Throughout his checkered career in the Tequila world and beyond, Porfidio’s Martin Grassl has been largely viewed by the general public as an “international man of mystery.”
Disrupting a Mexican Tequila Industry that doesn’t take kindly to outsiders telling it how to make its own emblematic spirit, Grassl’s vintages of tequila in the iconic cactus bottle has been sought after, stashed and horded by collectors for its unique flavors and aromas.
In hindsight, one could argue that since 1991, Grassl had single-handedly established what is now the fastest growing segment of the Tequila market–
Single Agave(R) 100% Agave Americana Edition (S3xA) is one of a series of three planned releases by Grassl using different agave plants cultivated in different countries. This one, a joint venture with Nazareth, is harvested and distilled entirely in India.
Bane or blessing, innovator or interloper, prophet or pariah, Profidio’s Martin Grassl has been perceived as all of these, and more.
In the next few paragraphs, Martin Grassl–in his own words–discusses his global views about the future of agave spirits.
History moves forward. Agave spirits are going international.
It happened to the Europeans in the wine industry: no one could stop grapes travelling!
When California and Australia, not to mention Chile and Argentina, joined the premium wine world half a century ago, initially it drove the French in Bordeaux crazy. But over decades, it made important contributions to California’s and Australia’s economy and provided a much respected delightful alternative enjoyment for consumers.
Today, both Australia and California, not to mention Chile and Argentina, are wine superpowers, equivalent, if not superior to, their European ancestors.
How dreary the world would be with only French wines!
Single-Agave® 100% Agave Americana
Single-Agave® 100% Agave Americana, an agave spirit proudly made in India from 100% Indian-grown mezcal [agave] pinas, is history on the march.
It is the first in a Porfidio-initiated series of international single-varietal agave spirits; soon to be followed by the second release, a single variety agave spirit from Venezuela (100% Agave Cocuy).
The CRT’s recent national press campaign in Mexico honored the Indian agave spirit with full page articles in every major newspaper, but was typically inaccurate.
Contrary to its spurious claims, “agave” is a botanical term like the word “grape,” or “barley” and, like them, cannot be claimed under A.C. status (A.C = D.O.) [Denomination of Origin].
It is as if Peru tried to trademark “potato.”
The plant’s original name, Mezcal, is the name Mexicans used, and the term “Agave” was invented by a Swedish botanist based on the observations of a German researcher.
So the allegations of cultural (mis-)appropriation make hardly any sense, since if equally applied on both sides, the Old World could claim property in the origins of the donkey, distillation, stainless steel, invention of electricity, and indeed, to the very oak barrels, all of which were “(mis-)appropriated” by Mexico from abroad, and without which tequila would have hardly existed.
The Colombian Exchange
The key concept is “The Colombian Exchange” which brought horses, donkeys, wheat, stills and oak barrels to the Americas in return for the potato, corn, tobacco and agave that went to the rest of the world.
We should not forget the royal role of Queen Victoria, who so greatly continued Columbus’s work across her Empire when the British planted agave in all her various dominions where it would grow.
Some claim that this product was created as a response to the present Blue Agave shortage in Mexico. However, Single-Agave®100% Agave Americana is not made from the Blue Agave, but Mezcal Americana, a different variety of agave that is indeed used to make Mezcal, but not Tequila®, under the CRT’s own rigorous definition.
More importantly there are signs that consumers are actually bored with the limited palate of the Blue Agave, which is, after all, the dull chardonnay of agave spirits.
They are ready to move on to other agave varietals–
“Vino de Mezcal,” the new darling of agave spirits lovers.
Made in India, Single-Agave®100% Agave Americana, caters precisely to these bored consumers who expect more from life than just another boring chardonnay; and let alone just another 100% Agave Tequila® made from cloned plantation-grown Blue Agave.
On Jan. 22, 2018, a particularly savvy tequila brand owner announced in a private message to this office:
“Agave prices out of control. $22/kilo. Industry getting destroyed!”
Coincidentally, earlier that same day, another brand owner/ambassador admitted to us that the current cost had blown up to $24/kilo.
