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Mezcal’s Dance with Extinction

Mezcal’s Dance with Extinction

Now that the tequila craze has crested, the latest Latin liquor to capture the world’s alcoholic imagination is tequila’s grandfather: mezcal. But an explosion of authentic mezcal is impossible – for reasons our correspondent discovers when she goes to Oaxaca to learn how this hyper-local spirit can be sustained.

Photography and story by GRACE RUBENSTEIN

The Art of Alcohol | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2015

Worker Francisco Javier Vazquez Perez shovels used agave fibers out of the Montelobos stills. The copper stills are fueled with bark, a waste product, in consideration of Oaxaca’s deforestation problem.

Our burly white pickup truck is rolling down the highway about ten miles east of Oaxaca, Mexico, when the ominous dilemma that will define the future of mezcal rises into view. To my left, sitting beside me on the pickup’s bench seat, are Cuauhtémoc Lopez, a mezcal maker who is carrying on his family’s traditional production process, and Iván Saldaña, a biochemist and businessman who sells the Lopez family’s liquor under the label Montelobos. They are believers in mezcal as a specialty—an ancient spirit made by hand, using rustic methods that impart distinct and diverse flavors.

Then, to my right, appears the Benevá mezcal factory. It rises like a kind of misplaced mirage out of the dusty valley, its expansive, silver-roofed buildings and gleaming metal tanks making it look like a futuristic thing dropped into this age-old landscape. With its mechanized operations and autoclaves, Benevá represents mezcal as a commodity, a mass-market product promoted by pretty young women who offer samples on the streets of Oaxaca City. Saldaña and Lopez shake their heads.

When the world suddenly wants an abundance of authentic, homespun goods, can the tiny foundations of their production survive? “We have arrived at a crossroads,” says Saldaña. “There is no time to lose.”

Suddenly, I realize I am literally, physically situated between the two sides of the great question confronting mezcal. The agave liquor has gone from obscure to trendy in just a few short years. What was for centuries an unknown drink—the everyday firewater of poor Mexican farmers—is suddenly a premium global spirit with the cachet of whiskey. Enthusiasts from London to New York to Hong Kong are lapping it up, enchanted by its complex flavors and the quaint idea of its traditional, rural, small-scale production.

Yet that surging demand is driving a potentially suicidal production boom. Mezcal’s wide range of flavors requires a wide range of plants, but sellers eager to satisfy the world’s thirst are cutting down a number of wild varieties faster than they can grow. Meanwhile, the small producers who have sustained the craft for generations are struggling to participate in a relatively unregulated race to the global market, where big companies with big money are fast moving into the lead. This frenzy puts mezcal at risk of becoming the opposite of what people love: less traditional, more industrialized, less distinctive. The dilemma raises perhaps the ultimate question about anything that’s truly artisanal: When the world suddenly wants an abundance of authentic, homespun goods, can their authenticity—and the locals who can only produce them in small quantities—survive?

“We have arrived at a crossroads,” says Saldaña. Nowhere is a new direction more urgently needed than in Mexico’s mezcal-making capital, the state of Oaxaca. “There is no time to lose,” he says.

The Art of Alcohol | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2015

Cuauhtémoc Lopez and his father, Abel Lopez, makers of Montelobos mezcal, come from a long family line of agave growers. Abel, now 72, learned to make mezcal as a teenager from his father. His native language is the local indigenous tongue, Zapotec.

DEEP ROOTS IN PARTICULAR PLACES

Another ten miles or so past Benevá, Saldaña, Lopez, and I turn right, through a small collection of fields and houses, to reach the heart of Montelobos. It could scarcely look more different from the gleaming factory on the highway. The palenque, or distillery, is a single, earthen-walled building, perhaps the size of a basketball court, with windowless openings to let the air flow through. It sits in the center of the Lopez family’s 16 hectares of spiny, blue-green agaves, laid out in neat rows. And in and around the palenque are all the elements that make mezcal unique. There is the giant pit in the ground where the agave is roasted, the enormous stone wheel for grinding the plants, the wooden fermentation vats, the wood-fired copper stills.

This is the way mezcal has been made for generations. Until recently, its production was an unremarkable fact of life here, in one of the poorest states in Mexico — a regular task done by families alongside their routines of cooking, cleaning, cutting wood, and cultivating beans and corn. The drink lubricated local weddings and funerals, births and business deals. It’s that tie to cultural tradition, combined with the spirit’s incredible complexity, that drives the growing ranks of mezcal fans wild.

