There’s one easy explanation for why American tequila doesn’t exist: To legally qualify as tequila, a spirit must be made within Jalisco or some regions in the Mexican states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. But tequila’s other requirement is that it be made with blue agave, which could easily grow in the Southwest United States, suggesting that it might be possible for American distillers to produce their own stateside approximation of tequila.
Agave palmeri, which is used for bacanora—another agave-based spirit—already grows plentifully in Arizona, while dasylirion wheeleri—a sibling of agave used for yet another one of tequila’s relatives known as sotol—grows in Texas and New Mexico. Meanwhile, several major tequila brands are owned by Americans and would likely love to have a homegrown crop. On top of all of this, Americans are increasingly interested in agave-based spirits beyond tequila, like mezcal and raicilla. All signs point to American “tequila.” So why isn’t it on liquor store shelves?
Lance Winters, master distiller at St. George Spirits, helped create the best prototype of an American agave spirit yet, first in 2008 and then again last year. But even he hasn’t been able to bring a product to mass market. “It’s a wall my head is not unfamiliar with beating against,” he jokes. We asked him to explain exactly what stands between Americans and locally grown agave liquor. Hint: a lot.
As we’ve alluded to, you can’t call anything made in the U.S. “tequila.” For Winters, that’s not a deal breaker. “I don’t give a f*ck what we call something,” he says. “It’s not about what we call it. It’s about what it smells like and what it tastes like in the glass.” Unfortunately, his customers don’t feel the same way. “Consumers have a difficult time accepting a product unless they know exactly how to categorize it. The name tells them how to enjoy it,” Winters explains. Americans are comfortable with tequila—they know what to expect from it. Anyone hoping to produce a rival agave spirit would have to compete with the massive, well-established tequila industry and its household name.
Agave plants require an immense amount of money and time. Small distillers wanting to enter into the field of agave-based spirits inevitably need to lock down funding, which, in lieu of a massively successful Kickstarter campaign, requires convincing a bank to wait years before seeing any return on their investment. Even if you don’t wait the 7-10 years it takes for agave piñas to fully ripen, you’re still looking at 4-5 years of lead time, Winters explains. Plus, you’ll have to wait another six months to age a reposado and a year more for an añejo. Propose such a plan and, Winters says, “Bankers and investors look at you like the biggest idiot in the world.”
If you miraculously manage to secure funding, you’ll need to put together a team of people who know how to harvest and prepare agave. Mexico’s tequila titans have decades of experience working with the crops, which are more difficult to master than you might think. When Winters and the St. George crew first tried to produce liquor using imported agave eight years ago, they found it nearly impossible to break down the tough piñas, hacking at them with everything from chainsaws to woodchippers with limited success.
A standard still is not enough to produce an agave-based spirit. You need a large oven or pit to steam or roast the piñas. Then, you need to run them through a knife mill, before a second pass through a series of roller mills to extract the juices. And then, on top of that, you need the usual distilling equipment, like fermenters and stills. With all of these built-in costs, pricing the end product becomes a problem. “If we were to apply a standard pricing metric, our unaged agave spirit—from a bunch of gringos north of the border that you can’t even call tequila, by the way—is $100 per bottle at retail. No one is going to want to pay that, and I can’t ask someone with a straight face to do so.”
Property north of the border is simply more expensive than plots in Mexico, making it cheaper to import agave or tequila than to produce an American-grown agave-based spirit in the States.
Without strict guidelines, like in Mexico, American distillers can get away with poor tequila imitations made with imported ingredients and still call the product an American agave spirit. “People are trying to take shortcuts like using agave nectar, which has had a whole lot of character boiled out of it,” Winters says. “It’s a thin representation of what that agave can be, and causes everyone to think American agave is no good.”
Why It Should Still Happen
As many hurdles as there are, Winters believes distillers should not give up on crafting an all-American agave spirit, as it could open the door to some truly amazing new traditions and flavors. “Last year, we used Weber blue agave traditionally used in tequila, but then we pit-roasted it over eucalyptus and oak, which gave it a really strong, smoky connection to mezcal,” Winters says. For him, experiments like that are worth pursuing for the greater good of American craft spirits.
How It Could Happen
There are a few ways in which Winters thinks American agave could happen. No. 1: Craft spirits could do what craft does best—jump recklessly into a spirits category without much hope for profit, for pure love of the liquor, and end up catching the eye of big liquor brands in the process. No. 2: A Mexican tequila maker could come north, looking to capitalize on an expanding market. No. 3: A distiller in the southwest could begin with imported agave or produce other spirits to generate cash flow, while cultivating a relationship with growers to eventually make the jump to agave. No. 4: St. George could produce another batch of agave spirit, delighting fans of the original and annoying everyone who can’t get a hold of the limited run. Winters says he’s still interested in trying again, despite all the challenges. He promises to keep banging his head against that all too familiar wall.