Mezcal is on the rise. Sales of tequila’s sister agave spirit, with its distinctive smoky note and beguiling complexity, totaled $387 million globally in 2021, according to Data Bridge Market Research, growing by 50% over the previous year, and are expected to reach six times that number by 2029. Heck, even the stars of Breaking Bad have a mezcal now.
But as its popularity grows, so do the sustainability concerns associated with the production of the spirit. Many, it shares with tequila, especially as it becomes increasingly industrialized. But the breadth of the category—mezcal can be made with more than 40 species of agave, in nine Mexican states—plus the unique processes used in its production, and the fact it has traditionally been made at tiny palenques, mean it has its own unique concerns as well.
Overharvesting of wild agave has been a concern surrounding the mezcal industry for a number of years. Unlike the blue Weber agave used for tequila, which can be harvested after as (relatively) few as seven years, the various types of agave used to make mezcal can take decades to reach maturity and aren’t being replanted at nearly the rate they’re harvested; now that demand has increased, it’s not just the agave themselves at risk, but the ecosystems of which the plants are merely one part. And although espadín is by far the most commonly used agave variety in mezcal production, and it requires “just” six to eight years’ growth, it’s facing the same biodiversity concerns as tequila’s blue Weber, according to Ivy Mix, the proprietor of Leyenda and Fiasco in Brooklyn. Additionally, in traditional mezcal production, the piñas are roasted in underground pits rather than steamed as they are for tequila. This step gives the spirit its distinctive smoky note, but it also requires wood to fuel the fire, which has contributed to deforestation, Mix explains.
There are also, of course, the questions of social and cultural sustainability for the people involved in the spirit’s production. “I think it’s important to recognize that true sustainability for an agave spirit brand goes beyond factors associated with the environment,” says Misty Kalkofen, an agave-spirit expert and the director of education at Another Round Another Rally. “The environmental factors are extremely important, of course, including factors around raw material, byproduct remediation, water [both overuse and pollution], deforestation, erosion, and on and on and on. But if a brand isn’t also considering economic sustainability for all parties involved in production, cultural sustainability, and social sustainability it is not a sustainable brand.” Kalkofen clarifies that by cultural sustainability she means the maintenance of traditions and preservation of the cultures traditionally associated with a product, and by social sustainability she’s referring to the well-being of the larger community around the production.
How do you ensure you’re selecting a sustainably and ethically produced bottle? Well, as a starting point, mezcal has one thing tequila doesn’t: an official classification system. The Consejo Regulador del Mezcal divides mezcal into three categories. Bottles labeled simply “mezcal” were most likely made via industrialized processes, employing autoclaves, stainless steel fermentation vessels, and more. “Mezcal artesanal,” the most common classification, indicates that the agave was cooked in pit ovens, but modern processes and equipment may have been used, such as copper stills for distillation. Bottles marked “mezcal ancestral” were made in the most traditional way, using clay pots for distilling. And a fourth category is becoming increasingly common: destilados de agave. Formerly used to indicate production methods that didn’t meet the qualifications of the CRM, it’s increasingly used by small distillers who are employing historical methods but are opting to forgo the onerous certification process.
While imperfect, these classifications “can offer a window into how mezcal is made,” says Mix. They’re less of a guide for what to buy than what to avoid, however. Somewhat obviously, you’ll want to avoid the industrially made stuff, the bottles marked merely "mezcal." Beyond that, however, as with tequila, it can be difficult to know which brands are employing best practices. “It's tough for the average consumer to truly determine which mezcals are being made 'the right way' or ‘traditionally’,” says Ryan Fitzgerald, the owner of ABV in San Francisco. “There are just so many brands available, and unfortunately, marketing has and will continue to appropriate any word that people associate with quality.”
A few are worth calling attention to, however. “Certain producers are really forging a path as far as being good for the world,” says Mix, who mentions Real Minero and Graciela Ángeles, who makes her mezcals in the ancestral method and maintains a seed library to ensure biodiversity. She also names the Cortés family, which owns three labels, including El Jolgorio, emphasizing their commitment to protecting biodiversity and of treating their workers correctly and kindly.