Mezcal aficionados are obsessed with the details. With each bottle, the mezcalophile wants to know: Were the stills copper or clay? What material were the fermentation vats made of? And, most importantly, what kind of agave was used and where did it grow?

Every battle for identity needs a nemesis, and mezcal has a ready one: tequila. Though its market is a hundred times larger than mezcal, tequila is actually a type of mezcal. More precisely, it’s one member in a large family of agave liquors, the collection of which is called mezcal. Yet tequila is now a bad word in the mezcal world, and a looming cautionary tale.

While other Mexican spirits remained small, homespun affairs throughout the last century, tequila, with government support, boomed. In the process, it became an industrial product, alienated from the old artisan methods and thus devoid of much of the diversity that mezcals can hold. Government regulations favorable to Big Liquor helped fuel that transformation—and similar regulations are now at work on mezcal. There are some excellent tequilas, of course. But what worries mezcal lovers when they look at the industry as a whole is the difference between what most tequila is and what it could be. Today, Mexico’s most famous spirit is standardized. And its lone variety of agave is grown in homogenized monoculture, leaving it vulnerable to blight. A few huge companies, largely foreign-owned, dominate the industry. Their factories typically look more like widget-makers than workshops, equipped with efficient metal machinery that critics say lacks the character imparted by traditional methods. The factories look a lot, frankly, like Benevá.

Mezcal, by contrast, still represents the tradition that tequila left behind. Its layers of flavor reflect variations in each step of the traditional production process—subtleties that Saldaña understands through chemistry and the Lopez family understands through instinct. “How can you mix the green agave, the roasted agave, smoke, and fermentation in a way that you can access all of the flavors?” asks Saldaña. “That’s our purpose.” And aficionados are obsessed with the details. With each bottle, the mezcalophile wants to know: Were the stills copper or clay? What material were the fermentation vats made of? And, most importantly, what kind of agave was used and where did it grow?

This last question is especially meaningful. Whereas tequila, to be legally called tequila, must be made mainly from the blue Tequilana Weber agave, mezcal can be made from a cornucopia of varieties, each imparting its own characteristic flavor. By far the most common is a tart agave called espadín, a workhorse of a plant that’s easily cultivated and takes a relatively short eight years to reach maturity. (More than three-quarters of officially certified mezcal made in 2014 came from espadín.) Yet demand is rising for mezcals made from the wild agaves that have always grown in the shrubby hills and pine-forested mountains of Oaxaca. There is the comparatively sweeter tobalá, the more fiery cuishe, plus tepextate, barril, arroqueño, and countless more. Nature makes a mighty investment in these plants, which take twelve, fifteen, or in some cases thirty years to grow.

The Art of Alcohol | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2015

The espadín agaves in this section of the Lopez family’s field are about four years old. It will take them another four years to fully mature. “An agave is a very noble plant,” says Cuauhtémoc Lopez. “It doesn’t need anything, no irrigation.” The primary care it needs is semi-annual cleaning to protect it from pests.

The flavor variations hardly end there. Mezcal is rich with natural terroir, a term well known in the wine world to describe the flavors of the ground in which a plant grows. And whether an agave is wild or cultivated, its growing conditions matter. Soil, elevation, ecosystem, and climate can all influence taste. Plus, mezcal is made in the diverse landscapes of many Mexican states (though unfortunately it’s allowed to be officially called “mezcal” in just eight of them), with Oaxaca being only the best known. So distinctive are the local effects that Ulises Torrentera, proprietor of the mezcal bar In Situ in Oaxaca City, can identify the flavor of a mezcal made from an agave grown in the town of Santa Catarina Minas versus one grown forty miles south in Miahuatlán.

“It’s still rooted in particular places,” says Sarah Bowen, a North Carolina State University sociologist and author of the forthcoming book Divided Spirits: Mezcal, Tequila, and the Politics of Production. “There are villages where they do it this way and do it that way. It’s very rare, not just in Mexico but anywhere, to have something that’s that local.”

Now, the world has noticed. The marketing began, slowly, when the Mexican government first secured for mezcal an internationally protected “appellation of origin” in 1995. That bid for prestige and distinction put the spirit in the company of other beverages that can only come from certain regions, such as Bordeaux or Champagne or cognac or, yes, tequila. The mezcal boom really took off within the past five years, with the industry expanding by nearly 50 percent from 2011 to 2014. Exports have reached Europe, Asia, and Australia.

