Mezcal and Fair Trade
Not a week goes by without a visitor to Oaxaca wanting to learn about Mexico’s iconic agave based spirit, and asking a very pointed question: why are some of these industry experts in the city steadfastly against common practices relating to imbibing mezcal, such as drinking reposados and añejos, using mezcal to make cocktails, and consuming one's product choice based on ABV (alcohol by volume) personal preference. I hear about the promulgation of rules about the shape and composition of drinking vessels, and of the dissemination of misinformation regarding how long it takes different species of agave to mature, and which mezcals are made with wild as opposed to cultivated maguey. Usually such points of view are not expressed as opinion subject to discussion, but rather fact, or in some cases gospel.
To be clear, while I have been around mezcal in Oaxaca for a quarter century, and am currently involved in the industry leading mezcal educational tours on a part-time basis, I am far from an expert. There is a long learning curve associated with mezcal, with so much to absorb in its now modern era. In fact many authorities (as distinct from "experts"), both relative newcomers to the industry involved in production and/or export, and veterans whose families have been steeped in distillation for generations, approach production with open minds, and are anxious to continue learning through the exchange of information.
Reposados & Anejos
Some say you should never drink reposado or añejo. When pressed for a reason they often state that it alters the natural flavors and aromas of the agave. True enough, but so what. Could one not equally use the word "enhances?" The same industry people, often owners and employees of mezcalerías, however, don't think twice about encouraging patrons to try a product where the baked crushed maguey has been fermented in a bull hide, yielding a unique profile; or a mezcal made where the agave has been baked over mesquite (as opposed to pine, oak, etc.), again creating a different nuance. So why dismiss aging? One mezcalería owner has told me that she has not been able to find good aged mezcals. Oh come on!
This leads me to one rationalization for the position, that aged mezcal is not traditional mezcal. Perhaps the spirit was not being stored or transported in oak during the earliest years of distillation in Mexico. But certainly towards the end of the 16th century, when the Spanish began emptying their imported Old World sherry barrels, and then later their rum barrels, oak receptacles were likely (if not certainly) being used for mezcal. Aging was taking place if not by design, then by default.
It was often more expedient for producers to store and transport product in a 200 liter barrel, than use several 70 liter clay cántaros (pots). And so with a good supply of used barrels emerging in the marketplace, aged mezcals became commonplace (i.e. traditional), dating back a couple of hundred years I would suggest, with some producers eventually making a science (or art) out of resting their spirits; in French sherry barrels, Kentucky bourbon or Tennessee whisky barrels, and in due course employing new barrels fashioned from Canadian white oak. For generations some palenquero families have prided themselves in the quality of their rested spirits, using various aging styles and different barrels for different lengths of time to achieve specific flavor profiles. So to suggest it is difficult to find aged mezcals of high quality in the state of Oaxaca, is in my estimation a weak excuse.
For my excursions I usually bring along an añejo in my nine-mezcal sample box. If a client enjoys it, this signals that we should visit one or two distilleries which produce reposados and añejos, and carry on discussing the topic of aging. If not, then its joven (or blanco, that is unaged) all the way. But here's the point: most of us are in the business of promoting the spirit (with of course varying degrees of profit motivation, altruism, passion, etc.) with a view to lauding its attributes so that more people will try, and subsequently become fans and regular purchasers of mezcal. The more mezcal that is consumed, the better it is for the industry, and most importantly for growers who live a subsistence existence, as well as for small-scale palenqueros and their families. We should not close off any market segment capable of becoming established and growing.
There's room for mezcal on the bar of any single malt scotch, tequila, brandy or whisky aficionado's home. If someone is a fan of a 16 year old Lagavulin or a Burgundy wood finish Glenmorangie, what positive result can there be by telling her to never drink an aged mezcal? Yes, over 90% of the mezcals in my collection are blancos, and that's what I usually drink. But sometimes I get a hankering for a mild reposado, or a rich five year añejo with tones of butterscotch, or a peaty single malt.
