Sun rises on Karoo tequila

25 June 2003

Soon anyone visiting the picturesque Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet will be obliged to throw back a couple of tequila slammers before heading off again. The small town is set for world fame among lovers of the fiery drink as the only place outside of Mexico where tequila – marketed under a different name – is made.

A few years ago a group of local businessmen realised that the spiky blue agave americana growing in abundance in the Karoo was a relation of the five varieties in Mexico used to make tequila.

Theories abound on how the sisal-like plant found its way from America to the Karoo: one story goes that a little Victorian girl brought three imported agave plants from Grahamstown in 1938. She planted them on a farm outside Graaff-Reinet and they soon spread rapidly, becoming part of the Karoo landscape.

Another version is that the plant was introduced to South Africa specifically to control erosion and for use as a crop during times of drought. Still another theory goes that the agave plant was introduced by a traveller riding from Grahamstown to Cape Town between 1820 and 1830. Whatever its origins, the agave now grows in abundance in the Karoo.

Battle to unlock Mexico’s secrets
The local businessmen formed Reinet Distillers with a view to making a home-grown version of the potent alcoholic drink, famous among jollers the world over. However, after battling to unlock Mexico’s centuries-old secrets of how to make tequila and experiencing technical problems in their factory, Reinet Distillers closed without making a single shot of tequila.

But one of its investors, Keith McLachlan from Dimension Data, went into partnership with Swiss-based alcohol distilling and distribution firm Rockwood & Hines to form Agave Distillers, and the factory was revived, thanks to an injection of R10-million.

Two French biochemists were brought in to help sort out the recipe. Thus began a period of intense tequila drinking, to compare the local product with the various others on the market. Seven months later, the chemists were convinced they had developed a winning product.

Break for local market
But the real break for the company came after the misfortune that struck the Mexican tequila distillers – a disease that almost destroyed the agave crop there. “What has given us a window of opportunity is that a bacteria had developed in the Mexican plants and they are unable to solve it, so there is a worldwide shortage of tequila”, said Roy McLachlan, brother of Keith and MD of the distillery.

This shortage is expected to last for about four years, which will give Agave Distillers the chance to break into the market. Already, the factory has created 45 jobs in an impoverished community. The factory is next to the Cape Town-to-Johannesburg highway, a perfect stop-over for tourists who will be able buy their supplies on site once the venue is open to the public.

Some of the agave plants being cultivated, in an area spanning 480 hectares, have been around for 100 years. But the plants are being harvested in a sustainable way: the “mother” agave is harvested just before it flowers and young plants grow up around it to continue the cycle. The outer leaves of the agave are stripped off and the heart, which is rich in sugar, is pulped and boiled and then pressed to extract the juice.

Agava Silver and Gold
The company’s Karoo plant can produce 1 200 litres a day, and has raised capital to fund an expansion to 4 000 litres a day by the end of 2003, with plans ultimately to raise production up to 10 000 litres daily.

Most of the exports have gone in bulk orders to the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and France. McLachlan said he hoped to be sending more than 60 000 litres of concentrate a month to importers.

It is also available for locals in bottled form. Because the name “tequila” is protected under international trade laws, the product is branded “Agava”, and Agave Distillers is now moving between 12 000 and 15 000 cases of the spirit a month.

The product on the market is called Agava Silver. A second product, called Agava Gold, is being matured in oak barrels in Namibia. The wood gives the spirit a different colour and taste. Soon the barrels will be brought to the Graaff-Reinet factory to house the whole operation under one roof.

The spirit being distilled in the factory is 100 percent agave distillate, which makes it more desirable for some than the Mexican version, which is often bulked up with other spirits. The final product here is diluted to a strength of 45 percent alcohol. Unlike Mexican tequila, it also has no sugar added. Nevetheless, it is a sweet, smooth-tasting spirit that has received rave reviews by those who are importing it.

Visit Agave Distillers to place your orders.

SouthAfrica.info reporter. Sources: Science in Africa, Sunday Times