Is This the Next Big Sustainable Spirit?

California producers are growing a crop that could change everything—and local distillers are making the most of it.

March 12, 2020
Photo by Ty Mecham

More people are drinking premium tequila and mezcal than ever before—particularly, in America and Japan. Over 170,000 liters of tequila and mezcal were exported to the U.S. alone in 2017, amounting to over half of Mexico's total exported mezcal. It's safe to assume that number's only grown since. In fact, it's projected that the agave spirit category will continue to grow 14 percent every year in North America.

All of this begs the question: How long can Mexican agave crops sustain the demands of this upward trend?

For many years, it's been common practice for Californian spirit producers to import Mexican agave plants, for the primary purpose of distilling. But since wild Mexican-grown agave is in constant danger of being overharvested, and the supply of cultivated agave continually fluctuates, there’s clearly a case for locally grown agave outside of the country.

Because of this, farmers and ranchers in California have been gradually planting more agave themselves—to certain ecological and uncertain economic advantages. Agave is grown all over California for ornamental reasons, and many types exist in the wild. But the plant hasn't been systematically farmed, nor have its hearts been harvested for distillation purposes in California itself—until now.

Ecologically, growing agave addresses at least some of the effects of climate change in California. Agave plants are naturally drought tolerant, fire-resistant, and require one fifth to one third of the water to cultivate, on average, than other California crops. In other words, it's the perfect plant.

Owner of California Agave Ventures (a leading agave farm that supplies to local distillers), Craig Reynolds, has become an evangelist for an agave economy in the state. He first started cultivating agave in Colima, Mexico, and soon turned his aspirations stateside. His former work in the California State Senate included battling the controversial Delta Tunnel Project—a $17 billion conveyance system which diverts water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to farmland in the Central Valley and Southern California.

“My 30 years in politics tells me we will never have the political will to do what’s necessary [to fight climate change] and that you have to have adaptation strategies for everything, whether it’s houses on stilts on the coast, relocating people, or finding different crops,” Reynolds explains. “The problem is that we’re growing almonds instead of making tequila.”

It might seem obvious, but in order for the sector to grow, the demand clearly needs to justify an increased supply.

Photo by Craig Reynolds

Still, there is growing movement of farmers and producers experimenting with agave-spirit distillation (note that this spirit cannot be technically called tequila, as the agave must be grown in a specific region of Mexico to bear such a name). Adapting and personalizing such a complex craft—one that has been done for centuries by prehispanic people in what is now Mexico—has been a learning process. And while there are no plans to beat the original mezcaleros and tequileros at their own game, these California-based distillers are hopeful in carving out their own niche.

St. George Spirits, a craft-distilling pioneer based in Alameda, has begun by making two small batches of spirits from California agave: first, in 2015, with hearts pit-roasted over four days with oak and eucalyptus wood, and second in 2019, using almond wood. In lieu of a horse-or-donkey-pulled tahona, as is traditional in the mezcal-making process in Mexico, the the agave hearts are run through a knife mill, then a sugar cane mill, to create the fermented mash. The process has been experimental and eye-opening. “Being able to play with different wood in the pit is a fascinating thing; I’m super excited about it,” says St. George’s master distiller, Lance Winters.

St. George is not the only producer wading in the water—and agave plants are not the only plant source being tapped into. Ventura Spirits, an innovative Southern California–based agave-spirit producer, has been making a prickly pear spirit (from the Nopal cactus, another drought-resistant plant) for over four years. Most recently, they’ve also been creating their third batch of an agave spirit called La Paloma, named after the ranch from which it sources its crop.

The problem is that we’re growing almonds instead of making tequila.
Craig Reynolds

Like St. George, Ventura is still learning and tweaking the methods used in its small-batch production. Instead of baking the agave hearts whole in an earthen pit, then slicing them, as is traditionally done, Ventura Spirits has taken to steaming theirs—already quartered—in an oven, to break down the inulin fibers in the plant and produce a very pure expression of the spirit.

“It’s a very plant-forward, clean process we’re using that’s not importing flavor from wood, dirt, and smoke,” explains co-founder Andrew Caspary. “Eventually, we’d like to experiment with pit-roasting.”

As California crop-growth, and the experimentation, continues, distillers are also understanding better the regional differences between agave plants, and how that translates to taste. “As our baseline,” says Ventura Spirits co-founder, Henry Tarmy,” we can say, ‘This is what Agave Tequilana from Goleta tastes like,’ or, ‘This is what Agave Americana grown in Montecito tastes like.”

The agave farmers of California Agave Ventures Photo by Craig Reynolds
Ventura Spirits' craft-distilled lineup (including Opuntia, their prickly pear spirit). Photo by Ventura Spirits

Despite all this, even as distillation techniques are being increasingly explored, it’s still uncertain whether demand for agave spirits will create a feasible market in California. “We’re trying to figure out if anybody or everybody can make money doing this. That’s going to be critical for the supply chain as a farmer—to be confident that if you invest in planting and growing, you’ll have a market for growing agave at a price that will reward your efforts. We’re still fleshing that out. We don’t want to commit to something where people are losing their assets,” says Caspary.

Lance Winters, of St. George Spirits, is yet more skeptical: “As far as this having any commercial potential going into the distribution process, it’s not going to have that. It’s not going to be a commercially available product because it’s a very expensive thing to do,” he says. “With the fermentation and processing, it’s very difficult material to work with. The fibers are very strong and [the agave] does not want to give up its ghost easily.”

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t space for an increased understanding of the ancient craft of distilling agave. The more we understand how intensive and difficult the production process is, the better we as admirers and consumers can appreciate the fruits of producers’ resources and labor. “[Making agave spirit] teaches us more about our craft and [instills in us] a really deep respect for the people who make this routinely,” says Winters.

If experimentation with the fermentation and distillation processes with California agave continues, American distillers may be able to create a novel (and great-tasting product) that consumers will buy at a rate in line with mezcal’s growing demand—creating a strong need for a thriving agave economy in the state.

What's your favorite way to use agave spirits? Let us know in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Esther Tseng

Written by: Esther Tseng

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mbzr April 22, 2021
I saw an interesting piece on the Weather Channel (for Earth Day) about a spirit made from waste whey, called Wheyward Spirit. I am happy to see any and all sustainable products coming to market. I will check out the agave products mentioned in the article. Thanks!
Pete M. March 16, 2020
Agave isn't the only sustainable crop in California. Olives are too. Alas, CA olive oil so far doesn't compare to Cretan. It is better than generic European, however. I use it in cooking, if not in salad dressing.