How These Mezcal Makers Are Honoring the Lands and Traditions of Mexico
And what to consider when buying mezcal brands.
Mezcal is having quite the moment, or what some have dubbed a “gold rush.” The agave-distilled spirit—which has a specific definition that limits everything from cultivation and production methods to ABV levels to where it’s produced (just a few regions within a few states in Mexico)—is getting more popular every day.
In 2019, for the first time ever, the United States became the world’s largest mezcal market, with imports rising 50%, and comprising 71% of all mezcal exports. As one might imagine, those numbers continued to soar during our year of sequestration, and according to alcohol e-commerce platform Drizly, mezcal sales were up 600% in 2020, with most of the growth attributed to increased demand among 28-34 year olds.
And just like with any gold rush, newcomers are latching onto the booming industry, hoping to take advantage of its bounty. Barcadi holds a minority stake in Ilegal Mezcal and Pernod Ricard holds a majority stake in the Del Maguey brand. Celebrity-backed brands have sprouted up like wildflowers, including Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul’s Dos Hombres brand, and George Clooney and Rande Gerber’s Casamigos tequila and mezcal brand that sold to Diageo for $1 billion in 2017. Trader Joe’s even has its own private label mezcal.
But what many consumers don’t realize is that mezcal’s mass-produced trendiness is in direct conflict with tradition. Agave represents a sacred plant in many Mexican cultures, and has appeared in religious ceremonies, mythologies, and commerce for millennia. Mezcal itself—which translates to “oven-cooked agave” in the Nahuatl language—has been widely produced since at least the 1600s, despite being outlawed by the Mexican government for much of that time.
“Some mezcaleros come from lineages that have been making mezcal for hundreds and hundreds of years,” says Ivan Vasquez, owner of Madre, a Oaxacan restaurant and mezcaleria with three LA locations. He carries a collection of 400 bottles representing upwards of 40 brands at each of his restaurants, with each bottle held to the same rigorous standard. “It’s something that ties us to the past, and mezcaleros deserve recognition because, even in the face of climate change and other issues, they’ve managed to keep our traditions alive.”
Climate change has certainly presented hurdles for the industry, especially as demand for mezcal increases and bigger brands elbow their way into the field. Mezcal is made from the heart, or piña, of a mature agave, with most plants taking between seven and up to 15 years to mature. As demand for the spirit increases, some producers are harvesting agaves before they’ve fully ripened, or overharvesting to the point of threatening local ecosystems.
After the agave heart has been removed, it’s then cooked in underground pits that are covered with agave leaves, fiber, straw mats, and earth, with different regions using different materials depending on what’s available and which all help inform the mezcal’s eventual flavor. Once the mezcal has roasted sufficiently underground, it is then removed from the pit so that it can be crushed, traditionally with a donkey-tow tahona, though some brands have opted to remove animals from the process.
The crushed agave is then transferred to wooden vats called tinas that are made with oak, cypress, or pine depending on what’s available in the region—also contributing to the spirit’s tasting notes. After fermentation, the mezcal is distilled twice for a higher proof that lands somewhere between 43 and 59 ABV. Joven mezcal is bottled right away, while reposado rests between two months and a year, and añejo is aged for at least a year. Unlike whiskey and other spirits, when mezcal is aged, it is traditionally done in glass, or Madurado-style, so as not to disrupt the existing flavors.
These time-consuming details often get glazed over or edited when big-name and foreign producers step in. Sure, it gets the mezcal to consumers faster, but the spirit also loses its, well, spirit, in the process.
Don Fortino Ramos, the Maestro Mezcalero of The Lost Explorer, a mezcal brand that recently launched in U.S. markets after a successful launch across Mexico, brings more than 40 years of experience to the craft. But according to Ramos, that wisdom goes much deeper than what can be learned through books, or even practice. “The knowledge I have, I acquired through inheritance,” he says. “My craft and skills were learned and handed down to me by other family members.”
It’s a tradition that Ramos joyfully honors through the apprenticeship of his daughter, Xitlali. Not only will she help ensure that the family business succeeds through another generation, but she’ll also help diversify an industry that’s been historically dominated by men.
Some would say that understanding the role of the mezcalero—or mezcalera—is essential to understanding mezcal drinking culture itself. This is not a drink that was distilled for and only imbibed by the elite. In fact, quite the opposite: mezcal farmers have historically made small-batch quantities that would sustain their families and communities, often working with agave that naturally grows on their farmlands. Meant to be sipped straight rather than taken like a shot or chased with another drink or snack to dull its intensity, mezcal is often the reward after a long day’s work. A farmer might pour themselves an ounce or two (or three or four…), then spend the rest of the evening slowly sipping, enjoying the layered, earthy flavors.
And though the U.S. exists outside of traditional mezcal drinking culture, that doesn’t mean there’s not room for us to enjoy it, as well. Especially for those that want to indulge with authenticity, there are a few things to look out for when selecting a mezcal brand, whether at a bar or in your local liquor store.
Niki Nakazawa, co-founder of Neta Spirits, which acts as a broker for 12 small mezcal producers in Miahuatlán, Oaxaca, advises getting a sense of the size of a company and where they’re putting their resources. Large, transnational companies are more likely to take shortcuts in production, including methods like cold-batching their mezcal, which can erase the uniqueness of the batch.
Small producers often work alongside brokers such as Neta, Rezpiral, and 5 Sentidos as a way of getting their mezcal to international markets. “The movement to cultivate agave plants for the production of mezcal is still relatively new,” Nakazawa explains. “Because there’s been this historic disenfranchisement of rural communities within the industry, many small producers turn to brokers like us.”
She goes on to say that, because mezcal varies depending on the species of agave used, the terroir where it’s cultivated, and the specific production techniques used at each farm, brand loyalty can actually be quite limiting, and consumers might find more enjoyment approaching the spirit like they would wine.
“Mezcal is a hugely diverse world and buying from different small producers is one way to engage ethically and support a network of brands.” Nakazawa says.
For those looking to support sustainable brands, Lost Explorer CEO Tanya Clarke suggests, “Have a look at their website—see who is behind the brand and whether they’ve named their mezcalero or mezcalera, are open about production methods, and have a sustainability agenda. Look at how they celebrate and protect the agave: are they ensuring that they are replenishing crops and soil? Are they supporting their workers and the local communities in which they operate?”
And when you sip your mezcal, do as the Lost Explorer suggests and, “sip curiously,” with the understanding that you’ve been indirectly invited to participate in a beloved tradition and culture that many take great pride in protecting and dedicate their lives to furthering.
“Mezcal represents the communities it comes from,” Vasquez says. “It represents multiple eras of resistance—the resistance of Indigenous people, of farmers. Even after so many regulatory and economic challenges, changes in the environment and other issues, mezcaleros have remained strong enough to keep our traditions going and we don’t want their efforts to go unrecognized.”