“It is new, popular, more sophisticated and artistic.” That’s how fashion designer Paolo Hernandez described mezcal to Reuters back in 2007. A couple years later, “mezcal is having a moment,” as articles everywhere began appearing. And they’re still appearing today, sixteen years later. That’s one long moment.
So it would be easy to assume everyone is already drinking mezcal—that you are drinking mezcal. But you’re probably not.
According to data out of Mexico, just shy of 8.1 million liters of mezcal were produced in 2021. Something like 3.8 million liters made their way to the United States. Compare that to the 2.6 billion liters of spirits that the Distilled Spirits Counsel of the United States reports were consumed. That gives mezcal less than tw0-fifths of one-percent market share. Of spirits, mind you—not alcoholic beverages in general. Beer and wine aren’t even counted. So if we lived in a world where beer and wine didn’t exist, and you had three drinks every night of the year, let’s say that on one of those 365 nights, you drank only mezcal. And on another night, you had half a drink, then walked away. But, of course, beer and wine do exist, so really it’s more like you smelled a whiff of something that you thought might have been mezcal as it was being carried past you by Paola Hernandez and her friends.
So, okay, for all the hype, you really aren’t drinking mezcal. But… maybe you are! Maybe you’re hanging with Paola and the cool kids in that dark corner of the bar! Well, of course you are.
You’ve read the articles, know that mezcal is made entirely by hand. You saw Elektra drinking it in Netflix’s “Daredevil.” So before you went to meet Paola in the corner, you ordered a Oaxacan Old Fashioned and told the bartender to use an artisanal mezcal.
Let’s talk about how and where that mezcal was made—what qualifies as artisanal and what that means to the trajectory of mezcal sales.
Like Champagne and bourbon, there are rules about what can and cannot be called mezcal. And the rules differ between plain old mezcal, mezcal artisanal and mezcal ancestral. Things get a bit confusing.
All those mezcal-is-having-a-moment articles told you that, to make mezcal, grizzled Mexicans with worn hats and calloused hands went into the wild to harvest ten- and twenty-year-old agaves. Then they cooked the agave underground in a stone-lined earthen oven for days, if not weeks. They used a big stone wheel pulled by a horse to mill the cooked agave before fermenting it in open-air in wooden vats. That fermented tepache was then distilled in a wood-fired copper pot still.
But what did you really get in that Oaxacan Old Fashioned? Not that. Not likely, anyway. More likely, the agave was six-year-old espadin grown on a monoculture field that, not so long ago, was wild land, home to a biodiverse population of fauna and flora. Or maybe it was a field of corn and squash and beans that fed the local community. Now, it turns over espadin fast as possible to ensure you can have your Oaxacan Old Fashioned.
The illusion continues to unravel when you stumble into the distillery and see that the espadin wasn’t cooked underground. It was cooked in a brick oven, above ground, with steam. And while there’s a horse and a stone wheel out front of the distillery, that’s just for show. The cooked agave was milled using a mechanical device that resembles the wood chipper used to dispose of Steve Buscemi in “Fargo.”
I could go on, but I’m guessing you get the picture. And it’s a different picture than is painted by all those articles you read. You maybe feel like Elektra lied to you same as she did Matt Murdock.
But this article is about why you should be drinking mezcal right now. It’s in the title. So give me a minute to repair that picture.
Look… even at less than two-fifths of one-percent of all spirits sold in the United States, that’s still a lot of spirits. Or, at least, a lot of spirits to be made by hand. In the decade leading up to 2021, Mezcal production increased by more than 726 percent! To keep up with demand, the industry had to find efficiencies to deliver your cocktail at a reasonable price.
But here’s the thing: that romantic picture that was painted? It still exists. You’re not drinking it, but it’s out there. Less than a million liters of mezcal were produced in 2010. And while some of the people making that mezcal have changed their operations to meet demand, many have not. And some of that can be found in bottles that make their way up to the United States. It’s more expensive than what your bartender is pouring into your Oaxacan Old Fashioned, but, hey, it should be. Romance isn’t cheap.
The truth is that romantic mezcal is at risk of disappearing. Let’s go back to that example of the monoculture farm of espadin agave that’s the source for the mezcal you are drinking. That farm likely displaced wild land where wild agave was growing. The more you drink that mezcal, the more wild agave you’re going to displace. And I’m not suggesting you should never drink mezcal made from espadin—realistically, that’s the backbone of the growing mezcal industry. You’ll find it everywhere, it’s affordable, and it’s good. So, sure, drink it.
But you’re drinking it roughly nine times out of ten when you order mezcal. Eight times out of ten, it’s coming from Oaxaca, one of the ten states where you can legally certify agave spirits as mezcal. That’s a lot of environmental pressure on a single state—a lot of land being converted into monoculture, a lot of water being extracted, a lot of waste being produced.
I don’t see capitalism changing its course. I think we’re headed to a time where mezcal looks a lot like Tequila. And Tequila is good, don’t get me wrong. And mezcal will be good, too. But right now, you can still find great mezcal. Go find an agave spirit—maybe it’s certified as mezcal, maybe it’s not—that’s made from Lamparillo in Durango, or Bruto in Michoacán, or Ixterro Amarillo in Jalisco. Try a Lechuguilla from Sonora or a Pichomel from Puebla. Drink it neat, in tiny, tiny sips, so that your palate has a chance to decipher the crazy complexities that it’s never had to decipher before. Right now, great agave spirits—some from states other than Oaxaca, from agave plants other than espadin—are here right now, but they won’t be for long.
When you find one you really love? Buy it. A lot of it. If capitalism tells us anything, it’s that the market demands monoculture products. That monoculture is going to roll over that wild expression. But, hey, maybe you and Paola and Elektra can hold the tide back a bit longer by putting your money into the romantic picture that still exists. Maybe give the corporations a reason to grow a diversity of agaves in their fields, in states other than Oaxaca. Maybe by drinking mezcal right now, you can keep it alive for tomorrow.