Snaxshot #46: Raising Spirits
invoking fast growing spirits
A newsletter on upcoming food and beverage trends that offers a curation of brands and aesthetics written by Andrea Hernández.
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🔮 Peek into the future:
Tequila’s reign over the spirits world
Mezcal’s meteoric rise and where it’s going
Invoking a new set of spirits; raicilla, sotol, pulque
Haunting of agave spirits, gimmicky labels
What’s happening beyond the spirit realm?
Oracular Spectacular, curation of new brands
Spoonful of News
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What saves you might not be
What saves my soul
That doesn't matter
—Orca, Y la Bamba
Maguey plants have been silent witnesses to the ongoing transformation of Mexico and they hold a wealth of knowledge within, from how they are cultivated, to the utility of each of their parts, to how and where they are consumed. The deity Mayahuel, associated with maguey, is depicted multiple times in various codices, relating to what’s maternal, fecundity and nourishment. Agave is embedded in Mexican culture, and it would be ridiculous to even hint that something that holds such relevance for centuries, could be considered “trendy” —there is however, no denying that the maguey, like stretching its arms past the horizons, has risen in popularity outside of Mexico.
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Whether it’s pulque, fermented milky sap from maguey, that like a white ghost wanders endlessly through the deserts—to the smokiness and burning sensations of mezcal, interest in agave spirits continues to grow. In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer makes note that in some indigenous languages, the word for plants translates to those who take care of us —just like Mayahuel represents abundance, so does the maguey provide in multiple ways, and like Wall Kimmerer notes, plants adapt, humans adopt.
Enter Tequila Takeover
—Agave-based spirits saw sales climb 30.1% compared with prior year to $5.2 billion, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.
—Tequila was the second-largest category by revenue behind vodka who is currently number one, not to mention vodka has held as top-selling spirit in the U.S. since the 1970s
—In the first half of its fiscal 2022, Diageo saw tequila sales surge 56% over the year-earlier period.
Tequila made its way out of Mexican distilleries and into mainstream urban bar scenes at the start of the 1990s, and in the span of one decade, this spirit’s production doubled —as multinational brands jumped in, making huge profits all whilst cementing Patron, Jose Cuervo and Don Julio as household names. Tequila’s popularity has grown around the world but the US remains its top consumer, in 2020, Mexico produced a total of 374 million liters, 286 million exported to 120 countries, but 72% of that went to the US —according to The Spirits Business: 254 million liters were received in the US, this was over 63 times more than the second-biggest importer, Germany. This boosted the export value of tequila to roughly $2 billion in 2020.
The ocean is a desert with its life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love
—A Horse with No Name, America
The past few years have seen an increase in Blue Weber agave production, which is the only variety that can be used for tequila, handpicked in the mountains of Jalisco, where plants grow seven to ten years before being harvested. As of this year, there are 163 certified tequila-producing companies in the industry, with 8,000 agave producers spanning more than 500,000 acres, the demand has been so high, that in 2018 there were even talks of a potential bust as fears that supply would not hold.
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From CPG, celebrity packaged goods and their tequila gold rush that has yielded big payouts (see Casaamigos purchase for $1 billion) to the rebrand of tequila shots, in the past decade the popularity of this spirit has skyrocketed —all the way to the top, today it poses a threat to the crown vodka has held for almost half a century as the number one selling spirit in the US. Another trend that has aided the rise of tequila has been an interest in bold flavors as well as in DIY mixology, particularly in the past couple of years, margarita has long been a top-selling cocktail at bars and restaurants, and is easily replicated at home. Which leads me to believe, the US may owe a lot to Jimmy Buffett and Margaritaville, but unto other origin stories.
Meteoric Mezcal Rise
—Between 2007 and 2011, mezcal sales grew by nearly 50% according to Mexican government data.
—Production of mezcal rose by nearly 10% last year, with 7.9 million litres made, up from 7.2m in 2019 – a 9.8% increase
—Drizly’s mezcal sales surged 600% year over year in 2020
—Mezcal sales in Nielsen-measured off-premise channels grew 86% by value and 69% by volume
—In a survey conducted for the 2020 BevAlc Insights Retail Report, 39 percent of retailer respondents said they plan to stock more mezcal in the next few years.
