Written By: Clare McCarthy | Photos By: David Suro
When David Suro migrated from Mexico to Philadelphia in the mid-1980s, the tequilas and other agave spirits that dominated the United States market had a bad reputation. Marketed as a party spirit, the word “tequila” held a negative connotation, and a large majority of United States consumers shy away from it—associating the spirit only with silly decisions and bad hangovers.
But Suro, who was born and raised in Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco (the only place where tequila legally can be made) wanted to change that reputation. In 1986, he opened Philadelphia’s first upscale, traditional Mexican eatery, naming it “Tequilas.” From the beginning, Suro’s mission was to dispel misunderstandings about Mexican culture, including those surrounding agave spirits.
“The name of the restaurant represented something that was taken very lightly and with a negative connotation,” Suro says. But rather than changing the restaurant’s name (as many suggested to him in the early years), Suro decided instead to change people’s perceptions of tequila and other agave spirits, and in turn share more about his culture and the time-honored traditions of Mexico.
To do this, he decided to develop a brand of agave spirits dedicated entirely to spreading knowledge and respect for the industry, with producers committed to sustainability and high quality. In the 1990s, he returned to Jalisco to assemble a team of tequila producers and academics who were performing extensive research on the agave spirits industry, culture, history, and production. His quest to find the highest quality tequila led him to develop and produce his own boutique tequila brand, Siembra Azul, from the highlands region of Jalisco. Released in 2005, the tequila was met with rave reviews, and by 2014, Suro had expanded the Siembra Spirits line to add a lowland-produced brand of tequilas called Siembra Valles. In May 2015, Siembra Metl was launched as a way to showcase mezcal producers as well.
With a growing demand for agave spirits, Suro recognized the necessity for personalized importation and distribution methods. In 2005, Suro began developing an imports business to meet the specific needs of the Siembra Spirits portfolio. Launched in 2006, Suro International Importers has been importing Siembra Spirit’s products as well as other artisanal agave spirits and craft Mexican beer for the past 15 years. He only partners with producers who embody the same vision and commitment to sustainable practices. “The main goal was for us to be able to go to different places across the United States and start to preach the right things and the right stories about agave spirits,” Suro says.
The secret to a good agave spirit? “To have a good tequila, it begins with a very good agave,” Suro says. Then, when you have a good agave, you have to use traditional methods of production that will highlight the organic elements of the raw material. You can have the best raw material, but if you have an industrial, highly efficient process, you’re going to lose all those elements.”
The terroir of agaves heavily influences the taste of the spirits being produced. As Suro became increasingly involved in the production and importation of agave spirits, he realized that telling the story of tequila and mezcal from a geographical standpoint had great selling potential.
“The mezcal denomination of origin is the largest denomination of origin in the world,” Suro says. With such a vast extension of land, agaves are grown at altitudes ranging from 3500 feet above sea level all the way to 7500 or 8000 feet above sea level, in climates that are warm and dry or cold and wet.
Similar to how the terroir of grape varietals influence the flavor profiles and characteristics of wine, so too does the terroir of agave plants in Mexico. The agaves that are grown in the rich, clay soil of the highlands region (the mountains or “los altos”) of Jalisco, where conditions tend to be colder and more wet, often have a sweeter taste and produce tequilas that are more citrusy, fruity, and floral. Agaves that are grown in the lowlands region (the valley or “El Valle de Tequila”), where conditions tend to be drier and hotter, often produce tequilas that have bigger, bolder characteristics, with earthy, peppery, and more vegetal flavor profiles.
As Suro worked with archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians to learn more about the history of agave spirits, he recognized the human value behind the spirits that was being overlooked by consumers.
“There’s a tremendous amount of history linked to 3,500 years of evolution,” Suro says. “When you think about tequila and mezcal from a terroir perspective and consider the human value, the know-how and the knowledge that has been passed on from generation to generation for centuries is linked now to the producers we work with. It is a tremendous asset that these denominations of origin have.”
According to Suro, mezcals and other agave spirits held a negative connotation due to their links to indigenous Mexican cultures, considered by many as a “second-class” spirit.
