Unfortunately, too often it is easy to be fooled into trusting the truth of what we read and hear about mezcal brands in Oaxaca. Whether it’s in online or print publications, what we’re told in bars and mezcalerías, and even what’s on the labels of some familiar brands of agave distillate, sometimes there’s a problem.
The contemporary mezcal brands that have taken the spirits world by storm in the past two decades, dating back to no earlier than 1995, are often truthful about what they say is in the bottle; But it’s not always like this. Certainly, buyers have an obligation to do their due diligence before shelling out more than $100 USD on a new-to-market product. But right now it is still a challenge for consumers to be able to measure, evaluate and deconstruct all this bombardment. In 20 or 50 years, drinkers will undoubtedly be more informed about mezcal than they are today. Today, however, to the extent that available information is misleading, ambiguous, misrepresented, and even outright false, mezcal aficionados, and more importantly, aficionados, are at a disadvantage.
The obvious solution is to buy what you know and like. The best mezcal is the one you like the most. But what about an agave distillate you’ve heard of and are considering purchasing? If you are outside of Mexico, it is unlikely that you will be able to try before you buy. Of course, the best option is to visit some palenques in the interior of Oaxaca, for example, where most of the country’s certified mezcal is distilled. While you’re at it, and even by visiting the mezcalerías in the state capital, you can try before you buy. Making that pilgrimage is simply not feasible for many.
In fact, there are brands that are not happy to receive consumers in their facilities. Why? For example, a mezcal aficionado might be interested in knowing what exactly is meant by the online promotion as “produced in a modern and traditional way.” He might be disappointed to learn that “modern” means highly industrialized; and similarly, that “traditional” means nothing more than harvesting, cooking, grinding, fermenting, and distilling, employing the highest-tech means of production and tools of the trade possible.
What does “100% farm-grown espadín agave” or “100% natural” really mean these days, at least in Oaxaca? Are the madrecuixe, the barrel, the Mexican and the tobala really all the wild agaves used today to make mezcal? Does tepeztate really take 35 years to mature before being harvested and transformed into mezcal? Is there something artisanal about the fact that the agave has been steamed in a hermetically sealed brick room, then crushed by machinery, and finally distilled in a stainless steel column that still runs on diesel?
Yes, of course we all want to make life easier for hard-working palenqueros and their families. However, there is a profound difference between modernizing for the sake of producing more juice to better fill the pockets of entrepreneurs and, to some extent, promoting the cause of altruism for the benefit of those who work in the fields and in the distilleries. In other words, the use of a gasoline-powered machine to grind the baked sweet agave rather than, say, a heavy wooden mallet for hand-mashing, serves the latter and is hard to see as objectionable. Mezcal, on the other hand, made with modern methods strictly to increase profits, is a completely different animal. In my opinion, motivation should figure into the equation.
A palenquero who produces for an export brand that labels its mezcal as made with “farm-grown” agave asked me to sell him some maguey from my field. I had no idea that the espadín, madrecuixe, tobalá and weber on my land are from the farm! Maybe I should start referring to my land as my heritage and put Don Alvin on my business cards.
Sarcasm aside, typically “estate grown” means that the agave is grown on land owned by the distiller. In wine parlance it can apparently also mean that the land is managed by the winemaker but owned by someone else. With the production of mezcal it can connote a better quality spirit, but not necessarily, and perhaps not entirely. One might suppose that growth is best controlled by the palenquero carefully watching the land for a decade, if at all. But he could be chemically fertilizing and fumigating his farm. And there are almost innumerable factors that affect the final quality. If it’s farm-grown and certified organic, I might be convinced, but anything less than that sends me red flags. So, in my opinion, the buying public can be easily fooled. And more recently almost all artisanal and ancestral mezcal producers are looking to buy agave from anyone who sells it. Their own royal “properties” are either barren or filled with rows of young succulents years from harvest.
In wild instead of cultivated. A store in downtown Puebla, about four hours down the toll road from Oaxaca, is owned by a fairly well-known brand of (supposedly) traditionally made Oaxacan mezcal. It sells mezcal under that label only. In its commercialization, espadín is indicated as cultivated, but all the others are described as made with wild agave; madrecuixe, tobala, arroqueño, and the rest. Almost all species of agave used to make mezcal in Oaxaca are now cultivated. However, you can still find mezcal that is actually made from wild tobalá, for example, and probably most tepezstate is still made from wild maguey. But most varieties, including wild boar, are now farmed, and most mezcal on the market is made from cultivated agave, an environmentally responsible and sustainable approach for the industry. The other day a friend told me about all the species and subspecies that he has in cultivation, from seed in his greenhouses, 16 in total, about 200,000 plants that he has been offering to growers and Palenqueros. While of course not impossible, it’s highly unlikely that the Puebla retailer is distilling all of its mezcal from wild agave. This just doesn’t make sense.
