What’s the most popular cocktail in the U.S.? Here’s a hint: It’s one that holds a special place in the hearts of Tex-Mex fans – the humble margarita. But you better enjoy one while you can because we’re on the brink of a full-blown tequila crisis. Reuters reports that agave shortages have manufacturers of the spirit on edge, concerned about keeping up with demand as tequila’s popularity soars.
Bobby Heugel, the mastermind behind Houston cocktail spot Anvil Bar and Refuge, and a member of the Tequila Interchange Project, says the problem is the amount of time required to grow the blue agave plant from which tequila is made.
“Unlike grapes that are used to make brandy, or grains that are used to make whisky, agave can take up to 12 years to grow and reach maturity,” Heugel says. “So as a result, you’ve got a long lifespan of a plant that doesn’t always respond to market conditions as quickly as they evolve.”
Heugel says turning agave into tequila is an involved process. When the agave plant is mature, its leaves are removed and the core, or pina, is harvested.
“That pina is roasted, then milled to extract its juice, just like any other juice,” Heugel says. The juice is then fermented and distilled.
Heugel says tequila’s popularity is partly to blame for the coming shortage. Plus, Mexico recently began selling the spirit to China in large quantities.
“But really, this is not new news,” Heugel says. “We typically see a shortage like this happening every ten years. It’s part of the fact that the tequila industry doesn’t regulate the agricultural side of the industry adequately.”
Shortages cause growers to plant more agave, which in turn causes the price to plummet, leading farmers to switch to other crops.
“Basically, we live in this vicious cycle…and this is part of the problem of dealing with an agricultural process in a country that’s not as well-regulated as the United States.”
Heugel expects tequila producers to take shortcuts when it comes to production, which likely means less high-quality, aged spirit will be available, while lower-cost offerings remain available.
“As a result of global companies buying Mexico’s distilleries…when that happens we lose the heritage, knowledge, the family traditions in exchange for efforts that have to keep up with global demand,” Heugel says.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.