—According to Mexico’s mezcal regulatory commission, more than $413 million worth of mezcal was produced in 2020, up from $350 million in 2019.
—Its growth has been driven in part by the acquisition of independent producers by large spirits companies.
Mezcal derives from náhuatl mexcalli, translating to cooked maguey, the main difference between mezcal and tequila is that, unlike tequila, mezcal can be produced from any agave species, resulting in a wide array of flavor diversity. Its appellation of origin is also much larger than tequila’s—including the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosí, Durango and Michoacán, that are currently recognized by the government as so, though its disputed that there are more regions not included —those mezcals are labeled as "agave-distilled spirits" and rarely sold outside Mexico. At the start of the 2010s, only two species of mezcal were widely represented in the United States; by the mid 2010s, almost 30 varietals could be found in specialized bars across the country, and it’s most probably why we also saw the rise of mezcalerias happen simultaneously. While it is easy to get excited about having so much sudden access to these rare and exclusive mezcals, it is important to remember that to build its supply takes time.
Similar to tequila, the boom has caused concern for an impending bust as many agaves can’t be cultivated and can even take up to three decades to reach maturity, it’s one of the reasons why buying from brands that are family owned becomes of the outmost importance, as it is deemed necessary to ensure that there are more maguey plants being planted than extracted. Another concern held is that the sudden surge in mezcal interest has created a whole new gold rush, or in how it’s described in this detailed piece by the New York Times, “Columbus crusade or imperialism” (ex. Kendall Jenner using brown face to promote her tequila)—in trying to keep more of the artisanal feel and niche connoisseur status that mezcal has held as the cousin of tequila, many of the brands seem to rely heavily on “aesthetics” and “folklore” to convey that message, as if tradition is something that can be easily replicated in branding, or even bought.
Let that be another difference between tequila and mezcal, whereas the former was referenced a lot more in club scene, vacation resort, party settings —mezcal has always been more about being “in the know” —in the same way some of wine culture feels like. Brands are seeking to turn mezcal into just that —by not merely focusing on selling you on the spirit, but selling you on the experience in the same way wineries from Sonoma sell you not just the grape, but the views and the stay. Take for example the luxurious Casa Silencio, which many may not be aware is owned by Silencio Mezcal (Constellation Brands invested in them back in 2019) —where rooms start at $1,000 and is found in the middle of agave fields. Most recently, mezcal brand De Ella, is opening Casa De Ella, an experiential home using only Oaxacan natural materials. Is Oaxaca turn into a version of a mezcal Napa —some folks originally from the area believe so.
We’ve also seen women in this industry break into what feels often a male dominated industry, successfully, take Yola mezcal as an example, founder Yola Jimenez born and raised in Mexico City, she opened a mezcal bar back in 2008 because of a love for the spirit inherited from her grandfather. She became acquainted with Lykke Li (yes her) and Gina Correll Aglietti, who would later become her business partners. Yola mezcal was born from a vision of being able to create a spirits brand that would empower woman, now a reality on both sides of US/Mexico border, their success is seen in the likes of Chateau Marmont, Ace and the Standard carrying their product as well as the launch of their women led festival, Yola Dia —in a way, bringing it back to its deity origins.
Alas, once your popularity thrusts forward, it’s pretty hard to rewind, the meteoritic rise of mezcal has seen more mainstream appealing brands that feel like a more youthful take on agave spirits —in the last few years we’ve seen brands like Rosa Luna, Madre and Agua Magica launch, that seem to honor mezcal’s rich history, while adding a more modern visual to it, in a way that feels respectful. It has also led to the RTD and seltzerification of the spirit, that one must note may not be the best format in which mezcal should be presented considering it affects its taste profile —but it has already begun, both in the US and Mexico you can now find canned mezcal from Elenitas to Ojo de Tigre and Tume and Madre’s incoming return of Desert Water with what one can only imagine will be many others down the line. While mezcal goes through the alchemical process of niche to mainstream, we’ve invoked a whole new set of spirits.