Just think of the rise of mezcal and how much of the spirit made in the state of Oaxaca is now on the shelves of liquor stores, bars, restaurants, and mezcalerías, in Mexico, throughout North America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, including China. . Can labels be accurate if so many describe the juice as wild-crafted? Of course not. But some brand owners believe the buying public will pay more if the mezcal is described as having been made from wild agave. If you visit Santiago Matatlán, the sides of the road are filled with fields where espadín is grown almost exclusively. But venture further afield, to more remote regions, and traverse the dirt roads on the other side of the mountain, and you’ll find arroqueño, tobalá, Mexican, madrecuixe, and barrel, all in neat rows, waiting to be harvested and processed; later being labeled as wild in some cases.
Let’s assume for a moment that all labels describing a mezcal as distilled from wild agave are accurate. That does not mean that the mezcal is of better quality than the next bottle that lacks the word wild as a descriptor. Just think about it. The microclimate (including yeasts in the air and the water source), the means of production, the tools of the trade, the type of wood used for baking, the skill of the palenquero, etc. must all be considered. Each is just as likely, if not more likely, to affect quality, as is wild v. cultivated.
Some communities are dictating to their palenqueros that for every wild agave harvested, two must be planted. And some brand owners seek volunteers during the rainy season to plant small seed-grown agaves in the mountains. In both cases, let’s assume that those magueyitos will be left to grow in the wild for a decade or so, without irrigation, fertilizer, weeding, or any other care. How should the resulting mezcal be labeled? I suggest, as some have called it, semi-wild. But again, that doesn’t help us determine the quality of what’s in the bottle. We must know more, much more, including the reputation of the producer. And of course, the type of agave used will likely affect our purchasing decisions as well.
One brand touts its mezcal as gluten-free, feeding into the celiac frenzy. Are there mezcals that are not gluten-free?
The fact that one liter costs 500 pesos and another 1,000 pesos, both from the same palenquero but of different species, does not mean that the latter is of better quality than the former.
Does age really matter? Maybe. But most likely, those brands that flaunt on their labels the age of the agave used to produce the particular mezcal are simply trying to increase the price. An employee at a mezcal store in central Oaxaca used to tell customers that tepeztate takes 35 years to mature. As a palenquero friend once told me, if the peasant who harvests that tepeztate from the mount does not know his own age, how does he know the age of the maguey?
Beware of those who are too opinionated in promoting their own brand of mezcal or other brands, and those who tend to speak in absolute terms. What is your motivation? I would suggest that they are trying to build their reputation as mezcal experts or inflate the price of the agave brandy they are marketing.
One could reasonably expect to pay more for a mezcal made from cultivated agave that has been in a nursery and then in a field for 15 to 40 years, given the care it has received over such a long period of time and the cost of having it. . occupies its own square meter on valuable land. If it is grown, then on the whole it would seem to be of more modest value, subject, of course, to how many kilos of raw agave it took to produce one litre, clay v. copper distillation, age, and the rest. But it is unlikely that he has been in the field for much more than a dozen years. If it’s wild, why should it cost more if it’s just been growing unattended in the hills for a couple of decades? It is true that agave wild in the field for 25 years could have a richer flavor due to the time it has had to absorb rich minerals and a large amount of carbohydrates. But the same can be said of agave grown on the steep slope of a deep river valley, or left for a year after the quiote has been cut. If you are convinced that it is wild, and that the person who has harvested it has sought to get into the mountains and back out again, then sure. But wild can also mean grown on flat land adjacent to the Palenquero distillery.
The global mezcal boom has been generous to growers and distillers. The pattern of exponential growth is expected to continue for decades, despite the cyclical nature and fashion in the alcohol business. Consumers have also jumped on the wave. If brand owners and their representatives, and retailers, including stores, bars and restaurants, want to continue reaping the benefits, they all need to recognize that the salsa bandwagon may be short-lived if the current pattern continues. Perhaps the industry needs better oversight and regulation. For those opposed to that scenario, the solution is to heed this advice.