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Your agave or your life

June 05, 2005|David Lida | David Lida lives in Mexico City.

About five years ago, tequila's titans found themselves caught short. International consumption had risen so precipitously that there wasn't enough supply to meet the demand. Even worse, the shortage couldn't be quickly corrected. The blue agave, the plant from which tequila is produced, takes eight to 12 years to mature. It didn't matter that many were planted quickly, they couldn't be harvested quickly enough.

The pina--the mature center of the agave that is fermented and distilled to produce the liquor--shot up from about 5 cents a kilo to about $1.50. The retail price of a bottle of tequila skyrocketed, but that did nothing to dent the demand. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Mexican newspapers were filled with reports of hijackings of trailer-loads of the pinas, which weigh more than 100 pounds and look like oversized pineapples.

Four years ago a friend was hiking between villages in the Sierra Cuale, a coastal range near the city of Tequila. A large black pickup truck passed him. In its empty bed sat two tough-looking characters armed with automatic weapons. Several hours later, the truck passed him heading in the other direction. The armed men now were sitting on a large pile of pinas. When he reached his destination, he stopped in a cantina and asked about the armed men. Thieves, someone muttered, and then the subject was quickly changed. Turns out, the situation had become so dire, industry leaders such as Jose Cuervo and Sauza were hiring security corps and arming them to protect the supply.

Luckily, the last few years growers have begun harvesting the enormous loads they planted to meet the demand, and a kilo of pina is down to about 25 cents. But don't expect the drop to be reflected at your local liquor store. "We've got to increase the demand for tequila in the next year," says Ramon Gonzalez, director of the Consejo Regulador del Tequila, or the Tequila Regulatory Council. "We're going to yield about 400,000 tons more of pinas this year than we did in 2004." Much of the strategy has been to create market niches with sweet tequila-based liqueurs and creams. Gonzalez's prediction for what's coming soon to a liquor store near you: Tutti-frutti infusions. Aping the success of premium vodkas, expect to see tequila flavored with lemon, strawberry, vanilla and coffee.

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