South Africa’s tequila sunrise

31 October 2007

It’s been seven years since a blight on Mexico’s agave plants led to a world undersupply in tequila, creating a window of opportunity for entrepreneurs in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province to become the only producers of agave spirit outside of Mexico.

During this time, the fortunes of the gargantuan Mexican tequila industry have see-sawed between crop undersupply and oversupply, with small farmers sidelined by distillery plantations, social unrest and tumbling prices.

Go to Eastern Cape Madiba Action Now it’s “happy hour” again for the Mexicans, who are enjoying an increased demand for their belly-firing product from their biggest export market – the United States – and who expect the current glut in their agave crops to last to the end of the decade.

Is this bad news for South African newcomers Agave Distillers, in the Karoo heartland town of Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape?

Not at all, says production director Roy McLachlan from the distillery’s head office in Cape Town. “Mexico’s setback gave our distillery the opportunity to secure international acceptance as a product virtually indistinguishable from, and in some ways superior to, its Mexican counterpart,” says McLachlan.

While agave spirit and tequila are the same thing, the name “tequila” is protected under international trade laws. Labelled tequila has to have been distilled and come from the western Mexican state of Jalisco, primarily in the area surrounding the town of Tequila. The Graaff-Reinet distillery brands its products “Agava”.

Exports even to Mexico
Entrenched on international markets now, the South African product is expected to hold its own thanks to quality, price and fascination for the South African story.

Indeed, a call to Agave Distillers at the time of writing revealed that a bulk consignment of agave spirit was being assembled for export to Mauritius.

Agave Distillers spokesman Annette Lotter said the South African distillery’s export markets included America, Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Barbados. “We have even exported to Mexico,” Lotter said.

McLachlan adds the Philippines, China, the Dominican Republic and Europe to the list of importers of his products.

So what are Agave Distillers’ current products? Agava Silver and Agava Gold. Produced from blue agava Americana, they are 100% distillate at 43% alcohol.

Premium tequilas have to be 100% blue agave. Agava Silver is a clear white product, while Agava Gold is the final distilled product that has rested in oak. Current daily production at the distillery is 1 200 litres. Ideas for whiskey production have been shelved following trials, McLachlan says.

Agava Gold has been compared with premium Mexican tequilas and found by numerous consumers in blind tastings to be equal to, and even better than, premium Mexican tequilas, the company’s website says.

These South African products can be sourced locally at from Ultra Liquors, Spar Tops, Preston’s and more outlets to come. It’s also a good tourism mixer. Tours of the distillery and tastings can be arranged.

Pass the lemon and salt – Agave spirit by any other name is still a tequila, and this one is proudly South African!

This article was first published in Eastern Cape Madiba Action. Republished here with kind permission.