Bad Liquor

How Marketing Primitivism Threatens Mexico's Environment and Rural Communities

If it is true, as self-proclaimed “mezcal visionary” Ron Cooper has pronounced, that “you don’t find mezcal, mezcal finds you,” then mezcal has found a lot of people lately.

Until relatively recently, mezcal was largely considered a party drink, produced by industrial distilleries and best known for the rumored psychoactive properties of the agave worm at the bottom of the bottle (actually, it is unrelated to the hallucinogen mescaline). But as a growing segment of aficionados has come to appreciate the role that terroir plays in the flavor of agave spirits, and as mezcal bars have become fashionable in major cities around the world, mezcal’s reputation has gone from rotgut to refined.

In 2017, Mexico exported more than four times the quantity of mezcal than it exported in 2011, with 64 percent of those exports headed to the United States.1 The growing thirst for artisanal mezcal (the rarer, the better) has created a gold-rush atmosphere in Oaxaca, which produces 87 percent of the country’s certified mezcal, and has increased production in regions well beyond the spirit’s regulated Denomination of Origin, or DO.

Agave spirits are unique. The only liquor not made from an annual crop, mezcal relies on plants that can take as long as 30 years to mature and produce a stalk. Until the recent boom, most mezcal produced for export was made from Agave angustifolia, commonly known as espadín, a type of agave that can be cloned, matures relatively quickly, and can be intensively farmed as a monocrop. But in recent years, the hunger for ever more obscure agave spirits has dramatically increased demand for wild agave,2 which produces the unique flavor profiles that mezcal cognoscenti demand. By 2014, nearly one in every four bottles of commercial mezcal was made from wild varietals.3

This value placed on the rare, rustic, and wild is now influencing production in regions where distillers previously served only small local markets. The trend has helped to revive an ancient art form that promises to bring cash to floundering rural economies. But as stills have proliferated in the hills of Jalisco and the mountains of Michoacán, these rural communities are facing new problems.

It is convenient to imagine that the unique flavors of small-batch mezcals are synonymous with environmental sustainability and local economic empowerment. But when a well-kept local secret captures global attention, other, less romantic possibilities can often ensue.


The fetish for artisanal production has put pressure on communities and ecosystems that can’t sustainably support the volume of production required to meet it. Wild agave populations are being depleted at an alarming rate, and small producers face heightened pressure to sign exploitative contracts with bottlers and international importers. Subsistence farmers often forgo planting their food in order to focus on agave production.

For well-heeled, postmaterial consumers in search of refinement and authenticity as much as a good buzz, it is convenient to imagine that the unique flavors of small-batch mezcals are synonymous with environmental sustainability and local economic empowerment. But when a well-kept local secret captures global attention, other, less romantic possibilities can often ensue.

 

1.

For me, finding mezcal requires descending a steep mountain track in Jalisco in the passenger seat of a pick-up truck driven by Dánae Cabrera Toledo, an ecologist from the University of Guadalajara. We park in a high valley ringed with pine trees and make our way to a shed in the forest, where one man loads roasted agave into a trough carved from a single log, and another man clubs it into a pulp. The air smells like caramelized pumpkin. An older man fills a jug from an antiquated pot still and passes around a stack of plastic cups.

Puro corazón,” he tells me as I take a sip. Pure heart. He means that the liquor has yet to be mixed or adjusted. It smells at once acrid and floral and tastes smoother and less smoky than I expect, with a sweetness reminiscent of burnt sugarcane and a spicy aftertaste.

The man, Don Clemente Quintero, is a rarity: he has been making raicilla, the local name for mezcal, for more than 56 years, since he was 14 years old. Cabrera Toledo’s colleague, Oassis Huerta Galvan, who has come along with us today, tells me that when he began studying the mescaleros of western Jalisco, he expected he’d meet seasoned distillers who’d learned from their fathers and their fathers before them. Instead, he found just four producers who had learned from their fathers — most of the men he’s interviewed have been distilling for only 10 or 12 years. He says that the uptick in production in the state of Jalisco mirrors the timeline of the Oaxacan mezcal boom.

But although the process of making raicilla may not always be ancestral, it is still artisanal and traditional. Except for the plastic vat and pick-up truck, Don Clemente’s taberna (the local name for a small distillery) operates as it would have hundreds of years ago.

