In 2022 sales of Tequila and Mezcal reached a record $6 billion in the United States according to DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council of the United States). Driven by consumer interest in the premium and super premium categories and the growth of celebrity backed brands, the umbrella of agave spirits is the second fastest growing category behind only ready-to-drink alcoholic beverages (RTDs). What does this mean for agave spirits, an agriculturally based spirit category made from a slow growing succulent? A new book, Agave Spirits: The Past, Present and Future of Mezcals, takes a closer look at the implications of the meteoric rise and commercialization of these heritage spirits.
Acclaimed agricultural ecologist and ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan and trailblazing restauranteur and founder of Siembra Spirits David Suro-Piñera co-authored Agave Spirits. Their multifaceted discussion of the “biodiversity in the bottle” is based upon years of fieldwork, interdisciplinary work with academics, and on-the-ground interviews with agave spirits producers throughout Mexico.
The authors sat down with us to talk about the process of writing the book, the circumstances that took agave spirits from being a ritual beverage to a multibillion-dollar industry, and the sustainability actions required to ensure agave lovers will be enjoying their favorite sips for decades to come.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What was the inspiration for Agave Spirits and why was it important to write it now?
Gary: David and I arrive at many of the things we do through our friends and mentors. In this case, the inspiration goes back to our great mentors in the industry like Tomas Estes and our scholarly mentors like Howard Scott Gentry, who was the scholarly expert on agaves, and Efraím Hernández Xolocotzi, a botanist and wide-ranging naturalist of food and beverages in Mexico. Many of the people that we continue to be in touch with have been inspired by these same mentors, so I think it was inevitable that David and I would seek complementarity between our own skill sets and the talents and knowledge in different parts of Mexico to bring this book together.
David: As I went through the books that are available to the average consumer and to those who want to take a deeper dive into agave spirits, a lot of the work is kind of old. There are some great books, but much of the research is out of date. There was a need to review where we are in the agave industry because the conversation has changed drastically in the last ten years. So, I went to Gary begging him to give us an update on the research and work from his perspective.
In what ways has the conversation around agave spirits changed in the last ten years?
David: First, we’ve had a significant boom in the agave spirits industries and that has impacted everything from agricultural practices to production practices to legislation. Also, the consumers have changed. Consumers are looking beyond the superficial aspects of marketing in our industry. There is a genuine interest in learning more about the communities who are making these products, how the spirits are made and the legislation that governs them. So, with our book we wanted to provide a perspective of the elements we must pay close attention to as producers, consumers and governments.
Gary: We aren’t critics from the outside. We are tangled with so many players of the industry. We want the industry to be healthy because we love drinking Mezcal and well-made Tequilas. So, we like to say that Mezcal is not only good to drink, it’s good to think.
Tell us a bit about the history of the agave plant and its use for distilled beverages.
Gary: We know that Mexico is the hearth of agave domestication. Agaves grow from the southern most regions of Mexico right up to the U.S./Mexico border and beyond. Seven agaves were domesticated in what is now Arizona, from the Grand Canyon into the desert.
In the deserts of Mexico, agave was the most widely consumed and most nutritionally rich food and beverage. There are more than 40 species of agave and hundreds of varieties that have been used to make mezcal, Tequila, and fermented beverages. But then there is this very mysterious topic of when they were first distilled.
David: It’s a fascinating topic that is being discussed between anthropologists, historians, biologists, and archaeologists. One of the most interesting things about the conversation is the reality of how little we know about agave spirits and how much there is to study, research, and learn. We see that more of the very respected archaeologists and historians, such as Patricia Colunga-GarcíaMarín and Fernando González Zozaya, are moving into the great possibility of pre-Hispanic distillation, which opens great possibilities around the history of the human aspect of these spirits.
