The magical world of agave is absolutely a blaze. Never have we had access to so much delicious spirit distilled from this mystical plant. Every day we’re inundated with new and exciting brands, as well as significant amounts of absolute trash. The category, which only a few years revolved exclusively around big corporate brands, is on the mind of almost every serious drinker.
Agave spirits are undoubtedly experiencing a renaissance, but the vast unexplored maze of Mexico’s regional spirits is poised to continue to spread it’s reach across the world. But periods of extreme flux come with significant risk. Mezcal and all agave spirits are at a tipping point or catch 22 of sorts, where our massive appreciation for them may ultimately be fueling a degradation of their quality and negatively impact on the very people who fabricate these special products.
Take for example the world of Tequila – not the only industrially produced agave spirit, but certainly the most prominent. Over the last 3 decades the success of corporate tequila in winning over drinkers has been unprecedented. The wonderful spirit of Jalisco used to be viewed in middle America the way Mezcal was viewed by Mexicans – the drink of a different class. I still have wealthy Mexican customers who can’t believe we sell mezcal – it’s got gasoline or horse shit in it, they say.
That’s because in Mexico for decades, tequila marketed their products as the refined alternative to the cheaper locally made spirits. It was classy to drink tequila in Mexico way before it was to drink it here and the obvious target for that market were the traditional local spirits that were able to be produced at a much lower price. The result is a whole generation of Mexicans who are extremely skeptical of mezcal as a category, similar to the way we look at real “moonshine” in this country.
But for a group of committed importers and distributors in the 80s and 90s, we might have never seen high quality 100% agave make it way up here. We’d have been stuck with the rotgut Mixtos that so many people had confused with actual tequila. But when John Paul Dejoria and Martin Crowley purchased the rights to Patron from the excellent Siete Leguas distillery and Robert Denton secured an exclusive contract with La Alteña distillery for the El Tesoro brand.
Americans finally got to experience high quality authentic 100% agave tequila. Sure there were other brands available, but even as early as the 60s the tequila industry began adopting revolutionary efficiency practices, which would not only make the drink significantly more profitable, but also begin to strip away much of the complex agave flavors the connoisseurs of this special drink craved.
The more neutral character of modern tequila, the wild potential for profits and incredible marketing apparatus of big booze set the stage for the last two decades of massive growth in the once neglected category. But the pressure to create profits and appeal to a less sophisticated customer has created extreme pressure to push efficiency to the next level.
At the same time, little known changes to Tequila regulations have allowed for the use of extremely efficient “diffuser” technology to more than double sugar extraction on a per weight basis in a fraction of the time of the most efficient modern cooking equipment. The result is an unsustainable model of producing completely neutral agave distillates that don’t meet the quality or character standards of traditional tequila. Beyond the flavor issues, the negative effects of the technology’s adoption are vast and irreversible.
If you weren’t aware, we’re in the midst of a massive “agave shortage” which has skyrocketed the price of mature agave nearly 20-fold. Big producers don’t need mature agave when using diffusers so their inoculated from the problem. What is supposed to be a free market for agave feels very far from that and industry insiders murmur about price manipulation, planned non-use, speculation and agave trafficking.
Small traditional producers are struggling, farmers are struggling, jimadors are struggling, only the biggest brands seem to truly be thriving right now. Of the 120+ licensed distillers it’s estimated that less than 30 are actually operational. The rest are likely buying bulk diffused product from the industrial producers, doctoring them as needed and filling them into bottles labels with their distillery number. Of the 30 distillery’s operating, there are only a tiny handful that I can guarantee are making 100% of their own distillate in a high-quality traditional way.
But what does all this have to do with mezcal and its thousands of independent distillers across Mexico? It’s simply a warning. Mezcal denomination of origin has now codified what is and isn’t mezcal to the detriment of several regional products that would have culturally been known by that word. Even in areas where mezcal can legally be produced, small producers are unable to meet the regulatory requirements to qualify for the classification. That doesn’t mean they can’t sell their products locally, but it does make it much more difficult to export.
As big booze becomes more interested in mezcal, you can bet that they’ll be looking to make this wildly slow and labor-intensive product more efficient and hinder or even exclude the traditional producers whose entire livelihood to this incredible product. At the same time, they’ll be trying to influence the regulators to their every advantage, moving the requirements for production away from what is traditionally accepted and toward the practices which increase profits and availability.
That’s why we need to be sure we’re supporting the right products now. Not simply because they taste better, but the social and cultural impact of a corporatization mezcal is vast. We’re in the business of selling booze and we value many of our multi-national suppliers. Their entry into the category isn’t inherently detrimental if they committ to producing quality products and supporting the communities that make them.
I exist to give my customers the products they want and not act as some sort moral compass, but when quality, flavor and ethics fall so closely inline, I’m obligated to do what I can to educate about them complexities of this incredible category. Not only for the greater good, but for the long term viability of this incredible product. So, we’re not going to boycott any brand simply because of a change in ownership or a decision to use certain practices, but we will highlight the ones that make the best in the real way.
Luckily, there’s a growing number of participants in the category both in Mexico and stateside who understand the incredible intricacies of this unique spirit. Like us, they’re completely devoted to supporting authentic agave and the people who make it. Because it’s National Tequila Day, I’m going to point out two of my favorite producers, one from the highlands and the other from the valley, that are part of the 5-6 producers making traditional tequila in a high quality manner.
Carlos Camarenas of La Altena Distillery near Arandas and Salvador Rosales of Cascahuin in El Arenal. Each represents the one of the highest quality traditional producers in their respective regions and should be considered the bench mark for which all other proper tequila is judged, not only on production practices, but on flavor as well. Only a handful of other producers make equivalent quality and even fewer using the incredibly expensive and labor intensive techniques that these two masters have committed themselves to over the last several decades.
La Alteña’s tahona press, wild yeast, bagasse fermented, copper distilled to proof.
One of only two or three traditional producers in the lowlands, the Blanco is bagasse fermented and distilled on copper pots.