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Make room at the bar for Arizona tequilas

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Make room at the bar for Arizona tequilas

State's distillers see boom in business

  • A blue agave field in Jalisco, Mexico.
    Courtes Andy RoseA blue agave field in Jalisco, Mexico.
  • A bottle of Mexican Moonshine tequila.
    Courtesy Dan JellumA bottle of Mexican Moonshine tequila.

Tequila lovers, listen up: The process of getting you your favored spirit is much more complex than it may seem.

Arizona tequila companies such as the Phoenix-based Roger Clyne's Mexican Moonshine and Luna Malvada Tequila share a passion and commitment to the sometimes arduous task of producing the one-of-a-kind liquor.

"Each bottle of [ultra-premium] tequila takes eight to ten years to make," said Andy Rose, president of Luna Malvada. "That's why it is more expensive and specialized because we can't just mass produce it."

Made from the blue agave plant, tequila is harvested after the plant reaches maturity after eight to ten years. It is imported only from Jalisco, Mexico.

With more than a quarter of Arizonans of a Hispanic origin, according to the U.S. 2010 Census, the unique liquor has a deep roots culturally with its presence not unnoticed at one of the many Latino festivals that occur statewide annually.

This is especially significant for Arizona business, which frequently imports to the state due to its neighboring proximity. Small business owners have found it easier than most to start up their own tequila brands, contributing to a booming tequila market.

In 2001, according to Rose, the agave price was at an all time high, allowing for a competitive tequila market today.

"By the time an agave surplus kicked in around 2006, tequila was very inexpensive to acquire so anyone that came up with a cool name or neat bottle tried to market 'their' tequila," he said.

Growing versus buying agave

Delving into the tequila industry, companies can operate their systems either by owning their own agave farmland or buying it from farmers within the agave market. Both say their method works to their advantage.

"Our distiller finds the best agave he can find on the market," said Dan Jellum, a founder of Mexican Moonshine. "We think this gives us an advantage because if you're a distiller that owns his own field and you have some issues with your crop, then you're kind of stuck."

On the other hand, Rose finds being a landowner is useful when the demand for agave exceeds what the market is able to provide, causing a shortage.

"By owning your own land you have control over your own market and the quality [of your product]," he said.

Nevertheless, these small tequila brands are constantly making an appeal to the U.S. "three-tier system," where alcohol is sold to distributors that sell to retailers who then provide it to the public via liquor stores and bars.

"In order for a distributor to take your product, you've got to demonstrate demand. Unless they see demands, there's no real incentive for them to pick the product up," Jellum said.

High expectations

Companies rely upon the quality and taste to meet the average consumer expectation for a memorable result.

For Mexican Moonshine, Jellum describes the tequila as smooth and mellow opposed to the harshness or "bite" other brands may have. Aged up to nine months in used whisky barrels, the tequila takes on an earthy aroma and is meant to be sipped, not taken in shots.

Founded by singer Roger Clyne of the band Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, the tequila is loosely based off of his song titled "Mexican Moonshine."

Every year the tequila is served at the Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers concert called Circus Mexicus in Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), Mexico. The concert is a huge marketing point for the brand and the town's biggest event of the year. This year it will take place on June 9 and 10 with a projected attendance of 3,000 to 5,000 people.

'Moon gardening'

Currently offered in Arizona and New Mexico, Luna Malvada continues to expand their market with an introduction to the California market in a few weeks.

According to Rose, the taste of their tequila is unique to their harvesting method called "moon gardening."  Because of the gravitational pull of the full moon, the earth's water table is said to be highest at this time pulling all the juices up into the plant. The plant is said to be healthiest and full of vitality at this time and that is when Luna Malvada harvests their agave."

This ancient method seems to work as Luna Malvada has placed first in three out of three competitions such as the Arizona's Taco Festival 2011 Tequila Expo.

Both agree, the competitive nature of the tequila business can be challenging and cutthroat. For them, it is a simple yet hard-to-do marketing technique — to win over a person and a bar at a time.

"Tequila is not a fad," said Rose. "It's going to be around forever. So if you're truly a good product you'll be around awhile if you do it right."

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