Food

This Commonplace Practice Could Kill Mezcal’s International Appeal

by Bex Van Koot

August 17, 2016

Despite its place as the hippest new spirit on the block, mezcal is suffering. In the spirit’s heartland of Mexico, makers of the distinctively spiced distilled beverage are struggling to find a balance between traditional production methods and a growing global demand.

Oaxaca, the largest exporter of seven mezcal-producing states, currently distills 12 million liters of the high proof liquid each year. While some of this is industrially produced, it is estimated that there are more than a thousand small palenques in the state, only a fraction of which are certified.

The annual celebration of mezcal, originally called the Feria Nacional de Mezcal, began in 1997, the same year that the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM or COMERCAM), mezcal’s certifying body, was founded. Two decades later, four years after rebranding as the International Mezcal Fair, a lot has changed—especially as regulations tighten. In fact, the CRM maintains an official presence at the fair, both to prevent the sale of uncertified spirits and to encourage more traditional mezcaleros to join the movement in making mezcal an international phenomenon. Each of the more than 80 mezcal producers, represented by 55 vendors at this year’s fair, have gone through the rigorous process of testing their product, tweaking their recipes, and attaining the coveted certification that CRM requires for exportation.

Having seen it with my own eyes, I know the love and the attention and the passion behind every single mezcalero and the product that they want to give to the world.

This movement towards officialdom is being spearheaded by passionate mixologists from across the country, and Shay Hernández is one of them. Shay, who started bartending at 21, saw early fame for his Bar Lilit preparation “The San Francisco Homeless”a mix of pineapple, cranberry, and orange juices, vodka, and lager said to be Quentin Tarantino's favorite drink.

These days Shay is head of the COLECTIVO BARTENDER MÉXICO, a bartenders’ collective based in Mexico City. They provide mixology education, menu consultation, and event coordination for brands and bars across the country—but Shay thinks mezcal can have a further reach.

 “We have a chance to really enjoy Mexican cocktail-making,” he told GOOD from the festival floor. “And what better place to do that than the state of Oaxaca where we find such a special, ancestral spirit, something bartenders can use to truly transform their drinks?”

Shay prepares drinks for an eager crowd at one of the fair’s daily mixology shows, blending local ingredients with internationally-inspired recipes like this mezcaltini, served in a traditional jícara bowl, with a garnish of green olives and Oaxacan fruit pickles.

Indeed, mezcal has been shaking up drink menus around the world. Maria Lopez, owner of Los Angeles’ Candela Taco Bar, has been a lover of mezcal for many years and has been waiting for a chance to visit the state best known for its production. This year, with camera crew in tow, she was finally able to make the trip. She is hoping to share some of the history behind mezcal’s newfound fame with lovers of Mexican cuisine and fine drinks back home in the U.S.

As mezcal’s popularity has grown, the mezcal cocktail has become ubiquitous in bars across America, ostensibly offering a way to try out the smoky liquor without the $30 tab that a single varietal pour might run you. Maria has offered her own version of a blended fruit mezcal cocktail in the past, but now she’s rethinking that decision.

“After seeing the entire process, from cutting the piña to the cooking to the distillation... it almost feels like disrespect to make it into just drinks, because I see the amount of work behind it,” she says.

Maria thinks that mezcal has a huge potential internationally, but she worries about the impact that might have on production here in Mexico.

“I would hate to think that the artisan side of it would be lost in that process,” she told me. “Having seen it with my own eyes, I know the love and the attention and the passion behind every single mezcalero and the product that they want to give to the world.”

Tequila, she said, already represents the commercial side of mezcal. “Making mezcal itself that commercial? I don’t know if [that kind of product] could inherit the culture that mezcal has now.”

Mezcal is often compared to Scotch—everyone I interviewed made that analogy, mentioning its complexity and value as a sipping beverage—and despite its relative international obscurity, mezcal is even more labor intensive and has an even older cultural history. While Rusty Nails and Rob Roys probably aren’t going to ruin the Scotch industry, which pumps out billions of liters each year, mezcal hasn’t had the same chance to establish itself as a drink equally worthy of appreciation. Cocktails might provide an easy way into mezcal drinking for those who aren’t accustomed to sipping spirits like scotch, but they also threaten to dominate an industry based on a precarious relationship to a very diverse, easily endangered plant.

After seeing the entire process, from cutting the piña to the cooking to the distillation...it almost feels like disrespect to make it into just drinks.

Carlos Mendez Blass, a third-generation maestro mezcalero (master mezcal-maker) who operates Mezcal Palomo, has been offering alternatives to straight sipping mezcals for several years. This year including a selection of mixed drinks with flavors common to the fair: rosemary and lime, mango and chile, and the familiar Donaji, a classic drink pairing mezcal with lime, orange juice, grenadine, and soda water and named for a legendary Zapotec princess.

