,” with smooth honey, butter and nut aromas. “People drink it all night and call me the next day to say they don’t have a hangover,” he says. Montrealer Alex Lacroix, who co-founded the premium tequila brand Siempre with his Mexican partner Monica Sanita, says with a wink, “In Mexico, we’ve heard [tequila] helps with digestion, works as a sleep aid, even helps to cure the common cold.” Sanita’s mother and great-grandmother made agave spirits at home, part of a revered Mexican cultural tradition that’s often nurtured through generations.
Former Vancouver star bartender Danielle Tartarin has been exploring the artistry of mezcal-producing families since moving to Mexico five years ago. She plans to bring small-batch mezcals to the Canadian market under the Gota Gorda (“Fat Drop”) brand, exploring the terroir of more than 50 types of agave. Tartarin, who sips besitos (kisses) of mezcal with a snack plate of fruit, nuts and chocolate, says aficionados of the spirit “value bottles of mezcal because they are history, time and patience collected and turned into liquid art passed down through generations.”
Mexico City native Carmen Marron is using many of those historic labour-intensive methods for growing, harvesting, smoking and distilling agave for her Mezcal Agua Santa. Marron, who completed an MBA in Canada, prioritizes sustainable practices, from filtering distillery waste to cutting down on emissions from wood-oven agave cooking. Because of long growing and maturation cycles, agave can be a volatile and vulnerable commodity, so Marron supports environmentally conscious agave farming and replanting programs, issues she says are increasingly of concerns to consumers.
The ready-to-drink canned-cocktail movement has also boosted tequila consumption. The Canadian brand Tequila Tromba debuted its canned Tequila Tromba Blanco and soda cocktails in Ontario this spring, for instance. Nude is another Canadian brand offering tequila in a can. “To our knowledge, we were the world’s first sugar-free tequila soda on the world market, ever,” says Julius Makarewicz, CEO of B.C.-based Nude. Cans of Nude tequila and soda with lime flew off Canadian shelves last year. “We couldn’t make enough,” Makarewicz says. This spring, Nude released a pineapple-flavoured version.
Grapefruit, berries, cucumber, chilis and a touch of agave nectar are other cocktail ingredients Owen Walker, co-owner of Toronto watering holes El Rey and Quetzal, recommends with tequila and mezcal. “I am also a huge fan of the Bittermens Xocolatl Mole flavour when thinking about a bitters option for an agave drink,” says the bartender and spirits expert. With inspiration like that, we never need to resort to lime-and-salt shots or simple margaritas ever again.
Coming to terms: Agave spirits experts on what to look for in a quality tequila or mezcal
Look for distilleries that actually make and bottle their own product, unlike contract or celebrity brands that just source their spirits. “You have to dig in to get quality information,” says Eric Lorenz, who recommends sites like his own agavespirits.com or tequilamatchmaker.com.
“Sometimes we look to the NOM [Norma Oficial Mexicana], a unique four-digit code meaning the tequila meets government standards,” says Siempre Tequila’s Alex Lacroix. On mezcal bottles, it’s on a holographic silver label. It only indicates the distillery, so multiple brands can share the same NOM but use different-quality ingredients or methods, he cautions.
“Strong and stable producers will be using 100-per-cent blue agave and will be invested in the long-term viability of agave production for sustainability. Consumers should be educated on producers who may be adding fillers to make up for the lack of maturity of plants,” says Eric Brass, chief executive officer of Tequila Tromba. Mixto tequilas are made with up to 49-per-cent non-agave sugars; joven abocado products can contain a jumble of flavourings and colouring additives.
There are three categories for mezcal. Ancestral is made using the most traditional methods, then artisanal and simply mezcal for products made with more industrial methods, explains Carmen Marron, the Mexico City native and Canadian MBA grad who founded Mezcal Agua Santa. The production method “changes the flavour and quality,” she says.
Mezcal made of wild species should be a special-occasion sip only. “Cuishe, Tepeztate, Cirial, and many others can take up to 35 years to [harvest],” Marron says. “It should be consumed with respect.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Owen Walker as Owen Wilson.
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