I believe that the more appropriate and educational modality is to encourage novices to begin by sampling blancos, from whatever region, type of agave, means of production, tools of the trade, and so on. Teach about the innumerable nuances and unrivalled complexity of unaged mezcal. But then encourage the client to try one or two aged products, especially if dealing with a client who is a fan of barrel aged spirits. If you dissuade someone from trying something aged, you risk losing a prospective convertee; you are also doing a disservice to the client.
The Cocktail Craze
I've read that the worst way to bastardize mezcal is to use it in a cocktail. Since publication that author has graciously tempered his dogmatism, likely after having realized that promoting mezcal as an ingredient in cocktails helps everyone in the broader alcohol consumption industry. Some bartenders still believe that it is not worth it to use a high quality expensive mezcal when making a cocktail. With all due respect, the better view as promulgated by mixologists and bartenders renowned for their cocktail prowess, is that mezcal should be considered as any other ingredient, with different qualities, varieties, etc. There's a difference between red and green pepper flavors, cilantro, cucumber, etc. If you have 50 different mezcals on the shelf, consider which one would pair best with the other ingredients. Is the predominant note of the spirit fruity, floral, herbaceous, earthy, caramelized, woody, and so on? How will a particular spirit character complement the other ingredients and enhance the ultimate cocktail? When it comes to pairing mezcal for mixing cocktails and for cooking, I'm a novice at best, though I continue to take classes with a view to honing my palate.
Alcohol by Volume
Telling consumers that they should only drink mezcal between 45% and 55% ABV (as distinct from proof) has become somewhat acceptable practice in Oaxaca mezcalerías. While most artisanal mezcals are within that range, there are excellent products both below and above the "norm." Spirits consumers who are accustomed to drinking quality yet commercial tequilas or scotches at 40%, may never come around to appreciating 53% mezcals. So why tell them what ABV they should and should not drink? If a patron has in mind an evening of imbibing, perhaps three 3-pour flights, consider sneaking in a couple of products outside of your preferred ABV range and gauge interest, welcome commentaries, and discuss.
The rationale for the rule simply does not hold water. The owners of one particular brand of artisanal mezcal conducted close to 100 blind tastings throughout Mexico before settling upon a 37% spirit for its flagship product. During the first year of operation the brand shipped 16,000 liters from its distillery in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca, for the national market alone. The brand continues to thrive, opening new markets.
It is indeed true that some mezcals less than or greater than the stated ABV range do not enable the consumer to fully appreciate the particular spirit's flavor potential, but this is not always the case. Some mezcals well into the 60%+ category, in the realm of puntas or heads, go down more smoothly than a 45%, and retain exquisite notes.
It is suggested that with the current agave scarcity and concomitant dramatic increase in price per kilo of raw piña, producers and exporters will opt for one of two ways to address the "crisis" if they wish to maintain or enhance existing profit levels: significantly increase the price per liter or bottle - but the spirits market will determine the viability of doing so; or reduce the ABV with a view to remaining competitive in the marketplace. If the latter, the blowhards will have little choice but to temper their dogmatism.
"Tobalá [Agave potatorum] is a wild agave; tepeztate [Agave marmorata] takes 35 years to grow." Yes some, but certainly not all of the mezcal made with the former uses wild tobalá, and some tepeztate no doubt takes 35 years to mature. But such statements, made as hard-fast truths not subject to discussion, bandied about by staff in some Oaxacan watering holes, lack absolute veracity. I now rarely speak or write about mezcal or agave with a tone of certainty, and prefer including in my own bluster qualifying words such as “usually,” “on average,” “it is suggested,” or “in my opinion.” Tobalá is being cultivated from seed and thereafter transformed into mezcal. Some producers are apparently dropping seeds or small plants from airplanes, and letting them grow and mature in the wild prior to harvesting. Others are germinating seeds, growing small tobalás close to their homes or palenques, and then transplanting them in the wild. I confess that I don’t know whether such projects result in mezcal made with wild, domesticated or cultivated maguey. Regarding tepeztate, my palenquero friends tell me that it usually matures after 12 – 15 years of growth, but that yes, it can take much longer. They do not speak in absolutes.
