A growing number of spirits incorporate agave in new and sometimes unusual ways. No, we’re not talking about traditional agave spirits such as sotol or racilla. Consider instead agave distilled into vodka (as with Crystal Head Onyx) or gin (Gracias a Dios agave), or a measure of agave spirits blended in the same bottle as Canadian whiskey (Bearface One Eleven) or distilled with cognac (Aga Vie Espirit d’Agave), not to mention the fast-growing category of nonagave spirits finished in casks that previously held tequila or mezcal.
What’s behind these boundary-blurring bottlings?
1. A Rush to Capitalize on the Tequila Boom
The most straightforward answer is that the ongoing surge in tequila and mezcal sales has prompted many producers to seek ways to lure agave-curious drinkers to sample other categories. Last year, tequila and mezcal sales climbed 17.4%, or $587 million to $4 billion. Mezcal alone was up 17.7%, or $19 million, totaling $124 million.
“Onyx is connecting the growth of super-premium tequila to vodka,” says Daniella Vizzari, the assistant marketing manager for Crystal Head, which in fall 2020 rolled out a vodka distilled from agave sourced from Mexico’s Nayarit. Onyx is a permanent part of the portfolio, she says.
Like the flagship Crystal Head vodka, which is made from corn, the agave version is blended with water from Canada and filtered through Herkimer diamonds. Though it has the faintest tinge of honey, it otherwise tastes nothing like agave. “We’re bridging the gap between vodka and tequila by introducing consumers to something entirely new to create with,” says Vizzari.
2. Producers Chasing Flavor
For Louise McGuane, the founder of J.J. Corry Irish Whiskey, the idea for her lineup of tequila- and mezcal-finished Irish whiskeys was born in the bars she visited while on the road in the U.S.
“I would see rows and rows and rows of mezcals in particular and some tequilas on the back bar,” she says. “These places would have 10 listings of whiskey and 20 listings of mezcal or tequila. Mezcal and tequila really caught fire with bartenders’ imaginations because they’re hyperartisanal.”
That started her on a journey to create a mashup of agave and Irish whiskey. In the end, some of the whiskey was aged in ex-tequila casks, some in ex-mezcal casks, then the two parcels were blended together. Though she had hoped to impart a mezcal-like smokiness and tequila’s vegetal characteristics into the Irish whiskey, “it wasn’t entirely successful,” says McGuane, though it did yield a “supple green agave note.” The bottling is called The Batallion, a reference to Irish Americans who fought for Mexico in an 1840s battle.
The first batch of The Batallion was released in 2019 and sold out quickly. Although the pandemic put a hold on supplies of tequila barrels, a second batch is anticipated soon, and The Batallion will become part of J.J. Corry’s core portfolio.
“We think there’s a market for us with agave-influenced spirits,” says MacGuane. She also points to similar experiments in Mexico, such as scotch-finished tequilas. “There’s an interesting crossover happening on both sides of the Atlantic,” she says. “You’ll see experimentation on both sides. Seeing how popular both categories are, it’s a natural progression.”
3. A Change in Whiskey Regulations
Of note, in 2019 the Scotch Whisky Association amended its notoriously strict rules, broadening the variety of casks allowed for maturing scotch. Specifically, the change allows scotch to be matured in oak casks that have previously been used to age wine, beer, ale and spirits. The amendment has some restrictions: It rules out wine, beer or spirits that add sweeteners, flavors or stone fruit. But the upshot is that tequila and mezcal casks are now permitted.
That move is widely credited to pressure from Diageo but opened the door for agave-finished bottlings from a wide range of producers, such as Dewar’s Ilegal Smooth Mezcal Cask Finish (owned by Bacardi) and Chivas Extra 13 Blended Scotch (owned by Pernod Ricard).
U.S. craft producers also seemed to take inspiration from that movement. New entrants include Scorpiones, a white whiskey from Philadelphia’s Manatawny Still Works aged in Scorpion mezcal barrels, released in 2020; Wigle Oaxaca rye, finished in ex-mezcal casks, released in 2018; and FEW’s All Secrets Known, a high-rye bourbon fnished in ex-tequila barrels, a collaboration with rock band Alice in Chains and released in 2019.
4. A Drive for Innovation
Of course, some producers experiment just because they can. For Canada’s Bearface One Eleven, master blender Andres Faustinelli mixes a small amount of espadín mezcal with Canadian whisky, which is aged in used American oak barrels, then finished in virgin French oak casks.
“Canadian whisky has the most flexible regulations,” says Faustinelli. “You can use up to 9.09% of any spirit, as long as it’s aged in an oak barrel.” It’s an unusual whiskey, with distinct nutty and floral tones and a mild mesquite-smoke exhale.
“I don’t think there’s any more terroir-forward spirit than agave and especially mezcal,” says Faustinelli. “It was a fantastic challenge to blend this element.” He describes the finished whisky as a “unicorn.”
While Faustinelli champions experimentation—“We’re showing the world we can push the boundaries of whiskey definitions,” he says—he’s doing so with an eye on what consumers want, namely tequila and related spirits, as the tequila boom continues to echo. “The consumer started in tequila, went into mezcal and is keeping exploration in the agave [category],” he says. “There’s a lot of energy around agave—a lot, a lot of energy.”