Relegated to after-party shots for long, agave spirits such as tequila and mezcal see a surge in their popularity. A look at the trend sweeping across the subcontinent’s bars, and parties

If you thought India was only passionate about whisky and gin, it’s time to wake up and smell the agave. Currently, there are more than 20 tequila, mezcals and agave spirit brands available in India. The three variants of the distilled agave juice are no longer a trend du jour but a staple. This rise in popularity is a reflection of how the Mexican spirit has taken over the world.

According to International Wine & Spirit Research (IWSR), the beverage alcohol data and intelligence organisation, “The category is expected to grow at 7% volume CAGR, 2021-2026. Tequila holds the largest share of the global agave-based spirits category and has enjoyed high levels of consumer demand in recent years: in 2021, tequila commanded 2.5% volume share of the global spirits market (excluding national spirits), up from 1.8% in 2016. The category is expected to grow at a volume CAGR of 7% globally, 2021-2026.”

What drives the interest in tequila

Tequila, mezcal, and other agave spirits are distinct Mexican spirits crafted from the agave plant, yet they differ in production and flavour profiles. Tequila is made solely from Blue Weber agave in the Jalisco region of Mexico and has a GI tag. Mezcal can also only originate in Mexico but can encompass various agave types, delivering a smokier, earthier taste due to its traditional underground roasting process. Other agave spirits (including non-Mexican agave spirits) showcase diverse agave varieties and production methods, each contributing to unique flavour nuances.

When it comes to drinking trends, most start in the US and eventually trickle down to India. “In the US, the growth of premium and super premium tequila has been fairly phenomenal in the past few years. A lot of it has been fuelled by celebrity attachment to tequila,” explains Vikram Achanta, co-Founder of 30BestBarsIndia and Tulleeho (a drinks education, training, and consulting firm). Dwayne Johnson, George Clooney, Rita Ora and Nick Jonas are some celebrities with investments in tequila. In India, however, it is not the celebrity endorsement that has helped agave-based spirits spiral upwards. It has been the Indian consumer.

Codigo 1530. Photo courtesy: Anggel’s Share

The popularity of tequila and mezcal in India has primarily been driven by well-heeled Indian consumers. “I’d say the consumer currently would be far more aware and educated about what brands are trending globally. And that’s helped in a sense to fuel the availability of these brands in India,” adds Achanta. More international brands are also planning to enter the Indian marketplace. In the super-premium category, tequila and mezcal brands such as Codigo 1530, 1800, Don Julio, amongst others have become go-to names, while entry-level Camino and Jose Cuervo have always been staples in restaurant bars. According to Kimberly Pereira, COO, Maya Pistola Agavepura, a premium 100% Indian agave spirit brand, India has seen a 600% increase in sales for the agave-spirits segment since 2020.

Gin versus agave spirit

This meteoric rise of agave spirits is reminiscent of that of gin in India where both have seen a move towards more premium, small-batch offerings in India. Gin’s popularity has also been due to the bartender community who were in search of more flavourful spirits for their cocktail menus and drink programmes. In the case of agave, it’s the consumer who is driving that trend. Nikhil Agarwal, founder, All Things Nice and partner, Anggel’s Share, which imports some premium mezcals and tequilas in India, observes, “With agave spirits, while cocktail consumption is one of the biggest factors, a lot of younger audiences are willing to try high-end tequila and agave or agave-based spirits. This is something that you don’t see that often with gin. There are a few high-end gin brands, but with tequila and mezcal, you could go very high-end and there will be takers for it as well.”

Barrier to entry

A quality 100% agave spirit will always have a premium attached to it. Rakshay Dhariwal, founder of Maya Pistola Agavepura, explains that the making of agave spirits takes almost 15 years. A single agave plant takes from five to 35 years to grow depending on the species. Once harvested, the heads and tails (the top and bottom leaves) of the plants are chopped, leaving the heart known as piña, processed and then either roasted underground (a technique used for mezcal) or pressure cooked in an autoclave to ensure proper extraction of juices. This juice is then fermented and later distilled in a copper pot still to create the primary agave spirit distillate. This is then diluted and aged in oak barrels according to the style of agave spirit it wants to specialise in. Pistola currently has five variants of agave spirits in the market — Joven, Reposado, Rosa, Añejo and Extra Añejo. The last two have recently hit the market in Maharashtra at an MRP of Rs 7,850 and Rs 17,500, respectively.

All variants of Pistola. Photo courtesy of Maya Pistola Agavepura

Before Pistola, there was DesmondJi. Helmed by Desmond Nazareth, the eponymous India brand’s first agave-based spirit. He found the giant succulent, Agave Americana species, growing in abundance in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh, and is invested heavily in learning how to process the piñas. Dhariwal, too, took Nazareth’s assistance to set up Pistola. The homegrown market is ripe for more investments in agave spirit. The market is also expanding to tier-2 markets. Pistola is now available in West Bengal and Assam while the demand for imported tequila and mezcal in north Indian locations of Chandigarh and Jaipur is only growing. “I think the biggest thing is that we have seen imported brands come in and the competition has grown. That is a great movement because when there is more competition, there is more awareness,” explains Pereira.

The alternative to 100% agave spirit would be mixto, which has 51% agave spirit and 49% any other neutral spirit. The cost of production, and therefore its retail pricing, would be significantly lower. “The barrier to entry in mixto is not so high. I might even look at mixto in the future. I am a businessman at the end of the day and so if there’s an opportunity at that end of the spectrum, I’m not averse to going after it,” adds Dhariwal. Achanta also informs that as per the Mexican government regulations, one can import Mixto Tequila (at least 51% agave sugars) in bulk to be bottled locally. This, too, would help in bringing the prices of agave-based spirits down.

The middle ground between gin and whisky

The ability to create exceptional cocktails as well as be a great sipping spirit is an ace up agave spirits’ sleeve. The versatility of the spirit presents a great middle ground between youthful gin and sedate whisky. “For gin enthusiasts, tequila offers a similarly botanical-driven experience, with herbal and floral notes that can be appreciated in both neat sipping and cocktail applications. At the same time, for whisky aficionados, the tequila ageing process in oak barrels can provide familiar woody and caramelized flavours, reminiscent of aged whiskies,” says Manoj Singh Rawat, Head Mixologist at Manifest Hospitality that operates Mehico and Sorano in Kolkata.

The most important development in the popularity of agave spirits, particularly tequila, is that India has finally matured to not just shoot the spirit as a party-ending shot but to sip and appreciate it. This appreciation has also led to dedicated bars and restaurants that focus only on the Mexican spirit such as Aasmaana (top), the recently opened agave bar at Ritz Carlton, Pune, which offers a curated range of agave-based cocktails, and Miss Margarita in Delhi and Goa.

Agave spirits, whether it is imported tequila or mezcal or homegrown agave-spirits, are here to stay, concludes Rawat. “With more brands entering the space and mixologists developing interesting takes on the spirit, we could see a further surge in popularity, where tequila moves past being just trendy, and towards a more regularly consumed spirit than it is now,” he says.

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