It’s the latest buzzword of the bar world: sustainability. Brands champion it, marketers co-opt it, and the rest of us pretend we know what it means, if only to feel extra warm and fuzzy while throwing back our favorite cocktail.
But in the quickly changing world of mezcal, sustainability is a lot more than hype. It’s a function of survival. From 2005 to 2015, mezcal sales in the U.S. increased by almost 300 percent, making it one of the fastest-growing spirits in the country and indeed the world. This dizzying uptick in consumer demand comes at odds with an artisanal product that can take years, even decades, to cultivate.
Big brands from far outside Oaxaca are descending upon a fragile ecosystem, lining up for a lucrative slice of the pie. The temptation to sacrifice the future for a fast cash grab is palpable. And now, more than ever, mezcal must take steps to preserve its future. Thankfully, a select group of stewards south of the border are taking action.
About an hour’s drive southeast of Oaxaca City is the town of Santiago Matatlán. You might not guess that this sleepy village of 3,000 is the World Capital of Mezcal if it weren’t for the sign crossing the highway, proclaiming its status.
Since the 1830s, Asis Cortes’ family has been producing agave spirit here. As a sixth-generation mezcalero, he has seen more changes over the past half-decade than his five forebears combined. In 2010, he launched the El Jolgorio brand. With its colorful wax-dipped tops and Ralph Steadman design, it’s one of the most respected mezcal labels available in the states today.
“People talk about demand for the U.S. as the only factor, but this is false,” says Cortes. “The demand is global, and the industry wasn’t ready for the growth. It was coming off a period of 20 years of very low production.”
As recently as a decade ago, says Cortes, local young men opted to find economic opportunity elsewhere rather than pick up the family mantle of distillation. “One important aspect of sustainability is sustaining the families that create mezcal into the future,” says Cortes. “We work on every step of production, from growing the plants to bottling and labeling at our plant. Everything is done by hand, and that creates jobs and opportunity. We believe that fostering small-scale production and high quality is the right approach.”
In order to satisfy a global thirst, Cortes, like many other successful mezcal labels, bands together a network of small farmers, sourcing liquid in piecemeal fashion, as it becomes available. “We intentionally rotate the production from wild agaves and agaves in high demand around all of our producers,” he says. “For example, in some years, we might only bottle 300 bottles of tepeztate, split between two different producers. This means that no single producer’s agave stock are overly stressed.”
It also means reigning in exports. “Although consumers expect product to be readily available, this is not realistic to expect from mezcal that is coming from small villages in the mountains,” says Cortes.
When it comes to agave conservation, there are few voices as measured as that of Dr. Iván Saldaña, the man behind Montelobos mezcal. He takes a hardline stance that only cultivated varietals of agave, namely espadín, ought to be used in mezcal production. “We are living in a real ‘gold rush,’ he warns. “I think the use of wild agave should be banned as a general rule for commercial brands when there is no evidence that populations where their agave is obtained can remain healthy in numbers in the years to come.”
Along the rugged hills of mezcal country (centered around the states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Guerrero), overharvesting is eradicating wild agave populations. And just because a brand sticks a USDA Organic certification on its label doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s addressing this concern.
“Diversity needs to be taken into account,” says Saldaña. “It is necessary to cross-fertilize agave populations to warranty a rich biological diversity. Organic European and Mexican legislation requires evidence of sustainability of the populations where the agaves are harvested. Sadly, most brands obtain only the U.S. certification, which is less stringent, to avoid the additional requirements.”
Saldaña also warns of a commodity not commonly associated with mezcal production: wood. The rural distilleries where the liquid is produced (palenques) rely on timber for agave roasting. It’s a precious resource in the high desert, and Mexico has developed a black market for wood that doesn’t follow sustainable protocols. “Mezcal producers can start reforesting with a scientific, measurable manner so they can warranty wood in the future,” he says. “The marketing of planting trees is not enough. We must create plans.”
Then there’s the issue of water. Since most palenques are built on rivers, many of them threaten to contaminate public drinking supplies, especially as they ramp up production. For every bottle of mezcal, 10 to 12 liters of waste liquid (or vinasa) is left behind, along with 15 to 20 kilograms of spent agave fibers (bagazo). When the mezcaleros shovel this acidic oxygen-starved waste into the rivers, it lowers the pH of the water, threatening both wildlife and surrounding villages.
Sombra mezcal has developed several novel techniques for combatting the threat. “We’ve begun to make adobe bricks hydrated with some of the vinasa and reinforced with spent bagazo,” says Richard Betts, the brand’s founder. “We’re experimenting with these bricks for a few building projects at the palenque,” he says. “If everything goes as planned, we’ll eventually be able to contribute them to public works in our community of Matatlán.”
Additionally, Betts is collaborating with engineers to find ways in which waste from distillation can be converted into biofuel to power the stills. “If successful, we’ll be able to replace much of the propane gas we’re currently using.”
Because the overwhelming majority of mezcal brands today are fueled by outside investment, exploitation of the native workforce is an unfortunate byproduct. A sustainable enterprise is one that reinvests in the human capital necessary for its production.
At El Silencio, CEO and co-founder Fausto Zapata has been particularly mindful of this as his company has grown into one of the biggest labels in the U.S. “Initially, one dollar of each of our joven bottles sold was reinvested into the region,” he says. “As the espadín bottle grew in popularity and production increased, we moved toward investing in proper maintenance of the fields and addressing the most pressing needs of the farmers. We’ve also poured resources into infrastructure in San Baltazar, where we employ locals to help build road access to the fields and distillery.”
Danny Mena of Mezcales de Leyenda is another firm proponent of social sustainability. As proud as he is of his brand’s organic certification, he is even more gratified by its distinction as Fair for Life and Fair Trade. “This was an important step for us to really show what it’s like to reinvest in the communities we work in,” says Mena. “We have to pay them 20 percent above market rate. We have to ensure that they receive social security, safe working conditions and appropriate time off, and at the end of the year, we have to give back to the community 5 percent of everything we earned for the year from each region.”
In San Juan del Río, where much of their liquid is sourced, Mena funded the installation of a satellite internet room, bringing local students the web access free of charge. “The daughter of one of our producers educates the kids on how to navigate,” he says.
At another palenque in Matatlán, the brand helped construct a house and a new distillery for an especially hard-working mezcalero. One producer was gifted a pickup truck. More than just simple charity, these actions help foster goodwill. It’s a way to insure that these communities get to share in at least some small degree of the success that mezcal is enjoying around the world.
Sustainability in mezcal will always be a work in progress—not a destination so much as a journey, with significant mile markers posted along the way. Keeping pesticides off the crops and vinasa out of the drinking supply is just the beginning. “It’s a constant effort, as there is always more to be done, and there is never a point where your mezcal becomes fully sustainable,” says Saldaña.
“I want the mezcaleros to be treated with respect and to increase the quality of life of producers,” says Cortes. “It’s too early to say what will happen.”
You, of course, have the most important say in all of this—with every purchase, every sip. What you hold is much more than liquid in a bottle. It’s a statement on how you want to shape a vibrant yet vulnerable community. It’s a lot to swallow, so sip wisely.