Eight years ago, Aaron Defeo, who was then running Hotel Congress' bar program, sought to create an event unlike any Tucson had seen before. He wanted to give pros and guests alike the opportunity to sip spirits, rub elbows and learn more about the liquor world through a place-centric tasting event.
"There just weren't any opportunities for people to taste a wide variety of curated spirits," Defeo says.
What's more is many of the tasting events that did exist were sponsored by one specific brand, which meant little diversity in the selection.
Flash forward eight years and Defeo's original single-day tasting event at Hotel Congress has exploded into a full week of seminars, tastings, concerts and more and become the Agave Heritage Week. Congress' general manager Todd Hanley wanted to expand the event this year, including off-site venues and more to grow the festival.
While Defeo, along with spirits expert Layla Linn from Phoenix, will be taking on teaching for several different limited-seat seminars that will showcase both the variety, uses and more of different agave spirits, expert chefs, ecologist and chocolatiers will round out the event throughout the week as well.
It's not just about the food and drink, though. Bands such as La Ley, Saul Hernandes and Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers will perform during the week, with the event expanding out to Rialto Theatre
for the first time. Artist Diane Bombshelter's black velvet works hang in the Hotel Congress lobby, showing scenes of agave harvesting and more.
"The art and culture component is subtle, yet very important to the event," Hanley says. "I think people are interested in the human element of agave."
Coming from a Midwestern farming family, Hanley says he feels a sort of kinship to the small agave farmers that make spirits like mezcal, tequila, bacanora and raicilla possible. That's why he seeks to promote agave spirits, but in a way that keeps in mind the sustainability of the industry. After all, with a booming mezcal market now charging ahead of the 7 to 12 years it takes for an agave plant to mature enough to harvest, there could be a time where mezcal supplies start to run dry—which means a pause in cash flow for the small farmers and artisan distillers who craft the smoky liquor that's become so en vogue.
"It's like Ron Cooper (of Del Maguey mezcales) says, 'sip it, don't shoot it,'" Hanley says. "It's an interesting dynamic—now mezcal is becoming so popular it's about how to make it a sustainable part of our culture."
Along with Defeo and Linn's seminars (which will be primarily and intentionally on Thursday, May 5—Cinco de Mayo), Agave Heritage Week will feature a mezcal dinner at The Carriage House
with chef Janos Wilder. Speakers during the dinner will include mezcal expert Sergio Inurrigarro and the "bat-man of Mexico"—an ecologist from UNAM named Rodrigo Medellin who will speak on the importance of bats as pollinators for agave. The $95, five-course, cocktail-paired dinner will also benefit Native Seeds/SEARCH
The event culminates at the eighth annual Agave Fest on Saturday, May 8, which will feature 50 agave spirits. A bartender each from the hotel, Maynards and R Bar will compete for the best agave cocktail this year as well, with live music from Tesoro. Tickets are $35 in advance and $40 the day of. While the cocktail competition aspect features three bartenders this year, Hanley says next year they hope to expand the event even more.
"We added R Bar into the mix this year, since Rialto Theatre joined on," he says "Next year we'll maybe explore making it even more of a competition."
Overall, though, Hanley and Defeo both say they hope to see the festival continue to grow in tandem with the public's appreciation for agave spirits.
"I would like to see it become such a big thing that it includes the whole city with downtown at the center," Defeo says.
Hanley says in the future he'd like the event to serve as almost a destination trade show for agave spirits, showcasing spirits not yet released in the country. Until then, though, Agave Heritage Week will run from May 3 through 8 this year with a week full of different events to pack the fest.
For more information on all of the Agave Heritage Week events and to buy tickets to specific seminars or celebrations, visit the Hotel Congress website