Some tequila makers, taking note of mezcal’s ascent, have now launched artisanal tequila lines made with traditional methods. And Oaxaca City has become a liquor-tourism destination. At Mezcaloteca, a private tasting room in the city center, moneyed drinkers sit along a dark-wood bar and talk about mezcal in terms once reserved for wine. Is this one herbal, floral, or mineral? How’s the viscosity and clarity? Does it taste of agave, smoke, wood, clay, leather, caramel, spice, or resin?

Soil, elevation, ecosystem, and climate can all influence taste. The proprietor of a popular mezcal bar in Oaxaca City can identify the flavor of a mezcal made from an agave grown in the town of Santa Catarina Minas versus one grown forty miles south in Miahuatlán.

Meanwhile, the scramble to satisfy this new demand is reshaping rural communities. Graciela Angeles, general manager of Real Minero mezcal, has seen the impact in Santa Catarina Minas, where her family has made mezcal for more than a century. Five years ago, she recalls, there were only about five palenques in her town. Now there are close to fifteen. And where agaves once grew on the margins of fields filled with essential food staples, now they’re supplanting core food crops in the fields themselves. “Mezcal turned into gold,” Graciela says. “So a corn and bean farmer became a mezcal producer. Everyone wants their own palenque.”

Probably nowhere is the acceleration more obvious than in Oaxaca’s best-known mezcal-producing town, Matatlán, where the Lopez family lives and makes Montelobos. In 2014, the Oaxacan state government, getting in on the action, constructed the Ruta del Mezcal, a signposted tourist route to Matatlán from Oaxaca City. Officials cut a four-lane road through the center of town, eating up some families’ land and obliging owners to paint their buildings in bold colors. This gave the town something of a Disneyfied atmosphere, Saldaña complains, “like a little pueblito from Jalisco” (tequila’s home state).

Susan Coss, a San Francisco mezcal promoter and co-writer of the Mezcalistas blog, explains that the way to understand the stakes for mezcal is to consider the fate of tequila. If it goes the bad way, we know how the story ends. “If it goes the good way,” she says, “you see a burgeoning industry that’s making a kick-ass product in a state that’s finally seeing some parity.”

The Art of Alcohol | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2015

Iván Saldaña, managing director of Montelobos, likes to say that he has a romance with the agave plant. His father cofounded one of the first companies producing agave nectar, and Saldaña did his Ph.D. research on agave biology. “Mezcal is sacred and inspiring,” he writes in his book, The Anatomy of Mezcal. “It is matter and energy and can be shaped in extraordinary ways.”

SCIENCE, WITH A BIT OF SUPERSTITION

At Montelobos, Saldaña and the Lopez family are determined to demonstrate how authentic mezcal can thrive. The partners make for an unusual team. Saldaña, tall and modern in his hip brown-framed glasses, lives in cosmopolitan Mexico City, earned his doctorate in plant biology and biochemistry at the University of Sussex in England, and regularly travels the world to promote his product and educate bartenders about mezcal. He is loquacious and talks about the Montelobos production process with the exuberance of a technophile describing the latest iPhone. Cuauhtémoc and his father, Abel, who run the palenque, exude a placid calm. They wear checked shirts and straw hats, and say only what’s necessary. As a younger man, Cuauhtémoc served in Mexico’s elite Presidential Guard. Abel learned to make mezcal in the 1960s from his father, and everyone at the palenque, including Saldaña, respectfully calls him Don Abel. He is the elder, the expert, the maestro mezcalero.

After our arrival at Montelobos, Don Abel begins by showing me the oven, a wide, earthen pit deeper than a man is tall, just outside the palenque door. Wafting up from the pit is a sweet, caramelized aroma. He explains that they heat rocks over a wood fire at the bottom, insulate them with a bed of moist agave fiber, and then place chunks of chopped-up agave on top. They seal the whole thing with a mat of palm leaves and a mound of earth, and let it cook for about three days. The agave is ready when a leaf extracted from the oven is perfectly browned, not burned. Industrial mezcals and tequilas, in contrast, are often cooked without flame in autoclaves—giant metal drums stuffed full of steam and agave—the mere thought of which makes Saldaña nearly apoplectic. More controversially, some big companies use devices called diffusers, which extract the fermentable sugars from the raw agave, such that the plant itself is never cooked at all.