Gary: One of the key things that a lot of people can’t imagine when they see tens of thousands of acres of Agave Tequilana Azul, is how did something go from microdistillation that resulted in just a cupful of distillate to something so vast. We know there was a spiritual aspect to how this distillate was used prehistorically. It was used, and in some indigenous Mexican cultures is still used, as a sacrament and not as a commodity. Just a small taste of an agave distillate was considered something brought to the people by the divine. We jokingly say that we are agave theologians.
“[Agave] was used, and in some indigenous Mexican cultures is still used, as a sacrament and not as a commodity.”
What is the relationship between bats and agave?
David: Bats are the primary pollinators of the agave plant. Unfortunately, Tequila producers have been propagating Agave Tequilana Weber asexually using only the hijuelos, or rhizomes, which are genetic clones of the mother plant. You would drive through the fields of Agave Tequilana Weber and never see a quiote (flowering stalk). The first time Dr. Rodrigo Medellín and I met with tequila producers to talk with them about the Bat Friendly Tequila project, we were extremely surprised to find that some of the most important growers of Tequilana Weber did not know about the relationship between bats and agave. The sexual reproduction of agave and this beneficial mutualism between bats and agave are fundamental to guaranteeing the genetic diversity of the agave and to the sustainability of the industry.
Gary: When you realize that here’s a relationship that for tens of thousands, if not millions of years, is embedded in every jicarita of Mezcal, it’s magical. The relationship between agaves and bats has been going on for so long that it has shaped what agaves are. The sugars in the agave blossom and the whole plant were shaped by the feeding patterns of bats. I think it’s so magical that it has captured the American imagination since we’ve started working on bat conservation in the 1990s. I think it’s such a beautiful story, that it’s been another way to bring people into conservation through beauty and amazement rather than by beating them on the head with guilt tripping.
The chapter in the book on fermentation was quite remarkable. Can you define the concept of holobiont and discuss how it pertains to agave and agave distillates?
Gary: We can call it the microbiome. We are holobionts. The holobiont idea is that humans, just like agaves, are not the genetic of one single species. We have all these bacteria and yeasts in our pores and under our armpits. The agaves have armpits too and those are the reservoirs for many of the fermentation microbes.
“I think it’s such a beautiful story, that it’s been another way to bring people into conservation through beauty and amazement rather than by beating them on the head with guilt tripping.”
Through research we knew there can be 20 different yeasts and 50 different fermentation bacteria in a single vat of mezcal in the Tepehuan region of Durango. When we started questioning whether this was the same for distillates made from raw material other than agave, the answer was no. Sometimes they might use two different yeasts and they say, “Wow! We’ve made it across the finish line!” Whereas the clay pots and the animal skins that are used in traditional mezcal fermentation are reservoirs that hold this rainbow array of microbes and each one of those yeast and bacteria pulls out of the plant biomass another flavor and fragrance. It’s like a good chemical reaction where you need a good catalyst and then all these other things move into action.
Those traditional mezcals that are fermented in clay pots and animal skins and wooden tinas have so much more capacity to bring flavors and fragrances to a consumer than something in a stainless steel 5000-gallon tank in Tequila, Jalisco. For me the killer was going through that comparison of mezcals with rum and gin and all those other spirits we love and realizing that, in terms of the plant diversity and the microbial diversity, hands down mezcal are the richest of what we call the biodiversity in the bottle, the richest reservoirs of all these plant and microbe interactions of anything we drink anywhere in the world.
David: Tequila producers constantly have companies trying to sell them yeasts to inoculate their fermentation with the promise that their production will be more efficient, faster. And many producers have never even tried spontaneous, natural fermentation because they have been told since the early 1980s that adding yeast will make their production more efficient. But as an example, when Tequila Cascahuin tried natural fermentation they were surprised to find it as or more efficient than fermentation through inoculation. And the diversity of flavors increased and the quality improved.
What is the impact of agrochemicals on the microbiome of an agave?
Gary: We are just barely beginning to understand that, but the prevailing hypothesis is that it dramatically diminishes that diversity. Not all the fermentation microbes in the fermentation vat come from the plant itself.