New Spirits Ascending
Oh, down in Mexico
I've never really been so I don't really know
I guess I'll have to go
—Mexico, James Taylor
As tequila and mezcal experience notoriety, they have also paved the way for different types of more obscure Mexican distillates to become the new “in the know niche” —enter sotol, raicilla and pulque.
It’s named derived from náhuatl, puliuhqui signifying corruption, destruction this is a milky spirit that is obtained from fermenting the sap of maguey and it has been consumed since pre-hispanic times —used as a healing elixir, for ceremonial ritual purposes as well as an aphrodisiac. It was believed that this intoxicating beverage was created by Mayahuel alongside the deity, Patécat (representing medicine) originally reserved as a beverage for only the highest of politicians and priests. Post conquistador era, pulque lost its divine character and became a widely consumed beverage; its production became extremely important for the economy during colonial times and for the first years of an independent Mexico. It’s decay came post Mexican revolution, becoming somewhat a symbol of poverty and more of “the commons” it was popularly depicted in Mexican cinema, and pulquerias have historically been social gathering points as they were most comparable to saloons, and remained popular until mid-century.
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Interest in pulque across the border has increased, mostly by the hand of another popular fermented beverage picking up in the US, tepache. Tiny’s Cantina is known for serving pulque in Flatbush, the Los Angeles Times wrote a piece on the renewed interest in pulque, and questioned whether the fermented alcoholic beverage symbolized “the final frontier in the importation of Mexican culinary practices to the United States.” Mostly living under appreciated, many doubt that pulque can have the same popularity as mezcal or tequila, but perhaps more underestimated, as it has been a staple in Mesoamerican culture for over a thousand years. Will it be able to restore its reputation, as it was once the beverage of gods —some believe that distilling pulque is the key that opens a door to a future where it can.
The word is derived from the náhuatl, zōtolin which translates to palm trees, which probably is in reference to the way the plant looks like, though the plant is most commonly referred to as desert spoon because of how it can be roasted and chewed on its spoon shaped ends. The drink origins are debated, with some proclaiming its tied to the raramurí indigenous tribe in Chihuahua going back 800 years, while others noting that it stems post conquer times, those not inherently native, calling out the use of “indigenous aesthetics” as a marketing ploy to sell these types of spirits. And most likely the reasoning behind this portrayal would be the rise in interest for sotol, from Texas to LA and NYC.
Another main difference with mezcal, which is cooked in pits to acquire that infamous smoky taste, distillers will roast sotol piñas (meaning the heart) in above-ground ovens for several days, before they are crushed, fermenting the juice in open-air vats, and distilling in column or pot stills. And more in line with tequila, sotol has a more limited denomination of origin, legal production is tied to Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango. Depending on where the plant is born (forest as opposed to desert) sotol flavor profiles can range from pine and minty to earthy and mineral flavors, and when this spirit is aged, the wood brings out the roasted notes of the piña.
Americans are picking up on sotol as sort of a de facto heir to the connoisseur feels mezcal gave before its stardom, with places like Marfa seeing a sotol distillery pop up last year, as a way to spread the gospel of this “rediscovered” spirit —simultaneously launching their own product, Chihuaha Desert Sotol in partnership with Sotol Don Celso in Janos, Mexico. But there is one brand that predates this new found interest, 5 years ago back in 2017, Desert Door opened a sotol distillery and tasting room in the Texas Hill Country focusing on Texas-grown plant sotol. What does it mean when sotol is being denominated outside its “origin region” —the US does not recognize the parameters established by Mexican denominación de origen for sotol, as opposed to tequila and mezcal, which it honors. Two things that are important to note that sotol plant is much more of a wild plant, as opposed to one that is specifically cultivated in a region like blue agave, but also that currently some brands that call themselves sotol are mixed with grain spirits, so not 100% pure. Just like bartenders had an influencer in making mezcal as mainstream as it is now, they are now doing the same with sotol, encouraging consumers to give it a try, allowing the spirit to possess their palates.