That savvy brand owner then added to his message–
“…but Cuervo started it. Bought up a ton of [agave] before their IPO. Increase balance sheet. That’s, at least, the word on the street.”
But, shit got REAL for Jose Cuervo when…
Cuervo Cries Wolf
In this El Financiero article dated December 21, 2017, Francisco Beckmann Vidal, owner of Tierra de Agaves and Jose Cuervo, warned of a looming agave shortage. He…
“…urged agave producers to increase plantings because whether in tons or in number of agaves, the industry requires more of your prime material. Planting must begin now. Eyes have to be opened and decisions need to be made. Only the industry can provoke the necessary changes.”
[“…instó a los productores agaveros a que incrementen los plantíos porque tanto en toneladas o en número de agaves la industria cada vez requiere de más de sus materia prima, “hay que empezar a plantar desde ahorita. Hay que abrir los ojos y tomar decisiones. Solamente la industria es la que va a provocar estos cambios que se necesitan hacer.”]
Like Shaggy said–
It wasn’t me!
Here’s Your Sign
All the signs of an impending shortage were there. Major spirits distributors, tequila and even mezcal brands jockeyed for position in the Agave Triple Crown race.
Then, in early June 2017, spirits and wine behemoth, Pernod Ricard, purchased a significant stake in founder Ron Cooper’s beloved Del Maguey Single Village Mezcals amid uproar from long time fans claiming “sell out.”
M & A was the name of the game in the spirits distribution sector, too.
Late November 2017 brought the news that distributor Breakthru Beverage was set to combine with Texas based Republic National Distribution Company to match 2016’s mega-merger of Southern Wine and Spirits with Glazer’s, Inc.
“This year , a total of 42 million agave plants were projected to supply 140 registered companies. However, only 17.7 million of those planted in 2011 are ready to be harvested, the Tequila Regulatory Council and National Tequila Industry Chamber have said.”
That’s assuming producers are using full grown agave. As explained in the above articles–including our own–2 to 4 year old immature agaves are being sold, as well.
With the use of diffusers by the large producers like Sauza and Bacardi (Cazadores), the age of agave plants used to make tequila is irrelevant.
About Those Stolen Agave
For several years, now, growers in Oaxaca had reported that truckloads of stolen (or purchased) espadin used to make mezcal were headed for tequila distilleries in Jalisco.
Now, a reported 15,000 blue agave plants have been hijacked from blue agave growers supplying the Big Boys. That’s triple the amount reported in 2016.
It is presumed that these pilfered plants were going to los mieleros (Big Pharma) since they pay bigger bucks for blue weber agave.
So, there is some poetic justice during this Agave Crisis.
The Blame Game
As much as major metropolitan areas would like to believe that they carry this much clout, cities like New York are NOT to blame.
And, one more for good measure from this small brand owner via LinkedIn on February 5, 2018:
[“The sad reality for small producers that depend on purchasing ripe agave that results in extraordinary 100% blue agave tequila is that the Large Makers are the ones who have stockpiled huge quantities of premature agave. But the 4 year old plants don’t yield good tequila. Moreover, it requires double the amount of prime material [agave] for the production of tequila. In short, the very same Large Producers have aggravated the problem and devastated the cultivation of blue agave.”]
While we’re pointing fingers, let’s accuse the real culprit of this economic and agricultural mess, shall we?
In October 2017, we spoke to Master Distiller of G4, Terralta, and Pasote–and agave grower–Felipe Camarena.
Minutes before the VIP Hour of El Cholo’s yearly Tequila Tour began, he briefly outlined to me in simple mathematical terms, how much per kilo he’d require to make a nice, honest living growing agave.
The amount was not unreasonable. In fact, it was in the single digit range.
By waiting at the last minute, and selling to the highest bidder, Camarena blamed the greed of amateur agave growers for the skyrocketing maguey prices.
How long will this agave crisis last?
In January 29, 2018, Master Distiller of Tapatio and Tequila Villa Lobos, Carlos Camarena, gave this gloomy prediction:
“There is definitely no immediate solution to this problem. Maybe until 2022. Until then, save yourselves! We will see the disappearance of many brands and more than a few tequila companies.”