The methods on display at Montelobos are standard practice for traditional cooking, but Don Abel also marks the process with his own personal choices. For wood, he selects oak and pine, and it must be completely dry and free of resin to avoid corrupting the mezcal’s flavor. Before sealing the top, he tosses in a few guajillo chiles, following a local superstition that says the chiles protect the oven from women pregnant with twins, whose mere gaze can spoil the roasting. Plus, like other skilled mezcaleros, the Lopezes don’t roast with just any rocks. Choose the wrong kind, cautions Don Abel, and the bits of glass within them will scream and explode. He gestures toward a pile of basketball-sized, volcanic gray stones, which he gets from a particular local hill, and says, “A good producer has to have this in reserve.”

How an artisan makes mezcal(Click on any photo below to enter full-screen slideshow)

To prove his point,Cuauhtémoc cuts me a piece of cooked agave from a pile near the oven, and I bite into it. It’s dense and fibrous, like sugar cane, and a delicious, honey-sweet liquid runs out. If this were sold as a dessert, I’d buy it.

Next, per tradition, the roasted plants are crushed under the weight of the tahona, a cylindrical stone some five feet tall that’s pulled around and around by a mule named Rambo. (Rambo, like me, likes to munch on the leftover bits of cooked agave.) It takes Rambo and his handler four and a half hours to grind enough agave—600 to 800 kilograms (or 1,300 to 1,750 pounds)—to fill one fermentation vat. Here again is an occasion for the kind of obsession with detail that artisan mezcal attracts, and Don Abel has seized the opportunity. His tahona is not made of the cheaper cement that’s common in some palenques. It is a single piece of hand-carved stone, called cantera verde, which is quarried nearby. “If you make it of cement, the cement chips off and it tastes like cement,” says Abel. The more the mule pulls, the more it crumbles.

After the grinding, the stringy agave fibers spend five to seven days in the fermentation vat, mixed with clean water and a touch of Montelobos’ signature starter from a previous batch. These vats are made of pine. Other producers use materials ranging from sabino wood to cement to leather to plastic, but here in Matatlán, pine is how it’s done. Industrial producers, ever the foils, typically use stainless steel.

There is, as you might guess, a science to all of this, and Saldaña eagerly expounds on it. “One of the lovely things about using wood vats is that they breathe,” he says. The contents stay cooler as water evaporates through the wood, which keeps the yeast and bacteria fermenting the fibers in balance. If it gets too hot, the bacteria take over and produce undesirable flavors of petrol, acetone, bubble gum, or cheese. Saldaña notes that the metal vats used by tequileros require cooling systems. And he would know; before founding Montelobos, he spent years working in research and development in the tequila industry. In fact, the owners of Milagro tequila are funding his new venture.

“Before, I would take my horse up in the mountains and I’d see [wild] agaves all around,” one young mezcalero from Matatlán told me. “Not now. You can count the ones that remain.”

Every step at Montelobos has been carefully calculated to produce the particular flavor profile the partners want, balancing “the sweet part from the agave, the smoke, and the ‘funky’ part from the fermentation,” says Saldaña. The result is a blend of the good mezcal that Don Abel was already making before they teamed up in 2011 and the specifications of Saldaña’s global marketing sense. At Saldaña’s insistence, for example, the Lopezes now discard more of the agaves’ outer leaves, which impart a bitter flavor, and temper the alcohol content down to a still-fierce 45 percent. Saldaña likens their product to a dish at Oaxaca City’s upscale restaurant Casa Oaxaca—a twist on a classic Mexican mole, rooted in tradition but refreshed with modern tastes. “It’s a reinterpretation,” he says.

Finally, to obtain the best flavor, Montelobos mezcal is distilled twice (the standard for quality mezcals). The Lopezes use only the “heart” of the distillate—the most balanced, well-flavored portion that evaporates out of the still in the middle of the heating process, at medium temperatures. They also never age their mezcal. This is another contrast with tequila, and with many other spirits. Like bourbon and whiskey, the more a tequila is aged, the more its flavors mature, and the pricier it becomes. Older versions of mezcal, called reposado and añejo, are plenty available, but mezcal purists protest that aging obscures the natural flavor of the agaves. Montelobos, therefore, is joven (young).

