As any drinker has surely noticed, we’re in the middle of a tequila boom. The global tequila market reached a value of $13 billion in 2021, up from $9.41 billion the year before, and is expected to more than double in the next five years, according to market research company Imarc. Sales of the spirit surpassed both rum and bourbon in the U.S. in 2020, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, and it is expected to overtake even vodka in coming years; it’s currently the fastest-growing spirit category in the country, says the Distilled Spirits Council, topped only by ready-to-drink cocktails.
But the popular agave spirit faces a unique set of sustainability challenges, particularly as its production increases at this high rate. The concerns range from myriad ecological considerations to social and cultural ones, and that’s before you even get into the other issues that accompany the mass-production of the spirit, such as the wide-scale abandoning of traditional production methods in favor of industrialized ones, and the use of additives in the distillate.
So how can you, as a drinker, make an informed decision about which bottles to buy and which brands to support? First, it’s important to be aware of the issues associated with the spirit.
“Not all tequila is created equal or made in a good way,” says Ivy Mix, the proprietor of Leyenda and Fiasco in Brooklyn, clarifying that by “good” she means in an ethical and sustainable manner. There’s the obvious potential problem of overharvesting agave plants, an issue when the plants require at least seven years to grow but the rate of tequila production has far outstripped the rate of planting. This, in turn, has inspired some producers to turn to heavy fertilization in an effort to shorten the maturation time of the plants, which affects the agave’s flavor.
The biodiversity of the agave plants themselves is at stake as well. Producers have an incentive to encourage a type of agave reproduction in which the plants shoot off hijuelos, or pups, which are genetic clones of themselves; in the other type, the plants shoot up large stems called quiotes, which require a great deal of energy and sugars, meaning not enough sugar remains in the agave plant itself to allow for distillation. But when all agave are genetically identical, they’re especially vulnerable to diseases like the phylloxera that decimated European vineyards in the 1860s. The type of reproduction also affects the entire ecosystem surrounding the plants, including the birds and endangered bats that ordinarily pollinate the agave at night.
“There’s also the issue of how we’re treating the land itself,” says Mix. “In an industry that’s rapidly growing, you have people pillaging land that may otherwise have been natural habitat for other species of agave and other plants, just to cultivate the agave that we’re putting into tequila or mezcal.”
Sustainability considerations for the people involved in the spirit’s production are another factor. “I think it’s important to recognize that true sustainability for an agave spirit brand goes beyond factors associated with the environment,” says Misty Kalkofen, an agave-spirit expert and the director of education at Another Round Another Rally. “The environmental factors are extremely important, of course, including factors around raw material, byproduct remediation, water [both overuse and pollution], deforestation, erosion, and on and on and on. But if a brand isn’t also considering economic sustainability for all parties involved in production, cultural sustainability, and social sustainability, it is not a sustainable brand.” Kalkofen clarifies that by cultural sustainability she means the maintenance of traditions and preservation of the cultures traditionally associated with a product, and by social sustainability she’s referring to the well-being of the larger community around the production.
As the spirit has skyrocketed in popularity, distillers have turned to technology to allow them to scale up to meet the massively increased demand. The new methods aren’t all necessarily bad: Using industrial crushers rather than traditional tahona is an acceptable concession to the demands of scale, most experts feel. But when it comes to cooking the agave, there are different levels of industrialization, some of which affect the quality of the distillate. Stone ovens may not be practical for large-scale production; autoclaves, which are essentially enormous pressure cookers, are an alternative that produces a similar effect. Many experts feel, however, that the diffusers now employed by some large brands are a step too far, and liken them to using a microwave versus an oven. “They’re big machines that are antithetical to the cultural relevance of the product,” says Mix, mentioning that chemicals are frequently employed as well. Even worse: some producers are heavily fertilizing agave plants so they can be harvested at a younger age, a process that affects the agave’s flavor. Legally, producers are allowed to use additives like sugar and glycerin for a sweeter flavor and smoother mouthfeel, but it’s generally done to mask the unpalatable qualities of a poorly made tequila.
