Tequila sunrise: Australian-made agave spirits begin to take off

Black Snake Distillery owner Stephen Beale with agave "weed" on his farm in Narrabri, NSW.
Black Snake Distillery owner Stephen Beale with agave "weed" on his farm in Narrabri, NSW. Photo: Grace Quast

"Whatever you do, don't call it tequila!" says Black Snake Distillery founder Stephen Beale, who makes a spirit from wild agave plants that grow along the creek at his family farm in Narrabri, about 500 kilometres north-west of Sydney.

"Agave is a weed out here. The plants grow from pups [offshoots] that washed down from a farm upstream where they were planted a hundred years ago."

From those weeds, Beale and his partner Rosemary Smith make a tequila-like spirit at their solar-powered distillery. Beale explains that tequila is made in just five states in Mexico and, by definition, must be made from blue agave (Agave tequilana).

Black Snake's core selection of agave products.
Black Snake's core selection of agave products.  Photo: Grace Quast

Spirit made from other varieties of agave is called mezcal, a name also protected by Mexican trade laws, similar to champagne.

Beale's agave is the variety, A. americana. "Gardeners call them century plants," he says. A decade ago, Beale's daughter travelled in Mexico and saw mezcal being produced. She returned to the farm in 2016 with the idea to turn her parents prickly weeds by the creek into a valuable drink.

Globally, agave spirits are big business. According to International Wines and Spirits Record data, agave-based spirits (tequila and mezcal) in the US grew almost 16 per cent in volume last year, overtaking rum to be the third largest spirits category behind vodka and whisky.

Top Shelf International's growing agave farm near the Whitsunday Coast. The plants will be mature for harvest in two and ...
Top Shelf International's growing agave farm near the Whitsunday Coast. The plants will be mature for harvest in two and a half years. Photo: Supplied

The sector is likely to be worth $15 billion by 2028 and the world scene is dominated by big players such as Diageo and Pernod Ricard, who own tequila brands Don Julio and Olmeca.

By contrast, the Australian agave scene is embryonic, says Sebastian Raeburn, one of the nation's most respected distillers with his Anther gin label.

Raeburn has taken on the role as head distiller for Melbourne-based company Top Shelf International (TSI). It has big plans to move into the nation's $120 million annual thirst for tequila and mezcal.

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"Where agave spirit is right now is where the Australian whisky industry was in the 1990s," says Raeburn. "The only thing holding us back is access to agave."

To solve this problem TSI purchased a 430 hectare sugar plantation at Ayr on the Whitsunday Coast in 2019. It came with 2000 existing mature agave plants planted years earlier as an experiment, later abandoned.

TSI has planted 250,000 blue agave plants to date, with a further 200,000 in the nursery. Soil is being prepared for half a million more. While large-scale production depends on the plants maturing in two and half years, Raeburn has already distilled agave spirit from older experimental plants and matured it in oak. The brand name is still being finalised, but TSI's agave spirit is set to be released within the next few months.

Black Snake Distillery owners Rosemary Smith and Stephen Beale surrounded by agave.
Black Snake Distillery owners Rosemary Smith and Stephen Beale surrounded by agave. Photo: Grace Quast

Avoiding the wait and back-breaking work of harvesting agave is Echuca Distillery's David De Vries. The former flavour and aroma manufacturer sold his business to a multinational company that left him in a position, as he puts it, to experiment with distilling interesting products "without the constraints of commercial reality".

"I love the synergy of the different essential oils from the botanicals coming together in our gins," he says.

De Vries explains that to make alcohol from agave; the entire plant is trimmed to make "la pina". This is the core of the agave. It looks like a pinecone and can weigh between 40 and 90 kilograms. Pina are traditionally slow-cooked in a pit over coals for several days.

David de Vries of Echuca Distillery with his gold agave spirits.
David de Vries of Echuca Distillery with his gold agave spirits. Photo: Richard Cornish

"This breaks down the long-chain starch molecules into fermentable sugars," says De Vries. However, the northern-Victorian distiller avoids this process and buys a rich, viscous, dark, and slightly smoky agave syrup from Mexico, which he dilutes and later adds a special tequila yeast for fermentation.

Some of De Vries agave spirit is bottled immediately and some is blended with native herbs. The remaining liquid is laid down on American oak for two months and sold as reposado, which means rested.

"What is fascinating is that people come to the cellar door and will happily drink an agave spirit cocktail but won't buy a bottle, says De Vries. "The opposite is true of gin."

Black Snake Distillery's Stephen Beale tends to the pit where agave pinas are roasted.
Black Snake Distillery's Stephen Beale tends to the pit where agave pinas are roasted. Photo: Grace Quast

At present, agave is seen as a party drink, says De Vries, but he hopes to help change that perception. "Agave spirit is about quality – like a good whisky."

Don't call them tequila: three Australian agave spirits to try

Echuca Distillery, Gold Agave Spirit, 40% ABV, 500ml, $85

Aged on American oak, there are notes of honey, brown sugar, vanilla and a little bit of smoke. Also try the flight of the gold, unaged silver, and bronze agave spirits, flavoured with saltbush and wattleseed. echucadistillery.com.au

Black Snake Distillery, ASp Reposado, 44% ABV, 500ml, $125

Winning Silver at the 2021 London Spirits Awards, ASp Reposado has been rested for four months in old bourbon barrels for a golden hue and notes of oak and spice, while the agave still shines through with its earthy smoky aroma. There's also the ASp Pechuga, inspired by the Mexican tradition of distilling the spirit with chicken breasts in the still. blacksnake.com.au

Mount Compass Spirits, Agave Spirit, 40% ABV, 700ml, $75

Made from Australian agave syrup and distilled in South Australia, this is a traditional style agave spirit with a medium weight, sweet lifted nose. and pleasing expression of agave on the palate. mountcompassspirits.com.au