Tequila was the first agave spirit to really meet international success. But the tequila industry has also been a virtual catalog of the issues that emerge from a fast-growing industry that quickly outstrips its roots. Whereas tequila’s identity was once based on sipping a glass neat, ever since the margarita became the most popular cocktail on the planet the nature of that spirit has changed, becoming more industrialized to meet demand.
While celebrity brands are getting all the press and massive conglomerates continue to fill that insatiable demand for more tequila, a stalwart group of traditionalists—many of them families with a long history in the business—are reinventing tequila by going back to its roots. The real question is whether they can survive—and potentially thrive—amidst a sea of commodified agave spirits.
A Tradition Rediscovered
While the hacienda culture of cowboys and mariachis is still celebrated throughout tequila’s birthplace in the Mexican state of Jalisco, it was the 19th-century combination of vast agave plantations and technological innovations like steam roasting ovens that defined this truly unique spirit. Slowly, it developed an international reputation and the business grew by strides thanks to Prohibition in the U.S., when tequila and other agave spirits were imported into the U.S. illegally, and rationing during the Second World War. This growth was buoyed by the margarita, which became increasingly popular through the end of the 20th century.
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights. Sign up for our award-winning Daily Dispatch newsletter—delivered to your inbox every week.
But tequila changed as it expanded. Classic tequilas were the fruit of slow-roasted agave (some were even roasted underground like mezcal), crushed by a horse-drawn stone wheel called a tahona, fermented with ambient yeasts, and then distilled using local stills which ranged in complexity from a small single-chamber wooden Filipino still to the classic copper alembic.
But as demand grew, with popular brands present on every bar, producers had to make it faster, causing many of them to take a more industrial approach. In many major distilleries today, humans barely touch anything but machinery: They dump tractor loads of agaves into mechanical shredders, and the resulting fibers are then run through a conveyor belt where they are hit with a hot water wash, which pulls all their carbohydrates from them. The resulting mash is fermented using packaged yeasts. The final distilling step frequently utilizes a column still for maximal efficiency.
Sadly, efficiency of this kind mostly removes flavor: Slow roasting creates unique flavors from the Maillard reaction (which is also responsible for the delicious variety of flavors in roasted meats). By physically crushing roasted agaves, traditional distillers create a complex mash which then creates unique flavors and aromas when fermented slowly. Combining mechanical crushing and slower fermentations also creates unique flavors and aromas, which have led some major producers to bring these steps back.
Other companies have resorted to additives to compensate. Tequilas may contain up to one percent of additives in the spirit, and while that may not sound like a lot, it can give tequila a distinctive caramel, vanilla tone. While some drinkers love the round mouthfeel and candy-like flavors of these tequilas, it removes the entire idea of terroir and individual identity in a spirit.
While the average margarita drinker may not care about this, some blind tastings have indicated that drinkers can distinguish between traditionally and industrially produced tequilas. As consumers refocus on health and start paying more attention to the values of the brands they purchase, they are rediscovering producers who utilize more traditional methods to craft innovations that push tequila into a new world.
Returning to the Roots of Flavor
While more industrialized brands have risen, so too have smaller operations focused on the techniques and flavors that originally defined tequila as a unique and sought-after spirit. When Guillermo Sauza launched Fortaleza in 2005, he distinguished it from his family’s massive Sauza label by returning to manual processes like slow roasting, tahona crushing, and slow fermentation.
While some OG tequila traditionalists like Siete Leguas and El Tesoro have plugged along with classic processes, Fortaleza was seminal in foregrounding these techniques. By putting the tahona right on their label and talking constantly about recovering tradition, Fortaleza opened up a space for many other producers to focus on traditional methods and create new tequilas that return to their roots while creating new expressions.
Still-proof tequilas offer an example of this blend of tradition and innovation. After all, 40% ABV—where most industrial tequilas sit—isn’t a natural expression of a spirit. Rather, it’s an industrial equation that maximizes volume against flavor. Fortaleza set off an onslaught of high-proof tequilas when it released its Still Strength Blanco, proving just how much more flavorful the spirit is at an ABV above 40%. Today, importers like PM Spirits offer side-by-side comparisons so drinkers can taste the still-strength 55% ABV against the standard 40% ABV, such as in their PM Projects Tequila, made in partnership with José Luis Gutierrez in Arandas, Jalisco.
The focus on traditional production can actually be a boon to tequila producers, as the success of mezcal has shown. Fortaleza’s emphasis on the tahona quickly led other brands to bring the tahona back into production—even the mammoth Patrón did so with Patrón Roca.
But this has also opened the door to many other experiments in production. At Cascahuín, for instance, third-generation family member Salvador Rosales Trejo (aka “Chava”) is integrating traditional mezcal techniques into his tequilas.
Cascahuín contains all the standards of a tequila distillery: Above-ground steam ovens, a fermentation room, and stills for some of their tequilas. But out back sits a stone-lined, conical pit just like what would typically be found at an Oaxacan mezcal distillery. Next to that oven is a traditional tahona and a newly constructed, wooden Filipino still. These are the tools of a return to tradition.
