Defending a Conservationist Model

Companies trading mezcal have a responsibility to act as anthropologists, preserving traditions

While I am sure that mezcal will continue to evolve and change, we occupy a sweet moment. We can taste the distant past in some of these spirits, whose production doesn’t require anything beyond manual technology: wild vegetation roasted in the earth and pulverized by hand; fermented in animal hides or open tanks handmade from wood or stone, with no inoculation of commercial yeast; distilled in pottery.

The flavors of mezcal, made from a bizarre relative of the asparagus plant, are a spectrum of greens and yellows, from the deepest, most vegetal green pepper or asparagus to the brightest filigree of citric acidity. The cacophonous, microbial flavors of wild yeast survive the act of distillation; these spirits allow us to travel back in time further, to the fundamental flavors of wood smoke and earth that permeated the caramelizing sugars. To taste this spirit in its most basal, wild form is a deeply meditative experience.

The beauty of these mezcals is that they are born of subsistence, not of expansion. And my fear is that to taste these spirits is to participate in their abolishment. We don’t notice it at first, but each small refinement to mezcal production alters the environment that engendered these liquors, changing them from a tradition to a product. With each decision to make and sell a little bit more, we are overfishing these waters. But this process is inexorable. That is how the world of spirits has always worked, and will continue to, until we act more like latter-day anthropologists, leaving the traditions we value unmolested instead of harnessing them for profit.

This is why I applaud Silvia Philion, the owner of Mezcaloteca in central Oaxaca, who has preserved a demijohn of every lot of mezcal she’s bought in the last decade. As she easily proves, resting the spirit in glass can improve it greatly. But these spirits are also worthy of conservation as surreal artifacts: clear and identical in their receptacles, but infinite in their variety and individuality.

The North Americans who are moving the spirits from Mexico to the north and to Europe are not evil, but when one group uses the strength of their own economy to secure an advantageous position in a weaker economy, they are participating in colonialism. These dynamics are unavoidable, I think; human history is largely one of shifting populations that displace others to help improve their own circumstances. And those with the resources to travel and penetrate other cultures are intrinsically more powerful than the cultures they enter. Perhaps this imbalance was more evident when it was maintained with weapons and violence rather than stronger currencies or the liquor trade, but the fundamentals haven’t changed.

In other words, those who buy mezcal in Mexico and sell it in other countries are participating in an economy of advantage, and they should be mindful of this colonial relationship. Definitely they should not act as though they are performing humanitarian aid, since the arrangements in the mezcal trade are more complicated than that. These traders benefit greatly from their authority, and the producers they support have historically been relegated to inferior positions by just these sorts of colonial relationships.

So while you’re telling me how Oaxacan children are going to college for the first time in a family’s history because of your business, also acknowledge that you are enjoying a remarkable quality of life—traveling freely with a greater liberty and affluence than those you pay to perform hard physical work, whose names may not even be on the bottle you designed. Similarly, we could also push harder to actually practice the humanitarianism we often hear about, perhaps by making low-interest loans to the people who make the spirit, allowing them true control of their means of production rather than the mascot status of “master distiller” or “mezcalero.”

More starkly, with the increasing demand these importers and distributors are cultivating, there’s reasonable concern that the demand will outstrip artisanal production. Definitely this is happening.  Mezcals made from true sylvestre or wild, agaves are pretty much gone, and the category will never be the same. What to do? For one, those who want this style of mezcal to survive should be willing to pay a lot of money for the real article—hundreds of dollars.   

Instead, what we see is a push for value—more mezcal for less money. And that will likely result in the deterioration of these spirits, just as it did to tequila, to say nothing of Scotch and Cognac. Still, places like Mezcaloteca and In Situ, a similarly minded mezcalería in Oaxaca, are working as conservationists and raising consciousness of the fleeting nature of true artisan mezcal. Some of the gringo importers who want to do good might follow that conservationist model.

A small beachhead of wine consumers have come to value small grower-producers, and many will pay more for the wine they produce. We can still hope that spirits drinkers will come to a similar realization. And mezcal may provide that moment. The issues that attend its production and sale today probably offer the best chance for enlightenment.

Thad Vogler is the owner of San Francisco’s acclaimed Bar Agricole, Trou Normand, and the forthcoming Obispo, a rum bar opening in the city’s Mission District in late 2017. He is an expert on sustainable, responsibly sourced, and grower-produced spirits and the author of “By the Smoke and the Smell: My Search for the Rare and Sublime on the Spirits Trail.”