Agave-Based Spirits Are Gaining Popularity

Junior Merino of M Cantina tells us why spirits distilled from the Mexican plant are so hot — and why you need to give tequila another shot.
Junior Merino of M Cantina with a Cubico cocktail. The Dearborn restaurant has more than 800 bottles of agave spirits. // Photograph by Chuk Nowak

Agave spirits are on the rise, here in metro Detroit and throughout the world. Alcoholic spirits distilled from the agave plant overtook vodka in popularity for the first time ever last year, supplanting the long-reigning champion of spirits. And although people have been making drinks from the plants native to Mexico for hundreds of years (or more), their recent meteoric rise has piqued the interest of professional and home bartenders.

Junior Merino is more than happy to help spread the good news about Mexican spirits. He’s a celebrated mixologist who moved from central Mexico to New York, where he gained worldwide acclaim as The Liquid Chef, creating signature cocktails for some of the city’s most prestigious restaurants.

In 2017, Merino opened M Cantina in Dearborn as executive chef; before long, though, the allure of spirits returned, and he added a massive collection of agave spirits and whiskey to the restaurant’s offerings. M Cantina has more than 800 bottles of agave spirits, including tequilas, mezcals, and sotol, some worth up to $25,000 per bottle.

The restaurant also has more than 500 of the world’s rarest whiskies, and Merino is well practiced at advocating for the cultivation of agave spirits to those who are used to expensive bourbon but cheap tequila. On the contrary, Merino says, agave is “expensive by nature, because the agave plant takes anywhere from five years to 15 to 20 to mature.”

Most of Mexico’s spirits-makers have for many generations played a long game, producing small batches with traditional methods using charcoal and brick ovens, carefully tending the agave plants for decades to craft a legacy product the same way their ancestors did. With the recent rise in popularity, though, some are scrambling to keep up with demand.

This is especially true for tequilas, with dozens of new celebrity-endorsed brands helping to drive the craze for agave. By law, tequila must have at least 51 percent blue agave, much as bourbon must contain at least 51 percent corn, and the rest can be made up of corn, rye, or barley. Premium tequilas use 100 percent blue agave; less expensive tequilas fill in the gaps with sugarcane or other less expensive products.

“If you’re buying basically any tequila under $20,” Merino says, “that’s a mixto. A lot of people tell me, ‘I had a bad experience with tequila when I was in college,’ and I always tell them they were probably drinking mixto tequilas.”

Another factor that influences the quality of a tequila is how the distillers break down the agave to extract the sugar to convert into alcohol. There are a few methods to extract those sugars. An autoclave uses steam and high pressure to cook a batch of agave in as little as seven hours. The brick-oven method cooks the agave over steam for 26 to 72 hours. The fastest method, diffusion, uses high-pressure water, acid, and enzymes without heat.

As with whiskey, the fastest and most efficient methods often yield more volume but lackluster taste. Mezcal, which Merino labels “the father of tequila,” can be produced from any one of 50 or so agave species found in nine states across Mexico. Mezcal must be made from 100 percent agave, but it does not need to be blue agave. The agave is cooked in underground pits, often with mesquite coals, lending a distinctively rich, smoky flavor to the spirit.

Mexican spirits like tequila and mezcal — and close cousins raicilla, bacanora, and sotol — express the terroir of their growing location. Much like with wine, factors like elevation, soil type, and sunlight exposure have a direct effect on the final product. “You really want to taste the varietal or the region for agave,” Merino says. Tequila and mezcal producers sometimes use wild yeasts to ferment the sugars, he says, and proximity to a lime or orange orchard can add delicate undertones of that citrus to the final product.

Because there is so little intervention or addition to the plant in traditional Mexican spirit production, the final products are complex and richly expressive of the time and place of their creation.

For this reason, Merino strongly encourages his guests to step outside what they’re used to drinking and “try the really traditional tequila — they may just fall in love with tequila in a way that they have never done before.”

This story is part of the May 2023 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our Digital Edition.