I suppose that this promulgation as fact of matters relating to agave species, does help the proponent of half-truths, and to some extent initially the industry in a couple of ways. It advances the sense of romanticism and uniqueness regarding mezcal. But it could also be a means of rationalizing a highly inflated price for mezcal made with tobalá, tepeztate and other “designer” agave species (without of course denying the often dramatic increased cost of producing mezcal with them; although with the current stratospheric cost of buying espadín piñas on the open market, who knows?). The ultimate disservice to the client, and it is suggested adverse impact for the retailer and broader business interest, is occasioned when the novice begins hearing and reading alternate viewpoints reasonably not stated as dogma; he then may become confused and frustrated.
Glasses, Cups, Jícaras & Clay
It’s hard to dispute that a vessel made of glass is the best medium for drinking mezcal, or any liquid for that matter, because it is neutral. Similarly I would suggest, at least for mezcal, a small half gourd or jicarita arguably provides imbibers with a shape which optimally enables their spirit to open prior to drinking. Some suggest, however, that the “wood” of the jícara impacts the flavor of the mezcal. A standard shot glass for mezcal, or caballito tequilero, is neutral, but because of its shape the spirit cannot open as is the case if poured into a jicarita. Does this throw a wrench into the proposition that you should only drink mezcal from glass? Yes, a solution to the conundrum is that the positive reply to the question holds if the glass is in the shape of a small half gourd. What if it’s a small clay cup in the shape of a jicarita? Worse than a jícara? Better or worse than a glass caballito?
The point, once again, is dogmatism. If it’s tradition that we want, then we should be drinking our mezcal out of half gourds like Mexicans have been doing for hundreds of years, or out of small pieces of the invasive bamboo specie known as carrizo (river reed). Query if it is the same people who advocate only drinking “traditional” mezcal (unaged), who would also shun the idea of being too traditional by drinking from a jícara or piece of carrizo, and not sipping out of glass.
The solution is, I suppose, to try drinking your mezcal out of a variety of vessels of different shapes and compositions. I’ve noticed when experimenting with industry friends, that some mezcals open differently depending on the shape. For me, anything but a caballito, made of glass or carrizo, is fine, suggesting that perhaps form is more important than composition (leaving aside the issue of clay jicaritas).
Experiment if you can. Perhaps the small ribbed glass votive candle holders with the cross on the bottom, or a brandy, is the appropriate compromise. At the end of the day it’s akin to what I’ve read from the critics of new vehicle reviewers; when it comes to handling, cornering, shocks and comfort, forget what the experts write, and test drive to form your own opinion and decide based on how the car, truck or SUV handles when behind the wheel. Perhaps for one particular mezcal anything serves, for another one vessel enhances optimally, and yet for a third a different form and medium provides that exquisite aroma and flavor profile which has otherwise escaped.
Dogmatism and Mezcal: Harmful for the Industry, or Just the Blowhards
Dogmatism sometimes gets the better of us. When we’re teaching about the culture of mezcal, it is sometimes very easy to exaggerate and mis-state, by finding fact where there is none. And when we’re preaching to the uninformed, we sometimes forget that there is always fact-checking. The uninitiated will not always take what is stated as gospel; especially when their interest in visiting Oaxaca is to learn about our spirit from a variety of sources.
We must check our dogmatism at the door. The braggarts may be building up their own reputations, but only for that fleeting moment, hour or day, until more tempered discourse in a different drinking or learning environment takes over. Afterwards, it’s the reputation of the mezcalería which potentially suffers.
The foregoing are only a few of the instances in which blowhards in their dogmatic approach to the industry in the end do more harm than good: “X agave makes the best agave distillate; mezcal that is reduced to its ultimate consumption ABV by adding distilled or spring water rather than just the tail of the distillation (cola), is not real mezcal.” Again here, the same problem.
The dramatic rise in the number of mezcalerías in Oaxaca since about 2013, is remarkable. But without proper training of staff and taking greater care in promoting the spirit, it may all go for naught. Encourage both novices and the initiated, to experiment, read, imbibe and otherwise learn. Don’t speak or write in absolutes, save for when there is certainty. Opine, but at the same time acknowledge other points of view. The mezcal industry in Oaxaca, and for the world, will benefit and continue its surge.
Alvin Starkman is a permanent resident of the city of Oaxaca, from where he operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.