Aisha Rascoe, host:

Sales of tequila and mezcal have more than tripled in the United States in the past decade. It’s no wonder farmers and distilleries – in the American Southwest – work hard growing the prickly agave plants used to make it. John Burnett has the story.

John Burnett, Online: Aloe plants thrive in the dry climate and full sun of Texas. Can’t you just harvest them and distill Lone Star Mezcal?

Leonardo Sanchez: I’m Leonardo Sanchez. I am the co-founder of Ancestral Craft Spirits.

BURNETT: We’re standing in a clearing not far from the muddy Rio Grande and the Texas border city of Roma. It’s hotter than the abyss. A few years ago, Sanchez and his partner planted 2,500 sharp-tipped aloe trees here. What happened next did not bode well for the future of Texas’ first mezcal.

SANCHEZ: We came back one day, and what we found is that there are a lot of hawks and hawks in this area, and they love a lot of these little plants. They ate thousands of them at the end of the day.

BURNETT: So your Mexican shells were destroyed by Texas wild hogs.

Sanchez: Yes, exactly.

BURNETT: Sanchez persevered. He brought more baby agave from his native Mexico and placed them in a plant nursery. Once he puts them in the ground and erects a pig-proof fence, it will take at least seven years for them to mature. Mexican distilleries have been making tequila and its smoky cousin, mezcal, for more than 400 years. Like Champagne from France, it must come from Mexico if it is called tequila or mezcal. If it’s made anywhere else, it’s called agave spirit. While his agave plants grow, Sanchez imports agave juice from Oaxaca, Mexico, distills it and bottles it in Rome. Here’s the story of how she got her brand name – Blasfemus.

Sanchez: My partner Eduardo was on the board of directors of the Mexican company that makes mezcal. And he was telling them, we have done some special editions – (non-English speaking), so why not do a special edition of Tejas? A board member told him that would be blasphemous.

BURNETT: And that’s how the first mezcal in Texas, Plasvimus, came about. But Texas wasn’t the first. Californians have been growing and distilling agave for nearly a decade. And on the West Coast, you don’t have to worry about feral hogs. For them, the challenge is finding suitable cactus varieties that can withstand the cool, wet weather in the northern part of the state. Craig Reynolds is president of the 50-member California Agave Council. He says everyone is focusing on the negatives of climate change.

Craig Reynolds: But climate change also creates opportunities, especially in agriculture.

BURNETT: Reynolds says as California winters get warmer…

Reynolds: Other crops are becoming more desirable, and agave is one of them.

BURNETT: But what does it taste like? I brought some samples of Blasfemus to two veteran Brownsville bartenders, Juan Flores of Terrace and Chris Galicia of Las Ramblas.


(He laughed)

BURNETT: They inhaled it and mixed it around their tastes.

Chris Galicia: It smells sweet.

Juan Flores: There’s a lot of spice, too.

Galicia: It smells like apple pie for some reason. Is it just me?

Flores: No, actually…

BURNETT: I asked Galicia how mezcal made in Texas compares to traditional Oaxacan mezcal.

Galicia: As traditionalists, I don’t think we would necessarily drink this, but you know, someone who hardly falls into this category – it’s definitely for you. I think things like this are good for a growing market, and have a place in the backlist.

BURNETT: The American agave is in its early stages. Fifty years ago, Texas showed skeptics it could produce wine. Today, the Texas wine industry is worth $20 billion. With tequila and mezcal outselling American whiskey, new agave entrepreneurs hope there’s room for agave spirit made in America. John Burnett, Rome, Texas.

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