Throughout Part 1, we employed the use of more adjectives and descriptors to define, describe and distinguish one booze from another in the same category, as well as to give the illusion that it is actually closer to another booze in the leading categories.
Words like award-winning, artisanal, small-run, limited-production, hand-crafted, and boutique are reused over and over. So are micro-distilled, limited edition, small batch, small lot, organic (which we’ll cover in-depth in a future article), single village, homespun, authentic, small-lot, prestige, signature, high end and reserve.
They all have real core meanings, but because we see them repeatedly in ads, billboards, packaging, shelf talkers and point of sale (POS) materials, the lines between meaning and true definitions get blurred.
For instance, the definition of the word premium as defined by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) is actually a pricing term. To the average consumer, however, it has come to mean quality. And when consumers’ buying habits change and trade up, it has become known as premiumization.
We’ll show you how in a moment, but let’s get two things straight right here–
Remember Fact #1? Tequila belongs in Mexico.
Though some American micro-distilleries have attempted to distill small batches of agave spirits, it has proven difficult and labor intensive due to it being produced from a plant that takes years to mature as opposed to grains, hops, and grapes that yield more frequent harvests.
It would be silly to define and measure craft tequila in ways that relate to wine, beer and other spirits created in the United States and abroad. There may be no boundaries in spirits marketing, but to impose limits on the number of barrels, bottles and cases manufactured and sold by a tequila distillery in order to measure a craft product would have no jurisdiction whatsoever in Mexico. Secondly–
There Is No Backpedaling
The Beer Wench, Ashley Routson said it best when interviewed for this article:
“No one wants to fault the big guys for being successful–that is not what this argument is about. My main question is–how big is too big? And as long as a company stays independently-owned, does that mean it will always be craft?”
Indeed, both the craft beer and spirits segments are growing at such a fast rate, that the Brewer’s Association has changed its definition multiple times. This has allowed the burgeoning brewers more room to expand. And as spirits writer, Wayne Curtis, discusses in this article from The Atlantic, the alarming growth rate of small distilleries is having an effect on the quality of the finished craft product due to a shortage of experienced distillers.
As a consequence of this exponential growth, in both the craft beer and craft spirits categories, the process–the art form itself–is getting watered down.
Let’s face it–
No one gets into the tequila business to be a failure. Everyone wants to be on top. And once you get there, the challenge is to stay on top. We know how arduous the tequila hero’s journey is.
No one with a business plan ever said, “I’m going to mass produce my lousy tequila and once I’ve flooded the shelves with my swill and lost market share, I’m going to distill a tequila the old fashioned way.”
Don’t pretend to continue to still make your tequila like you have over the past 250 years, either. You are not that home based family operation still harvesting agaves by mule and macerating piñas with a tahona, any more. That family’s history was forgotten when the brand was sold.
And just because you build a separate, smaller facility on your distillery property to produce a more labor intensive line (and even petition to do so under another NOM number!) when you have never attempted to do so in the first place, does not make your more expensive line a craft tequila.
Moreover, just because you happen to be a colossal consumer of agave, still being emulated for your unique style of 80’s spirits marketing, and prefer to see things differently, don’t expect the rest of us to swallow your slant.
The Craft Tequila Gauntlet
Following are some tips and suggestions that may help guide you in making more informed decisions when selecting, defining and measuring a craft tequila.
#1: NOM list
By Mexican law, every tequila must display a number that corresponds to the legal representative, tequila producer or distillery in which it was produced. Tracing that number to the CRT’s list of distilleries, you can discover what other brands are manufactured under that specific number, and presumably, in that specific factory.
Logic dictates that the fewer labels a fabrica (factory) produces means more care should be taken with its one or two flagship brands. Logic also dictates the opposite when you see many different brands appearing under a particular NOM number.
Whether the distillery produces only a few lines, or many contract brands for others, is not necessarily a sign of the tequila’s craftiness or quality, but it’s a start.
You can view and download the most recent NOM lists from our website here.
Taking a pointer from panel expert, Chriz Zarus’ now industry classic article, “Change is at Hand for the Tequila Market, Part II,” a craft brand with a good chance of survival in the market will be one that “You, your distillery, and your brand have generations of lineage.”
