The agave plant takes eight years to mature in the heat of the semi arid desert. It looks like a cactus yet it’s a member of the lily family, protecting its juicy, fibrous interior with thorny spines. And at its heart are the delicate earthy, spicy and floral flavours that distillers seek to share with a thirsty public in the form of agave spirit.
The spirit is of course best known a tequila, and in Mexico it also goes by mezcal or less frequently, komil. Much like champagne or port, we cannot call our locally produced version by these well-known names due to geographical protection, but we do produce it here. In fact, South Africa is the second most prolific cultivator of agave in the world, second to – of course – Mexico. No one knows quite how the plants arrived here, but they were originally used for soil erosion control and as fodder crops for livestock during times of drought. The plants now number in the millions and are farmed near Graaf -Reinet in the Karoo. And thanks to the success of our local agave farmers, we are now the fourth most prolific consumers of agave-derived spirits in the world behind Mexico, USA and Russia.
We as South Africans do like to support local – always lekker – and it seems that we have all of the ingredients for a thriving agave industry. I set out to learn more about this ancient spirit and the meet some of the faces championing the locally made version. Lucy Beard from Hope on Hopkins in Cape Town is best known for her acclaimed range of gins, but also produces a delicate and floral ode to agave called Esperanza Blanco. She identifies the naming issue as the single biggest challenge that agave spirit faces in the South African market. “The consumer does not associate agave spirit with tequila,” she says.There are other more physical challenges that the agave producers face. “It’s a devil of a plant, a real bastard,” says Adi Badenhorst, winemaker and creator of 4th Rabbit 100% Karoo Agave Spirit. Badenhorst is fabled for his no nonsense storytelling and equally for his alchemy skills. His blunt assertion is down to him been stabbed more than a few times by the plant’s spines and the painful stinging that comes with such an encounter. Perhaps agave’s biggest challenge is that people associate a similar painful stinging when knocking back shots of cheap imported mixto – a so-called tequila that is made up of minimum 51% agave with the balance made up of non-agave sugars. It’s sometimes a necessary evil for the party and needs to be dosed with salt and lemon to negate the nasty taste. Well-made agave spirit can and should be sipped on like a fine whisky or cognac or in a signature serve.
Dominic Walsh is the owner of Mootee, an award-winning cocktail bar in Melville, Johannesburg. He notes a shift in thinking towards this spirit. “They have long been considered the drink that makes you pull a face after drinking,” he says. “Bartenders love to change stereotypes and play with spirits that were previously regarded as rubbish.” At Hope on Hopkins I sample agave served with pink tonic and lime garnish, to demonstrate the versatility and adaptability of the spirit. Suddenly it starts to take on something resembling the delicate nature of a lily rather that ‘bastard plant’. Adi Badenhorst has gone down a more rustic route with the 4th Rabbit, whose marketing tagline is ‘All Desert Magic and Mischief’. The name is an ode to the Aztec mythology of the 400 drunken rabbit gods, meant to represent the many way that drunkenness manifests itself; the fourth, rabbit is a winged and mischievous one. Adi harvests the plant from the Karoo, with makeshift equipment – including sharpened spades – they shear the plant of its devils’ spines and expose the piña (heart). The heart is tossed into a re pit and covered to let it smoke straight on the burning embers. This is the rustic technique used to make mezcal, famed for its complexity and smoky profile. The raw fermented product is then distilled at Oude Molen Distillery in Grabouw.
However, the real lioness behind the agave awakening in South Africa is Sarah Kennan. Her brand Leonista has been forged in the heat of her custom-built agave ovens and then distilled at Schoonspruit distillery in Ventersdorp. Her love for the spirit began at university when, out of curiosity, she purchased a 100% agave tequila. From the moment of her first sip she knew that she had found her calling and set about evangelizing the spirit. three years ago she spent time in Mexico, sealing her gusto for all things agave.
It is not hard to get engrossed by her passion as she spins a yarn of the spirit’s supposed origin. “A lightning bolt struck the agave plant and the juice ran out and fermented with wild yeast,” she tells. “People noticed that the animals consumed the nectar and behaved differently so they decided to try it. The side effects led them to believe they were closer to their gods and the love affair began”, Kennan, who has traveled to the town of Tequila to learn the art from the masters, also spends time in America where she notes an emerging trend in the local micro-brewing scene.
“Mezcal and beer have a link,” she says. “Breweries are bringing out a range of mezcals to complement their offering.” Sarah also notes that the spirit has many chef fans as it has great versatility and complexity. When we met at Drifter Brewing Company in Cape Town, she served me spiced tomato juice as a palate cleanser and combined it with the smooth and subtly smoky Leonista Blanco to make a Bloody Maria – to me an infinitely more rewarding experience than the famed Bloody Mary.
Perhaps its link to craft beer is that agave spirit is reliant on the flair and creativity of the producer who also needs to be flexible enough to adapt to the inconsistency of raw materials and the magic of fermentation. To appreciate this to understand the origin, process and passion behind the products. Go out and appreciate these pioneers’ passion, support local and get a happy buzz. No shuddering or face-pulling required.
This article was first published in On Tap Magazine. South Africa’s first dedicated beer publication is a quarterly magazine aimed at craft brewers, home brewers, beer fanatics and those just beginning to dip their proverbial toe into the mash tun