Move over gin, it’s agave’s turn to shine

Eat & Drink

The Whitsundays, known for having Australia’s whitest sandy beaches, can now add having the world’s largest agave plantation outside of Mexico to its long list of natural assets.
Top Shelf International’s agave plantation in QLD’s Whitsundays is the biggest agave farm outside of Mexico | Image: supplied

Standing at 20 degrees south of the equator between Airlie Beach and Bowen at Top Shelf International’s 374-hectare agave farm, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re standing 20 degrees north of the equator at the home of tequila in Jalisco, Mexico.

The climate of dry tropical Queensland is almost identical to Jalisco, making it perfect for growing the agave plant – tequila’s principal ingredient. Much like champagne in France, calling agave by its commonly known name, tequila, is a big no-no and reserved only for the spirit made in Mexico.

The placement of the farm and its similarities to the Mexican climate are no coincidence, according to TSI President, Agave Project and International, Trent Fraser. It reminds him of his time in Mexico with the billionaire Gallardo family, where he established the premium tequila brand ‘Volcan De Mi Tierra’ – a joint venture between the family and LVMH. premium tequila brand Volcan De Mi Tierra “When I first arrived at the farm, I felt I was back in Mexico,” Fraser says. “But you have gumtrees flanking and kangaroos going past, so you know you’re not in Mexico, but the similarities are there.”

Fraser, who has spent the past 20 years overseas working for some of the most prestigious liquor brands, returned to Australia 18 months ago to head the agave project. The sustainably produced spirit brand, ‘Act of Treason’, is tentatively due to hit the market in October 2023.

“We are the largest agave farm outside of Mexico,” Fraser says of the 374-hectare property, with more than 520,000 agave plants. It plans to have one million plants by 2024.

Top Shelf International is creating a new market for Australian agave | Image: supplied

Consumer demand for agave is enormous. Tequila volumes from Mexico to the US have grown rapidly over the last five years, producing $US12.9 billion in revenue in 2021, according to Allied Market Research (AMR). It says tequila, the number two spirit category by revenue, is predicted to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 6.6% from 2022 to 2031, resulting in a $US24.19 billion market.

Agave is now becoming increasingly popular in Australia, Fraser says. Australians are the third largest tequila consumers per capita in the world, behind Mexico and the US – but he says that only 8 per cent of spirits are made locally.

With Tequila and Mezcal earning an average compound growth rate of 7.51% over the last six years in the US, TSI’s Australian agave spirit is being developed with international markets in mind. The brand’s secret weapon is science and data, used to lead the production of quality agave plants. It has an R&D partnership with Adelaide University and an innovation hub with Anther Experimental Distillation in North Geelong.

This year TSI will continue to build a purpose-built ‘Act of Treason’ distillery powered entirely by renewable energy. Once up and running, ‘Act of Treason’ can potentially be a $100 million turnover export business, Fraser says.

From Mexico with love

Trent Fraser, tasked with leading TSI’s expansion into agave, has had a dream career in premium alcohol. But it was at his most vulnerable point in New York City during the global pandemic when he found himself asking the Mexican billionaire behind the global tequila brand ‘Volcan De Mi Tierra’, Don Juan Gallardo, permission to return home to Adelaide. 

“I was at Don Juan’s house, and we were sobbing because I had to ask to head home. I think COVID gave everyone a minute to pause.”

TSI President, Agave Project and International, Trent Fraser | Image: supplied

For TSI, Fraser’s return to Australia could not have been better timing. TSI executives had already reached out to Fraser, and they had already discussed working together.

“The guys from Top Shelf were thinking: ‘what’s this mad Aussie doing in Mexico building a tequila brand?’. I’m thinking, ‘what are these mad Aussies doing putting all these plants
in the ground in Queensland?’”

Fraser started in the South Australian wine game before moving to New York in the early 2000s to work for Fosters Wine Estate’s (now Treasury Wine Estates) US operations.

“Going to New York in my mid-20s was quite daunting. It was also the most rewarding personal and professional thing I have ever done. I was immersed in huge Californian wine brands like Berringer and Stags Leap.”

After five years working in the US, premium brand, LVMH, asked Fraser to become brand director for its iconic Don Perignon champagne, eventually leading him on to the role of Vice President of Dom Perignon.

“The Don Perignon brand unlocked doors I could not have imagined. We’re talking about princes and princesses, captains of state and celebrities – just uber wealth,” Fraser says.

“In the US, people drink Dom Perignon like Koonunga Hill. It gave me the keys to play in different platforms such as art and music – we did things with people like Lady Gaga, Lenny Kravitz and Damien Hirst.

Then, in 2015, LVMH asked Fraser to fly to Mexico to build a tequila brand – a joint venture between LVMH and the wealthy Mexican Gallardo family.

“We did a lot of work around whether we should buy an existing brand, do it from scratch, do a satellite facility or do a JV within a brand. We decided that while it would be more painful, we would have to do it from scratch,” he says.

However, tequila “didn’t need another Don Juan this or that – it didn’t even need another Don – although his name was Don Juan Gallardo”. ‘Volcan De Mi Tierra’ tequila was born.

From LVMH to the Whitsundays, TSI President agave project and international, Trent Fraser | Image: supplied

Returning home to do something that has never been done before has been a challenge Fraser has relished.

“It’s a Herculean job to educate people about agave outside Mexico. It tastes different depending on the region, soil and conditions. When you share that with people, they understand,” Fraser says. “Ultimately, the liquid does a lot of the talking.”

Fraser says Australians have an affinity with people trying to do something that defies convention. Some might say the brand’s name, ‘Act of Treason’, is a good fit. 

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