When Australian tequila connoisseur Phil Bayly closed the doors of Sydney’s first iconic tequila bar, Cafe Pacifico, for the last time, he left with a promise in The Shout 2013: “I intend to focus on continuing to help build the tequila category through training and awareness of products coming into the market.”
This weekend Bayly will host Australia’s first large-scale agave conference, Agave Love, bringing together tequila and mezcal experts from all over the world to teach consumers about the unique characteristics of each of the agave spirits. As mezcal gains popularity in the industry, he noticed a large amount of confusion between the spirits among consumers and industry members alike. Through a series of workshops and blind tastings led by regulators, distillers and bartenders from the US, Mexico, Asia and other parts of New Zealand and Australia, Bayly hopes attendees will gain a better understanding and appreciation of the differences between each spirit.
The conference was inspired by 35 years of trips to Mexico where Bayly became passionate about tequila after speaking with the makers themselves. Agave Love uses the same approach, which he hopes will help consumers become excited about the category.
“Because of their passion, I wanted the idea where you could actually have a dialogue with these people and ask questions and get to know who they are,” Mr Bayly said, “You go to Mexico, and you’ll never find them — they’re all too busy. Here, they’ve actually dedicated their time to just be here and talk about the products.”
James France, who has been importing tequila for the past seven years as the managing director of Vanguard Luxury Brand, said that a lack of good product in the beginning days of Australia’s tequila industry led consumers to a rocky start.
“We’re trying to educate people that good tequila is not an oxymoron,” Mr France said, “It’s a completely different world than what it was 10 years ago.”
“The whole thing is really to just raise awareness and knowledge for the industry. I think Phil’s project will help with all of that by making the spirits more approachable. There’s no better person to speak to than the person who actually distills it and makes it, and that’s a really rare opportunity for the Australian public.”
Within the two day conference, running from March 22 and 23, consumers can attend eight sessions out of a total of 46 workshops, all held in small bars around Darlinghurst on Oxford Street. Bayly choses bars within walking distance of one another to create a more intimate atmosphere, allowing attendees the opportunity to socialize as they walk from place to place. By limiting the number of workshops each consumer can attend, Bayly hopes to continue the dialogue-based experience among consumers themselves as they exchange stories in-between sessions.
“It makes them feel like they didn’t get enough and that they want some more,” Mr Bayly said.
Bayly thinks the confusion between tequila and mezcal comes from the rapid expansion of the industry in Australia in recent years. Not too long ago, it was rare to find multiple expressions of tequila in a single bar, Bayly said, but now, “there are so many different brands in the market that it’s become a bit of a nightmare because now people need to navigate what those things are.”
By focusing on category and not brand, Bayly hopes consumers will walk away from the conference with a better understanding of the industry as a whole — what makes the agave spirits special beyond the fancy labels and beautiful artisanal bottles.
“I see it natural that there’s a need for awareness, because also the consumer is wanting to know more about what they’re drinking. Helping people to understand how to drink it and how to appreciate it is a big part of [Agave Love]. I think hopefully it’s going to have a big impact and that it’ll boost people’s awareness to want to actually go out and find out more.”
Christian Rosas of the National Chamber of the Tequila Industry in Mexico said over the past five years, tequila exports to Australia have grown by 145 percent, which he sees as evidence that “Australian consumers are understanding more and more what is tequila and its characteristics. They are looking for products that offer more added value.”
France said growth in the industry seems to be accelerating in recent years, and he thinks Agave Love will only help that.
“We’ve seen very strong growth, but I think it’s just going to increase even more, and things like this — Agave Love — it single handedly won’t change the industry, but I think it’s going to do a lot for it all the same,” Mr France said. “I think it’s a really good first step in broadening the profile of tequila to consumers.”
Mar 22-23, 6 venues across Darlinghurst, tickets $25-$50 per session, http://agavelove.com.au/, Phil Bayly: 0414 347 872
By Kayla Canne