Pasadena, California’s landmark El Cholo Cafe Restaurant’s Tequila Tour has been a major community event for the past 17 years. Commemorating its 94th year serving authentic Mexican cuisine to Southern California, the October 27, 2017 edition was destined to be special.
Needless to say, it was an honor when El Cholo’s owner, Blair Salisbury, graciously asked Tequila Aficionado Media to anchor an exclusive VIP Hour during El Cholo’s Tequila Tour, and to share the fine craft agave spirits accompanying us on our 2017 Wild Wild West Tour.
Flawlessly guided by El Cholo’s point man for this shindig, consultant Alex Delgado, we were given the restaurant’s intimate West Patio to showcase the Brand of Promise(c) nominees that traveled with us throughout the month of October.
A Very Special Guest
Days before the El Cholo Tequila Tour, with help from the fine folks at PKGD Media who handle publicity for Tequila G4, we managed to convince the “Mad Scientist” of tequila, Felipe Camarena, to make an unscheduled guest appearance at El Cholo’s fiesta.
It was enlightening to discuss the state of the Tequila Industry from a long time agave grower’s point-of-view. Of great concern was the ongoing Agave Crisis, the ramifications of an agave shortage, and what Felipe considered was the real cause of the problems.
[*FTC Disclosure: Brands appearing on the Tequila Aficionado Wild Wild West 2017 Tour were vetted as Brand of Promise(c) Nominees and paid a nominal fee to be included.]
The VIP Hour
Before we knew it, employees of El Cholo’s opened the floodgates of the West Patio to the VIP Hour.
Joined by CMO Lisa Pietsch, Tequila Aficionado’s Founder, Alex Perez, and Tequila TJs Dave Dinius and Rick Levy, as well as some Brand of Promise(c) representatives, we were instantly surrounded by the smiling faces of dozens of passionate tequila aficionados.
These anxious VIPs were more than ready to sample some of the finest small batch, micro-distilled and handcrafted agave spirits that may or may not have been available, yet, in California.
Where It All Started
Mid-way through the VIP Hour, Blair, Alex, and myself took a few minutes to reminisce about that first podcast, and how each of our endeavors had grown exponentially with the demand for 100% de agave tequila, and now, mezcals.
Alex and I even took a moment to record a brief audio podcast memorializing the humble beginnings of Sipping Off the Cuff(c).
End of The Trail
El Cholo’s regularly scheduled Tequila Tour went off without a hitch, while almost everybody who had purchased VIP tickets lingered throughout the rest of the evening.
It was very gratifying to meet and greet so many fans and followers, to answer their burning questions on the participating Brands of Promise(c), and to experience the level of sophistication of the current crop of agave spirits consumers, whether newbies or seasoned sippers.
To Continue the Battle
Constant and continuing education on agave spirits is a must these days.
El Cholo’s yearly Tequila Tour is not just an event designed to savor authentic Mexican cuisine, but to also elegantly enjoy your continuing agave spirits education.
We look forward to joining forces once again with El Cholo in 2018 to, as Felipe Camarena put it, “Para darle la guerra.”
You can view more photos of El Cholo’s 2017 Tequila Tour here.
A new circus has replaced “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Imagine the spotlighted and off kilter Ringmaster who, in a booming Michael Buffer-eske voice announces–
“Ladies and gentlemen, turn your attention to Ring Number One!”
Unless, you’ve been living under a rock since January 2017 (we wouldn’t blame you if you are!), you’ve no doubt heard of POTUS’ proposed 20% import tax on Mexican goods to fund the building of “The Great Border Wall” with Mexico to prevent illegal immigration.
Further, POTUS has promised that Mexico itself would pay for the wall.
Anyone with an iota of understanding of economics knows that this tariff would simply be passed onto consumers by the manufacturers of these goods.
And that includes tequila producers and mezcaleros.
According to this recent article, the collateral damage to other peripheral industries would be devastating.
Moreover, the archaic Three Tier System that was established in the United States after Prohibition, and on which alcohol distribution is based, demands that each level of the tier also pass along this 20% tax.
“Clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung,” P.T. Barnum
Once POTUS bullied Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in late January 2017 into cancelling his visit to the US if Mexico refused to pay for the 2,000 mile border wall, his strategy backfired.