If you are knocking out the microbes from the plant to begin with, then the fermentation guide must work harder at retaining them in the palenque (distillery) environment, for example in the old Belgium breweries where spontaneous fermentation was a result of microbes raining down from the rafters. If plants have been hit accidentally or intentionally by some type of pesticide or herbicide that damages the microbes, they need to be replenished when they get it into the palenque or vinata (distillery) because they are starting off at a disadvantage due to the agrochemicals. That may be remedied to some extent, but we just don’t know how much.
The Relationship Between Tequila and Mezcal
One of the first differences people talk about when comparing Mezcal and Tequila, is that Mezcal can be made from multiple varieties of agave whereas Tequila must be made from the Agave Tequilana Weber Azul. Was this always the case?
Gary: We know that mezcals proliferated and were usually known in association with their place name. So, Tequila simply began as a humble beverage, like hundreds of others in Mexico, that was known as vino mezcal de Tequila (mezcal wine from Tequila) because of the place name and the mountain that stands above the entire landscape where it is still produced.
Over twenty years ago I co-authored Tequila: A Natural and Cultural History with Ana Valenzuela-Zapata. Ana meticulously went back through the records of vino mezcal de Tequila and showed that it was being made from probably four different species and about eight varieties. Some of these agaves are still known to the jimadores (a skilled farmworker who harvests agave) today because they are in hedgerows on the edge of the agave fields, or they are minor variants of Tequilana Weber. These agaves were mixed in ensembles (blends) because in a dry climate one might do better in a dry year, and another would do better in a wet year.
So, for most of the history even for what we call Tequila, not just vino mezcal de Tequila, it was a blend of different agaves that were balanced by very good mezcaleros who did their rectification through their own sensory methods. The whole history of Tequila is rooted in diversity, not monoculture.
“The whole history of Tequila is rooted in diversity, not monoculture.”
How did Tequilana Weber come to be the agave associated with Tequila?
David: The location of Guadalajara played a part in this change. Oaxaca, for example, is a prolific area of agaves and mezcal production, but historically accessibility to the palenques (distilleries) was challenging and it was not as connected to the important commercial routes. Guadalajara was connected to those busy commercial routes which created a natural demand for products from that region.
As the demand for vino mezcal de Tequila increased, it made producers look for ways to produce higher volumes. So, the change to a spirit made solely from Agave Tequilana Weber was a decision based upon economics and commercialization.
The areas that produce the highest amounts of Tequila are the Valles and highlands regions of Jalisco. Out of all the endemic agaves that grow within these regions, the Agave Tequilana Weber is the agave that has the highest concentration of sugars and that reaches maturity in the shortest amount of time. It’s also the agave that is most prolific when it comes to reproduction. For these reasons, the choice of Agave Tequilana Weber as the sole agave and the move towards more industrialized means of production were spreadsheet decisions to make the product more efficiently and more inexpensively.
What were the impacts of moving Tequila to a product made solely from a single species of plant, Agave Tequilana Weber?
Gary: It resulted in a monoculture. Three things happened simultaneously that we put under the umbrella of this word monoculture.
First, there is a genetic homogeneity. Agave Tequilana Weber is now a single clone on hundreds of thousands of acres. Second, there is a certain temporal homogeneity. Traditionally, if you saw a field of agave, it would have plants of all different sizes because each time one was harvested another would be planted in its place. So, there were all ages of agaves as a community in the same huerta (plantation of agave), just like when we live with grandparents or children nearby and we are a community. This diversity of age staves off diseases because there is not a single age target for a disease or a weed to take down.
Finally, there is also the design of fields where it’s row after row of a short-lived plant rather than the mix of trees, prickly pear, fruits, herbs, and the firewood species that traditionally would have been planted together. So, you have simplified genetics, simplified time schedule and a simplified environment all contributing to efficiency, but because everything is young and thinks the same, what we lose is the wisdom of the agave plant. We get sugars very rapidly out of Tequila Azul, but we don’t have that richness of flavor and fragrance elements that are in a good mezcal.
