Mezcal is a cultural product that fulfills a social function within communities. It’s necessary to try to measure its immense value in order to conserve one of Mexico’s most important traditions. – GdeM
Mezcal, tequila’s stronger and smokier relative, has become a staple spirit in trendy bars across Mexico and the United States in recent years, and the agave-based drink has inevitably attracted the interest of global alcohol giants. In the process local growers are worried a unique spirit is under threat.
Traditionally produced in small batches by farmers who use artisanal methods, including earth-covered oven pits and horse-driven mills, mezcal has struck a chord with the growing sector of consumers passionate about slow food, farmers’ markets and craft drinks.
Yet small distillers and industry insiders warn that mezcal’s sudden popularity is fueling mass production that threatens to damage its reputation. Worse still the humble rural communities that produce the drink are left to deal with the resultant ecological damage while the newcomers leave with a greater share of the profits.
Global investment has gathered pace as mezcal has established itself as North America’s hippest new spirit. The Scotch whisky producer William Grant & Sons launched the Montelobos brand in 2012 and the following year Bacardi bought the distribution rights for Zignum, an industrially produced mezcal owned by a subsidiary of the Mexican Coca-Cola bottler Femsa.
The British multinational Diageo sealed a deal to distribute Union, another large brand, in February, and this summer the tequila giant José Cuervo launchedCreyente, the second mezcal brand in its portfolio. Then the French conglomerate Pernod Ricard announced plans last month to launch a “small-village brand”, promising that “some of the value will be shared with the local community”.
These developments have raised concern among traditional distillers who want the industry to stay true to its rustic roots. Unlike tequila, which can only be made from blue agave and is typically produced using industrial techniques to enhance efficiency, mezcal is a more diverse spirit made from more than 40 species of the spiky plant using artisanal methods that differ across the country.
Julian Saenger, who has partnered with artisan distillers in the south-western states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Michoacán for his Legendario Domingo brand, said the modern industrial methods favoured by tequila companies and a few mezcal producers kill off the earthy flavours and delicate aromas of roasted agave that vary enormously depending on when, where, how and with what the mezcal was made.
“Every batch of mezcal should taste different, even if it’s made by the same brand,” Saenger said. “I would have serious doubts about any mezcal that always tastes the same, because they must be using some kind of chemical to give it a specific taste.”
As well as taking off abroad, mezcal is enjoying a revival in Mexico’s big cities, where it was once dismissed as cheap hooch for the working classes. However, Pedro Jiménez, the owner of Guadalajara’s hip mezcal bar Pare de Sufrir, warned that the spirit’s popularity is fueling a production boom that threatens the very characteristics that have made it so trendy.
“Everyone began to see a goldmine in this great new product,” Jiménez said. “But mezcal isn’t a commodity, it’s a cultural product. There’s no way that you can mass produce mezcal and do it well.”
Increased production has led to agave shortages and inflated prices, encouraging farmers to sell entire fields of crops before they are fully matured, Jiménez said.
“This results in a drink of inferior quality. More and more mezcal producers are lowering their standards so they can produce in greater volume,” he added. “They sell at low prices in order to sell more, but they’re damaging the drink’s reputation. This is very dangerous.”
Jiménez also runs Mezonte, a civic organisation that helps artisanal distillers to promote their products and defend traditional mezcal culture. Although mezcal – like tequila, cognac and champagne – is protected by a denomination of origin (DO) that limits its production to certain parts of Mexico, Jiménez described industry regulations as “a slap in the face to people who make traditional mezcal”.
Mezcal has been made for centuries in 26 of Mexico’s 32 states, but the DO limits production to just nine states. Distillers from other areas have expressed outrage over NOM-199, a new regulation proposed by the government and industry giants including Diageo and Pernod Ricard, that would have forced them to label their products as “komil” — an obscure indigenous word meaning “intoxicating drink” understood by almost nobody in Mexico.
A revised proposal would have them use “aguardiente de agave” – meaning agave firewater – instead of “destilado de agave”, the more literal name currently in use. Agave spirits expert Clayton Szczech said that while preferable to “komil”, the word “aguardiente” still has “a pejorative connotation that makes people think of cheap rum and seems designed to taint these products in the marketplace.”
Another regulation awaiting final approval, NOM-070, would affect distillers within the DO by dividing mezcal into standard, artisanal and ancestral categories, depending on the methods of production. Szczech said having these labels on every bottle would help small-scale distillers from the latter two categories to justify their higher prices to consumers by distinguishing their products from the cheaper, mass-produced brands in the standard category.
Small distillers are still not happy with the proposed regulation. Graciela Ángeles, the general manager of Real Minero, noted that large corporations could bend the rules and mass-produce mezcal that meets the artisanal or ancestral standards by hiring vast numbers of distillers who use traditional techniques.
“The multinationals don’t come here to open up factories,” explained Ángeles, whose family has produced mezcal in Oaxaca for over 100 years. “They’re smarter than that. They sign agreements with people who can produce artisanal mezcals, which have a higher market value.”
Most distillers have seen no improvement in their standard of living and continue to work without health insurance or benefits, Ángeles said, while savvy businessmen from outside their communities enjoy the lion’s share of profits from the mezcal boom.
Warning that mass production is already causing shortages of wild agave, deforestation, a loss of biodiversity and the discharge of liquid waste on a damaging scale, Ángeles implored regulators to set annual production limits.
“This is neocolonialism,” she said. “They come here to extract a resource and once that resource runs out they leave. They don’t have any social responsibility.”