If you’ve seen Mike Morales’ article on the Top 20 Craft Tequilas you’ve overlooked then you’ll understand that picking one (or even 10) from this list is like picking your favorite child. It’s too difficult to do, so your best bet is to vote twice a day for your favorites and spend the rest of your time sipping all of them.
Congratulations to all the nominees. If Mike could pick a top 50 list, it still wouldn’t be enough. Thank you to all the wonderful brands out there who are constantly striving to produce the finest tequilas they can. We love you all!
In order to be called tequila, this spirit distilled from the juices blue agave must be made in specific regions of Mexico, most prominently Jalisco and the town of tequila. While no tequilas are produced in the United States, we want to find the best craft tequila brands available in the country, and to do so, we asked a pair of tequila experts to nominate their favorites. Unlike other spirits, tequila brands often share distilleries – there are about 70 of them producing more than 500 brands – so it’s often the brand rather than the distillery that indicates quality. Many of these 20 nominees for best craft tequila brand use traditional methods. Many of the brand owners grow their own agave and personally oversee the entire tequila-making process. All produce high-quality, distinctive tequilas available in the U.S. market. Vote for your favorite once per day until voting ends on Monday, September 12 at noon ET. Read the official Readers’ Choice rules here.
In early August of 2016, I received an email from USA Today asking me to weigh in on their craft spirits-themed Readers’ Choice contests, and in our case (at press time), the soon-to-be-launched craft tequilas list.
I’ll be honest, I dread these lists. What’s worse is, I dread being asked to participate in compiling them.
Let me tell you why.
It’s A List
In the Digital Age, everyone wants things in bite sized form and they want it now. It is also proven that numbered lists draw attention. And, there are so many of them out there on the Interwebs–
Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover…
The 10 Best Ways to Cheat On Your Mate…
Six Ways Your Cat Plots to Kill You…
A Word About Your Sins
Ever wonder why those numbered titles are so enticing?
It’s because they are aimed at the 7 Deadly Sins.
A steadfast rule of copywriters is to compose content that elicits an emotional response from readers to take action.
To drive your particular sin even further to cause you to read the content, the word YOU is hammered into every title.
[Editor’s note: See what I did with my title? You choose which sin fits best for YOU.]
Craft Is A Buzzword
As we thoroughly examined in our reports, Craft Tequila: WTF Does That Mean? Parts 1 and 2, the term craft has been kidnapped by marketers writing fancy copy to confuse the consumer.
While the instructions in the email required at least 20 selections from me, the contest will butcher the selections down to only 10–
Selected by those who are unaware of what a craft tequila really is, and…
Curated by someone whose job it is to find ways to engage USA Today’s readers.
It’s A Contest
When our COO, Lisa Pietsch, examined the contest website and the myriad of other pre-existing lists, she found that this is a clever way for USA Today to increase reader engagement.
Reader engagement translates to readers’ time spent on USA Today’s mammoth website, which in turn translates to money they charge advertisers.
The term we use is “sticky” as in spider’s web sticky.
Which leads me to–
Having been paid to ghost write Editor’s Choice lists in the past, I am fully aware that many times, spirits sponsors of major magazines and websites tend to sneak onto them.
This, despite my vehement objections to the editors that such a move invalidates the list altogether.
So, before any of the Usual Suspects wind up on USA Today’s 10 Best Readers’ Choice Awards Craft Tequilas list, here are my selections. Bear in mind, I was limited to only twenty brands.
Recently, myself, and a few select others in this tightly knit tequila community, were asked to be interviewed for quotes concerning “surprising things you can do with tequila” for the May issue of a major, worldwide men’s magazine.
In the US, this would be just in time for Cinco de Mayo, and the predictable onslaught of articles riddled with comical inaccuracies and beginning with hackneyed clichés like…
“Remember when you were in (grade school, high school, college)…?” Or…
“Celebrating Mexican Independence Day…” Or…
“I can’t stand the smell of tequila to this day because one time….” And, my very favorite–
“…tequila, made from the agave cactus….”
The author of this upcoming article told me that his magazine’s circulation encompassed a wide age demographic that included
males from their mid-twenties to early sixties. In other words, from Millennials to Baby Boomers.
He further confidently informed me that his readership “has no idea about tequila outside of Cuervo Gold.”
At least, that’s what his boss–the editor!–told him to assume was his audience.
