THE FUTURE OF MEZCAL
Published on Wednesday, 16 September 2015 15:38
By By Scott Squires
Mezcal has hit the big time. Internationally known as delicious, smoky Mexican firewater, the world is crazy about mezcal.
But in a thriving industry like Oaxaca’s one that is trying to put down roots in the international market one major question lingers. What is the future of the mezcal industry and is it sustainable? If you aren’t yet savvy on Oaxaca’s famous spirit, mezcal is an agavebased liquor, generally between forty and fifty percent alcohol.
It differs from tequila in that its more famous cousin is made from only the Blue Agave plant, where mezcal can be made with any type of agave, locally known as maguey.
Therefore all tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequila. And not all mezcals are created equal. Out of the many varieties of maguey found in the Oaxacan valley, only one variety, Espadin, is able to be easily cultivated.
The remaining species must be harvested from the countryside and are considered silvestre, or wild mezcal.
All of these varieties have an extremely long maturation period ranging from eight to ten years for an Espadin plant, and up to twenty years for a Tepastate. With a long maturation process and limited availability of raw materials, the silvestre mezcal industry is in danger of being exhausted just as soon as its popularity peaks.
The Oaxaca Times spoke with Rachel Langley, an international sales rep for Gracias a Dios, a mezcal brand grown and produced in Santiago Matatlán, the region’s mezcal capital thirty minutes outside of Oaxaca. “Because they’re wild plants, and because the industry has grown at such a fast rate…they’re being endangered,” Langley said. “At the end of the day, you’re distilling a wild plant that you can’t replace.”
According to Langley, “The fad went really quickly into the wild species… It’s like scotch. They’re more expensive, they’re high value, and they’re delicious.” Unlike scotch, which is aged for years in barrels, mezcal is aged in the ground.
Oaxaca is famous for its wide variety of mezcal because of its unique climate. According to Langley, biodiversity of agave species is high because it’s such a diverse area.
Silvestre agaves take on flavor profiles depending on the mineral content of the soil or the altitude at which the plant grows. With such diverse ecosystems, from mountains to river valleys, Oaxaca offers plenty of biodiversity, and therefore plenty of species of agave. As all mezcals are not created equal, neither are all mezcal brands.
Unlike other brands that buy from familyowned mezcal producers and bottle it under their label, Gracias a Dios is implementing sustainable practices by making their mezcalero family part owners of the company. Additionally, Gracias a Dios has a policy of replanting a plant for every one they use for making mezcal, according to Langley.
Competition between brands is fierce there are more than
150 labels competing out of Oaxaca. For an artisinallyproduced product to thrive in such a large market it needs middlemen and women who are internationally savvy to represent the brand worldwide. Likewise, international enthusiasts are moving to Oaxaca to buy land, start labels, and ultimately export mezcal to the rest of the world. “I don’t see [silvestre mezcal] as a sustainable international market, it’s just not an option… but as long as there’s Espadin, there’s mezcal,” Langley said.
The spirit’s value lies in its wide variation between species, and the beauty of mezcal is in the discovery of where it grew, how it was made and what it tastes like. Whether or not the demand for silvestre mezcal will overtake its ability to be harvested and produced is yet to be seen.
Therefore, it must be enjoyed with moderation and respect to the tradition that it has upheld for hundreds of years. “It’s a handmade alcohol and… it can’t be made in China,” Langley said. “But that’s what makes it good, and that’s what makes people have to come to Oaxaca.” The fermented agave is then distilled using copper or clay alembiques, or stills technology introduced by the Spaniards during the conquest.