Agave has been a principal source of sustenance in the region for far longer. Pre-Hispanic people began cultivating the versatile plant thousands of years ago.4 They ate the roasted hearts and got tipsy by fermenting the sap into pulque; they extracted the sap of Agave lechuguilla to poison the tips of arrows and made soap from Agave schottii; they spun hammock rope from the fiber and whittled sewing needles from the spikes; and they used agave stalks to support roofs thatched with the plant’s dried leaves, or pencas.5

Mexico is home to 75 percent of all agave varieties, including 159 endemic species and hundreds of subvarieties. Pre-Hispanic cultures had many names for the plant: metl, acamba, aizyukx, batoba, bitoba, toba, yagui. When the Spanish invaded in the 16th century, they called it aloe or maguey, a Carib word picked up in the Antilles.6 Although attempts have been made to prove that distilling in Mexico predates the arrival of Europeans, there’s no solid evidence to suggest that it did. It’s more likely that distilling in the New World began with the Spanish,7 although considerable credit should go to the Filipino sailors who sailed the Spanish trade route toward the end of that century and introduced pot stills made from hollowed tree trunks and metal pans.8

To signal their elevated social status, the Spanish elite continued to drink wine and brandy imported from Europe.9 But the high cost of imported beverages impelled lower-rank colonists, creoles, mestizos, and indigenous people to experiment with distilling booze from local ingredients. The first written reference to agave spirits dates back to 1621, when Spanish cleric Domingo Lázaro de Arregui noted that “they eat the leaves roasted, and from these same leaves, squeezing them when roasted, they extract a must from which they make a wine from cactus sap, distilling it clearer than water and stronger than spirits.”10 Known as mezcal wine, or simply mezcal, agave spirits were soon bubbling in stills across New Spain.

 

2.

With its wheelbarrow of wild agave and piles of firewood, Don Clemente’s taberna differs sharply from the nearby Tequila region, where giant distilleries churn out thousands of gallons of spirits a day. Tequila, however, was once mezcal. It has its roots here, in the dirt and coals, and owes its ascendancy to Mexico’s notoriously complex systems of land management, its equally complex race relations, and the quest for national identity in the years following independence from Spanish rule.

In the Tequila region, large-scale cultivation of agave was aided by the climate, terrain, and hacienda system, wherein elite landowners controlled vast ranches. By 1821, when Mexico broke free from Spain, distilleries ringed the town of Tequila. Proximity to the Guadalajara–Mexico City railroad line made it easier for Tequila’s distillers to export their mezcal to national and foreign markets, giving them an edge over producers in more remote areas.

As mezcal from Tequila developed a reputation, the region’s distillers innovated to meet increased demand. In 1881, Martin Martinez de Castro invented the continuous evaporation still, which allowed for production on a much larger scale.11 The introduction of steam-heated masonry ovens soon followed.12 These new processes ramped up production but changed the nature of the spirit, which lost the smoky flavor imbued by the traditional methods of roasting agave.

Tequila’s dominance was cemented further in 1893 when Cenobio Sauza’s Tequila mezcal won a gold medal at the Chicago World’s Fair.13 By 1896, Jalisco produced 68 percent of the country’s agave spirits, and mezcal from Tequila had become so famous that it was known simply as tequila.14 Today, according to its official DO, a spirit labeled tequila can be made only in Jalisco and parts of four surrounding states, and it must be made with a specific type of agave: Agave tequiliana, commonly known as weber blue, or blue agave (agave azul). Relatively easy to cultivate, blue agave takes only six to ten years to mature. Like espadín, it creates clones, commonly called hijuelos, which typically mature into genetically exact replicas of the parent plant.

As agave farming in Jalisco turned to cloned monoculture and distillers industrialized, Oaxacan mezcal producers continued to harvest a wide variety of wild agaves and distill by traditional methods. With a population that was 88 percent indigenous, Oaxaca’s ancestral system of communal land management warded off investments from local and foreign elites. As sociologist Marie Sarita Gaytán writes, “Because indigenous residents were seen as unlikely to embrace the idea of private property, Oaxaca was a less attractive alternative to investors, both local and foreign. The state’s policy of communal land was interpreted by elites as antithetical to expansion and progress.”15

Despite the current popularity of mezcal, the early preference for Jalisco continues to play out. In 2017, distillers in the Tequila DO produced 271 million liters,16 while legal distillers in the DO of Mezcal produced only 4 million liters.17 But the perception among some foreign newcomers that all mezcal is artisanal and indigenous is erroneous. Oaxaca didn’t entirely escape industrialization or monoculture. Beginning in the 1940s, several brands rose to prominence on the international market: Monte Alban, Gusano Rojo, and mezcals made by the Chagoya family. In recent years, competition has arrived, with huge companies like Pernod Ricard moving in to the market, though you wouldn’t know it from looking at their affiliated brands. In the words of Graciela Angeles Carreño, who grew up on and now runs her family’s small distillery in Oaxaca, “None of the transnationals are selling under their true name. They start a new business so that the consumer doesn’t know that they’re a transnational. And the consumer never knows.”

