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As Americans drink more tequila, the agave industry in the Southwest grows

Leonardo Sanchez kneels beside some of his agave plants near Roma, Texas.
John Burnett for NPR
Leonardo Sanchez kneels beside some of his agave plants near Roma, Texas.

Updated September 15, 2023 at 6:47 AM ET

ROMA, Texas – It's hotter than Hades in mid-July down on the Texas border. Combined with the Rio Grande Valley's arid climate, it's a perfect condition to grow the hardy agave, the plant from which we get tequila and its smoky cousin, mezcal.

But two years ago, when Leonardo Sanchez and his partner planted 2,500 sharp-tipped agaves on a plot of land that U.S. border agents patrol for undocumented immigrants and drug smugglers, it didn't bode well for the future of Texas mezcal.

"There are a lot of hogs and javelinas in this area," he said, with a forced chuckle. "And they like a lot these little plants. So they ate thousands of them."

Sanchez persevered – and for good reason: Sales of tequila and mezcal in the U.S. havemore than tripled in the last decade. The Mexican spirits outsell American whisky. Now growers and distillers in the Southwest are hard at work planting agave, counting on the terroir in U.S. border states to be close enough to that of Oaxaca and Jalisco, the Mexican states where much of the mezcal and tequila are produced.

After the hogs ate his plants, Sanchez brought more baby agaves from his native Mexico. This time, they went into a protected plant nursery. Once he puts them in the ground—and erects a stout hog-proof fence—it will take at least seven years for the plants to mature.

"Of course, we will have to take extra measures to protect them, like electric fencing or maybe we'll have to pay some men with rifles," Sanchez said. "I don't know."

Convincing doubters

While his agave plants are growing, Sanchez's distillery Ancestral Craft Spirits is importing agave juice from his partner's mezcal estate in Oaxaca, then distilling and bottling it inside a 140-year-old former general store in downtown Roma. Named Blasfemus, it's the first Texas-made agave spirit. (Like French champagne, only agave spirits produced in Mexico are called tequila or mezcal.)

Sanchez explains how he and his partner settled on that name: They had produced special editions of their spirit from agave plants that came from particular Mexican states, such as Guerrero and San Luis Potosi. So his partner approached board members of his Mexican distillery with a proposal: Why not do a special bottle solely from Texas-grown plants?

"One of the board members told him that would be a blasphemy," Sanchez said.

Mexican distillers have been making tequila and mezcal for more than 400 years. Jimadores, or harvesters, start by trimming the agave plant's thick, fibrous leaves to get at its heart, known as the piña. Tequileros use only the Blue Weber species, steaming their piñas typically in a brick oven.

Mezcal can be made from many varieties of agave. But to get its smoky taste, the piñas are roasted in an underground oven. It's a process similar to making barbacoa, which are Mexican meats slow-cooked in a subterranean pit.

The cooked piñas are then mashed to obtain agave juice that is rich in sugar, which is then fermented, distilled, flavored and bottled.

If Sanchez succeeds in growing agave, he will be able to complete the whole process on Texas soil.

Juan Flores, co-owner of Terras Urban Mexican Kitchen (left), and Chris Galicia, cocktail spirits director of Las Ramblas, swill the Texas-made agave spirit Blasfemus.
/ John Burnett for NPR
John Burnett for NPR
Juan Flores, co-owner of Terras Urban Mexican Kitchen (left), and Chris Galicia, cocktail spirits director of Las Ramblas, swill the Texas-made agave spirit Blasfemus.

Seeing a climate-change silver lining

Texas is by no means the first state to produce an agave spirit.

Californians have been growing and distilling agave for nearly a decade. One big grower just planted 250,000 agaves. Hawaii is doing it, too, and there are reportedly startups in New Mexico and Arizona.

On the West Coast, they don't have to worry about feral pigs. In Northern California, the challenge is finding the right agave varieties that can withstand cold, wet weather.

Craig Reynolds, president of theCalifornia Agave Council, with 50 members, is an evangelist for what he calls Mezcalifornia. While there are plenty of downsides to climate change, he sees a silver lining.

"Climate change also creates opportunities, particularly in agriculture," he said. "As some crops become less desirable because of changing weather, other crops become more desirable. And agave is one of them."

Reynolds grows agaves and sells the harvested piñas—the Spanish word for pineapple, because that's what they look like—to distillers for up to $1.75 a pound. California has more than 400 acres planted in agave, with some distillers opening tasting rooms similar to wineries.

"I'm bullish on it," says Erlinda Doherty, a wine & spirits consultant based in Washington D.C. "We have a plant that requires very little water and maintenance. It can replace other crops that require more water. The demand for the spirit is so large. Why not?"

The taste test

But how does a made-in-America agave spirit taste?

A pair of veteran bartenders in Brownsville, Juan Flores, co-owner of Terras Urban Mexican Kitchen, and Chris Galicia, cocktail spirits director of Las Ramblas, agreed to sample Blasfemus for this story.

They poured themselves a taste, sniffed it and sloshed it around their palates.

"Smells sweet. Lots of spice to it, too," said Flores.

"Smells like apple pie for some reason," said Galicia. "Is that just me?"

As for how it compared to the traditional Mexican elixir, "a traditionalist I don't think would necessarily drink this," Galicia said, choosing his words carefully. "But somebody who's fairly getting into the category, it's definitely right up your alley. I think things like this are good for a growing market and it has a place on the back bar."

American agave spirits are in their infancy and growers aren't deterred. Back in 1976, a blind taste test of wine experts showed the world that California could make a Chardonnay on par with France. Around the same time, Texas began making wine. Today, theTexas wine industry has an impact of $20 billion.

American agave pioneers insist they're not trying to recreate authentic Mexican mezcal. Said Leonardo Sanchez, "We're trying to create something uniquely American."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Burnett
John Burnett is a national correspondent based in Austin, Texas, who has been assigned a new beat for 2022—Polarized America—to explore all facets of our politically and culturally divided nation. Prior to this assignment, Burnett covered immigration, Southwest border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.