Mezcal and Fair Trade
The Agave & Mezcal Industry Wild v. Cultivated Discussion and How Dogmatism is Harmful
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Dogmatism in the mezcal industry causes misinformation to metastasize. It begins when those with the broadest and loudest platforms create other lesser aficionados, yet still in their likeness. The latter are agave distillate (relative) novices who as a consequence of predominantly online social media find their own audiences, and these neophytes are revered by others with even less mezcal experience. Then they too continue to preach false gospel. And it’s all reinforced; those on the bottom rung are applauded by their disciples above them, and that misinformation keeps climbing until it reaches the top, where those at that pinnacle can applaud their much earlier proclaimed “truths.” Who would ever question the words brought down from Mount Sinai? That would be deemed sacrilegious, tantamount to heresy.
There are several manifestations of mezcal dogmatism. Its dissemination ultimately impacts the masses. Change is difficult to achieve once the number of believers increases without a rein to slow it down from a gallop, to a trot, to a walk, and finally a stop. But we must keep on trying to set the record straight, or at minimum be open to receiving differing perspectives, for the long-term benefit of both those who have been lead down the garden path, and the mezcal industry in general. And so, let’s summarize the arguments I have been laying out over the past several years.
Wild, Cultivated, Multinationals & Celebrities
“Tobalá is a wild agave,” state many in the industry who should know better. Some even label all of their non-espadín agave distillate maguey expressions with the term wild or silvestre. Thankfully change is in the wind, although the breeze blows ever so slowly, even as I and others post photos of row upon row of clearly cultivated barril, tobalá, arroqueño, mexicano, and the list goes on. Yet the misinformation continues. Why? The promoters of such myths try to capture the romanticism of generations long passed, of the poor campesino foraging in the hills. Yes, there is still wild agave out there, and yes, it is being harvested. But certainly not as previously. In my opinion, far more mezcal supposedly produced with wild agave, is in fact distilled with maguey cultivado. Relatively little is produced with the real deal. And that’s a good thing.
The uneducated consumer wrongly assumes, or is told, that a mezcal made with wild agave tastes better than its cultivated counterpart, and will often readily pay more. In my opinion quality most often depends predominantly on the skill of the maker.
If you visit a palenque, certainly in the state of Oaxaca, sometimes cultivated costs more than wild. That might be because of at least two factors: (1) the carbohydrate content of the maguey silvestre might be higher than that of its seed-grown and transplanted equivalent, thus yield goes up and price accordingly comes down; (2) if it’s been cultivated, that suggests that someone may have paid for the land on which it grows, and has been tending the rows of agave for several years.
We know that big business is now in the mezcal industry; over the past decade or longer having purchased outright or an interest in some of our preferred brands. Corporations which come to mind include Pernod Ricard, Bacardi, Diageo and Constellation Brands. They are in the business of making money. And celebrities have their own brands of agave distillate as well. In both cases they have a global reach, meaning that mezcal is now available in countries and otherwise in relatively remote parts of the world where previously the spirit was not on the shelves. And in the case of those movie stars, sports figures and musicians, their name recognition alone increases knowledge of the distillate and accordingly mezcal sales. So there is much more mezcal made with tobalá, tepeztate, madrecuixe, and all the rest, now being sold. And that’s a good thing. Don’t automatically decry the large corporations and celebrity brands. Understand the positive(s) in the case of the former, and that some celebrities endeavor to “do the right thing” when it comes to interacting with palenqueros, their families and their villages.
The large corporate interest wants to keep profiting, and therefore so as to continue to do so, want to ensure that these “designer” magueys will always be available to them. They are buying land and having people plant for them; grown from seed, and using the hijuelos, and maguey de quiote. Good or bad, it’s happening. In addition, there are communities, recognizing the mezcal boom, while continuing to allow their residents to harvest from the wild are sometimes requiring that for every wild agave harvested, two must be planted; grown in their greenhouses or on their communal land. And that’s a good thing.
What constitutes a cultivated plant? Some say it must have been planted by humans for at least five generations in order to be truly considered cultivated. Otherwise, some say, a more appropriate term is semi-cultivated or semi-wild. But for we as lay people, I would suggest, either of the following defines a cultivated plant, agave or otherwise:
The Purist & Traditional Mezcal
“You should only drink traditional, pure unadulterated mezcal,” is an amalgam of what one hears from some working at and owning mezcal bars both in the US, and even in mezcal’s heartland, Mexico’s state of Oaxaca. And it’s also preached by some of the mezcal world’s “purists,” many of whom shun cocktails made with the spirit (but I ask rhetorically if they drink margaritas made with tequila; or are they just anti-cocktail).