This isn’t an abstract, the consumers are getting a simplified product.
Can you tell us about the Tequila Pandemic and how it’s linked to and affected by the Tequila Boom?
Gary: The Tequila Pandemic is something that was generated by the Margarita Boom in the 1960s and ’70s that put the Tequila curve of consumption on a steep angle. People were planting new agave fields and removing the corn and beans that used to be between the rows of the old fields to increase the mass, wanting those plants that matured in 5–6 years from out planting instead of in 9–12 years.
All those traits we talked about in uniformity and homogeneity hit right at the time that the demand was greatest. Over 100 small distilleries went out of business immediately because they couldn’t compete for new seed materia prima to plant again. Also, their production costs were going up because all the fields around them were using herbicides and pesticides and, if they weren’t using the same agrochemicals, they were getting all the surviving bugs and diseases in their fields.
It was a very cathartic moment in the industry, but one that scientists, including many of our colleagues, like Patricia Colunga and Ana Valenzuela, were reasonably predicting without being doomsayers. They didn’t want it to happen, but they predicted it and they felt that they were unheard. It really was a day of reckoning. And yet I remember going down to Tequila then to talk with one of the semi-governmental bodies and their response was “Well, we will just get some better herbicides and pesticides and some better pathologists in there. I don’t think we will need to do anything to change Tequilana Weber itself.”
I think they really missed the point on that. They were given bad advice. They didn’t understand it in a techno-ecological manner, and they really took a reductionist approach in responding to that. And then I think the shift to mezcal began to occur by the seeds that were sown by the Tequila pandemic. In other words, people within the industry who were wise, like [master distiller of Tequila Ocho, Tapatío, El Tesoro and Villalobos ] Carlos Camarena, clearly saw what was happening and deeply rethought how we should be doing things whether for Tequila or Mezcal.
So, some good came out of it, but we don’t want that to happen in Oaxaca and sadly some of the same diseases that resulted in the Tequila Pandemic are in Oaxaca now. We don’t want those diseases to infect the wild populations. That’s why we included it in the Mezcal Manifesto at the of the book to show that there is scientific consensus that we have to be much more thorough and alert to potential epidemics in the future and not take a reductionistic approach.
David: And we are also seeing some alarming changes in the plagues themselves. In Zapotitlán de Vadillo, Jalisco they did some experimental plantings of Tequilana Weber in their fields which were planted with multiple varietals of agave endemic to that region. The Agave Tequilana Webers that grew in Zapotitlan were infested with the pest called picudo, but the endemic agaves from that part of Jalisco were 100% resistant to the picudo and were not affected.
But now, twelve years later, the picudo has been very successful and is infecting endemic agaves from that region. The insects continue to evolve and are becoming more resistant to chemicals. They are figuring out how to penetrate and obtain the food they need. And as the plantations of Agave Tequilana Weber get closer to the regions of endemic agaves, the risks increase exponentially.
If you look at the dates of the inception of the Denomination of Origin (DO) for Tequila and that of the Denomination of Origin of Mezcal, Tequila had a 20-year head start if you will. Is the DO of Mezcal learning lessons from the path taken by Tequila or is the DO of Mezcal following in the footsteps of the DO of Tequila?
Gary: We wished they had learned a little bit more!
David: The Denomination of Origin of Mezcal was not set up by small producers. The small producers do not care about that stuff.
The motivation of the Denomination of Origin of Mezcal was to follow the model of Tequila to become a big industry. So, if you were to ask someone at a large Mezcal brand if it has been positive or successful, they are going to say yes. But if you were to ask people who are outside of the Denomination of Origin of Mezcal who are historically and culturally connected to mezcal, they would say it has been a complete failure. It all depends on who is giving their opinion.
In my opinion personally, it’s not adding many positive things. To the contrary, it is generating many more challenges for the people that hold the wisdom and the ethics of mezcal production.
