One of the fastest-growing spirit categories in the world, mezcal has been on one hell of a tear lately. Exports are at an all-time high matched by a spike in production. With more bottles pouring into the U.S. than ever before and the explosion of mezcal bars opening across the country, not to mention huge investments by multinational companies, Americans are finally developing a real taste for Mexico’s most prized spirit. Some are starting to ask what the future holds.
In some ways, the future of mezcal is right where it started, in Mexico’s backcountry, at tiny distilleries that function more or less the same way they did 500 years ago. While Oaxaca is still the material heart of mezcal—the vast majority of it is produced there—the spirit’s future continues to branch out across the country, from Michoacán to Durango to San Luis Potosí, where some believe today’s best mezcal is being made.
Never heard of San Luis Potosí? You’re not alone. The tiny north-central state is known more for its waterfalls and well-preserved colonial architecture than its distilling culture. In the 19th century, it was developed and thoroughly exploited for its fertile silver mines. Some of the buildings from that era survive as haciendas where mezcal is produced.
Erick Rodriguez, the owner of the boutique label Almamezcalera, travels throughout Mexico to find rare and wild mezcal varieties and bring them to market. He says San Luis Potosí (SLP) was one of the original producers of vino de mezcal in the era of Spanish rule. (In fact, SLP had the first Ruta del Mezcal in Mexico, which is updated periodically.)
“It has more history than people think,” says Rodriguez. “San Luis Potosí was briefly the capital of Mexico. It’s one of the keepers of the oldest distillation processes when Oaxaca wasn’t even in the picture. The traditional producers still use Capacaha clay stills, a Mongolian style that goes way back.”
The local mezcal was sold throughout the country and particularly popular among miners. But the industry took a huge hit in the early 20th century after the Mexican Revolution. It has been operating quietly ever since—until now.
My first inkling that something was afoot came three years ago when I was judging the Maestros del Mezcal tasting in Mexico City. It was a quiet day by Mexico City standards, and we were set up in a corner of an urban garden park, the smell of tortillas wafting through the air. I worked my way through a full lineup of excellent mezcals, but the obvious standout of the group came from a San Luis mezcalero named Angel Navarro and his Campanilla label. My fellow judges shared the impression, and we awarded it first place. Bottles sold out instantly.
Another San Luis mezcal won second place the following year, which quickly put the state on the map. Suddenly, there was interest from the mezcal cognoscenti. Today, the region is definitely on the gastronomy tourism path with bottles from Navarro and other highly sought-after cult producers. (Right now in the U.S., you can find versions by Mezcales de Leyenda and Mezcal Derrumbes, whose San Luis Potosí expression runs about 40 bucks, an absurdly low price for wild-agave mezcal. More brands are circling.)
So what’s so great about this small-state spirit? First off, the terroir. San Luis Potosí sits in the high desert, where there’s very little rain; almost all of the agaves are only irrigated by rainfall. And the soil has incredible mineral content. “The desert creates the flavors,” says Esteban Morales, the founder of Mezcal Derrumbes.
Most of the mezcal from SLP is made from the low-yielding salmiana agave, which Morales says is very waxy and difficult to work with. It can take as much as four times the amount of salmiana to produce mezcal than it does with other agave varieties. The plant grows very large—sometimes as wide as 12 feet—and is also used to make the fermented drink pulque.
Once these huge agave are harvested, the real magic happens. The traditional mezcal distillation method in Oaxaca is to roast the ripe agave, crush it, then ferment and distill the entire mash. But in San Luis, mezcaleros siphon off the juice from the crushed agave and distill that on its own.
The difference comes through in the flavor. “I always say, If the color green could have a flavor, this would be it,” says Rodriguez. Mezcals from SLP have a stunning combination of high minerality and distinctive spiciness. “I think it’s one of the best transformations from agave to a spirit. It’s so full of jalapeño and pickle flavors.”
This last part is beloved by Mexicans because it reflects the country’s spicy cuisine while also pairing well with it. Rodriguez says it evokes one of the original flavor profiles of the region. That, in a way, brings the drinker back to the very beginning.
Which seems to fit perfectly with the theme of San Luis Potosí and mezcal in general. What’s old is now new.