Other names that commonly crop up include Del Maguey. “There is not another mezcal brand that I know of that has a full-time director of sustainability as part of their team,” says Kalkofen, who says the maker is “one of the most talented palenqueros in the biz.” She names Mezcal Vago as well: “I have always revered the transparency shown by the team at Vago,” she says. The brand lists production details on its labels (which are made from spent agave fibers), and goes further in-depth about each expression on its website, which Kalkofen notes also features deep-dive posts on topics such as fermentation and acid in mezcal.
Mezonte is another highly respected brand. The company’s owner is “probably the most dedicated to the cultural preservation of these spirits of anyone on the planet,” says Mix. Kalkofen admires Mezonte’s commitment to social responsibility. “Working with small producers in Jalisco, Durango, Michoacán, and Puebla, the team at Mezonte puts all the cards on the table in regards to how they work with their producers,” she says. “On their website, they clearly lay out how their producers are compensated and what costs are absorbed by Mezonte so they can provide a fair and livable wage to the producers with whom they work.”
As for choosing specific bottles, Kalkofen notes it’s challenging to name individual expressions for mezcal because the spirit offers such a diverse range of flavor profiles depending on the types of agave and production methods used. And since every drinker’s preferences are individual, she says, “I always encourage consumers who are new to the category to seek out a respected agave program in their community to have a tasting experience with a knowledgeable bartender.”
An additional challenge is inconsistency between batches, which Fitzgerald notes is a hallmark of authentically made agave—a feature, not a bug. “One of the toughest things about mezcal is that if the producer is ‘doing it the right way,’ often that means it will be hard to consistently find the same bottle,” he says. “Even the biggest brands will have variations from batch to batch. Agave availability changes from year to year, so some small producers will have a certain mix of three agaves one year, and it will be different the next. So many aspects of the production can change slightly from batch to batch and year to year and those lead to subtle changes in the bottled spirit.” As an example, fermentations done during cold weather will take longer and can produce different flavors from those done during hot weather.
“Luckily, all these brands are respectful of the methods their producers have been using for generations, and that means you can trust anything they bottle,” says Fitzgerald. “While this can lead to variation, and moderate frustration when you can’t find another bottle of the blend you loved last year, it means you’re supporting the people who support the cultural heritage of this incredible spirit.”
These are the specific bottles the mezcal experts recommend. Note that although mezcal cocktails continue to increase in popularity, and bottles intended for mixing do exist, traditionally mezcal is intended to be sipped neat.
Made at a lower proof and meant for mixing, this is the bottle most bartenders prefer to use in cocktails. Fitzgerald proclaims it “the only brand with the experience to be able to offer an inexpensive and high-quality mezcal made in a fully traditional manner.” It’s worth noting that Del Maguey’s other offerings are worth exploring as well; as a deeper cut, Kalkofen suggests the Tobala bottling.
“Everyone should be trying mezcales from all over,” and not just from Oaxaca, says Mix, adding that many coming out of San Luis Potosí are inexpensive and “totally unusual in flavor and texture.” She notes this floral and herbaceous bottle, made with the wild agave Salmiana Crassispina, is a particularly good example.
Made with estate-grown Inaequidens agave, this bottle comes from what Fitzgerald calls “an incredible mezcal-producing family from the state of Michoacán,” a terroir that makes its mezcals distinct from those made in Oaxaca.
This bottle, also meant for mixing, has a slightly higher ABV than most, at 45%. Mix proclaims it “super-awesome and tasty for mixing cocktails at home.” It’s made in the artesanal way, with the piñas roasted underground and crushed using a stone molino, fermented in wooden vats, and then double-distilled in copper pot stills.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
“It’s a great brand with consistently delicious mezcals from a few producers that all have some familial connection,” says Fitzgerald. The yellow label on this bottle, one of his specific picks, denotes the mezcalero who made it, each using a different water source and distillation cut. The agave for this bottle was crushed by tahona and double-distilled in copper pot stills.
This tiny producer of non-denomination destilados de agave releases such small batches it’s impossible to name a single bottle to try; both Mix and Kalkofen suggest you buy anything you can get your hands on. “All of the small batches from Mezonte are remarkable,” says Kalkofen. “If you find something from them that you love, buy it while you can, as each lot is unique and you need to get it before it’s gone.”
Mix calls this bottle “my favorite mezcal coming out of Oaxaca.” The artesanal mezcal is made from tepextate agave that’s harvested when it’s 15 to 18 years old, cooked in a traditional underground oven, and distilled in small copper pot stills. “It's just so freakin' good, and the guys who make it are so amazing,” says Mix.