 

3.

Mezcal enthusiasts tend to contrast “artisanal mezcal” with “industrial tequila” and decry the environmental problems caused by the monoculture of blue agave and the exploitative nature of “big tequila’s” relationship with farmers. By placing value on the small, artisanal, and wild, many consumers believe that they’re supporting environmentally and economically sustainable practices. But this isn’t always the case.

Spirits nerds love to hate on Patrón, the first premium tequila brand to go big in the US. But producing spirit from an intensively farmed crop bring important social and environmental advantages, like scale and efficiency. Patrón can afford to pay growers more for agave and provide costly technology to clean up the waste associated with its distilling process. The brand has implemented a comprehensive system for composting agave fibers: it turns its own waste into fertilizer, invests in an expensive reverse osmosis system to manage acidic wastewater, or vinazas, and professes a commitment to planting trees. It even composts agave fibers from neighboring distilleries — free of charge. The company, which was recently purchased by Bacardi, also supports local orphanages, a retirement home, a literacy program, and the distribution of food boxes, while encouraging visitors and employees to volunteer locally as well. Casa Sauza (which is owned by Beam Suntory) publicizes similar programs.

Whatever the motivation, a large, semi-conscientious distillery has the potential to minimize environmental impact in a more meaningful way than 50 small operations. This is true especially since certain environmental standards do not even apply to tequila distilleries operating below a set production level, meaning that they aren’t legally required to process their waste stream at all.

The potential environmental impact of unregulated small-scale distilleries is evident in Oaxaca and other mezcal-producing states, where artisanal production is not only small, decentralized, and undercapitalized but also heavily dependent on a wild crop. There is no data to tell us the exact toll the mezcal boom has taken on the wild agave populations of Mexico. In conjunction with PROFEPA (a federal environmental agency), the Mezcal Regulatory Council (Consejo Regulador del Mezcal, or CRM) now tracks the harvest of wild agave. But this practice is new, and therefore doesn’t offer a comprehensive picture.

We’re left with patches of data and anecdotal evidence. Oassis Huerta Galvan says that the situation in western Jalisco is severe. Their study suggests that the wild agave populations are about 20 to 30 percent of what they were 30 years ago, while locals in Oaxaca estimate a 50 percent decline, based on observation. Judah Kuper, an American surfer who married into a family of Oaxacan mezcaleros, says, “If it were up to me, I’d outlaw wild agave for export and even for national sales.”

When the overharvesting of wild agave is considered alongside the exploitative contracts that small producers frequently sign with foreign-owned brands — which may pay as low as 60 pesos (about 3 USD) a liter for bottles that can be sold for 20 to 100 times that to foreign consumers — it becomes difficult to maintain that buying artisanal mezcal made by a family-owned palenque (distillery) supports sustainable local economies.

Capitalizing on primitivism, as players throughout mezcal’s new global distribution and supply chain routinely do, is, of course, an old tactic in the world of agave spirits. As early as the 1930s, Sauza marketed tequila as sexy and exotic in ads spangled with Aztec imagery.18 The commodification of mezcal’s artisanal roots is more recent, dating to the 1990s, when the Oaxacan state government’s Commercial Modernization and Export Promotion Office (SEDIC) started promoting mezcal to global markets, particularly Europe and Asia.19 They began with a promotional video telling the story of Oaxaca’s ancient modes of production.

This glorification of tradition is now amplified in popular media. Most writing about mezcal tends to follow a typical pattern: begin by depicting the back-busting road to the remote mountain village, segue into a reverent description of the small palenque (the antiquated stills, the rock-lined pit for roasting agave piñas, and the burro-powered tahona, the great stone wheel traditionally used for crushing agave), and then paint a picture of the maestro mezcalero that depicts him as the salt of the earth.

In fairness to these writers, they would be remiss if they didn’t describe the picturesque locations and traditional methods. After all, the process of making artisanal mezcal is rustic, and there’s no disputing that it results in a product that differs tangibly from tequila or industrially produced mezcal. But even the most discerning palate can’t taste the difference between sustainably produced traditional mezcal and artisanally produced mezcal that’s the result of exploitative contracts and the pillage of rare plants.

