A well-made margarita is the most challenging cocktail riddle for any bar that prioritizes serving quality drinks. Yesterday, at our little mezcaleria in Houston, The Pastry War, I served around 400 margaritas. With skyrocketing agave prices, the current lime crisis, and increasing agave syrup demands, each of those liquid darlings represent one more ice-cold step towards the edge of sustainability’s cliff and bar margins that seemingly get thinner every day. Unfortunately, unlike droning on and on about historically accurate Aviation specs, bartenders around the globe seem content to simply complain about the unwillingness of ingredients to arrive perfectly at their bar doors.
Limes grow on trees, subject to weather, and they are traded by people, subject to political disputes and cartel activity. The idea that perfect, cost-effective limes should be available whenever we want them isn’t only reflective of a relatively new era of globalization, it demonstrates widespread ignorance about these issues within our industry. I get it. Most of us fell under the irreverent bar siren’s call and fell in love with hospitality, avoiding hypercritical discussions of agriculture, global trade or other real issues outside of the walls of our very comfortable bars. Nevertheless, it isn’t acceptable for those who represent themselves as leaders of our industry to ignore the thousands of lives our bars impact every year through the products we choose to pour at bars—juice and otherwise. No, it isn’t an easy discussion, but I like to think that the persistent claim that “this industry is all about taking care of people” applies to the people we have never met that make the products we serve as well.
I like to think that the persistent claim that “this industry is all about taking care of people” applies to the people we have never met that make the products we serve as well.
This lime crisis will pass—perhaps by the time this essay is printed, but the agave crisis will continue, and executing a quality margarita will continue to be a challenge. Few want to acknowledge this because it has so little to do with the latest rediscovered amaro to hit the US, but almost every globally distributed brand of tequila has significantly declined in quality over the last ten years. Unlike other spirits made from agricultural products with annual growth cycles that can easily be increased with each year’s sales growths, the tendency of global spirit conglomerates to market tequila in the same manner as their all-star blended whiskey has resulted in dramatic shifts in production to keep pace with aggressive marketing campaigns. The consequences are obvious for anyone that has loved tequila for more than a decade.
Tequila imports into the US alone have increased by 51% since 1998, a period during which most of Mexico’s well-known tequila brands were bought by foreign companies. This is an impossible feat without the use of fertilizers, clonal propagation, poor soil treatment, and the modification of tequila production itself, including autoclaves, diffusers, and bulk distillation. In short, agave spirits are bad candidates for bulk global sales—especially at prices below $20 per liter. Other spirits like whiskey, gin, and vodka can sustain quality at these levels, but tequila isn’t one of them. Most independent botanists studying agave populations agree, suggesting that the blue weber species of agave is likely partially compromised forever, and the agricultural industry may face further consequences if adjustments aren’t made soon.
Mezcal is staring the same Diablo in the face today. Brands like Zignum Mezcal are quickly growing and draining scarce agave resources in southern Mexico. Selling their crops at unprecedented prices is an easy choice for those who own agave fields in one of Mexico’s poorest states, Oaxaca. Few farmers have the privilege of asking what the consequences of disrupting centuries-old traditions of crop maintenance might be or how long the giant distilleries popping up in Oaxaca plan to be loyal customers. The answers might change their minds, but for farmers in Oaxaca suddenly in possession of a hot commodity, the pressure to sell can be overwhelming. Commodity is the most accurate word here. Like an oil company draining oil from limited reserves, selling mezcal at this rate is impossible to maintain, and every knowledgeable expert agrees. This matters not to the CEO of global companies desperate to maintain growth for shareholders. Agave crops in Oaxaca are no different than oil reserves—draining them all and distributing poorly made mezcal globally helps to add to company profits for at least the next 10 years, or until another commodity is distilled into the new “it” spirit. Unfortunately, when the mezcal gravy train runs out, one of the most vibrant cultural spirits on this planet will be a shadow of what it once was—just ask Jalisco.
In any other branch of the bar and restaurant industry—food, wine, or beer; chefs, sommeliers, and beer dorks have stood up against similar pressures to protect the quality and standards of products they believe in. This seems unacceptable in the cocktail and spirits community, however, where relationships with brand ambassadors trump thoughtful discussions about quality and sustainability. I don’t have all the answers to the margarita riddle, but I am willing to have the discussion and think about it every night I serve cocktails at The Pastry War. For now, we try to use tequila and mezcal produced by family-owned distilleries who also own their own agave fields. We serve products made by people committed to traditional methodology that are consistent with the agave spirits we fell in love with years and years ago. I try to learn as much as possible from mentors willing to have these discussions, but they are few and far between in a sea of complaints about “fucking lime cost.” By supporting those who remain committed to quality, we hope that we are contributing to preserving a small portion of the agave spirits world that refuses to take the easy, flavorless road so many others have gone down.
The irony of bartenders who built their reputations on cocktails not having the time to discuss the realities of lime prices and agave sustainability might be left out in the latest top ten bars list, but celebrity bartenders who keep suggesting that those concerned about these issues speakeasier and not offend brands for the sake of “sponsorship” are the reason why the quality cocktail may not have any staying power in an industry that has always been dominated by trends. Unsure about all of this? Order a margarita; today, no cocktail tells you more about a bar.
Bobby Heugel has changed the cocktail culture of Houston in the five years since opening Anvil Bar & Refuge. After bartending his way through college and graduate school, he partnered with childhood friend Kevin Floyd to open Anvil, Houston’s first bar to focus on classic cocktails with quality ingredients.