Meet-the-Maker dinner pairings, industry meetings and on-premise tastings showcasing a craft tequila will more than likely feature the brand owner or the master distiller behind the brand.
In some cases, a well respected Brand Ambassador (not the gal or guy with the tight t-shirt!) will stand in for the owner if there is a scheduling conflict.
Again, this is not a guarantee of craftiness or quality, but most family owned brands will stand behind (or in front) of their tequila with pride.
#3: Distillery ownership/partnership/co-op
Another tip from Zarus’ treatise that could be useful in determining whether a craft tequila will be successful or not is, “Your company does…own at least a portion of the distillery that produces your product.”
This was successfully accomplished by the owners of Suerte Tequila, one of the few still produced with a tahona (milling stone). In order to ensure the quality of their tequila and to regulate the brand’s eventual growth, Lance Sokol and Laurence Spiewak purchased the distillery.
Does your craft tequila have some skin in the game? Most good ones do and will proudly make that information public.
#4: Agave and land ownership
Similar to #3 above, some craft brands are owned by families with ties to the land and own their own agave. In some instances, they may or may not own all or a portion of the distillery where they produce their tequila.
In the midst of this current agave shortage, this one asset could make or break a craft brand. This information should be readily available in POS material, but is also not a guarantee of quality or craftiness.
#5: Use of a Diffuser
While considered a legitimate tool in tequila production efficiency and has the full blessing of the CRT, it is a dead give away that shortcuts are being taken.
“…prohibir el uso de difusores (hidrólisis de jugos de agave) que les quita “el alma” (el sabor a agave cocido) a nuestros destilados, únicos en el mundo por su complejidad aromatic y de sabores.”
[“…to prohibit the use of diffusers (in hydrolysis of agave juices) that takes the “soul” (the flavor of baked agave) out of our native distillates, singular in the world for its complexities of aromas and flavors.”]
This is also in keeping with Zarus’ definition of preserving the process as the art form or craft outlined in Part 1.
Using a diffuser is a closely guarded secret by most mid-sized to large distilleries and hard to spot. You can read more about them here.
If there are any products that deserve to be described with the aforementioned adjectives that spirits marketers are freely throwing around these days to denote a handcrafted tequila, mezcal, or other agave distillate, they are in the organic segment.
Stringent regulations are required in both farm to distillery, and then from factory to bottle, to be given the designation organic and the permission to use the USDA seal that appears prominently on the labels.
By virtue of being organic, the process is considered much more natural and is inherently small batched.
But, not every brand has the budget to become a certified organic tequila. In addition, some brands may simply not see the value of being certified as organic, especially since some organic certifying agencies have been looked upon distrustfully in recent years.
Still, it could arguably be the most reliable indicator of a craft agave distillate.
This might be the toughest test of all.
As we mentioned above, many brands prefer to play their cards close to the vest. By the same token, many family owned brands are fiercely proud of their origins and will gladly tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Is your craft tequila brand willing to tell you their story, or just tell you a story?
Many of the more popular craft tequila brands are helmed by creators who are delightfully flamboyant and outspoken, as well.
Craft by Any Other Name
As our reader in Part 1 stated, the meaning of craft is “all over the place” and then some.
With mixology being the leading trend driving the spirits industry and demand for better ingredients on the rise, this means quality tequila is essential for those creating crafted cocktails (there’s that word again!).
But, with the invention of the wildly popular michelada cocktail, a margarita (which is the favorite way Americans consume tequila) served with a beer bottle upside down in a margarita glass, and chilled tequila on tap, there will surely be more cross pollination between adult beverage categories.
We’ve already seen this with tequila brands selling their used aging barrels to small brewers to create signature craft beers, as well as tequila aged in barrels bought from other brand named spirits.
This will only lead to even more crossovers between categories caused by inspired spirits marketers, PR firms, uninformed spirits journalists, and multinational corporations. Borrowing benefits has been the norm for some time.
There will always be those who deliberately hide the truth or feed false information to the media and practice opacity. We can’t control what they will say and do.
The key is to become educated and informed about a tequila’s recipe and process. Using the Craft Tequila Gauntlet above can certainly help in making the right choices.