Hecho in America: Distilling Agave Spirits Stateside

Mexico has been the agricultural and spiritual home of agave spirits for centuries. Now, some American distillers are attempting to fashion their own interpretation of the spirit on U.S. soil. Will they succeed? Emma Janzen investigates.

Would tequila, if called by any other name, still taste as sweet? For consumers, that’s merely one of the many questions being raised by the new crop of American distillers crafting spirits made from agave—like tequila, bacanora and mezcal—on American soil.

Mexico’s native spirits are some of the world’s most storied liquors. For centuries, producers have cultivated agave plants to make these liquid assets, and like other spirits protected by appellation of origin and regulated by local law (think: cognac), they are deeply ingrained in the fabric of Mexican culture. From the bright floral and citrus notes of highland tequila to the earthy, herbaceous undertones of lowland tequila to the untamed spirit of smoky mezcal, each one of these spirits celebrates Mexican history and terroir.

But over the last 10 years a handful of distilleries have begun releasing agave spirits made in America. The resulting spirits can’t be called tequila for legal reasons—only those made from agave tequilana (blue agave) grown and produced in one of five states in Mexico can claim that designation—but that isn’t stopping Americans from trying to imitate Mexico’s success.

For some, the quest simply stems from the freedom to experiment, for others the thrill lies in developing an approachable tequila alternative suited to the American palate.

Neither motivation is novel; American distillers have taken foreign liquids and re-interpreted them for ages. (American champagne, anyone?) But to date, no one is making a product that constitutes an entirely new category of agave spirit made with 100% American ingredients. Instead, most are making spirits that lean towards the genre of generic reproductions, made from agave tequilana imported from Mexico—a surprising discovery, considering the conditions for growing agave in America are ripe for the taking.

In the Southwestern states specifically, the soil and climate conditions are primed for agave production. According to author and agave expert Greg Starr, agave tequilana could be feasibly harvested in the warmest areas of Southern California and Arizona, as it needs a frost-free environment to thrive. Alternatively, agave palmeri, commonly used to produce Mexican bacanora, grows fruitfully in Arizona, and dasylirion wheeleri, which is not an agave but rather a cousin of the plant used to make Mexican sotol, is abundant throughout West Texas and Eastern New Mexico. In South Africa, Starr says, there are producers making a beverage from the agave americana plant, which also grows in Arizona and Texas.

While the challenges facing American producers won’t be solved overnight, Winters and other distillers believe that a homegrown agave spirit made from 100% American ingredients isn’t an impossible goal to attain with the right determination and funding. Given the experimental nature of the craft spirits boom, it’s practically inevitable.

Back in the late 1990s, one particularly ambitious Southern California entrepreneur started the U.S. agave spirits trend when he planted his first crop in Temecula, California. Using a mixture of blue agave plants grown on his property and a percentage of processed nectar imported from Mexico, JB Wagoner says he was able to produce up to 500 bottles of “Temequila” (a name that was later changed to JB Wagoner’s Ultra Premium 100% Agave Spirits) per week by 2005. The spirit gained notoriety across the country due to its novelty, but many wondered whether or not he could sustain operations in the long run. Unfortunately, that question will  remain unanswered as Wagoner has since ceased production for personal reasons. But his experiment undoubtedly inspired other American distillers to wonder about the potential for making agave spirits in America.

For St. George Spirits in California, it took over 40,000 pounds of agave to create 447 gallons of “tequila” in 2008. Master Distiller Lance Winters said when they couldn’t find American-grown agave for their “Agua Azul” experiment, they imported cooked agave piñas (the center of the plant, or “heart”) from Mexico.

Traditionally, Mexican producers shred the cooked piñas through a knife mill or crush them with a tahona, or large stone wheel, to extract the liquid needed for fermentation. These processes have been developed through generations to be as efficient as possible. Without a similar system in place, Winters and his crew originally tried breaking down the hefty plants with a machete, chainsaw and tree chipper, eventually resorting to an industrial machine that processes meat into dog food to break up the thick fibers. Then, after enduring additional roadblocks during fermentation (a bacteria invasion cost them a significant portion of the batch), they eventually managed to make a product worth sipping, but at a cost that simply wasn’t sustainable for the company.

“It was the most difficult thing we’ve ever worked with and distilled,” Winters said. “We still toy with the idea of finding a way to make this work, but its one of those projects that is so big that takes 100 percent of our attention and we have other things to make.”

Instead of suffering the same trials and tribulations as St. George, others like Roundhouse Spirits in Colorado, Railean Distillery in Texas and Tailwinds Distilling in Illinois cut down on time, labor and ingredient costs by importing processed agave syrup, juice or nectar directly from Mexico for fermentation. From there, it’s up to the distiller to shape the final flavor of the product.

Tailwinds Distillery founder Toby Beall sources nectar from a processor in Guadalajara, and distills the liquid once at a high temperature, so that it “retains a lot of that natural agave charm but not a lot of the harshness,” he said. With simplified ingredients to work with, one of their biggest challenges was not production, but marketing and customer education.

“It’s a blessing and a curse not being able to call it tequila. Trying to get people to recognize what a blue agave sprit is can be difficult,” he says. “On the other hand, for people who have sworn off tequila it gives us a chance to bring them back.”

Marketing is one tool Venus Spirits in California will use to differentiate themselves from the pack. Their agave spirit is called “El Ladron,” which means “the thief,” a cheeky nod to the fact that their nectar comes from Mexico—something that isn’t always clearly communicated by other companies. Many stamp “Made in the U.S.A.” on the labels even though the raw agaves are grown, harvested and processed in Mexico, representing a point of contention among critics and tequila purists.

In a general sense, many will argue that the production of a spirit made from Mexican agave is problematic because it ignores the traditions and cultural identity of products like tequila, bacanora and mezcal. But Winters, from St. George, encourages critics to avoid simply thinking in terms of authenticity, citing the need for the topic of value to be included in the conversation as well.

“If somebody brings in that raw material from Mexico or anywhere else, and delivers you a product that is qualitatively different than anything else you’ve ever had, then there’s a value proposition there,” he said. “If the only cool thing about our agave products is that a couple of gringos up in California made it, then we haven’t done anything. There’s nothing special about that.”

That being said, Winters also confessed that he feels like the trend will validate the quality and expertise of spirits being made in Mexico in the long run. “You’re going to see a lot of watered-down, simplified versions of tequila coming in that maybe become a gateway for people,” he said. “Then there are other people who will taste it and think, ‘This is characterless. This is boring. These are not as good as the genuine products coming out.’”

While the challenges facing American producers won’t be solved overnight, Winters and other distillers believe that a homegrown agave spirit made from 100% American ingredients isn’t an impossible goal to attain with the right determination and funding. Given the experimental nature of the craft spirits boom, it’s practically inevitable.

“If somebody was getting into the business with the idea of making an agave spirit in the states somewhere, there are plenty of places where you can grow agave and probably do a really interesting job with it, so it would have its own sense of terroir,” he said. “And you just understand that when making the stuff, the investment in the equipment is part of the cost of doing business. If you can set it up, you can do it.”