As we wind up our tour by the steaming stills, Saldaña siphons off a cup from a batch that’s nearing the heart of the second distillation. He hands me a bit to try. This is the one and only product Montelobos makes, from the agave espadín. It sells in the U.S. for $40 – $60 a bottle, which is moderate for artisanal mezcal. Straight out of the stills, the liquor is higher proof than the finished product, which must be diluted to somewhere between 36 and 55 percent to be legally called mezcal. It burns the back of my throat, but I can taste its layers—a little sweet, a little tart, a bit of earth, a touch of flame. It’s just the balance Saldaña is looking for. “This is the heart of the heart,” he says between sips, enthralled. “This is the center of everything.”

The Art of Alcohol | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2015

Rambo the mule crushes cooked agave fibers before they are fermented, dragging the huge stone tahona around and around. The tahona is the traditional grinding method around Matatlán, Oaxaca. Some mezcaleros in other areas of the state mash the agave by hand with wooden mallets.

POWER TO THE PLANTS

To continue making Montelobos mezcal, Saldaña and the Lopezes depend on a steady supply of wood, water, and agave. All three ingredients are critical, and all three are at risk in Oaxaca if production keeps rocketing upward. But the third ingredient, agave, is foremost in the minds of the Montelobos partners and many other mezcaleros right now.

Producers around the state are fretting about the rapid disappearance of wild agaves from the Oaxacan mountains—and the rising price of those that remain. The cause is not only the drinking public’s growing taste for the diverse flavors that wild agave lends to mezcal,  it is also (re-enter the villain) tequila. A couple of years ago, when the vast blue agave fields of Jalisco were stricken with blight, tequileros came south and bought up tons of agave at attractive prices. This encouraged agave sellers to cut plants with abandon. “Jalisco took it all and left very little for Oaxaca,” says Don Abel, ruefully.

The extent of the scarcity is impossible to know. There are no formal studies of wild agave populations, and no state or federal government program to protect the plants. There are only stories: mezcaleros who once cut their own tobalá or cuishe agave near their villages who now have to drive higher into the mountains, and buy the plants from others. “Before, I would take my horse up in the mountains and I’d see agaves all around,” one young mezcalero from Matatlán told me. “Not now. You can count the ones that remain.”

Most spirits, tequila included, are generally considered best when they are aged. This is not the case for mezcal, whose purists protest that aging obscures the natural flavor of the particular agaves that go into this drink.

The Montelobos partners’ solution to the sustainability threat is pretty straightforward: they’re growing their own agaves. Their current stock is enough to sustain their 1,800 liters a month, but markets are opening up for much more. The brand’s black-labeled bottles, already available in the U.S., are starting to arrive in Australia, France, England, and Italy, with potential expansion into Canada, Panama, Colombia, and Holland coming soon. The partners are now trying to contract with more growers—all local, so as to maintain their product’s terroir. And all must be willing to go organic, since Montelobos is certified.

Like the rows of agaves that radiate out from the Lopezes’ palenque, these new growers’ plants will all be of a single variety: espadín. The prospect of cultivating just one agave of course raises red flags. Isn’t that the same practice that has plagued the tequileros? Hopefully, not in this case.

The mistake the tequileros made was to let their desire for efficiency blind them to agave’s need for genetic diversity. To maximize production, they chose agaves with the fastest yields and densest sugars, and then planted the buds, or hijuelos, that sprout from their sides. Unfortunately, agave buds are genetic clones of their mothers; the practice therefore created agave plantations across Jalisco with the very same weaknesses to weather and disease. So when the Montelobos farmers plant espadín, they keep the buds in the same fields where they were born, allowing different fields to maintain distinct genetic identities. The farmers also let a handful of plants go to seed, because pollinated seeds are genetically distinct from the mother. The intended result: a future of hardy agave.

If adopted widely, such practices might actually make mezcal’s reliance on espadín more sustainable. But these ideas haven’t yet caught on much with other growers. Even the state government, trying to support the mezcal boom, delivers huge truckloads of espadín buds for planting to growers around the region. Sustainably farmed espadín also could never solve the plant problem for the entire industry, because mezcal’s very nature is multiplicity. And Saldaña readily admits that. “Cultivation is the most responsible way of making a product like mezcal available to a wide variety of people,” he says. “On the other hand, I also don’t believe that the diversity of mezcal should be eliminated by avoiding wild mezcal. So it’s a big paradox.”