While POTUS berated the Mexican President and screamed about the lopsidedness of the NAFTA agreement, Peña Nieto vehemently argued that Mexico would never pay for such a wall and managed to rally a divided country to his side.
Meanwhile, under the Big Top, the Center Ring was where everyone clamored to sit near because only the most prestigious routines happened inside.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we direct you to the Center Ring!”
In early February, an interesting thing happened in court. A precedential ruling was handed down in the case Luxco, Inc. v. Consejo Regulador del Tequila, A.C.
The decision allowed the CRT (Tequila’s governing body in Mexico) to register the word TEQUILA as a certification mark and control its use.
Isn’t that the CRT’s job, anyway?
The CRT aggressively protects Tequila like Disney or Levi’s conserve their trademarks.
When you read this article explaining the timeline and judgment of the case, you’re amazed at the depth of Luxco’s arrogance to file the lawsuit in the first place and to completely ignore Tequila’s geographic indication.
Surprising, too, since Luxco imports and distributes El Mayor tequila, and re-bottles Exotico and Juarez tequilas that are certified by the CRT as authentic, all at Destiladora González González (NOM 1143).
Makes you shake your head and wonder what Luxco was thinking.
“Ladies and gentlemen, feast your eyes on Ring Number Two!”
Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Sammy Hagar has found a way around his alleged Cabo Wabo Tequila non-compete clause, and recruited his friend and fellow rock star, Adam Levine of Maroon 5 to develop–
According to its marketing copy, it’s a blend of 100 percent blue agave and espadín agave to “create a smooth and rich tequila flavor with the sweet and smoky taste of mezcal.”
But, what is it?
It’s not completely tequila, even though the 100% blue agave tequila portion is being distilled at Sammy’s original maquiladora, El Viejito (NOM 1107).
It is still unknown, however, at which palenque the mezcal portion is being distilled, and whether it comes from an industrial producer or not.
One thing for sure, the label will NOT have a NOM number on it.
The Shell Game
As an adult, you realize now that the three ring circus was nothing more than an elaborate con. An enormous shell game dressed up in glittering sequined costumes and face paint to keep you guessing where the action would take place next.
The thrills and chills of trapeze artists, lion tamers, high wire stunts, acrobats, jugglers and clowns performing all at once.
Slight of hand and misdirection at its very best.
A View From the Cheap Seats
Unlike today’s stadiums and auditoriums, there was always a bad seat in the house underneath the Big Top, and chances were, you were sitting in it.
There was always a feeling of missing something–a triple somersault, or dancing stallions, or roaring big cats jumping through flaming hoops.
To keep track of the drama from one ring to another, you craned your neck, unless…
You sat in the cheap seats, high above in the nosebleed section.
“Ladies and gentlemen, back to Ring Number One!”
At first, there was some question as to whether tequila and mezcal would fall under the proposed tariff.
Being the largest consumer of tequila in the world, America’s agave lovers were hoping that their favorite spirits would be spared.
Since 100% de agave tequila, and other agave spirits with an appellation of origin, can only be made in Mexico, it seems that the additional tax is almost a certainty.
Due to an unexpected snowstorm in Arandas in March 2016 that damaged agave crops; subsequent substantial contracts with medium sized maquiladoras (distilleries that produce tequila for various other brands) by transnational corporations tying up enormous quantities of tequila to be bottled under their labels; and aggressive competition for ripe agave by los mieleros (pharmaceutical companies), tequila prices were scaling up.
Whether Mexican spirits are affected by a tariff or not, or due to the scarcity of blue agave, look for prices to increase across the board.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s return to Ring Number Two!”
Speaking of the blue agave shortage…
Accusations persist that truckloads of espadin agave, generally used to make mezcal, are still being sent by the truckload from Oaxaca to Jalisco headed for tequila distilleries to fulfill pending orders.
Rather than hide this clandestine fact any longer, Sammy and friends have perhaps decided to take the practice public and spin it into Santo Mezquila.
As a result, long time mezcaleros like Doug French of legacy brand Scorpion, have taken to distilling whiskies from heirloom corn to ride out the storm of the espadin shortage.
