As mezcal has increasingly flowed out from the remote canyon lands of Oaxaca and other Mexican states and into the international beverage community, it has become respected and cherished for its authenticity. It is revered for the time-intensive processes that turn a difficult raw material into a sweet, elegant spirit able to represent a multitude of cultural groups, and that have been shaped over generations by the rugged and diverse environments of Oaxaca.
As a family-owned brand working directly with a select few producers, we at Mezcal Vago operate in an industry that is completely reliant on the families that produce this unique spirit. And with mezcal’s explosion of popularity over the last few years has come a host of challenges. How can we grow efficiently while fulfilling our commitment to these families, these lands, and this history?
People and place define the foundation from which mezcal flows. Its culture is its identity. Once we lose our sense of that culture, or corrupt it in the name of modernization and scale, we risk losing the very core of what mezcal is. All mezcal producers, therefore, even large-scale “industrial” operations, have been faced with a difficult question: How do they best balance modernization and growth against tradition and authenticity?
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Even from the outset, mezcal seems destined to have to fight against speed and efficiency. The agave plants on which mezcal depends often have decadal life cycles. And with the shortage in Oaxaca of Espadin agave, plus a rising thirst in foreign markets for mezcal made from rare or wild agaves, a huge threat to wild agave is looming.
The fact is, there aren’t enough of these wild agave plants to satisfy the growing market. So it’s very important to plant more agaves, of each kind, than you take from the ground. We at Vago are committed to a ratio of replanting: three plants for each one we harvest, and we have far exceeded that. Within the next seven years, as our new plants mature, we will wean ourselves off wild agave entirely. And we believe this choice will have to become standardized as part of the next revision of NOM—Norma Oficial Mexicana, a set of government standards regulating various goods and services in the Mexican economy—to ensure that wild agave is not decimated.
Once agaves have been harvested, mezcal production begins, and this is where transparency becomes absolutely vital so that consumers understand exactly what they are getting. By contrast, look at the tequila industry, where brand marketing, the pursuit of “smoothness,” and the use of ambiguous, legally undefined buzzwords like “handmade” and “traditional” came to dominate the landscape. The lack of firm definitions allowed the flashiest brands with the best stories and the blandest flavors to dominate the market, while the environment was neglected and field workers and agave growers were marginalized.
New mezcal regulations in NOM 070, while not without their flaws, are at least a step in the right direction. They force brands to categorize their product as Ancestral, Artesanal, or simply Mezcal, according to their production methods. Ancestral mezcal employs the most rustic methods and materials; no metal can be used in the production process. Artesanal mezcal, while still rooted in tradition, allows for conveniences like mechanical mills and copper alembic stills. Straight Mezcal permits the most efficient, if often controversial, methods: autoclaves, diffusers, stainless steel fermentation vats, and continuous stills. Some producers would argue whether certain methods and materials should be allowed in one category or another, but these at least ensure a way to educate consumers as to exactly how their mezcal is produced. They make it easier for people to make a conscious decision about what they’re buying.
But with that knowledge, consumers also need to understand their choices. Ancestral and Artesanal are extremely labor intensive. After a lifetime of such work, mezcaleros can face health problems in their later years. As consumers, do we want an arthritic 65-year-old mezcalero to continue swinging a 30-pound wood hammer for 12 hours a day in order to extract juice? Or are we going to make peace with his being able to install a tahona to crush his agave, or even a mechanical mill?
At the same time, consumers must also be willing to pay fair prices for good, traditionally made mezcal, so that brands can fairly compensate producers and their families. We need to show producers that making mezcal is indeed a viable profession, that it can allow them to better the lives of their children and their children’s children. Brands, in turn, need to be absolutely transparent and demonstrate to consumers that their money is going to the right places.
To do that, small mezcal brands need to stick together and grow the category in an ethical and responsible manner, in hopes that big players will follow our lead. The mezcal industry has so far grown at a rate that producers, agave plant populations, and legislation have not been able to keep up with.
This has produced a landscape of fierce competition—either a game of one-upmanship to bottle the newest and rarest agave, or a race to the bottom to produce the cheapest mezcal and grow market share. Neither does the mezcal industry any good.
That’s why it’s so important for small mezcal brands to support the safeguards currently being created. If we do this, then hopefully we will see mezcal make a difference: it could reverse migration in some cases, for instance, with sons and daughters returning from agricultural work in the United States to make mezcal with their families. And the stories of dying hill towns that mezcaleros tell their grandchildren will become tales of history rather than destiny.
Judah Emanuel Kuper is the founder of Mezcal Vago and Paranubes Rum from Oaxaca. Following his heart, he married into a multigenerational family of mezcaleros and has been scouring the Oaxacan back roads for spirits to share with the world. Francisco Terrazas ran The Pastry War, a mezcalería in Houston, Texas, until he crossed paths with Kuper. Since Fall 2015 he has traveled the country as Vago’s national brand manager.