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Raicilla is a syncretism of two worlds, the Mexican miscegenation, mixing teómetl - the milk of Mayahuel, the deity labeled as mother of Mexicans, the spirit of life with the Arab-European distillation process by which the spirit is extracted, raicilla has been made and consumed since colonial times, mainly in the mining areas of Nueva Galicia. Raicilla’s origins are steeped in illegality, the drink first popped up in the 17th century, among the working class farmers and miners of western Jalisco, around San Sebastián del Oeste. It was eventually outlawed by the ruling Spanish crown, who wanted to tax all spirits in order to cut down competition with their own imports into Mexico. As a result, raicilla became illegal, produced in secret by farmers and families up in the mountains. Officially, raicillia is a type of Mexican moonshine.
Raicilla is typically single-distilled, unlike mezcal that is double-distilled, distillers of this spirit use a range of plants from maguey lechugilla to pata de mula (similar to an espadin). Its denomación de origen, protected as of 2019, are the coast south of Puerto Vallerta which would be labeled as “de la costa” and the Occidental Mountains or “de la sierra” —commonly used are these type of copper pots, modeled after the copper vessels Filipino immigrants traveled to coastal Jalisco and used to distill coconuts. Raicilla flavor varies from one place to another, if it is from the mountains, its tones can be more of citrus, wood, wet earth, pepper and herbs, while those from the coast include tones of tropical fruits, minerals, white pepper and smoke. These flavor profiles are gaining popularity, imports of raicilla are growing since mid 2010s, brands like La Venenosa, Estancia and Balam have been leading the movement, allowing us to commune with these long distilled spirits.
The Haunting of Agave
Unfortunately, due to its popularity, maguey or agave is being plagued by unruly players, as more companies are using the term more as marketing, to give a false sense that their beverages are made using “agave spirits” when in fact, what they contain is made fermented cane sugar and agave syrup—phrases like “100% premium blue agave” and “agave spiked seltzer” are being accused of misleading drinkers into thinking beverages that are in fact just hard seltzers contained tequila and thus are “premium” the same can be seen in the influx of brands appropriating “ranch water” which is a popular cocktail that is a mix of lime juice, tequila and sparkling mineral water.
These brands also have an unfair advantage in terms of distribution, as beverages with actual spirits in them have to abide by different state regulations, meanwhile those that are only appropriating the term to trick consumers into thinking what they are having is spirits infused beverages, benefit from being more widely available than the brands who abide by the rules and stick true to their labels. Consumer beware, find an example of this instance below:
Beyond Spirit Realms
With the explosion of Mexican spirits, so too has the interest in their non-alcoholic counter parts, with brands like Parch, a soon to launch RTD non-alcoholic agave spirit to Monday recently releasing their non-alcoholic mezcal. Smoked agave spirits is a common term being used by this NA options, and I would not be surprised they would be able to achieve a similar burn sensation as their alcoholic counterparts, considering we now have things like NA agua ardiente, a moonshine like spirit hailing from Colombia.
As the rise of sober curious expands worldwide from bar carts to bars and restaurants as well as with GenZ being a more conscious drinker, these non-alcoholic stand a chance to really leave their mark, as drinks beyond the spirits realm.
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CFD: Cocktail Factory Drinks released these very decoish RTDs.
LiLo Desserts: LiLo desserts are plant based cheesecakes.
Mauka: Hard Seltzer movement continues to grow in Mexico.
ESCO: This new fun coffee brand is a snaxbois dream.
Dam Drinks: Rebrand is the new relaunch, but we are loving this new look for concentrated alt-milk.
Carrot Dogs: Based in Canada, this is exactly what it sounds like, carrot alt-hot dogs.
Tomando el mescal de la luna
—Viva La Vida, Trio Marimberos
from Ganni to Alimentari Flaneur, Foxtrot Market, Erewhon Market and Pop Up Grocer alike have closed the circle, where food and beverage have become signalers in the same way fashion items have been, grocer stores have become THE fashion item.
Spoonful of News 🥄
Nestle is facing another allegation of child labor regarding Cadbury, no surprise here, fuck this shit.
IPOs are down 72% in the first quarter, and maybe finally we will stop hyping up companies before they prove themselves of value.
Better Meat Co debuts a mycelium based foie gras.
Coca Cola released a pixel flavored drink because it has nothing else to do but play Fortnite.
Blue eggs and ham? Vital Farms debuts their blue heirloom eggs.
See you again next week, in a different future, same place.
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