Agave farmers ‘pushed into a corner’

13th April, 2016 by Richard Woodard

Tequila has long-been touted as having the potential to rival esteemed spirits categories such as single malt whisky and Cognac

Mixto vs. 100% agave

“First, it is important to distinguish between regular [mixto] Tequila and 100% agave Tequila. It is analogous to the whisky category – blended vs single malt, for example. Both can be of very high quality.

“The choice is mostly made from personal preference. As the Tequila category grows, there will undoubtedly be room for good-quality, regular Tequilas, as well as good-quality 100% agave Tequilas.”

The mixto vs 100% agave debate is a contentious one (see box on previous page), and the blended vs single malt whisky analogy is apt. There’s a ready consensus among most Scotch whisky producers that they’ve spent years prioritising single malts over blends in more mature markets, leading consumers to see the former as inherently superior to the latter. Now, as malt stocks run short, they’re trying to backtrack and reinvigorate blends.

This brings us full-circle with an ironic and somewhat paradoxical development. If the agave shortage continues and prices remain high, Tequila brand owners may find themselves trying to promote the charms of mixto to an informed consumer base that has been encouraged to see it as an inferior product compared to 100% agave. This, says Sklar, is a yo-yoing process as predictable and repetitive as the production cycle which creates it in the first place.

“The pendulum swings to and fro between 51/49 (mixto) and 100% agave, depending on the price of agave and the market reaction to the price,” he says. “Over the past 10 years, the CRT [Consejo Regulador del Tequila] and other industry bodies have made great efforts to improve the image of Tequila into a valued and respected sipping spirit; however, when the price of agave increases over the space of a few years from four centavos to MXP8 (£0.31) a kilo, the price of Tequila shoots up and the market votes with its feet.

“The natural reaction of the Tequileros is to promote the much cheaper option of mixto, until such time as the price of agave falls and 100% agave products become… affordable again. We have seen some very big brand names switch from 100% agave to mixto and back to 100% agave. I’m not sure how many times you can do this and remain credible. Right now, we are getting enquiries again, for mixto. The pendulum is swinging!”

Controlled bottling

The fact that Tequila is an agricultural product is the source of the category’s charm, unique character and, when marketed well, great attraction to spirits-literate consumers. It is also the source of many of the issues that still hamper its growth, both in terms of geographical reach and reputation among the consumers it is trying to attract.

Is there an answer, when your raw material is prey to the variables of pricing, glut and shortage, disease and human speculation? Sklar offers at least a partial solution: “Do what Champagne, Cognac and malt whisky has done: implement a regime of bottling in controlled Tequila zones only.”

However, it’s hard to see this happening any time soon. Bottling at source was proposed by the Mexican government in 2003, but – thanks to US pressure – withdrawn a few years later. Sklar reckons the Tequileros missed a trick.

“What a loss to the control of the category, as well as thousands of Mexican jobs which would have been involved in bottling and all the ancillary services involved,” he bemoans.

“I’m sure that, one day, it will come that Mexico declares that only Mexican-bottled Tequila is Tequila, and I look forward to that day.”

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