The great divide: What’s the difference between tequila and mezcal?

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Local entrepreneur Lyons Brown brings his company’s craft spirits like tequila, mezcal, and absinthe to Charlottesville. Photo: Christian Hommel Local entrepreneur Lyons Brown brings his company’s craft spirits like tequila, mezcal, and absinthe to Charlottesville. Photo: Christian Hommel

Those of you who know me know that I’m a champion of the little guy. I root the for the apron-clad shop owner, the starving artist who waits tables, and the homebrewer who dreams of running an eight-barrel system. With so many of our world’s products mass-produced out of sight, I find it refreshing to meet and live alongside the folks who make the veggie burgers I eat and the beer I drink.

This growing appetitle for craft is also making for some interesting developments in the world of beverages. As the market share of craft beer continues to increase exponentially, some smart folks are recognizing the enormous thirst for well-crafted, artisan products in other corners of the beverage industry—namely, in spirits. American distilleries followed the same tragic arc as breweries during Prohibition: All but a handful closed and the fermenters and stills were quiet for the better part of the 20th century. In the early 2000s, there were around 60 micro-distilleries in the U.S. Today, there are more than 600, making everything from single malt whisky to absinthe, and American consumers are drinking it up. 

Bicoastal local and Darden grad Lyons Brown, who splits his time between Virginia and California, was quick to notice this trend. A fifth generation spirits distributor, Brown knows the spirits business and how quickly it has changed, as customers began exploring craft spirits and brands that told a story. It was this insight that prompted him to leave Brown-Forman, his family’s 140-year-old wine and spirits company, and focus his newly started distributorship, Altamar Brands, on bringing the products of smaller craftsmen to larger markets. Small-production agave spirits such as tequila and mezcal make up a good portion of Altamar’s portfolio, so I checked in with Brown to see if I could learn a thing or two about agave, the spirits biz, and the challenges of repping the little guy.

C-VILLE Weekly: A big slice of your portfolio is tequila and mezcal. What’s the difference between the two? 

Lyons Brown: Tequila is a mezcal, though the tequila distillers would not like to hear me say that. Like Champagne and Cognac, tequila has been designated a “domain of origin” and operates under strict regulation to ensure quality and consistency. There are more than 100 species of agave, and mezcal can be made from any of them. Tequila can only be made from one agave—agave tequilana, commonly known as blue agave—and that agave can only be grown in one of five states (Jalisco, Guanajuato, Nayarit, Michoacan, and Tamaulipas) if it is to be called “tequila.” If we consider the extraordinary depth and breadth of aroma and flavor we see coming from tequila brands made from one agave, imagine the story waiting to unfold before us as mezcal continues to flower in the United States.

Most folks have heard of “terroir”—the interaction of the soil and climate of a place with the plants that grow there—in reference to wine. What does that mean for agave spirits and how does that affect the flavor of the final product?

We were intrigued to see if “terroir”could be applied to agave plants and to tequila. We found a family with 32 single estates, each with different altitudes in different microclimates in the highlands of Jalisco near Arandas. We began experimenting and found unequivocally that agaves harvested from different ranchos at varying altitudes and microclimates—crushed, fermented and distilled in exactly the same manner—produce compellingly different aromas and flavors. Our brand, Ocho, delivers these annually in vintage dated bottles named for the single estate from which its agaves were harvested. This is unique in the tequila category. No other brand is doing it nor do we believe any will be able to as most distilleries buy their agaves from others under contract.

One of your brands is Kubler Absinthe—is this the “real” stuff?

It does not get any more real than Kubler. This brand comes from the birthplace of absinthe in the Val-de-Travers, Switzerland. It has been in continuous production by the same family, now in its fourth generation, since its inception. The first and fourth generations produced legally, while the middle two were bootleggers, and the recipe hasn’t changed. Absinthe was rumored to be a hallucinogen and an aphrodisiac, and there’s been a lot of excitement and a bit of confusion since absinthe was legalized in the United States in 2007 after a 92-year ban.

At the center of the legend is the herb that grows wild on the floor of the Val-de-Travers called grand absinthium or, more famously, wormwood. When distilled, wormwood throws off a chemical derivative called “thujone,” which was believed by many to affect the brain the same way marijuana does. These legends have no basis in fact, and hence the category was legalized again. The one contrary rumor in the mix—that wormwood was banned from all absinthes—is also not true. Without wormwood, there cannot be absinthe.

Most beverage consumers know small-production spirits aren’t often on the shelves of Virginia ABC stores. Which of your products are currently available in Virginia?

Tequila Ocho, mezcal Pierde Almas, Right Gin, and Kubler Absinthe are all available now by special order in Virginia. They are more or less always on the shelves at the Hydraulic Road and Main Street ABC stores. We hope to have our Cognac on the shelf soon, but it’s a process because we are not looking for statewide distribution yet. We just want to build a base in Charlottesville where we have friends and resources. The State doesn’t seem to get the wisdom of this, so we are special order brands. That means you have to go in and place your special order and generally wait until enough come through for them to place an order with us. 

For more information on Altamar Brands, check out www.altamarbrands.com. 

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