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Tequila and mezcal: the next 'big thing' in the UK spirits market?

The market for Tequila and mezcal in the UK is on the up, experiencing a move towards craft brands and provenance, according to figures in the industry.

From an export market long dominated by a handful of brands, anecdotal evidence from producers and industry data shows that more craft Tequila and mezcal brands are breaking through onto the international market. 

Data from the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), which protects the product's Denomination of Origin, showed that Tequila had a record year in 2020. Producers made some 374 million litres of liquid, of which 286 million were exported to more than 120 countries. The current export value of Tequila is estimted at US$2 billion.

The CRT report also revealed that 1.7 million litres of Tequila was shipped to the UK in 2020, making it Tequila's eighth export market.

With their heritage, craftsmanship and protected status, Tequila and mezcal are well placed to take advantage of the popularity of craft spirits in the UK, where more drinkers are looking to 'drink better' and turning to premium brands.

The number of cocktail-related releases for Margarita Day (22 February) hints at an increasing popularity that could open the gates for more craft brands: VIVIR distillery has launched a new premium mixto Tequila, El Sueño, designed for mixing in cocktails and long drinks; margarita-making kits and pre-bottled cocktails are available from the likes of The Sun Tavern, Mr Fogg's and Coupette; and Tequila brand Olmeca Altos has unveiled a margarita masterclass and cocktail guide.

Becky Davies, head of commercial at Manchester-based distributor Ten Locks, has witnessed first-hand the growing popularity of agave spirits among Brits. Ten Locks distributes a number of international premium spirits brands in the UK, including El Tequileño and Banhez Mezcal.

Davies said that while Tequila and mezcal had been overshadowed by their reputation as a "stereotypical student drink" in the UK, increasing prominence in the market and high-profile celebrity launches for some brands were helping to raise their profile.

"Both Tequila and mezcal are fun and interesting categories with a vibrant culture that naturally appeals to consumers and adds to the consumption experience. In many ways, the category is just starting to speak for itself," she says.

"Similar to Central and North America, demand over the past four or five years has shown a shift globally towards brands that represent craft and quality, with both Tequila and mezcal a perfect fit to meet this appetite due to the history, heritage and craft intrinsic to both segments. This, along with increased consumer education, is positively influencing Tequila and mezcal acess the board."

Corte Vetusto is one of the smaller brands making the most of Tequila and mezcal's rising international popularity. The brand was founded by David Shepherd, with its spirits made by fouth-generation 'maestro mezcalero' Juan Carlos Gonzales Diaz.

Shepherd said the greater number of people making cocktails at home during Covid-19 lockdowns, as well as "a growing apprciation of authentically hand-crafted products amongst more discerning drinkers", were driving up Tequila and mezcal's popularity.

"There is no doubt that American consumers have taken to craft spirits like nowhere else. They also have the greatest appetite for premium agave spirits and the greatest choice," he explained.

"The UK lags behind in breadth of choice and premiumisation, as the perception of agave spirits as a shooter still persists. That said, due to the incredible amount of effort from craft producers, like ourselves, to educate the trade and consumers, that perception is changing."

In the UK, there is a dedicated core in the on and off-trade trying to draw drinkers' attention to the agave spirits market. A number of consumer events have sprung up in recent years, including Tequila & Mezcal Fest and London Mezcal Week, and the rapid growth of the ready-to-drink category in the past couple of years has put more Tequila-based cocktails, using craft spirits, on the market in an accessible form. 

This comes alongside increasing knowledge among bartenders, with many seeking out craft Tequila and mezcals to line their back bars. In London alone, venues such as The Pink Chihuahua, Del 74 and Corazon are championing Tequila and mezcal-based drinks and introducing consumers to lesser-known agave spirits. The increasing popularity of Mexican cuisine in the UK has also helped to push this shift in the on-trade forward.

"The trade - retail and on-trade - has responded fantastically and has been instrumental in educating consumers and changing perceptions," Shepherd said.

"More education is required, but I believe the future is bright for brands who put quality, authenticity and transparency at the core of their business. A great example of this is Tequila Ocho, a brand that has displaced the previously favoured mass-produced brands."

According to Davies, the physical distance between UK consumers and Tequila and mezcal producers in Mexico means there is less understanding of the arduous production process, and so less appreciation of 'craft' agave spirits. As in categories like gin, better consumer education could help to bridge this gap.

"The agave plant takes seven years to mature and so by the very nature of locality and education, there's an appreciation for these incredible plants and the love that goes into the production of spirits that use them [in Mexico]," Davies said.

"UK consumers are fairly far removed from this and so currently tend to get swayed by unusual packaging or celebrity endorsements. Others still have a poor perception of Tequila from lower-quality brands they have tried in the past.

"British consumers like to know what they are drinking and are curious, asking questions and increasingly showing a genuine enthusiasm for Mexican agave spirits.

"Until recently, the on-trade has been leading the demand for Tequila and has really driven education. However, the off-trade is starting to make a real play, with some even looking to extend their ranges. Headway is being made, but more needs to be done to engage with the end consumer across all channels so they can make educated choices on which drinks to try."

Davies added that this growth in education could carve a path for more agave spirits, such as racillia, bacarnora and sotol, to gain a foothold in the UK marketplace, as well as helping to support 'mixto' Tequila brands. "It can be easy to fall into a '100 per cent agave is best' mindset when it comes to Tequila, but in fact, a perfectly crafted and honed mixto can taste better then a 100 per cent agave Tequila," she said.

22 February 2021 - Bethany Whymark