© Eneas De Troya/Flickr
For a couple of years, mezcal has threatened to emerge as a serious contender to tequila. But now, with a pipeline of innovation and a big-name investor behind it, the agave-based spirit could finally be set to live up to its potential.
Here are four reasons why mezcal could be North America’s hottest new drink.
Mezcal has long been popular in Mexico, where it was first distilled, but its promise comes from increased interest outside the country. Global sales of the drink rose to a record $80 million in 2015; demand is being driven by the US, where volumes jumped 279% over ten years. In volume terms, sales of tequila and mezcal together increased from 263 million litres in 2015 to 275 million litres in 2016. Mezcal’s growth coincides with the continued resurgence of gin, which remains firmly popular with drinkers and this month was the main reason behind spirits topping beer – in UK tax revenues, at least – for the first time.
The rise in demand for mezcal can be explained by consumers being increasingly adventurous with spirits, according to research published in February by GlobalData. It found that almost 40% of consumers were ‘actively trying new varieties’ within the spirits category, and brands launching increasingly novel flavours to pique interest.
Brands like Kimo Sabe are helping to modernise and premiumise mezcal. © Kimo Sabe
Greater craft options
Distillers have been creating unusual flavours of mezcal, many with craft or artisan positions, in order to drive interest among consumers. Dangerous Don released a new flavour in February that incorporates one of Mexico’s other big exports – coffee – for ‘a rich and intensely smooth’ spirit. In May, Phillips Distilling added Marca Negra mezcal to its portfolio of premium spirits, including the tequilas Casa Centinela. And Kimo Sabe, the rapidly growing mezcal brand, launched a luxury line of mezcals earlier this month to tap into the high-end segment, with a limited first edition called Cinco de Noviembre (11th of November) setting consumers back $511 – that’s the date ‘cinco de Noviembre’ in US format, if you hadn’t noticed.
There’s even an ibérico mezcal, launched by Del Maguey, which is made with Ibérico de Bellota ham.
The category received a huge vote of confidence when spirits giant Pernod Ricard acquired a majority stake in producer Del Maguey – its first move in mezcal. Oaxaca-based Del Maguey makes a range of artisan mezcals – including that ibérico ham flavour – from a single origin. It’s referred to on the bottles as ‘single village’ mezcal, because each drop can be sourced back to the Mexican community that made it. Clearly, a sense of authenticity and proof of origin are still important to adventurous consumers.
Smaller craft offerings have helped to turn mezcal into a promising, albeit niche sub-category. But it’s the larger spirit companies like José Cuervo, Diageo and Patrón – and now Del Maguey, under Pernod Ricard’s guidance – who have the monopoly to bring mezcal to the masses. For a tequila producer, mezcal would be a complementary and potentially lucrative side-step. What these bigger names do – or don’t do – in the next few months could determine whether mezcal becomes a longer-term trend, or whether it remains a fad among a modest number of consumers.
Mezcal has reached the point where it’s ripe for the mainstream; that much is clear from Pernod Ricard’s investment in the category. The high levels of growth and consumer interest make for an attractive prospect for any large company looking to build or buy their way into the mezcal space. Millennials in particular are keen on new experiences and food or beverage products that they can boast of trying before their peers. Bartenders have started mixing mezcal into cocktails with pineapple juice, cherry and grapefruit liqueurs. Food chain Wahaca even offers a host of mezcal cocktails alongside its Mexican street food concept in 26 locations across the UK.
There is opportunity for mezcal both for buying in and dining out. It remains to be seen now who will act on that opportunity, and how. FoodBev will be watching with bated breath, and filled glass, to see where this nascent category goes next.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2017