The Art of Alcohol | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2015

The Benevá mezcal factory produces the spirit at industrial scale, cooking agave in efficient autoclaves and fermenting it in metal tanks. Most Benevá mezcals are aged in wood barrels, like tequila. The fifteen-year-old company exports its products to markets on four continents.

If nothing changes, insiders predict, the risk is that a couple of years from now the full impact of the wild agave scarcity will arrive, and many brands will fold. At that point, the industry will rely almost entirely on espadín, which will grow ever more genetically homogenized. Wild agaves will then become so rare and expensive that only the big Benevás of the mezcal world will be able to afford them. “If we succeed at striking a balance, then we’ll secure our supplies for the rest of our lives,” says Real Minero’s Graciela Angeles, whose family does not own enough land to grow much of their own agave. “If we fail, then our success will come and go in the blink of an eye, because these plants take many years to grow.”

The Art of Alcohol | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2015

Cuauhtémoc Lopez offers a fresh-cut piece of agave cooked in the Montelobos oven. The natural sugars in the plant, caramelized by roasting over hot rocks and then fermented, are the key ingredient in mezcal.

THE INTELLIGENT CONSUMER

Everyone has ideas about how to save mezcal and its agaves. Saldaña wants to see the government inventory wild plant populations and set caps on harvests. Torrentera, the bar owner, believes Oaxaca needs regional seed banks to preserve and propagate species that grow in different corners of the state. Cuauhtémoc thinks the government should help producers plant and care for wild agaves, not just espadín. But no central authority is putting any of these ideas into action. (A Mexican politician, Torrentera points out, has the same term as a little agave: six years, and “what happens afterward doesn’t matter.”)

Graciela Angeles says the situation reminds her of a video she once saw about an office fire: “Everyone who works in the building is saying, ‘We have to call the firefighters, we have to call the firefighters, we have to do something!’ But nobody makes a move, and the building burns down. And that’s what we’re doing right now.” Saldaña believes the fire is likely to spread to Mexico’s other mezcal-making states, where the same pressures at play in Oaxaca are mounting.

Even with artisanal mezcals, profits are beginning to concentrate in the hands of moneyed businesspeople from Mexico City and other urban centers who can invest in marketing, distribution, and official product certification. Without certification, a producer cannot call his spirit mezcal; he can only call it “agave liquor,” which typically sells at a lower price. Not surprisingly, most Oaxacan villagers can’t afford the steep costs of attaining certification (though they are often the ones, in factories or family palenques, who do the backbreaking labor of hand-cutting hundred-pound agaves and loading them into ovens). So businesspeople buy up small producers’ mezcal, sometimes at a pittance, bottle, brand, and certify it, and then sell it in urban Mexico and abroad for a ransom. To add to the unfairness, out of Mexico’s 31 states, only 8 have been granted the right to make and sell mezcal with the lucrative “appellation of origin” certification, a decision made for reasons widely considered to have more to do with politics than quality. This keeps a lot of potential mezcaleros from joining this game, even if they could afford it.

Whatever the future for small producers, it will hinge on a set of government regulations now under debate to establish the legal standard for what makes a product “mezcal.” The current standard, essentially unchanged since it was created in 1995, is nearly identical to the one that governs tequila. It defines the attributes of the product—the alcohol level, the sugar sources—but says almost nothing about how it’s made. “Which means,” says sociologist Sarah Bowen, “the more cost-effective, large-scale methods continue to dominate, and it’s harder for small producers to compete.”

The president of the council that certifies producers with mezcal’s all-important appellation of origin wants to change that. Hipócrates Nolasco Cancino, president of an organization earnestly named the Consejo Mexicano Regulador de la Calidad del Mezcal, has proposed a new standard developed in consultation with representatives from the whiskey, cognac, and Champagne industries. His proposal would create three separate categories of mezcal, each with clearly defined production methods and its own official name: “mezcal” (which implies industrial), “artisanal mezcal,” and the even more rustic “ancestral mezcal.”

The Art of Alcohol | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2015

The tobalá agave normally grows wild in the mountains of Oaxaca. This one, however, is growing alongside the highway in front of the Benevá mezcal factory. “Ten years ago it was thought that tobalá couldn’t be cultivated,” says Hipócrates Nolasco Cancino, president of the council that certifies mezcal makers, which is also experimenting with domesticating wild agaves. “We’ve run into some difficulties, but now no one can say that any agave can’t be cultivated.”