The quest for “authenticity” has driven the mezcal obsession, which dovetails with other food and beverage trends in which “small” is a driving conceit. From small batch to small business, spirits enthusiasts value the rare and obscure, and assume that bottles from small producers will be superior. Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann write of “the continuing importance of hierarchy and exclusion in the culinary field,” a concept that neatly explains why rare expressions are highly prized in the culture of hipster spirits enthusiasts. Although this tendency to revere the obscure can be explained by the legitimate pleasure of an unusual sensory experience, many consumers use their refined palates to differentiate themselves from the plebeian hordes, to the point of dismissing “industrially produced” spirits entirely.

 

4.

A number of small- and medium-scale producers recognize the consequences of scaling up production of an artisanal product that is dependent on a wild crop and was traditionally intended for local consumption. These producers have begun to take action. Their efforts include composting, waste management, and creating community collectives to prevent economic exploitation. But the most universal concerns seem to be maintaining the genetic diversity of agave populations and the reforestation of wild agave.

Kuper’s family brand, Vago, has managed to balance its commitment to sustainability with large-scale production — by mezcal world standards. One of the brand’s maestro mezcaleros, Tio Rey, has been cultivating agave tobalá for decades and has used the proceeds from his mezcal to buy adjacent land, allowing him to implement a large-scale system of sustainable land management that’s rare for Oaxaca, where much of the land is community-owned or broken up into tiny parcels. “He owns the entire mountain behind his palenque,” Kuper says. “The diversity of agave in Sola de Vega is incredible. They have fifteen varietals.”

Prior to meeting Tio Rey, Kuper had been operating under a common assumption about wild agave varieties. “That was surprising to me… to find out that his tobalá was actually cultivated. A lot of people still believe that you can’t reproduce a lot of different agaves, that they’re too sensitive. For some reason people think that tobalá is impossible to grow or a tepeztate will take 30 years to grow. But none of that’s really true.”

These days, Kuper and his family are cultivating tobalá and other sought-after varieties in their nurseries. In general, they try to replant about four times the number of agaves that they harvest, reserving the fields for espadín and the steep hillsides for the “wild” varieties, which helps preserve the plants’ sought-after qualities. “It’s just like a grape. Different stressors cause complexity in flavor,” says Kuper, who admits that their cultivated varieties are different from their wild antecedents. “It definitely changes the flavors a little bit. But that’s not always a bad thing. That can be a good thing too,” he says, adding, “I’m much more concerned about the plant than I am about protecting some flavor profile.”

The Angeles family, who produce Real Minero mezcal, show similar commitment to replanting and maintaining genetic diversity. With extensive nurseries and seed banks, these fourth-generation mezcaleros are ahead of the curve. Although agave plants are usable for mezcal production only if they are cut before they go to seed, both Vago and Real Minero let a certain quantity flower, which allows bats to cross-pollinate the plants, improving genetic diversity and supporting dwindling bat populations while simultaneously providing seed for replanting. Although cloning may seem like a more efficient mode of agriculture, it’s possible to grow from seed on a large scale. “If you let an agave flower, you might end up with 10,000 seeds,” says William Scanlon, whose company Heavy Metl Premium imports several mezcal brands, including Real Minero. “And if you’ve got a 90 percent success rate like they do at Real Minero in germination, all of a sudden you’ve got 9,500 viable plants.”

Meanwhile, authorities have become vocal on the subject of agave depletion and sustainability in general. As of 2017, CRM-certified producers must replace every wild agave harvested with two agave starts that are harvested. According to the new mandates, mezcal won’t be certified unless the producers can prove that they’re complying, and the CRM must take responsibility for verifying and enforcing these rules.20 This should slow wild agave’s decline but doesn’t take into account the many uncertified producers or the mezcal-producing regions, like Jalisco, that are outside mezcal’s DO.

That doesn’t mean that producers in zones outside the DO are ignoring the problem. In Jalisco, I walked fields where producers were harvesting genetically diverse crops of agave they’d planted from seed eight years ago. According to Oassis Huerta Galva, about 80 percent of raicilla producers are replanting, though some much more than others. “The problem is very noticeable, and they know they have to take action,” he says.

 

5.

Despite the industry’s hodgepodge of efforts, mezcal’s economic and environmental impact remains troubling. On the one hand, it is true that the mezcal boom has reversed a trend that has long plagued rural communities: desperate young people leaving to search for opportunities in Mexico City or making the dangerous trek across the border to the United States, where they are likely to wind up in entry-level and/or exploitative jobs. This longstanding dynamic is gradually changing in Oaxaca, where many people tell stories of a son or daughter who has returned home to work at the family palenque.

