When I first started writing about cocktails and spirits, each year I had one shot at selling a tequila article. And then, of course, it had to be framed around Cinco de Mayo—a holiday that Mexicans don’t actually celebrate.
It wasn’t that people didn’t drink tequila in the United States, it was just usually the cheap stuff—mixto an alcohol made from a blend of agave and sugar.
Tequila was then most often combined with electric-green Margarita mix that was blended into a frozen slurry. Or you’d get a shot. But, since the flavor of the tequila available at the time wasn’t particularly relished, you’d lick a generous line of salt on the back of your hand, take the shot and bite a lime wedge of dubious origins. You’d generally wash it all down with a cheap beer and grimace the whole time. And it was very hard to convince people in those days that tequila wasn’t “cactus juice” and should never come with a worm in the bottom of the bottle.
Fast forward twenty years and tequila is now a luxury spirit. The top shelf is overflowing with bottlings made from 100-percent blue agave, while in many liquor stores there is no bottom shelf for tequila. Even if you wanted mixto, you’d have to look pretty hard for it and possibly visit several stores. It’s now common for bartenders and drinkers to debate the different tequila distilling techniques, including whether using a giant volcanic rock tahona wheel to crush the agave matters.
The tequila category overall is currently bigger than if you added up the sales of Scotch and Irish whiskies in America. In fact in 2018, for the first time, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, sales of so-called super premium tequila (i.e. pricey) surpassed sales of value tequila (i.e. very cheap).
While the Margarita remains super popular, it’s not the frozen variety that you now usually see but the classic version, which calls for agave syrup or orange liqueur, and fresh lime juice. Drinkers have also branched out to enjoying the traditional Paloma and even things like a tequila Old-Fashioned. (I also think the the Batanga, a mix of cola, tequila, lime juice and salt, has a chance of being the next global best-seller.)
But with all this success comes some hard decisions and responsibility, since making tequila requires a lot of resources and energy. In 2016, the industry’s regulatory organization, the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), announced a sustainability initiative. This has become an ever more important issue as drinkers around the globe buy increasingly more tequila each year and seemingly every square inch of dirt in the region is now planted with agave.
For the last three years, the CRT has been working on reducing its members’ carbon footprint and is projecting that emissions will be down 10 percent next year from usage levels in 2014. And will be down another 15 percent by 2030. They’re also hoping to decrease the use of fossil fuels and electricity.
One way to achieve these goals is for brands to install systems that turn what’s left in the stills after distillation (the vinasses), into biogas (methane), which is then used to power the boilers and stills. This is an expensive process to install but ultimately pays for itself, since the distillery is producing some of its own power from what was formerly waste. Both Jose Cuervo and Herradura have already built these systems and a number of other brands are also considering them.
Becoming sustainable means not just looking at the production of tequila but also how the waste generated is handled and one of the biggest byproducts produced are the tons of spent agave fiber. Traditionally, the mountains of shredded agave are treated and turned into fertilizer for local farmers. Obviously, as the tequila industry expands the amount of byproduct produced grows as well and processing the spent agave has become a huge and an incredibly important task in itself.
While the farms can certainly use the compost to help grow the next generation of agave plants, Jose Cuervo, which is the largest tequila distiller, is trying to find new ways to use the material in hopes of reducing the use of plastic. The agave fibers are very strong and, as it turns out, very versatile. The brand, in conjunction with a number of partners, has come up with a range of ingenious and inventive products—biodegradable drinking straws, surfboards, building bricks and car parts.
Another component of the CRT’s initiative is reducing the amount of water used in production. The organization’s goal was to lower levels by 5 percent by 2020 and by 10 percent by 2030. What will help decrease water usage is that a number of companies, including Patron and Jose Cuervo, have built systems to treat waste water. The water that is reclaimed is then used for a number of tasks around the distillery, including cleaning and watering of plants.
The tequila boom shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, over the next five years, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, the category will expand in the U.S. by a compound annual growth rate of 5.4 percent and is projected to sell an impressive 23.8 million cases in 2023.
Twenty years ago, when I started writing about tequila, this kind of prominence for the category would have seen inconceivable and a focus on sustainability will ensure that I’ll hopefully be writing about the spirit in 20 years.