What’s more, there’s a lack of certifications within the tequila industry, even the rudimentary sort that exists for mezcal, to indicate how products are made. How can a consumer know how to make ethical choices?
“It’s tough,” Mix admits. “I do it for a living, and it’s still hard.” She suggests talking with industry pros at agave-focused bars for their suggestions. Ryan Fitzgerald, the owner of ABV in San Francisco, mentions the website Taste Tequila and its “Tequila Matchmaker” section, calling them “incredibly useful tools for people looking for more information about how great tequila is made and which brands are embracing those methods of production.”
There are, however, certain brands that tequila lovers can count on. “After years of declining quality, thanks to big investments and a need to make the product faster and cheaper, there's a small revolution of brands and producers bucking those trends and fighting to preserve delicious, well-made tequila and the culture that helps set this spirit apart from others,” says Fitzgerald. The experts were largely in agreement about which brands these are.
Everyone we spoke with, plus noted tequila expert and educator Julio Bermejo, nearly unanimously recommended a handful of brands that are employing best practices: Cascahuín, Fortaleza, G4, Tequila Ocho, and the Siembra Spirits brands are the names that came up most frequently; Siete Leguas, Tapatio, and Tesoro were also mentioned often.
The experts also unanimously cautioned to steer well clear of brands backed by celebrities, which often are the worst offenders where industrial practices and additives are concerned, and the most likely to simply not taste good. “Just because a celebrity puts their name on it, it by no means it’s good,” says Mix. “In fact, it frequently means the opposite.”
These are the specific bottles these experts consider essential for the home bar of any agave-spirit enthusiast, from companies they can stand behind.
This bottle is what Mix uses in the well at Leyenda. “I think it’s great, and it’s very tasty for making a Margarita,” she says.
Fitzgerald recommends this sipper, aged for eight months in used American oak barrels. The company “uses some newer technology out of necessity but in ways that maintain a slow process and high quality,” he says.
Both Mix and Fitzgerald named this bottle as their first pick. It’s a “great intro for mixing,” says Mix. “Their entry-level product is delicious and not that expensive. If you want to make a Margarita, it’s just phenomenal.”
Fortaleza makes “consistently delicious and complex tequilas,” according to Fitzgerald. “Never compromising.” Kalkofen agrees: “Fortaleza is the delicious proof that you can maintain traditional production processes while also growing your business,” she says. Note that this aged expression is for sipping, not mixing.Continue to 5 of 8 below.
“Owner David Suro is a leader in the tequila industry, championing not only transparency in tequila production, but also shining a light on the hard work and relatively low pay of jimadores,” says Fitzgerald, who prefers the still-strength blanco. Mix, on the other hand, reaches for the Ancestral bottling, saying it’s for those who are “truly a geek about tequila.” For that expression, Siembra partnered with Cascahuín to create a tequila in the ancestral tequila-making method, hand-crushing the agave with mallets, “and you can taste the difference,” she says. “It’s a really unique project and it’s just unbelievably tasty.” The bottle is certainly for sipping, not mixing. Kalkofen, meanwhile, suggests trying Siembra Azul and Siembra Valles blancos side-by-side to “taste the aspects of terroir offered by the two primary regions of Jalisco, Los Altos and Los Valles.”
Fitzgerald says that Siete Leguas “has been making benchmark tequila for generations and continues to resist the industry trends of faster, cheaper production.” The reposado is aged for eight months in white oak and features plenty of sweet cooked agave flavors along with the spice you’d expect from its time in the barrel.
This brand specializes in exemplifying terroir in agave. It harvests and distills only one field of agave at a time, Mix explains, “so you really get an example of how specific and terroir-driven agave is,” adding that blanco is the purest representation of that terroir. Unlike many blanco tequilas, Ocho’s expressions are great for sipping.