Graciela Angeles Carreño, for one, came back to her family’s Oaxacan distillery with an advanced degree in sociology, along with her brother Edgar, an architect. Their education and travels gave them an understanding of the international market and the vocabulary to advocate for the rights of small producers, thus lending their family brand, Real Minero, an edge with a customer base keen on the most artisanal processes. There’s also no denying that the siblings consider their work meaningful. “Mezcal is not a fad,” Graciela told me. “It’s a cultural product. It’s my life. It’s my way of communicating with the world.” Edgar, who is normally quiet and soft-spoken, was similarly voluble when it came to mezcal’s significance: “It’s part of our roots,” he said. “It’s a form of living. The emotional aspect is important. In my case it’s not just making mezcal, it’s the sentiment I carry. For me it means everything… everything that I am.”

For current tensions surrounding mezcal production to be resolved, something’s got to give. Part of the issue, says Pedro Jimenez, the director of Mezonte, an organization that advocates for small mezcal producers, is the modern obsession with rare varietals. He contends that consumers can still enjoy a diversity of agave spirits by focusing on different modes of production. “People will say things like, ‘Oh I love tobalá, but I don’t like espadín,’” he observes laughing. But “Which tobalá? From which year? From which producer? They’re not all the same.”

Also at issue is our taste for the exotic, the rustic, and the primitive. The perception that all mezcal is artisanal and indigenous is clearly erroneous. Nor should mezcal production in more remote rural areas necessarily be tied to arduous and ancient labor practices. To supply global demand, cultivation will be required to boost incomes while relieving pressure on wild stocks. And as the case of the tequila industry shows, industrialization and large-scale production can benefit local producers and ecosystems in important ways. Authentic mezcal, in the end, is out of reach — it has neither found us nor needs finding. But that is not to say that economically and environmentally sustainable mezcal is nowhere to be found, so long as we begin to look differently in the right places.

Endnotes

  1. 600,000 litres in 2011 and 2,801,830 litre in 2017. This data is courtesy of the Mezcal Regulatory Council and can be found on page 21 of Mezcal Consejo Regulador, Informe estadístico 2017.

  2. Consejo Mexicano Regulador de la Calidad de Mezcal (Circular #64, Oaxaca de Juarez, 2015)

  3. Consejo Mexicano Regulador de la Calidad de Mezcal (Circular #64, Oaxaca de Juarez, 2015)

  4. Ulises Torrentera, “Mezcaleria: Cultura de Mezcal” (Oaxaca, Farolito ediciones, 2012)

  5. Ulises Torrentera, “Mezcaleria: Cultura de Mezcal” (Oaxaca, Farolito ediciones, 2012)

  6. Henry J Bruman “Alcohol in Ancient Mexico” (The University of Utah Press 2000, Salt Lake City, Utah)

  7. S. Bowen, A Valenzuela Zapata “Denominations of Origin and socioeconomic and ecological sustainability: the case of Tequila.” (University of Wisconsin Madison, University of Guadalajara)

  8. Henry J Bruman “Alcohol in Ancient Mexico” (The University of Utah Press 2000, Salt Lake City, Utah)

  9. Marie Sarita Gaytan, Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico (Stanford University Press, 2014, Stanford, California)

  10. Domingo Lázaro de Arregui, “Descripción de la Nueva Galicia” (Originally completed in 1621.) Reprinted by Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1946.

  11. Salvador Gutierrez Gonzalez, Realidad y Mitos de Tequila: Criatura y Genio del Mexicano a Traves de los Siglos (Ediorial Agata, Guadalajara, 2001)

  12. Sarah Bowen, Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal and the Politics of Production (University of California Press, Oakland, 2015)

  13. Jose Orozco, “Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History” (University of Arizona Press, 2014)

  14. Sarah Bowen, Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal and the Politics of Production (University of California Press, Oakland, 2015)

  15. Marie Sarita Gaytan Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico (Stanford University Press, 2014, Stanford, California)

  16. Información Básica de la Industria de Tequila, June 2018, Datos Estadísticos CNIT

  17. Mezcal Consejo Regulador, Informe estadístico 2017.

  18. Jose Orozco “Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History” (University of Arizona Press, 2014)

  19. William Foote “The Resurrection of Oaxacan Spirits,” (Institute of Current World Affairs, 1996)

  20. Consejo Mexicano Regulador de la Calidad de Mezcal (Circular #64, Oaxaca de Juarez, 2015)