Cascahuín joined forces with restaurateur and tequila entrepreneur David Suro for his Siembra Valles Ancestral tequila, which is made using pre-industrial production methods. That collaboration also brought in craftspeople to build the tools and to deploy their knowledge from the mezcal industry in order to guide the process.
“Here at Cascahuín we have everything—tradition and the product,” says Trejo. “We just have to defend the tradition and the craftsmanship that goes into these more traditional ways of production.”
Cascahuín has adapted those tools to put different production methods on display. The Cascahuín Plata 48 is a 48% ABV blanco tequila that showcases how a higher ABV elevates flavor. The Cascahuín Tahona Blanco offers a sense of what tahona-crushed agaves do for flavor in tequila. The Cascahuín Aniversario Blanco, on the other hand, was roasted in a pit like traditional mezcals—and tequilas from another era—and also crushed by tahona, clocking in at 46% ABV. These bottles are bursting with flavors of a different era, opening the doors to an entirely different experience of tequila.
Looking to Agaves and Barrels for Tradition—and Innovation
Interestingly, some of those pushing for a return to tequila’s traditional production methods won’t even call their products “tequila.” Javier Jiménez, a third-generation owner of Caballito Cerrero, which has been around since the early 20th century but hasn’t achieved an international profile until recently, feels the appellation has diverged so far from what tequila originally was that they won’t associate themselves with that moniker.
According to Jiménez, tequila’s regulatory body “pressures you towards mass production—they eliminate what makes a unique product.” Since 2018, Caballito Cerrero’s bottles have been labeled as “spirit distilled from agave.”
But it’s Caballito Cerrero that is putting the historical identity of tequila front and center and leading the movement for a wider variety of agaves in the spirit’s production. Originally, tequila was made from many agave varieties, each of which brought diverse flavors and aromas to the spirit. But over time, producers narrowed their focus to a small number of varieties that matured quickly with high sugar content. Eventually, this coalesced into a singular focus on the Blue Agave, closing off a variety of avenues for tequila flavor.
By using other agaves to craft its bottles, Caballito Cerrero has brought the idea of variety back into the conversation, with flavors that hint at long lost traditions. They aren’t alone; makers like Calle 23 are exploring beyond Blue Agave as well.
Aging has also become a new horizon for traditional tequila producers. Tequila has always had a tripartite division into blanco, reposado, and añejo, with extra añejos becoming a big deal in recent decades, but now brands like Mi Casa—a tiny, family-owned company started in 2011 with roots in the neighboring state of Michoacan—are implementing a barrel-blending system to bring out even more diverse flavors. While well known in the whiskey world, Mi Casa is bringing a fresh perspective to aging tequila.
Mi Casa has been aging their tequila in a massive stack of used Jack Daniels barrels since its founding, and when they recently tasted through the stack, they realized that every barrel had a unique flavor, aroma, and ABV depending on where it rested in the stack. “The cool thing about barrels is some are high and closer to heat—strong, red, high-ABV tequilas,” explains cofounder Arthur Eli Rodriguez. “Others on the floor were lower proof and had a thinner color.”
Rodriguez and his barrel-blend partners, Arik and Courtenay Greenleaf Torren of Fidencio Spirits, tasted the 118 barrels in their stack to see what they had on their hands. “We tasted all the barrels with the intention to find the best place to experience each of them—some single-barrel, some blended,” recalls Arik. Some of these barrels have been bottled in separate batches, and each label carries a graphic indicating the exact location within the stack from which the bottle came.
But Mi Casa is embarking on another venture that also reflects older agave spirits traditions: single barrel sales. Rodriguez and Arik have been pulling some of the most distinctive barrels from their stack so that they can sell them in their entirety to either distributors, who can bottle them for sale, or individual clients.
“In one of these barrels, there were probably eight liters left,” says Rodriguez. “It ended up at 74.2% ABV and it was really red, straight from the barrel. It is incredibly strong and has all the oils of the barrel, but it also came out really balanced for its strength.”
Economic and Cultural Survival
None of the traditional techniques to make these tequilas—never mind the grassroots efforts to sell them— are easy, but plenty of producers are making the shift. Luckily, now there are enough traditional producers working through distribution networks, who eagerly champion their work. Importers and distributors like PM Spirits and Skurnik Wines & Spirits focus exclusively on spirits made using traditional methods, and many bartenders and beverage directors are seeking out additive-free spirits. For their part, consumers are clearly on the hunt for novelties that represent their principles and elevate flavor.
But in Jalisco, economics are not the only part of the equation; cultural identity is just as important. “[This is] not just an economic thing; it’s a complex life,” says Cascahuín’s Trejo. ”You live what you do. It’s not just to do it, not just to be, but to be different is a form of life. It’s easy to do the other thing, [but] it’s not nice to do the easy thing.”
Getting U.S. drinkers—after all, the U.S. drinks more than 70 percent of tequila production—to follow that reasoning is the next challenge. Luckily, it seems like consumer trends are swinging in favor of seeking out innovations through tequila’s traditions. A return to the craft at tequila’s origins may be just the complement.
Max Garrone writes about wine, beer, and spirits and the cultures that create them. He cofounded Mezcalistas, where he is a contributing writer and continues to focus on the world of agave spirits.