What do they mean by “traditional” mezcal? I assume they are referring to the agave distillates now categorized as ancestral or artesanal. But do they realize that the mezcal they have been drinking outside of Mexico since the early part of this millennium is not what was most often drunk throughout all of the 1900s (and earlier) and into the first decade of the 2000s? If today you buy your mezcal in New York, London, Vancouver, Paris or LA, you are likely not drinking a traditionally-distilled agave spirit. Why? Because prior to the promulgation and enforcement of the COMERCAM/CRM dictates, there was no requirement to have your mezcal lab-tested for certain chemical compounds or for acidity, or for methanol. Flavor profiles necessarily changed! Methanol contributes to the nature of the distillate just as the head tastes different from the body which tastes different from the tail. All of a sudden, in order to get brands of mezcal out of Mexico, its recipe had to change (unless the producer had already been removing the methanol). So today, if you want to drink traditional mezcal, you must either purchase an agave distillate (as opposed to mezcal) the brand owner of which may not be that concerned with lab test results, or come to Mexico and buy uncertified product directly from the producer, or perhaps drink one of many house “mezcals” (technically agave distillates) offered in local bars, restaurants and mezcalerías. Perhaps you should regularly visit Mexico to buy your agave distillate, if you consider yourself a purist.
Many of the same aficionados shun aged mezcal, as well as pechugas, any agave spirit infused with anything (i.e. the gusano, herbs, fruit, etc.), and certainly a mezcal wherein the agave has been steamed in an autoclave or a sealed brick room. They contend it must be baked over firewood and rocks, and fermented in traditional vats whatever that means. They want what they consider to be the real deal. They don’t want the true nuances imparted by the particular sub-species of agave to be masked or adulterated. But wait a minute. Doesn’t the particular type of firewood over which the agave is baked impact (alter) the flavor? Doesn’t the composition of the fermentation vat impact (alter) the nose? Doesn’t the water source (i.e. river, well or mountain stream) impact (alter) the finish? Wouldn’t you get the true nuance imparted by the particular sub-species of agave by steaming it and using stainless steel fermentation vats and a consistent water source filtered the same way all the time? They want traditional, but they aren’t getting it, yet don’t realize it.
Mezcal reposado and añejo have been around since long before these pundits were even born, aged agave distillates dating back hundreds of years. And pechugas since likely the 1800s based on archival evidence, and certainly in Oaxaca since the 1930s, if not earlier, based upon oral histories I have taken. How far back must we go for mezcal to be termed “traditional?” And so there’s an incongruity between wanting to promote what they call “traditional” mezcal, and wanting to retain all the natural nuances based on agave type, yet wanting to mask them by cooking over firewood and fermenting in vats made of wood, clay, or animal skin, and using different natural water sources. In a 2021 publication (Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances [Third Expanded Edition with Portraits]), I tried to enumerate the unlimited diversity in nose, body and finish, achieved in traditionally made mezcal.
They say don’t drink it with the worm or adulterated with fruit, herbs and/or meat proteins because you’ll then be bastardizing the spirit. But they also say do discern the differences based upon the rest, what they want to illustrate (clay v. copper; growing region, cowhide v. pine vats, etc.), and nothing else.
The Best This & The Best That
Those at or near the bottom rung of the ladder are now going off on their own tangents, something those near the top never intended to happen. We find them on social media showing their prowess by going as far as commenting in the superlative: “The tepeztate distilled by W palenquero in X village using Y means of production and Z tools of the trade, is the absolute best.” Not only does she lose credibility, but wreaks lasting damage to industry growth. While I disagree with the concept of tasting notes as a general rule in the case of hand-crafted agave distillates, it would be much better to yes, describe nose, body and finish, even with additional descriptors, and leave out it’s “the best.” The problem with superlatives, certainly in this context, is 1) some might not realize that they are essentially subjective, and 2) someone new to the spirit might very well conclude “if that’s the best mezcal has to offer, I’m hightailing it back to single malts.”
Epilogue (The Harm Done)
As I have noted in Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market and elsewhere, some want to keep mezcal as a secret society for the in-crowd only. That’s what it was like in the late 1990s when the modern era of mezcal began (with Del Maguey et al); at the time it was somewhat understandable. But now the industry has unbridled potential, with an opportunity to positively impact the economy of at least Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in Mexico. Those in the secret society shun the concept of mezcal cocktails despite the fact that their growth in the marketplace helps the economy of Oaxaca and the producers they should want to support. Their dogmatism and spreading of misinformation harms the industry, inhibiting its growth.
You know who you are. Take a step back. Act responsibly. Think before you write, speak, promote. Understand that there are very few absolutes in the industry. Let your disciples know others’ points of view and not just your own, and use this to promote healthy discussion. Remember that the longer you’ve been around the industry, the more you will realize how little you know.
Alvin Starkman has been gradually increasing his knowledge of mezcal for more than three decades. He has written over 70 articles about the spirit, agave and industry sustainability. Alvin operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (mezcaleducationaltours.com). He is the author of Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances (Third Expanded Edition).
 As an aside, and not directly related to the theme of this article yet nevertheless worthy of note and discussion at a later date, Schippmann, Leaman & Cunningham wrote:
“Demand for a wide variety of wild species is increasing with growth in human needs, numbers and commercial trade. With the increased realization that some wild species are being over-exploited, a number of agencies are recommending that wild species be brought into cultivation systems (BAH 2004; Lambert et al. 1997; WHO 1993). Cultivation can also have conservation impacts, however, and these need to be better understood. Medicinal plant production through cultivation, for example, can reduce the extent to which wild populations are harvested, but it also may lead to environmental degradation and loss of genetic diversity as well as loss of incentives to conserve wild populations.”
And so indeed it is a slippery slope.
 For the average consumer of agave distillates, the methanol in mezcal, even if not removed to meet the standard, will not make you go blind, kill you, or make you gravely ill.
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