Voices

Can Mezcal Save Its Artisan Soul?

Mezcal brand owners, importers, and experts weigh in on the growth of the mezcal category and whether there’s a sustainable path to preserving its culture and authenticity

Illustration of people picking a plant
Illustration by Jeannie Phan.

The rise of mezcal in the past decade has been astonishing, doubling and doubling again. What had been a quirky cousin to tequila has rapidly become the most fashionable spirit in the bar. And there’s good reason for that. The makers of tequila had made a calculated bet on that spirit, seeing its best growth potential in a sort of neutrality: less rustic, more polished and vodka-like.

It’s hard to say they were wrong, given the explosive growth of high-end tequila. But at the same time, that transformation caused tequila a certain loss of cred—an agave spirit that had lost some of its agave soul.

Enter mezcal. As I wrote seven years ago, “What mezcal has in spades is its authenticity.” And as this is an era of authenticity in drinking, mezcal has become the spirit for the moment.

Of course, its very authenticity is also what puts it at risk. Mezcal, as we generally talk about it today, is an artisan product made in Mexico’s Oaxaca state, by palenqueros (small distillers) working in small batches, often harvesting the agave themselves and roasting the piñas, or agave hearts, to produce a distinctive tinge of smoke. The particulars of the agave variety, locale, soil, and the distillery all add up to an unmistakable terroir in mezcal, no different than that of wine.

And that system, largely evolved out of Oaxacan indigenous cultures, is under threat. Quite simply, mezcal is the spirit that has no easy way to grow. Even more than Scotch, it is rooted in a place and a cultural tradition that resists industrialization. Industrialize mezcal, as happened to tequila, and you put its artisanal soul at risk.

Yet growth is inevitable. That became clear earlier this year when Del Maguey, the pioneer in bringing artisan mezcal to Americans, was majority-acquired by spirits giant Pernod Ricard. It was a more complex transaction than it might at first seem, as Del Maguey’s Ron Cooper explains. But it did prompt a series of tough, and perhaps overdue, questions about how mezcal’s future will unfold.

Is there a sustainable path to growth for mezcal, one that preserves its culture? Will expansion require us to start drinking mezcal from other places (technically, it can be made in many Mexican states)? Will new regulations help protect it, or just ease the path for mezcal to become another tequila, industrialized and guided by style? Will we run out of the distinctive agaves used in its production?  And how much of the money being made from mezcal today actually makes it back to the people who produce it?

Those are complex questions, ones with which the industry is currently struggling. We asked some of those who have been deeply involved with mezcal’s success to consider the future.

Click below to explore individual viewpoints on this topic.

Jon Bonné is one of the leading American voices writing on wine today. In addition to his work with SevenFifty Daily, he is the Senior Contributing Editor at PUNCH, and author of the award-winning book The New California Wine, as well as two new forthcoming books, The New Wine Rules and The New French Wine. He is also the wine consultant for JetBlue Airways. For nearly a decade, Bonné served as the Wine Editor and Chief Wine Critic of The San Francisco Chronicle, where he won two James Beard awards and numerous other accolades.

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