Tequila remains the fastest growing spirits category in America. Even in these challenging economic times, Mexico’s indigenous spirit continues to post healthy depletion figures. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), the entire category grew 3.6% last year. Sales of higher end tequilas rose a whopping 17%, which was second only to super-premium vodkas (17.7%).
The category’s phenomenal success has prompted an influx of new artisanal brands of tequila into the U.S. market. As of November 2010, there were 1,132 brands of tequila. That figure represents an increase of 163 brands in 2010 alone and almost 600 over the past 5 years.
Even in the land of opportunity, not all have what it takes to succeed. There are no statistics on how many brands of tequilas have come and gone. However, there is a proving ground where producers of tequila, mezcal, sotol and bacanora go to test their mettle and see whether they have what it takes to compete: the prestigious Spirits of Mexico Competition, an annual event held in historic Old Town in San Diego. As they say, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
Sanctioned by the International Wine & Spirits Competition Group (IWSC Group), 106 entries vied in September for the competition’s highly coveted medals in eight categories. Over the course of two days, a panel of 15 judges — all prominent spirit professionals and noted tequila authorities — evaluated the entrants on their aromatics, body, visual appearance, mouth feel, flavor and finish in a series of blind tastings.
Founded in 2007, the Spirits of Mexico Competition has grown to be the largest agave-centric event of its kind. Everybody who’s anybody in the tequila business has at one time entered a brand to see how it stacks up to the other guys’. More importantly, being judged a medal-winning brand carries a marketable cachet, which in a crowded marketplace is worth more than its weight in gold, so to speak.
The Spirits of Mexico Competition is the brainchild of Dori Bryant, event director of the IWSC Group. Known affectionately in the trade as the “Diva of Tequila,” Bryant may well be the most influential woman in the industry.
“One of the important things consumers and drinks professionals should know about tequila is that — like wine — tequilas tend to vary year from year,” Bryant observes. “Differences in quality can be related to the agaves they use or changes in how it’s produced. For aged marques, the most likely explanation is wood management or how effectively a master distiller is at overseeing the tequila as it ages in the barrels. Regardless of the reason why, a particular brand may taste markedly different today than it did just a few years ago.”
Bryant contends the ever-changing nature of the brands is why the Spirits of Mexico Competition is such an important event in the industry.
“Imagine the impact winning a gold medal or earning the caption as ‘Best of Category’ can have on a brand. When a panel of the most respected spirit authorities impartially assesses the attributes of 25 to 30 reposado tequilas, for example, and pronounce your brand is the best of its type. That’s like walking away with the Oscar,” she says.
The Spirits of Mexico Festival, which highlights the tasting competition, has raised so much in stature and international recognition that the State of California recently designated Sept. 17 as “Spirits of Mexico Festival Day.”
Among the trends Bryant sees within the industry, none please her more then the continuing emergence of mezcal, sotol and bacanora brands as significant players. “It’s interesting to note that no mezcal or sotol has earned less than a silver medal from our judges. Over the past five years, the 25 entries of mezcals have racked up 14 gold and 11 silver medals. The nine sotol brands have earned seven gold and two silver medals.”
Bryant anticipates more mezcals distilled from the Tobala and Madre Cuishe varieties of agave will make their debut in the next few months. “Mezcals made from the Espadin variety of agave — such as Scorpion, Oro de Oaxaca, Maria & Mijes — are respected, well-established brands. This year we’ve seen the introduction of mezcals like Wahaka Tobala, Wahaka Madre Cuishe and Los Siete Misterios Tobala, which was awarded Best of Category. This should keep agave enthusiasts entertained and intrigued for years to come.”
While not every brand of tequila enters every year, Bryant says some patterns have emerged. “There have been eight brands — Cazadores, Chinaco, Corzo, Herradura, Milagro, Milagro Select Barrel Reserve and Oro Azul — that over the past five years have consistently earned medals and finished near the top of their respective categories. Considering how stringent the evaluations are, I think the results offer consumers and on-premise professionals assurances of their unwavering quality.”
The brands earning the top marks at this year’s competition are an equally rarified lot. Newcomer Crotalo Extra Añejo Tequila was awarded a gold medal and Best of Show honors, this for having earned the highest score of any from the judges. Other Best of Category winners were Siete Leguas Blanco, Corazon Reposado, el Jimador Añejo and Los Siete Misterios Tobala Mezcal. [Complete results can be found on www.polishedpalate.com].
As new labels of tequila scratch and claw to gain traction with consumers and existing labels look to increase their market share, it’s reassuring to know that the Spirits of Mexico is there to protect our palates. So agave enthusiasts rest easy, Dori Bryant has got your back. Salud!