Gary: The Denomination of Origin for Tequila is really unlike any other DO in the world. The terroir is implicit in the original French Denominations of Origin that gave rise to the international legal system that we use. But to have Tequila made in five different states over a geographic range approximately the size of Western Europe? And to think that something in the state of Tamaulipas, which is not geographically connected to the rest of the DO, is going to have the same qualities when it was a relatively new production zone compared to Tequila made in Jalisco and southern Nayarit? It doesn’t fit any of the models for terroir and the products suffer for it. And the quality suffers for it.
“When you have a product that is only halfway connected to the protected geographical area, it’s a serious challenge to have credibility as a Denomination of Origin.”
It’s synthetic origin for convenience, not on any true basis that the Denominations of Origin were supposed to adhere to and promote for quality control.
David: And another factor that I think is also quite disturbing, is that the Denomination of Origin allows the use of 49% of other sugars for mixto Tequilas and the place of origin of those sugars is irrelevant. When you have a product that is only halfway connected to the protected geographical area, it’s a serious challenge to have credibility as a Denomination of Origin.
Not to mention the additives that are allowed as well.
Gary: You harvest plants that have started the sugar machine—it’s basically a carbon machine—but at five to eight years of age all the flavor and fragrance compounds and the richness of the plant has not even been expressed because the plants are immature. We are killing baby plants and now blasting sugars out of the agave through industrialized production methods instead of roasting the agave. That means they must go back in with caramelized colorants and flavorings to make up for that lack of integrity in the plant.
It’s a very strange mindset that led Tequila into that cul de sac, because everyone was celebrating Tequila. Everyone wanted good Tequilas and for expedience’s sake they gave up the best qualities that people admire about Tequilas. And we aren’t anti-Tequila! We want Tequilas to adhere to those qualities that made those beverages distinctive with a distinctive terroir at another point in history. And that’s not nostalgia, that’s thinking that the future is going to be about quality not just about expediency.
The Fragile State of Agave Production
Are there environmental concerns regarding harvesting immature agaves versus more mature agaves?
Gary: It’s almost growing it like an annual crop so there is much greater soil erosion. You have a much greater dependence on herbicides and pesticides, whether organic or not. Immature plants are like little kids, you must protect them from diseases and competition from weeds that would overwhelm them.
To me, one of the most fundamental flaws in the way that Tequila has progressed is that you had a plant that is inherently water conservative that uses 1/2 to 1/6 as much water to create the same drinkable biomass as corn does over a decade. Now Tequila and some Mezcals are using so much water and so much fuel in their production that they negate the very special ecological adaptations and characters of the plant.
In effect, one of the most water efficient plants in the world has been unfortunately grown so that the amount of water needed to make a bottle of Tequila is enormous. A single liter bottle of 100% agave Tequila requires 65 gallons of water through production and processing.
One of the statistics mentioned in the book is that 1/3 of the species of agave used in mezcal production are now vulnerable. Is that solely due to the growth of the Mezcal category or are there other factors at play?
Gary: I think there are other factors at play. Climate change is slowing and damaging the growth of agaves. Wildfires go through the woodlands of Oaxaca with a frequency that was unknown prehistorically. There’s a lot more land clearing for urbanization and other kinds of agriculture. It’s always better for us to affirm that there is not just one contributing factor, but in a sense, we are bringing attention to the factors we can work on, the ones that consumers through their buying power really have a chance to have a positive rather than a negative influence.
You and I and the way we drink may not be able to stop climate change, but if we play our part while other people are revegetating areas with agaves after wildfires, we are all moving in the same direction. We don’t want to make impact investors in mezcal the sole culprit that’s leading to the demise of agaves. There are many factors that are putting 60% of all agave species at risk and mezcal consumption is just one of those.
Labor of Love
One of the things in the book that I found very interesting was the concept that sustainable farming was inextricably linked to worker justice, or in your words “hitched at the hip.” Why is this connection so important?
Gary: Social justice does end up producing a better product because people care. The workers know that people care about them. And I don’t think there is sustainability without social sustainability, no matter how good an environmental manager you are.