“After Mexico’s independence and its revolution, it has been in search of identity,” Suro says. “And the class—the society—who rules the country has been always influenced by the Spaniard, European cultures. So, when you have an indigenous spirit linked to the roots of the pre-Colombian civilizations [in this case, mezcal], they were discriminated against. European beverages were celebrated, and they were a symbol of social status.”
As a way to distance themselves from that connotation and increase profit, many agave spirits producers turned away from making “mezcal,” instead calling their spirits “tequila.” Some tequileros even turned to barrel aging to make spirits that tasted more like whiskey, bourbon, and cognac (in an attempt to compare to the European and American spirits that dominated the market).
Eventually, for purely economic reasons, tequilas were given a clear denomination of origin (mainly in the state of Jalisco, but also in some other small states within Mexico), and can only be produced from the blue agave, or agave Tequilana Weber. “That’s because out of the hundreds of varietals of agaves that grow in Mexico, that specific agave is the one to reach maturity in the shorter period of time, that’s the agave that has more sugar content, and it’s also the agave that has more off-shoots—more babies,” Suro says. Mezcals, on the other hand, can be produced from a variety of agave plants across the mezcal denomination of origin.
Despite the generational challenges they’ve faced, agave spirits have grown in popularity, so much so that there is an agave crisis and producers are now having trouble keeping up with the demand. Since agaves can take anywhere from five to 35 years to reach full maturity and be ready to harvest, it is difficult for producers to maintain traditional methods of production while also maintaining efficiency. In addition, Suro says, sustainability and biodiversity present an added challenge.
For over a century, industrial practices in tequila production have suppressed most of the genetic diversity in blue agave, using clonal shoots as the main propagation method and avoiding pollination. “By putting so much pressure on one varietal of agave we were creating a monoculture that started to result in us being charged for the abuse of that species,” Suro says. “For generations and generations, the only way that we produced those agaves was through asexual reproduction—through cloning.”
This has resulted in the vast majority of blue agaves in the denomination of origin to share the same genetic information, losing diversity and challenging their adaptation qualities. They are now significantly dependent upon pesticides and herbicides and have also become more susceptible to plague and disease. The push for efficiency has led to a lack of biodiversity and a lack of sustainability.
“So, the lack of genetic biodiversity in agaves is the result of the stress that we’ve put on one varietal of agave,” Suro says. “We needed more agave, faster and faster, but we weren’t looking at the consequences of doing that.”
Recognizing the agave crisis for what it was and acknowledging the conflicting factors of time and efficiency versus quality and sustainability, Suro set out to find a solution to the problem. He understood that going back to cross-pollination and sexual reproduction would allow agaves to maintain the natural defenses they’ve been equipped with for centuries and reduce their dependence upon agrochemicals.
Five years ago, Suro met Rodrigo Medellin (featured in the 2014 BBC Natural World film “The Bat Man of Mexico”), a senior professor at the Institute of Ecology, UNAM who has dedicated his life to the study and conservation of mammals in Mexico. Medellin was concerned about the conservation of bats in Mexico had how agave spirits production had been harming them. For millions of years, magueyero bats have pollinated numerous generations of agave. But as production methods turned towards efficiency and cloning, the magueyero bats’ migration patterns were interrupted. “The consequences are that we are losing these pollinators and we are also losing the genetic strain that we desperately need to have healthy plants,” Suro says.
Thus, Suro and Medellin partnered together to create the “Bat Friendly Project,” a mission that brings together scientists and agave spirits producers alike to recognize and preserve sustainable practices in ecosystems visited by bats. All producers involved with the project commit to allowing at least five percent of their agave population to flower, to ensure there is nectar for the bats and increase pollination—which, in turn, strengthens those agaves and increase their natural forms of defense.
As President of Suro International Imports and renowned tequila expert, Suro continues to travel the world to educate consumers about agave spirits and spread his company’s trademark slogan, “The Future of Tradition.” “We have to protect the future of this industry by educating the consumer, making the consumer more aware of drinking responsibly, and demanding more transparency,” Suro says. “Having a consumer who is educated gives more opportunity to the industry to become even more sustainable.”