Mezcal is known as the little brother of tequila. This strong drink with a smoky and earthy flavor, made from the versatile agave plant, was only drunk in the Mexican towns where it comes from until recently. It was the drink of the peasants who distilled it themselves and of the poor students who wanted to get drunk quickly. The distillers exported the tequila to thirsty foreign countries, but they kept the mezcal. No seller would accept this juice, in their eyes, inferior and unpleasant.
All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. A concoction can only be called tequila if it is made from blue agave, one of the 30 species of agave plant that only grows in the state of Jalisco. Mezcal is made with the other 29 species and can also come from other states. Mezcal means “cooked agave” in the indigenous language. Its smoky flavor comes from its preparation: the agaves are put under the fire of the wood. Tequila, made in factories, doesn’t have that natural flavor.
Today, mezcal is even more popular than tequila and this renaissance has several causes. Experts thank the Mexican government, which in 2005 began regulating the export of mezcal. Quality control ensured that only the best mezcal crossed the border. The distillers started a competition to make their concoctions increasingly pure. It is this purity that makes mezcal so special to drinkers.
Mezcal: from rural pubs to Hollywood clubs
Mezcal was discovered by waiters in Los Angeles, a city full of Mexican immigrants and defined by its culture. Bottles of tequila remained on the shelves while waiters switched to mezcal en masse. In Hollywood clubs, his cocktails were enjoyed by celebrities like George Clooney, whose Casamigos brand of tequila immediately filled this gap in the beverage market.
Clooney’s multi-million dollar company launched its own brand of mezcal (expensive, but good) in 2018, and the rest is history. Other stars, from basketball player LeBron James (Wolves) to Breaking Bad stars Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston (Two Men), followed in Clooney’s footsteps. In 2019, 7 million liters of mezcal were sold: an increase of 40%.
“Mezcal has become a fantastic source of employment!” shouts Eduardo Belaunzarán, a small distiller from Oaxaca, the mecca of mezcal. His enthusiasm, however, can barely hide his frustrations. Behind the stylish labels lies an industry rife with ruthless competition and environmental damage. International companies colonize the local economy, corrupt traditional preparation methods, and pollute the soil in which vulnerable agave plants have to grow.
A struggle between mezcal technology and craftsmanship
The agave seems to have its origin in the age of the dinosaurs. The limbs of a fully grown plant reach a height of five to six meters, a growth process that lasts no less than seven years. If an agave is plucked before it is ripe, the resulting mezcal will be too unpleasant. Small producers are patient, large companies are not. Demand for your product is growing faster than agaves. For this reason, each year the harvests in Oaxaca are advanced.
However, this is not a problem for large companies. His customers, who live and work on the other side of the globe, cannot tell the difference between ripe and unripe agave when mezcal is used in their cocktails. In addition, the help of a chemist is increasingly being sought. Scientific manipulation of taste makes up for the lack of honest craftsmanship.
It is difficult to find the exact culprits of this type of malpractice, but numerous distillers, from Belaunzarán to the founder of YOLA Mezcal, Yola Jiménez, believe it is happening. Casamigos has long bought its mezcal from local producers to resell it. Both parties benefited from this cooperation, until (according to Jiménez) Casamigos decided to create their own distilleries during the pandemic. You can always come to work for them, but they no longer buy the juice. “It’s a big difference,” Jiménez tells Esquire. “Local products lost their bargaining power at a stroke.”
Using modern technology is a luxury that small distillers like Belaunzarán cannot afford. Belaunzarán’s family brand, Wahaka Mezcal, cannot and does not want to compete. “Our ancestors refined the art of making mezcal,” suggests the Wahaka label. “We want to preserve that legacy. While others are industrializing, we produce authentic artisanal mezcal. Without giving up our traditions.”
Belaunzarán pays a high price to preserve this heritage. Thanks to a more efficient production process, large companies put their mezcal on the shelves at a bargain price. This cutthroat competition spells doom for local producers who cannot compete with Clooney, James and Cranston. Indeed, mezcal has become a fantastic source of employment, but most of the profits go to investors abroad.
“The desert expands”
A few years ago, most modern city dwellers switched to an avocado diet. What this supposedly environmentally conscious target group realized too late (and still doesn’t care) is that growing this fruit consumes as much water as raising a gigantic beef cow. A small portion of avocado on toast requires more than 70 liters of drinking water.
The same goes for mezcal, a drink that is also increasingly popular with city dwellers. “The mezcal industry not only causes socioeconomic problems,” says Elena Cuevas Hernández, a policy focused on infrastructures, “it is not very respectful of the environment.” According to its committee in the Mexican government, the mezcal industry consumed up to 128.7 million liters of water in 2019.
Water consumption is not the only item on your agenda. Producers are often not careful about waste. Hundreds of kilos of firewood and dead agave branches are left in the fields, contaminating the parched soil. The methane gases released during the preparation of agaves warm the climate and shorten the poor rainy season that agaves so badly need. “The desert is expanding,” says Hernández.
Consumers play as important a role in this story as producers. The average citizen who buys a bottle of Casamigos for the weekend is unaware of these news because many companies keep it a secret. Fortunately, this is also changing. More and more brands, from Belaunzaráns Wahaka to YOLA Mezcal, print the details of their production process and their sustainability initiatives on their product labels.
In this way, they can inform their customers. The more mezcal lovers know about the complicated world from which this drink comes, the greater the possibility that the mezcal industry will reproduce itself in a more fair and sustainable way.
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Tequila’s smoky brother has a dark side