To get us to where we want to be, worker justice is integral because the workers are the eyes on the plants. The eyes to plant ratio is very high on agaves if they are grown right. People are seeing the plants every day. They can head off diseases, they can keep things from happening that make it a poor-quality plant. That’s not a philosophical aspiration, that’s what David and I see in the field. When workers are taken care of, they take better care of the plants.
David: On a number of occasions, we’ve seen that the older generation of jimadores, the generation that holds the greatest knowledge about the agaves, that they have been totally disconnected from the maintenance and the supervision of the quality of the fields. This was traditionally their role.
Now, in the Tequila category, the jimadores have just been made day laborers. The agronomists and engineers are brought into the fields to make the decisions of what chemical to use or what methods of maintenance will be applied to the fields. I remember one occasion in the Highlands when I sat with a jimador who was already past the age when he could physically get engaged in the harvest. He was just looking at the young jimadores with agaves that were 35 kilos and we engaged in a very melancholy conversation, remembering 25 years ago when the agaves were 80 kilos on average. And he said that change started when the engineers arrived.
Now there is no relationship to or engagement with this cultural practice of the jimadores that was proved successful over thousands of years. So industrial production is shifting into not very successful practices with agave. The problem, however, is that it takes so long to notice the wrong decisions that were made because the life cycles of the agave are very long. You must wait years to see the consequences of the decisions that are made.
Gary: I blame part of the problem of the undervaluing of workers to the takeovers of some of the major distilleries by larger multi-national companies that just want a Tequila as part of the menu in their distribution chain along with gins, rums, ryes, etc. It adds another distance away from what’s happening in the field if you’re sitting in London, Pairs, or Rome making these decisions about what is happening in the fields.
We’ve done some number crunching and some of the greatest disparity between the salaries of CEOs and farmworkers is in the Tequila industry. And it’s at another order of magnitude greater than the kinds of disparities the news media talks about when they are criticizing Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerburg. These are serious disparities in how much of the value of the Tequila goes back to the people doing the hard work in the field.
David: The jimadores and jornaleros (day laborers) are paid by weight for the agaves they harvest. Using the average rate of pay for the workers when they harvest a ton of agave, estimating the quantity of Tequila that can be produced from this agave, and using $15 as the average cost for a cocktail containing 2 ounces of 100% agave Tequila, I’ve calculated that 602 cocktails must be sold for a jimador to be paid $1 USD.
Gary: Again, we are not targeting any brands. We are concerned about the health of the industry, that the best possible product reaches the consumers for a reasonable price. So, none of this is mean spirited in bringing up these problems. These are correctable problems. We want to right the ship and not see the ship sink.
For that reason, I don’t think any of our criticism is arrogant or rude. It’s daylighting things we should all know about anyway. Millions, tens of millions of consumers are making food choices every day on these issues.
David: It’s very common to see restaurants across the world with exceptional levels of traceability in regard to where every ingredient on the food menu comes from and how proud the chefs are to be respectful of and to promote the farmers and workers along the supply chain. But when you turn your attention in the same restaurant to the bar program, it is completely the opposite.
The thinking should be consistent whether we are considering food or beverage. I believe that a lot of the executives and big decision makers in the agave spirits industry are not even aware of what the impacts are of not treating agave like agave, to be treating the raw material like a grain or grape. Or what the average pay is for someone working in the agave fields. I think it’s either misinformation or the lack of information.
As the number of consumers that are concerned about traceability and transparency is increasing drastically, it is going to have an economic impact as people change their purchasing patterns. So that will result in executives and brands putting more true focus on sustainability practices. It’s an economical phenomenon that depends on the education of the consumers and trade.
Gary: The markets will change because consumers are more conscientious, they’re making ethical choices. No one wants to go out with friends and feel bad about what they’re eating or drinking when they’re at a restaurant or a bar. This is a healthy change that we are asking the industry to go through that will keep it viable for longer rather than bottoming out quicker.