Also, to conserve wild agave species, as well as to ensure future supplies for his wildly popular mezcal expressions, Doug has planted small plots of agave instead of trying to compete with deeper celebrity pockets.
“To the Center Ring for the Grand Finale!”
While we still scratch our heads about the Luxco court decision, and if, in fact, POTUS does levy a 20% tax on all Mexican imports, including Mexican beer and spirits, here’s a few possible scenarios to consider.
The Human Cannonball
If the above cited article is correct, beer and tequila companies are using NAFTA only 8% of the time, and tequila comes in free for all World Trade Organization (WTO) members, anyway.
The proposed tariff would, in essence, tear up NAFTA, regardless of whether POTUS decides to renegotiate it or not, and fire a message across to Mexico that he’s not kidding around. But…
Mexican President Peña Nieto has an ace up his sleeve.
POTUS’ blatant disdain for Mexicans could lead to the CRT and Mexico retaliating by requiring that all tequila shipped in bulk to the United States be bottled in Mexico to insure the quality of the juice.
The consequences of this move, as described in the above cited DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council of the United States) press release could be cataclysmic, particularly for those bottling plants in the Southern US.
Surely, this tactic would be fully endorsed by former Mexican President, Vicente Fox, who has no love loss with POTUS, and under whose term the ban was originally proposed.
Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys
Enraged, POTUS might completely disregard Appellations of Origin, in general, and not just Mexico’s.
He could allow micro and craft distillers across the country to make American tequila, mezcal, sotol, champagne, Bordeaux, and anything else that is protected by geographic indicators, triggering international incidents.
Pernod Ricard, maker of Avión and Olmeca Altos tequila, has already expressed its concern about this possibility.
51-49% cognac, anyone?
Don’t look now. It’s already happening.
Products like Three Wells from Tucson, Arizona, and the controversial Besado
calling itself “tequila” are already capturing the public’s attention, and commanding shelf space.
Articles on an impending agave shortage had been showing up since late 2015, but we thought safety precautions were in place. The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT) had it all handled.
Then, this happened…
Snow In Arandas
On March 10, 2016, Arandas, Jalisco, Mexico, considered part of the all-important Agave Golden Triangle of Tequila (Atotonilco, Tepatitlán, Arandas and Jesús María), woke up to this–
An anomaly that has occurred only twice in 100 years.
We couldn’t look away.
Then, fear stuck.
Would this weather phenomenon increase the odds of a real agave shortage?
Initial reports like this one from revered agavero and tequilero, Felipe Camarena Curiel (Pasote, ArteNOM 1579) on his Facebook page, made us breathe a sigh of relief.
“The conditions of 1997, [the last major agave shortage that shook the Tequila Industry] and the most recent one, were very different.
“In 1997, the low temperatures affected the entire state of Jalisco, reaching -17 C (1.4 F) in Los Altos for a considerable amount of time, freezing the shallow roots of 1-to-3 year old agave and provoking the anticipated maturing [flowering] of the surviving agave.
“The current [snowfall] affected some municipalities in Los Altos de Jalisco, but not the entire state. The temperatures were not so low and they rapidly returned to normal.
“Of course, in very concentrated areas, there will be total losses.
“We’ll know the magnitude of the damage in the next few days, but in my personal opinion, in the long run, it [the loss; damage] won’t be as grave as that of 1997.”
[“Las condiciones de 1997 y las recientes fueron muy diferentes.
“En 1997 la temperatura baja afectó a todo el Estado de Jalisco, llegando en los Altos a -17°C por un tiempo considerable, congelando las raices poco profundas de los agaves de 1 a 3 años y provocando madurez anticipada de agave que sobrevivió.
“La actual afectó a algunos municipios de los Altos de Jalisco, no a todo el Estado. Las temperaturas no fueron tan bajas y se recuperaron rápidamente.
“Por supuesto en áreas muy focalizadas habrá pérdidas totales.
“La magnitud del daño lo sabremos en los próximos dias pero mi opinión personal es que el daño no será ni lejos tan grave como en 1997.”]
Not everyone in the Camarena family was so cautiously optimistic.