I was both disheartened and dismayed.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
According to this magazine’s website…
“[It] is the world’s largest and best-selling men’s magazine with 47 editions in 61 countries and a global readership of more than +35 million. In the U.S., [its] circulation exceeds 1.8 million, and it has been named a Capell’s Circulation Report top-ten performer every year for the past decade.”
This magazine also gives complete breakdowns of their demographics including education and income, and how they compare to other men’s magazines.
It is, by far, the leader. Further, its mission statement is…
“It’s the brand for active, professional men who want greater control over their physical, mental and emotional lives. We give men the tools they need to make their lives better through in-depth reporting, covering everything from fashion and grooming to health and nutrition as well as cutting edge gear, the latest entertainment, timely features and more.”
Lastly, it claims to be…
“#1 source of information for and about men.”
Underestimating Your Audience
What does it say about editors of major men’s magazines who still insist that their audience only shoots tequila and chugs suds when their own stats tell a different story?
Major men’s magazines who service this demographic continue to dumb down significant advancements in the spirits industry, as well as perpetuate tequila myths to keep their readers in the dark.
When you construct 9 pages on your website to convince potential advertisers that your audience is wealthy and educated, act like it.
Give them timely information with substance–
This article in the Times-Picayune is a prime example of a journalist who refuses to underestimate her newspaper’s audience while adding value to their lives.
It’s no secret these days that the craft beer and distilling industries are taking a bite out of the huge market share that beer and spirits multinational corporations have dominated for decades.
In case you missed it, Tequila Aficionado Media tackled this issue at length in Craft Tequila–WTF Does That Mean? Part 1 and Part 2. In Part 2, we made suggestions on how you can distinguish a craft tequila from all the others (the Craft Tequila Gauntlet).
These behemoth conglomerates continue to fight back, either by swallowing up smaller brewers or distillers, or, as in Budweiser’s case, by turning up its nose at the whole craft concept, illustrated in this now infamous Super Bowl XLIX TV spot.
Whether it’s a by product of self-education and exploration, or the education being received from the craft spirits sector of the market, the average consumer is becoming more aware of what they’re imbibing and demanding quality and transparency from the industry.
So much so, that some consumer groups have taken it upon themselves to sue spirits makers like Austin, Texas’ Tito’s Vodka, and most recently, Jim Beam bourbon, for false claims that they are handcrafted.
While Simon Ford, one of the erudite founders of The 86 Company, makers of Tequila Cabeza, agreed in this interview, that such lawsuits are frivolous, he does admit that small companies like his owes it to the consumer “to explain the ins and outs of how it’s made and why it’s a worthy spirit.”
Therein lies the rub.
The Truth and Nothing But The Truth
It behooves all small craft brands to continue educating their customers every chance they get, whether in person, through word-of-mouth, in point-of-sale materials (POS), or through social media channels. And…
It is vitally important do so in print periodicals.
Conversely, it is the responsibility of the journalist, blogger, writer, copy editor or author of the article to report the information accurately–no matter what your boss says.
Think we’re being too difficult in demanding that we be quoted truthfully? That we’re acting like prima donnas because we refuse to pair down our quote to fit your word count? That we’re making a big deal out of a little white tequila lie?
Read this horrendous tequila blog posted on Liquor Online from August 2014, and then, get back to me.
If The Explosion Doesn’t Kill You, the Fallout Will
This piece of rubbish garnered such responses from readers like…
“What a disservice to someone that wants to learn / understand!”
And, this one…
Lifestyle and Spirits Writers–
Let Me Let You In On a Little Secret…
It isn’t that we in this tequila community aren’t grateful for the opportunity to voice our opinions and impart our knowledge of our beloved spirit to your subscribers. On the contrary–we are fully aware of the enormous goodwill that that kind of street cred can generate for us.
But you must understand and respect that it is our reputations, images, and brands that are also on the line. Not to mention our character and integrity.
You asked for our expertise to up your street cred, too!
Those of us throughout the tequila community take very seriously what we preach. Whether we’re in the liquor store
aisles or quoted in the pages of a magazine or newspaper, we believe that at every moment we are adding value to someone’s life and lifestyle.
Don’t Be That Magazine
Like it says on Tequila Aficionado Media’s website and all of its social media, it is…
“The most comprehensive and informative source for Tequila, Mezcal and Sotol on the Internet or in print today.”
We don’t pretend to be anything else. Your favorite magazine shouldn’t either.
Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As noted agave ethno-botanist, Ana Valenzuela so succinctly declared in this open letter…
“…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.