However, the Consejo directors are elected by mezcal makers, not the government. Their proposal, which is merely a suggestion, has already stirred controversy. And to become the rule, it has to be approved by a federal agency called the Dirección General de Normas, which is expected to publish its own version for public comment any day now. “These coming days are crucial,” says Nolasco (who also holds a chemistry Ph.D.). “This is the moment to protect mezcal. We should have done it 20 years ago, but now we have the opportunity again.”

If the new regulations can enshrine the small-scale methods and variations that define mezcal’s quality and diversity, then Bowen, the sociologist, expects the little guys might get a fairer shake. “It’s a big step in the right direction,” she says. But she adds that the details matter. Prescribe too little of the production process, and you leave mezcal vulnerable to a Big Liquor takeover. Prescribe too much, and you exclude some of the local variations that make mezcal mezcal. Writing a successful mezcal standard is as tricky a task, she says, as “having one denomination of origin for French wine.”

The proposed new standard, however, says nothing about protecting the wild and domesticated agave plants. There are grassroots attempts, but they’re uncoordinated—a cap placed on local wild agave harvests here, a community effort to replant wild agaves there. Nolasco is launching a program urging all certified mezcal producers to sow two new plants of the same species for every wild agave they harvest, and to let at least 2 percent of each agave crop go to seed. But the Consejo is not empowered to make any of this mandatory. Even if it could, its replanting program would not necessarily constrain the rate of wild agave cutting. Nor would it have any effect on the actions of the countless producers making and selling uncertified mezcal.

One of the most intriguing potential solutions is a practice that, until quite recently, many in the mezcal world thought was impossible: the cultivation of wild agaves. While the concept might sound like a contradiction in terms, a handful of mezcal makers are now testing out the idea and finding that, though wild varieties can be touchy and require special care, they can be grown. The Consejo, too, has a pilot cultivation project that’s raising 70,000 “wild” plants of different varieties, including tobalá, tepextate, and more. And as growing techniques improve, rising yields ought to follow. What’s the hitch? Terroir. A tobalá grown on a valley farm can’t taste exactly the same as one that sprouts wild in the mountains. It might still be plenty good—just different. And that is reality; only in a fantasy world can everyone have a truly rare thing.

The future of mezcal, if it is to be a good future, will have to celebrate and support the full extent of the spirit’s varieties. For it to get there, consumers must be willing to look beyond the spirit’s romantic story at the gritty realities of its production, and to make informed choices. Someday, Nolasco hopes you’ll be able to train your cell phone on a mezcal bottle’s QR code and see its status on fifteen separate ratings of sustainability and social justice, from good stewardship of wild and cultivated agaves to a kind of “fair trade” measure of whether this brand pays mezcaleros a fair price. But that plan is still some years, and some funding gaps, away from execution.

If such a system ever succeeds, says Coss, then Big Liquor needn’t be an enemy. Label the product clearly and regulate it appropriately, and there could be a place in mezcal for producers of all styles and sizes. “Let the Zignums of the world feed the beast,” she says, naming one of mezcal’s corporate-owned behemoth brands. “And let people know what exactly it is they’re drinking.”

Neither Coss nor Saldaña nor anyone else is confident that mezcal will get there. “Mezcal is a very fragile thing,” writes Saldaña in his book The Anatomy of Mezcal. “In a world where speed is so highly regarded, mezcal stands out because it takes so much time to create.” Come hell or Jalisco, though, you get the sense that Don Abel, for one, will still be at his palenque, continuing to do what he has always done. “Things have changed. They’re coming out with synthetic products now,” he says. Then, leaning against his own fragrant fermentation vat, he concludes, “I like this one. The original.”

Grace Rubenstein is a journalist and media producer specializing in public health, behavioral health and immigration.

For more on the subject…

Mezcalistas is an authoritative mezcal blog by Susan Coss and Max Garrone. Its deep archive of posts can answer almost any mezcal question.

Mexico’s current official standard, put into effect in 1995, defines what can be called “mezcal” and closely resembles the tequila standard. (In Spanish)

The proposed new mezcal standard from the Consejo Mexicano Regulador de la Calidad del Mezcal. It’s up to the federal government to decide on the final version. (In Spanish)

Fundación Agaves Silvestres is a nonprofit dedicated to the reforestation of wild agaves in Mexico, with support from Wahaka Mezcal.

© 2017 Grace Rubenstein, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: September 17, 2015

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