In this blog post from the UK, Carlos Camarena, Felipe’s brother and master distiller of Tapatío tequila, warned a roomful of British bartenders, “…buy up tequila now as in 3 to 5 years there will be a worldwide tequila shortage.”
Blame Global Warming
In a thought provoking post by Clayton Szczech via his website, he firmly attributes the weather aberration to global warming.
With accelerated climate change comes the uncertainty of once predictable annual weather patterns reported Alquimia Tequila’s owner and organic agavero, Dr. Adolfo Murillo, via its Facebook page.
“…we have been talking about [global warming] for some time now. This is man’s effect on our Mother Earth. Will our agaves survive?”
That Didn’t Take Long
By April 2016, articles like the one referenced above were reissued to drive home the possibility of an agave shortage, whether real or rigged.
By late June to early July 2016, confirmed reports reached this office of transnational corporations locking in major contracts with medium sized maquiladoras (distilleries that produce tequila for various other brands) to provide them with enormous quantities of tequila to be bottled under their labels.
By mid-August, confirmed reports reached us verifying that other distilleries were already hiking their prices to their clients in anticipation of, or in answer to, an increase in agave prices.
By late October 2016, other well known brands were feeling the squeeze of a spike in agave prices.
What We Know
Reliable sources tell us that estimates of agave losses are ranging in the millions of plants.
While initial reports stated the snowfall reached only 1-3 centimeters [.093 to 1.96 inches], there are now unsubstantiated claims of up to 8 inches of snow had actually fallen in many areas of the Los Altos region.
Unsubstantiated reports reached this office in mid-July 2016 of small agave farmers selling off up to 2 year old agaves before they completely rotted in the fields.
There are also unconfirmed reports of agricultural engineers recommending a scorched earth solution to these small farmers.
Hectares of agave fields are to be plowed under and burned due the danger of crops being infected by the dreaded snout-nosed weevil that prefer to lay their eggs inside weakened plants.
These same small farmers are reluctant to take such a heavy financial hit and would rather sell off what they can rather than destroy their rapidly wilting crops.
Due to the agave glut 7-8 years ago, many other growers stopped planting agave. Now, because of the unexpected freeze, brokers (coyotes) are scrambling to meet demand.
At this writing, master agave growers are said to be demanding $3.00 per pound for their piñas–and getting it!
Don’t Hate the Game–Hate the Player
Who will survive?
As per usual, any pedigreed distillery with their own agave estates will ensure that their flagship brands have plenty of plants and juice on hand.
Those maquiladoras that grow agave should also be able to ride out the storm.
Of course, the Big Boys, those transnational corporations with deep pockets, will also pull through, and even thrive. As we mentioned above, they’ve been busy securing long term contracts since late spring and early summer 2016.
Those brands that are considered handcrafted, small batch, and micro-distilled tequilas should also prevail since the vast majority only produce enough for their own labels.
Virtually any master agave grower who tended his fields properly will prosper during this looming crisis.
Those short-term players with little or no experience who were only in it to make a quick buck.
But, this is a good thing, according to Patrón tequila’s Chief Marketing Officer, Lee Applbaum in this article.
Basically, Applebaum asserts, the shakeout of short-term growers will ensure that the market maintains plenty of quality juice while preventing the dilution of the ultra-premium category that Patrón covets so deeply.
So, what will drive tequila prices up?
Amateur agave growers?
A blue agave shortage?
All of the above. The simple economics of supply and demand.
But, there’s a new scourge in Tequila Town, and this one is set to be a real thorn in the sides of the Big Boys.
Sources report that representatives of large pharmaceutical companies have courted well-respected agaveros for their brix-rich piñas to be used for inulin production, a projected $2.4 billion industry by 2024.
These same sources confirm that Los Mieleros have consistently and extravagantly outbid tequileros for their agave in just the past few years.
The option for large tequila producers to raid Oaxacan mezcaleros for their espadin like they did back in the mid-1980s, and as Sarah Bowen documented on page 46 of her book, Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal and the Politics of Production, is gone. The current burgeoning Mezcal Industry will see to that.
In the meantime, get ready to ante up.
The 2017 Agave Shortage is much worse than we thought.