As the fastest-growing spirit in the United States, tequila has overcome its bad rap as the cheap college hangover, while at the same time breaking into a fixated market where vodka and whiskey once ruled. What drove this shift?
“When celebrities became involved in the tequila industry, they helped bring tequila attention,” offers Jim McDermott, co-founder and CEO of LALO Tequila. Celebrities like George Clooney with Casamigos, Nick Jonas with Villa One and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson with Teremana all contributed to celebrity tequila culture that apparently created a supersaturated subcategory where it is now expected, even passed, for an actor, model, singer or artist to launch or support the spirit. “It’s like the @dudewithsign meme: ‘You can be famous and not have a tequila brand,'” McDermott says.
Today, celebrity tequila is creating a problem in the industry — while famous faces helped cut market space for the spirit, it also encouraged mass production that took away from the tradition and art of making tequila. Craft brands like LALO recognize celebrities to give the spirit a platform and metaphorically increase the tide of all tequilas, though with consumer behavior shifting to embrace novelty and uniqueness from a brand, smaller manufacturers hope this encourages consumer education about the heritage, traditions and culture of tequilapro .
“The idea of supporting a brand based on who’s behind it seems outdated to me,” says Josh Irving, co-owner of Socorro Tequila. “Well-known brands entice because consumers feel they are connecting with that person, but ultimately we believe in expertise, passion, care and a superior product.” Irving emphasizes that as customers recognize the different brands of tequila on the market, they begin to dig into their background and production methods. “Finding a superior product that you can present to your friends and family is much more powerful than taking over a brand because of the celebrity who has licensed their name to it,” says Irving.
Searching for the “most unique” product is a consumer behavior that has increased in the last decade, and even more so in a post-pandemic world. The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University published an article in early 2021 and found that “consumers want products and brands that deliver novelty and fun.”
Consumers are also constantly pursuing brand sustainability, as seen in the case of the growing organic and sustainable culinary movement. “It is only natural that after people wanted more organic food, and to know the story behind who made it [their food], and where did it come from that this also turned into spirits, ”share Chris Brandon and Matthew Hechter, partners in Tepozan Tequila, which was launched in the US for the first time this summer.
“Consumers are more willing to support brands that make things more sustainable, traditional, respectful, transparent,” stressed Kristopher DeSoto, founder of Hiatus Tequila.
This brings out one of the most significant aspects of tequila production, as it takes six to eight years before an agave matures. If agave is harvested too fast and mass-produced, or steps are skipped, industry crafts and art are lost, or worse, agave crops can be permanently damaged.
“The shift [to craft tequila] is important for preserving the true tequila culture, ”says DeSoto. He explains that the long-term effect of mass production could not only damage the tradition behind the spirit, but also the physical properties of the tequila, as large producers often rely on techniques to shorten the process from growing to aging to keep up with increased demand. These methods include over-farming, harvesting agave before it is fully grown, and using additives to mimic the taste of older tequilas.
“There’s a scary scenario where these powerful global brands and globally acclaimed celebrities can use their marketing muscle to convince enough consumers to believe their brands are the ‘best’ example of Mexican tequila,” says DeSoto. “Driving demand for these products – which then other manufacturers will begin to create more brands similar to taste profile – could eventually lead to a complete change away from what tequila should taste like.”
Although there is no regulated definition of what accredits a craft tequila, the term is typically associated with small batches or limited production, allowing quality control from crop growth to harvest to distillation and treatment of the farmers involved.
In our belief, craft tequila is based on the quality of ingredients (agave in the right geographical location that ripens and is harvested at the most ideal time of year), traditional cooking (brick ovens with an emphasis on getting only the best sugars from the pine trees) , who masters the art of distilling to ensure that only the purest ‘heart’ of tequila is maintained and most importantly, the passion of the people who make a unique product, ”says Pablo Antinori, co-owner of Socorro Tequila. Antinori draws the analogy of cooking and explains that when you cook for four people against 100 people, the attention to detail is much more in-depth as you are able to provide quality control in every step.
Brandon and Hechter add importance to the role of terroir and local ingredients in craft tequilas, including the local water and yeast used in production, resulting in a phrase unique to the area: “A craft tequila cannot be mass-produced in a distillery , which makes countless other brands because there would not be enough distinction between the products and therefore will not have their own character beyond the label and marketing strategy behind the brand. For reference, Taste Tequila, a tequila training platform, reports that 97.8 percent of the tequilas produced today come from distilleries that produce multiple brands.
McDermott says this is another distinction between craft tequila: “If you really want to know the brand and the soul, look at the owner of the brand and ask yourself or even them, ‘How often are you in Mexico? Tell us about the people who work with you there. ‘You will be amazed at how many will be stumped over this. David R. Carballido, co-founder and creative director at LALO, adds that many times the larger producers, and often for well-known brands, have no connection to the production itself, but for craft producers this is their sole purpose. “Some celebrities own makeup or model lines and now they have a tequila brand? I promise you, they are not going to pay as much attention to detail as someone whose sole purpose is to make good tequila, ”says Carballido.
This kind of attention to the brand and detail shifts to conscious consumerism through education; if a mass producer has no affiliation with their tequila product, they are probably not trained in the importance of sustainable agave farming as well as the treatment of jimadors and tequila players.
“Smaller, more conscious brands are leading the way in education, but our reach is small compared to the big brands or celebrity brands, so it’s a much longer training cycle,” says DeSoto. “With more education and more craft brands trying to do things in a more authentic and traditional way, we can help maintain the true tequila culture, which in turn keeps traditional processes and methods alive, versus being lost in relation to modernization. “
To learn more about craft brands, LALO co-founders suggest that consumers research how their favorite brands distribute their money; for example, a simple packaged tequila probably reflects a craft mark, as their means are focused on the liquid itself; what’s in the bottle, do not decorate it. They also suggest talking to local liquor specialists: “It’s rare to find a mixologist or wine shop owner who is not passionate about craft spirits because they know the difference in quality and purpose,” McDermott says. You can also search Tequila Matchmaker, a user-friendly tequila database designed by Taste Tequila.
As craft tequila gets more attention and the future of celebrity endorsements is unclear, McDermott concludes, saying: “It gets exciting when the true celebrities behind the tequila brands are tequila players, again. “