After the Surge in Premium Tequila, We’re Now Entering a Golden Age for Incredible Mezcal

The smoky spirit's sales have doubled in 4 years

In recent years, imbibing tequila's smokier-flavored cousin, mezcal, has become increasingly popular in the U.S. Of course, it'd be easy to assume that's the result of significant ad dollars being spent and major branding campaigns. But this seems to be one consumer trend where that's not the case. 

"The growth in demand and consumer interest of mezcal in the U.S. is [much more] organic," said Terry Lozoff, evp of social media and consumer engagement for marketing shop GYK Antler. "And frankly, that's kind of the reason you're seeing the industry grow. If it was being propelled by big brand marketing, I don't think mezcal would have the same allure that it does now." 

While mezcal still has a relatively small market share, it's growing at a fast rate, noted Danny Brager, svp of Nielsen's Beverage Alcohol Practice. Sales have doubled over the past four years and are up 30 percent in the most recent 52 weeks, with higher-end mezcal driving the most growth. 

"Over the past six years, mezcal has become one of the fastest growing spirits," said Justin Mayahuel, co-owner of NYC-based tequila and mezcal bar Mayahuel. "It provides a flavor profile unlike anything else … In 2009 when we opened, there were only about 13 mezcals we felt comfortable carrying. That has ballooned, now we carry right around 70." 

Still, even as the spirit's growth is proven, for many consumers "mezcal is just kind of coming onto the scene right now," said Susan Mooney, CEO of Spirits Consulting Group. "The trade has obviously been playing with it for a while, but consumers are really starting to experiment and try mezcals." 

But how, exactly, are U.S. consumers becoming aware of mezcal if there's no coordinated marketing push behind it?

Some analysts point to mezcal's availability. It's certainly more widely accessible throughout the U.S. now and designated tequila- and mezcal-focused bars like Mayahuel have popped up all over the country.

"There's a much larger supply of mezcal in the U.S. now than there was, say, five to 10 years ago," Lozoff said. "But that supply isn't necessarily about huge quantities of single items—it's about a diversity of products. There's a lot to explore. Consumers like that exploration process. And they like small production, limited-edition products. You see that trend show up across the alcohol spectrum—from wine to beer to spirits." 

Others say consumers' changing palate has contributed to mezcal's rise. "Consumer tastes and demands have evolved in recent years, resulting in the increasing popularity of artisanal cocktails and craft beers," said Inii Kim, co-founder and creative director of digital design agency King & Partners. "People are now looking for quality, uniqueness and exclusivity in spirits, instead of good old well drinks—reflected in the positioning of mezcal as the sexy, more refined cousin of tequila." 

It's important to note that tequila is technically a form of mezcal. Mezcal comes from distilled agave; by law tequila is required to be made solely from blue agave. Beyond the agave, the production process for the tequila and mezcal differs, which allows for the two spirits to have completely different flavor profiles.

While mezcal has cultivated a "sexier" or "more refined" identity through word-of-mouth buzz from bartenders and industry insiders, that might not be the biggest driver of its growth. According to experts, the premiumization of tequila likely paved the way for consumers to consider trying various mezcals. 

"Everybody has those experiences of drinking a terrible tequila or drinking too much of it and not really having anything come along that could reintroduce them to what was being offered," said Mayahuel. "One of the main things that we looked to do [with our bar is] not only to reintroduce but to educate people about what's available to them."

Lee Applbaum, Patrón Spirits' chief marketing officer, agreed.

"The U.S. perception and the world's perception for the most part, other than Mexico, of tequila was that lowly spirit that would have a bad college story about," said Applbaum. "But, in fact, it is this time-honored, handcrafted spirit from Mexico that wasn't exported." 

Many experts say that the introduction of the Patrón brand was key to the premiumization of tequila. "Patrón was the first large U.S. brand of tequila that not only invigorated the category but got consumers interested in tequilas," said Mooney. "Americans have been drinking tequila more and more, to the point where the margarita is one of the most-consumed cocktails in the U.S." 

Nielsen data backs up this assertion: Tequila is growing faster than the overall spirits category, and over a third of the dollars spent on tequila are on super and ultra tequilas (a 750 ml bottle costs $35 on average). 

It makes sense. As more and more consumers experiment with tequila, they are then introduced to, and are more open to consuming, mezcal, according to experts. 

As Applbaum puts it, "Mezcal is benefiting from the attention that's come to ultra-premium tequila." 

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