Thousands of large, spikey, cactus-like plants poke out of sun-baked earth, watched over by green-brown hills.
When they reach maturity in six to eight years this crop, known as agaves, will be harvested. The plant hearts will be cooked, fermented, and then distilled to make Mexico’s favorite type of spirit.
Just don’t use the word tequila, this crop is located 14,000km (8,700 miles) away from Mexico in Australia. Tequila, and its sister spirit mezcal, can only be made in Mexico from Mexican agaves. Instead, the juice from these Australian plants will ultimately be turned into an Australian agave spirit.
These agaves are being grown in Queensland, in a dry tropical microclimate, between the coastal towns of Airlie Beach and Bowen which sit opposite the Whitsunday Islands. There are other plantations in New South Wales and South Australia.
The Queensland agaves, all 500,000 of them, are being grown by Australian spirits company Top Shelf International (TSI). It first started planting them last year. The project is being led by TSI president Trent Fraser, who was appointed last year. Born and raised in South Australia, he spent the previous six years working in the Mexican state of Jalisco, where he helped French luxury goods and drinks giant, LVMH, launch its tequila brand Volcàn de mi Terra. Where Jalisco is 20 degrees north of the equator, we’re 20 degrees south, says Mr. Fraser, talking about Queensland.
He explains that the temperature and level of rainfall, are almost identical in both places creating ideal conditions for growing agave to make spirits. The agave plant loves sunlight. It really flourishes in an abundance of not just sunlight, but heat. To optimize growing conditions for the plants TSI is collaborating with horticulturalists from Adelaide University, and it has also received a research grant from the Australian government. However, Mr. Fraser adds that the agave plants are not too fussy. The plant is resilient like it’s sturdy. It can grow on the side of a concrete highway.
Further down the eastern side of Australia, Black Snake Distillery is a family business already making agave spirit near the New South Wales town of Narrabri, around 500km north of Sydney. Rosemary and Steve Beale were inspired to try making a mezcal-style spirit when their daughter returned from traveling in the Americas and suggested that the agaves growing wild along the creek near their farm might be similar to those used to make tequila and mezcal.
It turned out that the species is a decorative plant called agave Americana, which is different from the blue agave plant used to make tequila this is the type being grown by TSI in Queensland. Agave americana, unlike blue agave, contains saponins: organic chemicals that give the plant a soapy taste and hinder the process of fermentation. However, the Black Snake Distillery has developed a way of extracting the saponins after harvesting the plant’s spiky arms. The use of agave Americana is said to give the Black Snake spirit a distinct flavor versus traditional Mexican mezcal. The taste is very vegetal, green, but also peppery and spicy, says Rosemary Beale. And as we use eucalyptus wood to roast the agave, people have often felt they can taste the mint of the wood, and melon.
The Beales’ agave spirits are currently being sold throughout Australia and won a silver medal at the 2021 London Spirits Awards. However, creating an agave spirit without hundreds of years of inherited tradition has not been a walk in the park for Black Snake. It’s not easy making agave spirits in Australia, says Ms. Beale. We had no one to ask for help. We had many tastes and batches I rejected.