By Liza Weisstuch

Opinion: The competition between whiskey and mezcal is on

Agave is facing off against grain for the hearts and minds of American spirits drinkers
The headline in Bloomberg on 8 June might have had the vague sound of a street-fight challenge: ‘Americans Will Spend More on Mezcal and Tequila This Year Than Whiskey.’ To a whisky insider, it reads like the financial media equivalent of, ‘Come at me, bro.’ The piece was a report on the new data released by IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, the leading authority on data and analysis on the global alcohol market.

‘This year, Americans for the first time will spend more money on mezcal and Tequila, both alcohols made from agave plants, than they will on US-made whiskeys,’ it reads, going on to note that, by next year, the category will surpass vodka to become the most-purchased spirit by value, clocking in at around US$13.3 billion, versus $12.5 billion for vodka and $12.3 billion for US whiskey. This is no insignificant feat, given that the total volume of alcohol sold increased by three per cent in 2021, after Covid-fueled losses of six per cent in 2020. The global value of the beverage alcohol sector in 2021 was $1.17 trillion, a 12 per cent growth that, according to the report, compensated for losses of four per cent in 2020. (The analysis forecasts that, in the UK, agave spirits’ most valuable market in Europe, the category will grow by about 88 per cent from 2021 to 2026, though context matters here: that growth is from a very low base.)

For someone who tracks news and trends in whiskey, this might come as a shock, not least because it’s happening against a backdrop of huge investments by American whiskey producers. On 6 June, for instance, Heaven Hill broke ground on a $135 million distillery in Bardstown, and Buffalo Trace recently invested $1.2 billion to expand its distillery as part of an ambitious undertaking that will include the installation of a $40 million wastewater treatment plant, new cookers, fermenters, warehouses, a dry house and a 40-foot still.

But it’s critical to step back and realise that we live in a fickle, fickle world. I credit – or blame, based on the matter at hand – social media. These days, it’s practically a sport to keep tabs on what’s next. Everyone wants to be the first to try something. While ritual and tradition have their purpose, in this day and age, it’s just so easy to be distracted by whatever’s shiny, new and hitting the headlines.

This came into stark relief one night in early June at the first 50 Best North America awards ceremony, in New York City. The World’s 50 Best Bars, a contest that started in 2009, began presenting Asia’s 50 Best in 2016. This year marks the first time that judges – bartenders, bar owners, media and sundry insiders – homed in on North America. New York City bars, not too surprisingly, took 11 positions of the 29 US bars to score a rank. Mexican bars notched 11 of the slots on the list, including three in the top 10.

At the ceremony, I met up with my friend Emma Jansen, a James Beard Award-winning writer and author of Mezcal: The History, Craft & Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit. She makes frequent visits to Mexico and explained to me that while some of the bars, particularly the ones in Mexico City, adhere to the standard but beloved template of the vintage-inspired cocktail bar, others are taking fewer cues from the international bartending scene and looking towards the nearby agave fields. These bars are tapping Mexican culture for menu inspiration. And, clearly, the world is coming to them for that very reason.
“Americans always loved Tequila, but it’s different now,” she said, noting that Tequila is just one kind of mezcal – a mezcal made in specific regions and with a particular type of agave. It’s a fact that, when disregarded, frustrates agave lovers much the way whisky drinkers roll their eyes when people talk about bourbon from Ireland or Scotch from Kentucky.

“Think about wine. Imagine a wine drinker and the only thing he’s ever known is pinot. Then someone says, ‘Guess what? There are 200 kinds of wine in the world.’ That’s what happened with Tequila,” she said. “It’s a huge category and agave is really diverse in terms of terroir and flavour. It’s an exciting category.”

Guess who started looking up prices of flights to Mexico City the next day?