Around 70% of the mezcal that Carlos produces is destined for the U.S. Unfortunately, the certification required to make this business model work can limit ancestral production methods. Carlos had to stop making his family’s pechuga, a recipe that traditionally includes the breast of a chicken or turkey in the fermentation, in order to comply with certification requirements. He currently produces varietal mezcal based on three maguey species: espadin, which he cultivates, along with wild tobalá, and cirial.

Traditional mezcaleros, who make mezcal for civil events and festivities in their village often have access to large swaths of communal land used for grazing. On these lands grow dozens of species of wild maguey, often cross-breeding to produce small batches of unique plants of unknown origins. The most coveted of these plants can take more than 25 years to mature. Other varieties are cultivated and mature much quicker. It takes 10 kilograms of piña—the maguey heart remaining after it is cut from its roots and all the leaves are stripped away—to produce one liter of distilled mezcal.

Despite the hesitation of some mixologists and makers, a range of mezcal cocktails were on offer at the International Mezcal Fair.

Espadin is the mildest of the maguey species, perhaps due to its quick growing time, and the most abundant variety not just for Mezcal Palomo but nearly all the fair’s vendors. This is a maguey that grows in gardens and greenhouses. Its rapid maturation allows the plant’s heart to be harvested at around seven years, two decades before some other varieties. While the neutral taste makes it ideal for cocktails, it is maturation time that has made it the go-to ingredient for artisanal brands trying to ramp up their exports.

“We only use Espadin mezcal for all our mixed drinks,” Carlos told me over coffee, “just because it’s the most affordable.”

Maguey plants grow in front of the fair's sign.

Despite the vast number of producers represented at the fair, this focus on cultivated maguey and exportation means the fair isn’t really the best place to try a diversity of traditionally-prepared spirits, whether certified mezcal or the uncertified  “aguardiente de maguey”—literally, distillate of agave. You will see this label at mezcalerias across Oaxaca City, like Mezcal Cuish, but the maestro mezcaleros behind these projects aren’t giving up the name “mezcal”  easily. When they speak of their product amongst themselves, to their family, to their communities, there is no question that this is mezcal and it always will be. The government can’t take that away from them.

“It’s very contradictory,” Félix Hernández Monterroza of Mezcaleria Cuish told me, “because the government and the municipality promote Oaxaca as a mezcal destination, but in reality the market is very narrow, very closed off.”

After a lengthy closure last year during which the bar was completely redesigned and remodeled, Félix hasn’t hired a new mixologist, and he isn’t in a hurry to do so.

Mezcal is still made with very old methods, even for most artisanal producers. After the piña is harvested, it is cooked in a large pit over hot coals, imparting mezcal’s signature smoky flavor. Once cooked, the maguey is crushed by a large stone wheel drawn by a mule or a horse. The sweet, fibrous material is then transferred into fermentation vessels, made from concrete or stainless steel in larger operations. The natural yeasts from the plant begin the process of creating alcohol from the sugars and after several days, that liquid is drawn off. While most distillation is now done in copper, leather and clay have been used traditionally, lending credence to the possibility that mezcal existed in pre-Columbian times—a challenge to the common knowledge typically passed on about the drink.

Laws governing which of these methods can and can’t be used to produce certified mezcal are often arbitrary and sometimes vague, making them possible to work around with some creativity, but also difficult to navigate even for compliant producers. Only three of the eight maestros that Félix works with have obtained certification.

Mezcal distilling equipment proudly on display.

When I first visited Mezcaleria Cuish in 2014, the bar had a lengthy cocktail menu, including a number of different fruit mixes and blended ices, a mezcal mojito, and the Donaji. But these days, Cuish is all about the sipping spirits. After a lengthy closure last year during which the bar was completely redesigned and remodeled, Félix hasn’t hired a new mixologist, and he isn’t in a hurry to do so. Rather, he hopes to provide a space where people who are interested in mezcal can come, can taste the wide variety of distillates available and get to know the various processes which impart flavor to the drink.

“I encourage people to try traditional mezcals, and not to give up if they don’t enjoy their first taste,” especially if that first sip of mezcal is an industrial brand, Félix says. “Try traditional mezcals. Get to know the flavors and aromas of this noble, extraordinary, kind-hearted plant.”

At the very least, he says, if you drink traditional recipes instead of industrial brands, sip from a jícara instead of downing a mezcal margarita, you’ll never have to worry about a hangover. If there was ever a reason to support traditional methods, that has to be it.

Photos by Bex VanKoot

Recently on GOOD Food