From the early 2000s, “Tequila” and “mezcal”—Mexico’s most famous agave spirits—have experienced significant growth in popularity and consumption in the United States. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the US (DISCUS), imports of Tequila into the US have grown by 92% since 2002. In 2014, Tequila sold 13.8 million cases in the US, 6 million cases less than all Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey. Given this growth, it is no surprise that US craft distillers have tried their hand at agave spirits. However, there are a couple of significant differences from Mexican and US agave spirits. First, while a few US distillers have tried to mirror the Mexican process of making agave spirits from whole piñas, the vast majority simply uses agave syrup. Second, US distillers cannot call their spirits Tequila or mezcal because those are protected terms that refer to specific appellations of origin.
Despite difference in production and naming from their Mexican counterparts, a number of US craft distillers have brought agave spirits to market. For most US distillers of agave, their agave spirits often sit on the fringe of their portfolio, often playing 2nd or 3rd fiddle to some other brown spirit made from grain or sugar. State 38 Distilling, however, is quite different. State 38’s entire portfolio of spirits, including their vodka and gin, are fermented and distilled from agave.
Sean Smiley, owner and head distiller of State 38, is not the most obvious candidate for creating the US’s only all-agave distillery. Smiley is a petroleum and process engineer who started by home brewing before he decided to open a distillery. But, unlike many former home brewers turned distillers, he did not make the obvious transition into whiskey. His choice to focus on agave seems even more strange in Colorado, the 38th state to join the union, and bursting with craft whiskey; and in Golden, of all places, with its long association with the Coors Brewing Company.
Smiley explained that even though he tried making whiskey and rum, he did not think either were as intellectually challenging or interesting in their flavor profile as agave. Part of the challenge he faced during product development was to find a yeast strain that could fully attenuate agave syrup and give him a flavor profile he liked. He pitched his yeasts at a specific gravity of 1.070 and noticed that most quickly drop to 1.040 SG, but stalled out and would not attenuate much beyond that. Incidentally, Vapor Distillery (formerly Roundhouse Spirits), ran into a similar problem, which is partly why they suspended production of their Tatanka American Agave Spirit. However, Smiley persisted. After experimenting with 45 different strains, Smiley found his ideal yeast.
All of State 38’s spirits start off as Fair Trade 100% Organic Raw Blue Agave syrup, which Smiley buys from Mexico. The syrup is separated into a half dozen or so 55-gallon stainless steel drums and diluted to 1.070 SG before he pitches his yeast. Smiley explained that because the agave was naturally rich in minerals, he did not need to add nutrients to the fermentation. Once the yeast is pitched, the drums are wrapped with an insulating blanket to help maintain their temperature.
When fermentation has finished, the contents of a drum are transferred to the first of Smiley’s 250-gallon still that Smiley built from a used milk pasteurizer.
Both State 38’s Vodka and Gin are triple distilled. State 38’s vodka is stripped and then gets two passes through Smiley’s finishing still with its 6-plate column. After the third distillation, the vodka is proofed down, filtered and bottled. The gin, however, takes a slightly different path. For the third distillation, Smiley fills a vapor basket with Colorado juniper and a number of other gin botanicals. Once the gin has been vapor infused, it rests in a new charred oak barrel for one month before it is proofed down and bottled. Until recently, Smiley’s vodka was the only agave-based vodka sold in the US but, so far, no one else is distilling an agave-based barrel-rested gin.
All of State 38’s agave spirits are twice distilled and matured in full-sized, new American white oak barrels with a #3 char from Independent Stave. After the finishing run, Smiley fills one of his barrels and lets it sit. His blanco agave spirit typically rests for five days before the barrel is emptied, proofed, filtered and bottled. Meanwhile, Smiley’s reposado and anejo agave spirits mature for two months and 12 months, respectively, before they are bottled. Given all the media attention about the existence or non-existence of a barrel shortage, Smiley’s maturation schedule for his four aged spirits seemed like it would burn through new barrels pretty quickly. However, he explained that, given the current after market for barrels, it is actually more cost effective for him to buy new barrels, use them once and then sell them to local breweries who use them two or three more times.
Like many small distilleries around the county, State 38 is growing their business because people in their local market like what they taste. Their tasting room, modeled after an 1870s mining town saloon, does a good job of introducing drinkers to the idea of US agave spirits. Their Agave Reposado has the distinct vegetal notes that one associates with a young, or lightly aged, Tequila. Its flavor profile, balanced finish and bottling strength of 90 proof, make the reposado an excellent candidate for margaritas. The Agave Anejo is likely to appeal to whiskey fans, or those drawn to extra-anejo Tequilas. Sitting in a new charred barrel for 12 months, the agave picks up a ton of barrel notes. The palate is full of vanilla, caramel and sweetness, with an underlying note of green agave. Bottled at 80 proof, State 38’s Agave Anejo is a very smooth and tasty spirit worth sipping slowly throughout an evening.
Unbound by Tequila or mezcal’s legal definitions, Smiley plans to add complexity to his agave spirits by blending different varieties of agave syrups. While Smiley currently uses syrup from blue agaves, this past summer he purchased the remaining maugey organic agave syrup from Vapor Distillery. Maugey is a variety of agave, which traditionally has been used to make a low alcohol “beer-like” beverage in Mexico. Smiley stated that, when distilled, maugey has a fuller and earthier character compared to blue agave. He believes that a blend of maguey and blue agave will layer new flavors and add nuance, similar to the way that whiskey or brandy distillers use multiple varieties of grains or grapes to create flavor profiles.
State 38 has helped break new ground in the US with their range of agave spirits. Smiley and a handful of other craft distillers around the country have successfully demonstrated that agave spirits can be much more than just Tequila. US Agave spirits produced from syrup, like Smiley’s, are helping to define the character of a new category of spirits. It will be interesting to see how the category grows as a whole, but if the history of the craft distilling industry is any indication, innovation will be the norm.