June 19, 2024

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California distillers turn to agave—but they’re not allowed to call it mezcal or tequila

2 min read

Leo Ortega started growing spiky blue agave plants on the arid hillsides around his Southern California home because his wife liked the way they looked.

A decade later, his property is now dotted with thousands of what he and others hope is a promising new crop for the state following years of punishing drought and a push to scale back on groundwater pumping.

The 49-year-old mechanical engineer is one of a growing number of Californians planting agave to be harvested and used to make spirits, much like the way tequila and mezcal are made in Mexico. The trend is fueled by the need to find hardy crops that don’t need much water and a booming appetite for premium alcoholic beverages since the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s attracted entrepreneurs such as Ortega, as well as some California farmers. They’re seeking to shift to more water-efficient crops and irrigation methods to avoid fallowing their fields with looming limits on how much groundwater they can pump, as well as more extreme weather patterns anticipated with climate change. Agave, unlike most other crops, thrives on almost no water.

“When we were watering them, they didn’t really grow much, and the ones that weren’t watered were actually growing better,” Ortega said, walking past rows of the succulents.

He is now investing in a distillery after his initial batches of spirits, made from Agave americana, sold for $160 a bottle.

Consumers started spending more on high-quality spirits during the pandemic shutdowns, which spurred a rise in premium beverage products, said Erlinda A. Doherty, an agave spirits expert and consultant.

Tequila and mezcal were the second-fastest growing spirit category in the country in 2022, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Both are proprietary spirits under Mexican laws, which are recognized in U.S. trade agreements. Much like how champagne hails from a region of France, anything called tequila must contain…

Amy Taxin, The Associated Press

2023-11-05 12:24:26

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