The infancy of agave distilling in the U.S.
I’ve been writing about agave distilling projects in California and sotol distillation in Texas for some time because they’re expanding the world of mezcal. Those projects are interesting for what they are in and of themselves and because of questions they raise about the appellations of mezcal, the question of cultural ownership, and whether they’re pointing to a future trend. But agave distilling in the US doesn’t stop there. When I attended the Agave Heritage Festival in Tucson in April it was clear that something was in the air because there was one session dedicated to this trend which attracted lots of people already launched on their own home distilling projects, and I even managed to see some in action. Clearly this is only the beginning.
The special session devoted to this topic at the Agave Heritage Festival was titled “Agave: A Spirit without Borders” and was described thusly:
Join us around the politics and practice of agave cultivation and distillation form a commercial and domestic approach, while exploring the benefits and challenges of the industry in the emerging US agave industry.
The room at Maynards Market and Kitchen was packed to the gills with one guest managing to get around the sold out sign up front to his great elation. Clearly, people are excited by and already doing their own micro-distilling projects but they’re also very focused on the sustainability of agave species so they’re looking for species that can thrive in different environments. Many of us were also surprised to learn that both trends have a long local history.
Craig Reynolds who is behind the Dos Volcanes project, the Mezcalifornia brand, and who is working on a California agave spirit with Lance Winters at St. George Spirits started the presentation documenting how he stumbled into the agave spirits world through visits to Mexico. It all sounded very similar to most people in the room who all seemed to have stumbled into the same rabbit hole. Craig talked quite a bit about the California agave project and the audience was really into it. We tasted the initial agave spirit from St. George’s first run in 2015 which compared quite well.
Doug Richardson is primarily a horticulturalist who operates Drylands Farming just outside of Santa Barbara, California in Carpinteria. Accordingly his presentation was focused on what agave varietals might be most adaptable to different locations in the U.S. This question of what is adaptable and sustainable was a major theme of the festival and the thrust of Tony Burgess’ Howard Scott Gentry lecture earlier in the week because climate change is already beginning to impact agaves. Doug echoed something that Tony had said “even if you don’t know whether something is going to grow it’s important to get plants in the ground now so that you can figure it out sooner rather than later.” The looming fear is that some agave species won’t make it through major climactic shifts because they can only spread their seeds within a limited area so Doug was pointing to the many agave varietals that he’s worked with around Santa Barbara and Ventura where his nursery is located. Apropos of our location in Arizona he noted that two local agave species, Agave parryi and Agave palmeri were both cold hardy and might be adaptable far beyond the Southwest. As he presented we tasted the fruit of his labor, Ventura Spirits’ recent agave spirit called Paloma.
Bill Steen provided an extraordinary local perspective with a presentation titled “Backyard Bacanora.” He has lived in southern Arizona for some time and has seen the remarkable development of bacanora in Mexico and local distilling experiments. One of the more fascinating things he had to say was that agave distilling has a long history that ignored the international border – he remembers his uncle making bacanora in Sonora during prohibition, bringing it back to Arizona, and selling it out of his gas station on Sundays after church. Obviously the local history goes back further, he barely touched the deep history in the border region with indigenous people using roast agaves for food and ornamentation, earlier presentations at the festival noted that it appears that some agaves were hybridized by indigenous peoples and still grow predominantly around archeological areas where they were originally planted.
Bill talked about traveling to Sonora to learn about how bacanora was made by the local masters in the 1980’s. He was inspired by what they were able to make and provided some really illuminating thoughts about traditional distillation techniques, basically saying that whatever works for you is your tradition. Earlier in the day he described how years before he’d visited a bacanora distiller whose roasting pit wasn’t lined with rocks. The distiller had grown up doing it that way and Bill has since seen other distillers doing it the same way. Later in the presentation he said: “I’ve seen it all, any and all methods will work. It’s a matter of refining and getting it to your taste.” He described and had some amazing slides of local distillers taking inspiration from the 50 gallon oil drum stills in Sonora and using local Arizonan adaptations. Bacanora producers had been telling me similar stories all week, their distilling methods all had a pattern but lots of variation.
One of the more interesting points he made was that there are already agave species which are well adapted to local conditions. He said that Agave Palmeri are basically “bomb proof” because they grow well at 5,000 feet above sea level and handle the cold weather there without an issue. Echoing that theme about genetic variation, he was saying that we may already have some of the tools we need to adapt agaves to different environments and rapidly changing climate.
Lou Bank rounded things out with a characteristically pithy argument about how to promote and protect the world of mezcal. His essay for Mezcalistas on the topic is a good summary of his thinking even if it’s evolved a bit (as he summarized it for me: “my feeling is, ‘mezcal’ shouldn’t be protected. Make it traditionally, make it industrially, I’m cool with all that — but call *all* of it ‘mezcal.’ Then protect the traditional methods any way we can. You want to make a DO for ‘mezcal ancestral’? Great. But not at the expense of having a free category called ‘mezcal.’) His presentation launched with the example of Eduardo Angeles who really introduced Lou to the world of mezcal. Lou’s SACRED non profit aims to help agave distilling communities build the projects like libraries and water reservoirs that they need to thrive. As he put it:
it’s about protecting the distillers who have the multigenerational knowledge to produce these amazing spirits, because there is value in that multigenerational knowledge that can be applied to problems that we need to solve to sustain our species. Gringo investors, drug lords, the CRM, and the larger process — the process that stole the word ‘mezcal’ from them — can be both a threat and a seduction, and while I think they should have the choice to do whatever they want, I want one of the available choices to be, Keep doing what you’re doing, the way you’re doing it.
Home distilling is on the march
During my visit to Tucson I was fortunate enough to witness that this wasn’t just a theoretical discussion. At one industry meeting, the barbacoa had been roasted in the backyard agave roasting pit that sat next to a home distillation set up. And it didn’t stop there, the more people I met, the more backyard distillation operations I encountered. They’re happening in metropolitan Tucson, in the areas south of there, in California up and down the coast. And those were just the people I met in Tucson. All of the distillers are using local agaves to produce something that reflects their terroir and desire to experiment which is what motivates all of these experiments.
It feels like this is the tip of something larger even if the sustainability concerns make widespread production a huge question mark. Cold hardiness is especially important in the US where frosts hit prime agricultural land in California’s Central Valley or snow coats the Arizona highlands. It’s equally important in Sonora where a decade ago freezes killed an estimated 60% of the Agave Pacifica used to make bacanora. While the bacanora denomination insists on that single agave, the environmental adaptability of other agave varietals may point the way changes to the appellation and the future of other agave spirits in Mexico and globally.
Because, clearly, the whole adventure of distilling agave is something that animates plenty of people. Of the few people that I chatted with personally at the “Agave: A Spirit without Borders” presentation, one is working away on a local project while another is already distilling. Perhaps it’s time we revised our laws on distilling to allow these experiments to flourish.