During a recent visit to a high-end New York City cocktail bar, I overheard the bartender telling someone about the most popular drink on the menu. It had mezcal in it, he said, so it was selling like crazy. The data point he offered was just one more drop in the agave wave that has broken over America recently. Since 2005, the mezcal business has grown more than 1200 percent in the United States. Everyone from the world’s biggest spirits conglomerates to George Clooney has gotten into the mezcal business. And for drinkers who consider themselves in the know (or want to be seen as in the know), it’s taking its place as a status symbol order.
There’s just one problem with that: All the attention could make mezcal an endangered spirit.
What We Get Wrong When We Think About Mezcal
Before mezcal was the popular, cocktail-selling spirit it is today, it was treated as the next step in tequila’s evolution. Here’s a smattering of headlines the internet came up with during mezcal’s meteoric rise: “Everything you need to know about tequila’s cooler cousin,” “What to know about the smoky sister of tequila,” “Mezcal could be the next tequila,” “Top reasons mezcal could be the next tequila.” And there might be 5,000 more headlines just like these, treating mezcal as if it was some sort of wild tasting tequila—something new to try in shots and pitchers of Margaritas.
But that’s not what mezcal is at all. Technically speaking, tequila is mezcal—not the other way around—but that framing also does a disservice to many of the people who have devoted their labor and their lives to making mezcal. Many of the bottles that bring in the biggest accolades are made using ancient methods. Agave piñas are hand-picked and carried back to the village on a burro. The pits they are roasted in are dug with shovels. The stills are made of clay. Mezcal is, inherently, small batch.
“We have to understand that it can’t be mass produced,” says Steve Olson, a spirits educator, partner in Del Maguey Mezcal and self-professed agave geek. Del Maguey founder Ron Cooper, with some help from Olson, was the first American to bring mezcal to the U.S. Since then, he and Olson have helped shepherd and share a number of wild and exceedingly small batch varieties, many of which you can now find in their Single Village series. How exceedingly small batch? “[Bigger companies] measure success by hundreds of thousands of cases,” says Olson. “On the outer reaches of the villages we work with they make a couple hundred liters.”
Arik Torren, who founded Fidencio Mezcal in 2009, is facing some of the same small-batch challenges. “When I launched Fidencio, we were one of less than 10 brands and we were doing 400 liter batches,” he says. Unlike most limited-edition spirits that distillers just choose not to produce much of, the mezcals that Olson and Torren are talking about are limited because the ingredients needed to make them are rare and scarce.
All Agave Plants Are Not Created Equal
For Olson, the biggest threat to mezcal’s existence is the idea that it’s “cool to drink mezcal.” We have a tendency to “cool” things to death—especially agricultural things that are impacted by climate change as well as demand. Just look what we’re doing to chocolate, avocados and rosé. And the dangers mezcal faces could be longer lasting. Torren poetically says every mezcal can be an island: There is more variety from one bottle to another than with perhaps any other spirit. Line up half a dozen different mezcals and you can run the gamut from almost suffocatingly smoky, to savory, to salty, to overwhelmingly fruity thanks to all the different agave used. There are around 50 different agave varieties used in mezcal, each of them offering something different. Most grow wild and don’t actually yield all that much mezcal. At Del Maguey, a single liter of mezcal made from tobala, one of the most sought after varieties, requires almost 35 pounds of agave. But unlike people who make whiskey from grain or vodka from potatoes, mezcal makers can’t just go into the fields and replenish their stock. If we try to drink more tobala than Mexico can grow, we could lose it for a generation.
Generally, pricey, hard to find alcohol gets to be pricey and hard to find for two reasons: It takes a long time to age and there isn’t very much of it. Usually, the people behind those spirits want to burn those two facts into your brain. Rare scotches might as well come with a bagpiper who screams their age statements at you. But the true time it takes to make mezcal is not displayed on the bottle, but hidden in the Mexican soil. “With things like aged whiskeys we value the time after it’s been made,” says Torren. “In mezcal, we’re talking about time spent before it’s made.” And that’s a lot of time.
Tobala needs to grow for 18 years before it can be harvested, roasted and made into mezcal. Other prized varieties like tobaziche and tepeztate can take 30 or 35 years. Plus, varieties like these grow on rocky cliff faces at the top of dusty mountains that are a day’s walk from anything. If you were to plant these agaves, you’d get to harvest them once, maybe twice in your lifetime.
As drinkers, we need to learn (and appreciate) what the words on a bottle of mezcal mean—specifically, that the agave used to make the liquid inside was old enough to qualify for a graduate degree and cannot easily be reproduced.
What Could Happen to Mezcal
In very tangible ways, the recent explosion of mezcal has brought about positive changes in rural, impoverished parts of Mexico. In many of the remote villages that produce mezcal for Del Maguey, the success of the spirit has paved the way for things like schools, internet access, even necessities such as shoes for residents. Children of the producers are becoming the first in their families to go to college. But precisely because of the promise mezcal brings, those of us drinking it have to be careful or our demand will push it beyond the point at which it can be sustained.
We don’t need to look more than a few hundred miles away to see the dangers a boom can create: In order to keep up with Americans’ love for tequila (and it is specifically Americans—Mexico exports more tequila to the U.S. than it does to the rest of the world combined)—farmers are picking young agave plants years before they’re ready. Those young plants produce less flavorful tequila, but perhaps more importantly, they produce less tequila period than the older ones do. That has led to a vicious cycle in which farmers need to keep picking younger and younger plants to make sure they have tequila every year. It’s also led to a current worldwide shortage. And if it can happen to tequila, it could happen to mezcal. Torren says he’s already seeing it. While less than a decade ago there were fewer than 10 mezcal brands in the United States, today there are about 180, many of them using cultivated agave instead of wild. With the numbers growing exponentially, Torren says, “There are producers that are harvesting agave prematurely and not using the methods passed down for centuries and centuries.” If something doesn’t stop them, then these producers could end up in a feedback loop, always picking agave before it’s ready, but always managing to put out batch after batch of mediocre mezcal. At least for as long as their fields can sustain it.
What You Can Do to Save Mezcal
It’s going to be up the new army of American mezcal devotees to realize what they’re drinking and to drink it correctly. “I just try to remind people that for the folks that make this stuff, it’s still considered a ritual beverage,” says Olson. “They don’t sit around drinking mezcal.” That is not to say we as drinkers need to give up ordering it at the bar, but we do need to order it with care, rather than shooting it back as if it was a placeholder for cheap tequila.
If we want it to last, we should think about it the way Ron Cooper did when he first approached Olson. “He called mezcal liquid art,” Olson says. Is that a little dramatic? Yes. But if you’ve ever had one of the bottles that has inspired people like Olson and Torren, you’d be hard pressed to call it anything other than a masterpiece.