There’s no question that interest in agave spirits, particularly tequila and mezcal, is significant, and has been for some time. NielsenIQ data, for example, reveals that between February 2020 and February 2023, off-premise U.S. sales of tequila have nearly doubled from $1.49 billion to $2.9 billion, while off-premise U.S. mezcal sales have soared from $24.5 million to $59.5 million (an increase of 143 percent) over the same period. (If you’d like to dive into the numbers right now, jump to our downloadable infographic here.)
But what is fueling this growth? Certainly cocktail culture has played its part.
“Cocktails have been exceedingly important to the success of agave spirits. Bartenders have been and continue to be one of the main engines that sparked the growth of the category,” says Neal Bodenheimer, the owner of the New Orleans establishments Cure, Cane & Table, VALS, and Peychaud’s and a partner of Dauphine’s in Washington, D.C. He points to sought-after tequila drinks like the Ranch Water, El Diablo, Agave Old Fashioned, and of course, the ever-popular Margarita.
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Cocktails are also crucial to the development of the now-saturated U.S. mezcal market first championed by Ron Cooper of Del Maguey fame. “Mezcal’s opportunity came five to 10 years ago through restaurants and bars in big cities across the country and with big-time bars like Death & Co. in New York creating cocktails like the Naked & Famous,” explains Emily Sadri, who co-owns Tahona Mercado in San Francisco with her husband, Steven. “Folks want to recreate these cocktails at home, which has been one of the biggest factors in why agave spirits are now drunk more than [American] whiskey in this country.”
Likewise, cocktails may also prove key to elevating the harder-to-find agave spirit bacanora from the Mexican state of Sonora, as well as up-and-coming sotol, from the desert plant Dasylirion wheeleri. Sotol gained traction in recent years, spawning “many beautiful expressions we carry, like Sotoleros, which focuses on supporting a small co-op of producers from Chihuahua,” says Sadri.
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Tequila Premiumization and Celebrity Appeal
At the luxury Park Lane Hotel in New York, head bartender Jason Atlan believes, for better or worse, that the glut of celebrity tequila and mezcal brands are helping to bring attention to the category. In no other sector “do you have the guest identifying more with the celebrity producer than what is actually in the bottle,” he says. “On the one hand, that’s good, as people are trying new things, new flavors, new cocktails. Unfortunately, the flip side is the actual quality of the spirit might be lacking. Sales driven purely by the charisma, machismo, or gravitas of that celebrity make it more difficult to introduce other, new, possibly better spirits to a curious market.”
The cachet of aged tequilas is also driving further growth for the category. “We are seeing a shift both domestically and abroad to aged statements, including reposado and añejo, as consumers trade up and are demanding ultra-premium tequilas to enjoy neat or on the rocks,” says Steve Kamajian, the vice president of corporate affairs at Paradise Spirits, the parent company of El Tequileño tequila.
Reposado and añejo tend to attract bourbon drinkers to the category. “The translation of the whiskey consumer experience through education and experience has resulted in the premiumization of the category and high expectations,” says Brittany Wenig, the brand manager for Lunazul Tequila.
Despite the data pointing to the growth of reposado and añejo, experts emphasize the staying power of blanco tequila. “The bulk of our business is within the blanco space. Blanco is tequila in its purest form, and how you can truly judge a tequila,” adds Wenig.
The Sadris concur that blanco is an important tier. Demand for reposado has been high at Tahona Mercado because of the “great balance between agave and sweetness,” says co-owner Steven Sadri. Over the last year, though, he’s seen visitors seek out blanco over añejo.
“For the longest time, people believed that a blanco tequila meant it was a cheaper quality because of the cheaper price, but there has been a strong movement to taste agave unaltered by any added sugars that are coming from the barrel, with notes tilting more toward pepper, citrus, and minerality over caramel, vanilla, and butterscotch,” he adds.
Real agave enthusiasts, adds Bodenheimer, are “drawn to the agricultural process rather than the aging process. That’s not to diminish aged agave spirits, but in a well-made distillate you can taste the land and agave, and it’s a shame to cover it up with oak aging.”
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Alia Akkam is a writer who covers food, drink, travel, and design. She is the author of Behind the Bar: 50 Cocktails from the World’s Most Iconic Hotels (Hardie Grant) and her work has appeared in Architecturaldigest.com, Dwell.com, Penta, Vogue.com, BBC, Playboy, and Taste, among others, and she is a former editor at Edible Queens, Hospitality Design, and Beverage Media. A native New Yorker, Alia now calls Budapest home. Follow Alia @behdria.