Saguaros may be the local cactus kings, but agaves are Tucson’s most celebrated succulents — especially when distilled into potent beverages. A dazzling array of events at the upcoming Agave Heritage Festival (April 27-30, 2023) invites attendees to understand — and experience firsthand — the spiky plant’s culinary, cultural, and economic clout throughout the southwestern US and Mexico.
This year’s activities roster includes several savory new ways to become agave savvy. A number of (mostly) downtown venues are hosting multi-course pairing dinners, guided mezcal tastings, and bar takeovers for the first time. You can sit at some of the city’s top restaurant tables or barstools and learn about everything from the effect of soil depletion on tequila production to the latest bacanora cocktail stylings, all while sampling the spirits being discussed.
Now in its 15th year and garnering increased national and international attention, the festival had a modest start, according to Todd Hanley, the festival’s founder and the CEO of Hotel Congress and Maynards Market & Kitchen.
“It was originally a one-night celebration around Cinco de Mayo, based upon Hotel Congress creating events to offer people within the community a reason to come downtown,” Hanley said. “Back in 2008, downtown was a shell of what it is now.” An “Iron Bar” cocktail competition was the main event, with tequila as the only agave spirit featured.
Over time, mezcal, bacanora, raicilla, and sotol were added to the liquor lineup. “From 2009 until, I think, 2016 or 2017, we turned [the celebration] into Agave Heritage Week,” Hanley said, although there were only three or four days of events. There was a two-tiered system. The VIP portion of the fiesta was a Grand Tasting, with samplings of spirits and dishes by local chefs presented at an array of food stations in a resort ballroom. This event was complemented by several general admission gatherings, including what became the signature fiesta in the Hotel Congress courtyard.
An Agave 101 class was held at what is now known as The Century Room and a limited number of pairing dinners were exclusive to Maynards, with Janos Wilder as the guest chef “to add star power,” Hanley mused. “At that point, the festival was pretty obscure on most all fronts.”
Public awareness began to grow around 2018 when ethnobotanist and author Gary Nabhan got involved. Along with his deep knowledge of desert flora, Nabhan has strong community ties and international renown. Hanley said, “Because of his experience with the history of agave plants and his connection with the University of Arizona and the Sonoran Desert Museum for many years, [Nabhan] brought all of these organizations into the overall discussion.” Nabhan’s affiliations with Mission Garden and Tohono Chul Gardens also broadened the festival’s reach.
In a commemorative booklet published last year, Nabhan explained, “Tucson is the most diverse city in the U.S. in terms of showcasing these desert-adapted plants in public spaces and offering them in commercial nurseries. But caring for agaves goes back 1,000 years in the Tucson Basin.” This links agaves to the rich agricultural history that helped Tucson get the nod as this country’s first UNESCO City of Gastronomy.
Around the same time, Doug Smith began raising local agave consciousness by introducing mezcal tastings and classes at Exo Roast Co., the coffee bar that he and his wife, Amy, co-created. Hanley said of Smith, “He is probably the most knowledgeable individual about agaves and mezcal in Southern Arizona, because he has an agricultural and anthropological perspective, and also a business perspective. He’s kind of the intellectual driving force behind the festival.”
The pandemic put a halt to the momentum sparked by these new relationships but, after a two-year hiatus, the festival returned in 2022 with renewed energy and purpose. That vitality carried over to 2023–and then some. This year’s festival will debut the Agave Renaissance Summit, bringing together an international group of scientists, conservationists, and distillers to discuss industry needs as they intersect with sustainable practices.
But it is the series of creative ways to educate the food-and-drink-loving public about agave spirits that has gotten local restaurateurs and bar owners especially galvanized this year.
Take Sally Kane, owner of Coronet and the adjacent Nightjar and Coronet Cafe. She is not only hosting two seatings of a Tequila Ocho Agave Heritage Dinner at Coronet and a guided mezcal tasting at Nightjar, but also turning Nightjar over to a guest mixologist in one of the new bar takeover events.
Kane said, “I was really excited that Todd Hanley asked me to participate. Chef Tanner and I are delighted at the thought of creating menus to go specifically with spirits. We love doing wine pairing/tasting dinners and whiskey dinners and had never done one with tequila or mezcal before.” In particular, she noted, “Tequila Ocho is premium, and tasting through their portfolio was delightful.”
Kane also sees the festival as an opportunity to showcase her historic venue.
“The other part that’s exciting,” Kane said, “is that this festival is growing and bringing people from all over the country as well as from outside the United States. The Cushing Street property is a real heritage property and should be enjoyed by visitors. Having all three experiences, the pairing dinner, the mezcal tasting, and the bar takeover, will let guests move through the entire place.”
Other venues hosting pairing dinners are BATA, The Carriage House, Maynards, and Seis Kitchen (River Road location).
Guided mezcal tastings have been part of the festival before, but the presentations are being kicked up a notch this year. “Every brand represented will have either one of their spirits specialists, brand owner, or even potentially the producer providing the information,” Hanley said. One example: “Maynards Kitchen is hosting a Nocheluna sotol and Montelobos mezcal tasting and the master distiller, Dr. Iván Saldaña, will guide guests through it, which is kind of like having chef Thomas Keller take you through your menu as you are eating.”
Hanley also cited the event at Hotel Tuxon as an embodiment of the festival’s goal: to explore ways to achieve the long-term success of both the climate and the industry while highlighting artisanal and ancestral spirits. He explained, “Asis Cortés is coming in to represent his new project called Origen Raíz. He is the brand owner, and he’s bringing the owner of a ranch that grows the plants in a regenerative, agriculturally sustainable way.”
See the Tasting section of the festival website for a complete list of participating venues.
The latest addition to the 2023 events calendar, bar takeovers are the brainchild of Francisco Terrazas, brand ambassador for several premier Mexican spirits and a lauded mezcal expert on both sides of the border. Long involved with the festival in an advisory capacity, Terrazas became its first official Programming Director this year.
He said, “I’ve worked nationally for brands for many years and found that takeovers are a nice way for people in a particular location to get a taste of bars from farther away than they would normally travel on their own. And they’re a nice way to build community between bar industry representatives, whether it’s bar owners, people who make drinks, brand owners…people who normally would not necessarily get to share ideas and collaborate.”
Terrazas cites the joint takeover of LaCo by Dallas’s Las Almas Rotas bar and the city’s Los Tlacuaches bartender collective as an example of the new experiences Tucson patrons might enjoy. Las Almas Rotas’s bar menu includes such exotic concoctions as El Borough (Rey Campero Espadin, Amaro, and Benedictine), while members of Los Tlachuaches highlight indigenous ingredients and preparations such as corn fermentation in their creations. Add some live honkey tonk music to the mix, and you’ve got an AZ-Tex-Mex borderlands bash.
The other agave alchemists descending on Tucson in late April hail from Brooklyn, New York (Club Congress); Baltimore, Maryland (Crisol); Tamarindo, Costa Rica (Nightjar); and Oaxaca, Mexico (Tough Luck Club).
Book signings, art openings, jazz performances, cocktail classes, spirits workshops, films, agave pit roastings…you’ll find all these and more at the Agave Heritage Festival from April 27-30.
For more information, visit agaveheritagefestival.com.
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Edie Jarolim has worn many hats, including a sombrero on a one-too-many-margaritas night. She earned a Ph.D. in American literature from New York University and was a guidebook editor at Fodor’s (Random House) and Frommer’s (Simon & Schuster) in New...