A Call to Action
You end the book with the Mezcal Manifesto, a “call to action” that includes a ten-point action plan for addressing the challenges that are confronting the agave spirits industry. How was that developed and who was involved?
Gary: We consulted a lot of people from within the industry and from sustainability, science, and agave scholarship. There have been people working on each of these individual issues, but there has never been an integration into one document. We really wanted to bring up the points that people have expressed alarm about, but also provide a tangible solution for each point.
The difficulty wasn’t about that we needed to do something about this, but it was in drilling down the details. It was an iterant process that included well over 50 people reviewing the document with David and I as the facilitators and final arbiters. I think it’s going to be interesting in 10 or 20 years to see if it is outdated. And if so, is it because the industry changed in a positive way and we don’t need to say those things any more or is it outdated because we missed some of the key issues or it was so hard to make change on some of the points?
We know making a document like that is ephemeral, just like writing “I love you” in the sand on the beach is going to wash away. But at the same time, it’s really important that we write “I love you” on the beach now and then.
“We know making a document like that is ephemeral, just like writing “I love you” in the sand on the beach is going to wash away. But at the same time, it’s really important that we write “I love you” on the beach now and then.”
In the Manifesto you call for establishing collective trademarks for each of the indigenous agave beverages. How is that different from a DO and why did you call for that instead of DOs?
Gary: I’m coming from working with Slow Food and with Indigenous groups in Mexico and the U.S. where they are distrustful of some of the elements of international law, but they understand collective trademark.
With the people we interact with in Southern Jalisco and Colima, they feel they are part of a tradition that is a distinctive mezcal tradition that has never legally been named. They enjoy the genius of every mezcalero, but in many places there is a community ethic. This is a way to acknowledge that some of the Indigenous communities really want the expression that this is not just the work of a single genius mezcalero but a multi-generational community that brought them their esthetics and their ethical sensibilities.
Sósima Olivera Aguilar of Mezcal FaneKantsini in Oaxaca said that she is still trying to decide if she should export their very best mezcal because people are willing to pay for it or if they should sell it in their local cantinas because those are the people who may appreciate their art form the most. It seems to me that we have in the U.S. things like Smithsonian cultural treasure keepers for painters like Grandma Moses or musicians like Cajun fiddlers, but we don’t recognize that the people producing mezcal are artists of the highest quality.
It’s not visual arts or sound arts, it’s an art of fragrance and taste. A collective trademark is one of the ways of recognizing this art form.
David: And from a very objective and practical point of view, it’s almost impossible for a small producer to enter the complicated and bureaucratic processes of being certified in a DO. Even to open a bank account or to get subscribed to the fiscal authorities in Mexico is such a complex bureaucratic process, it's not set up for someone who is more focused on the art than on the bureaucracy.
I think there is a lot of work ahead to create these other ways of recognizing this art as an art and not as an object of merchandise that is in the hands of people who are not connected to the culture or the artistic part of these spirits.
“How can you justify a Mezcal for $25? It’s impossible to have a bottle at this price if you are compensating all those involved appropriately while maintaining healthy, quality practices from field to bottle.”
What would you ask of bartenders and consumers, as to how they can be a positive force in creating the change you are hoping to see in the agave spirits industry?
David: We all need to be very honest with ourselves when we make our purchasing decisions. We cannot continue to support spirits at prices that don’t even get close to what it takes to be a sustainably legitimate product.
If we are going to celebrate agave spirits and promote agave spirits in our programs, 100% agave is not enough. Buying Tequila or Mezcal that is underpriced has damaging consequences. It makes it more difficult for legitimate producers to make legitimate agave spirits. How can you justify a Mezcal for $25? It’s impossible to have a bottle at this price if you are compensating all those involved appropriately while maintaining healthy, quality practices from field to bottle.
I think we must be very honest with ourselves to ensure a healthy future for these spirits we love and the people who produce them. Bartenders and consumers need to be stakeholders in this future.