Capitalism, celebrity, and the death of Mezcal
An open discussion about the fundamental contradictions between mezcal at its best and the market that demands it.
Consider for a moment the challenges of our age: culture wars and social division; the wealth gap and cost of living crisis; climate change; loss of biodiversity and ecological collapse. These are all issues caused by an overly capitalist, consumption-based society, and I believe they can all be solved with a proper appreciation of traditional mezcal and the culture behind it. That’s why I made a radical career change some years ago to work with agave rather than money.
Whether we all take the advice of this ancient and even godly drink, or whether we ignore its lessons and instead squeeze it as a ‘category’ into our broken consumer culture, is another test of our time. Far more than just another drink — more even than the economic and sometimes spiritual importance it holds to the communities that work with it — mezcal right now is no less that a litmus test for the future of humanity.
What we have in traditional mezcal is a pre-industrial product that to this day is made is a pre-industrial way. That means by hand, using local materials and hereditary practices. Local agave, endemic to the specific microclimate of a region is cooked, crushed, fermented and distilled using tools, wood, water, and methods that are local to a community — sometimes even a specific family — and in harmony with the natural environment. Mexico is one of the most diverse places on earth. The state of Oaxaca alone has more plant species than the whole of Europe. It also has 16 distinct indigenous cultures, each with their own language and way of doing things.
So from one village to the next, producers are making a unique product. Extrapolate that all over Mexico and you get an incredibly complex scene: thousands of different people putting hundreds of different species and sub-species of plant through a production process with innumerable nuances, resulting in endless, unique, never-to-be-replicated batches. Exploring it all is a fascinating and never ever ending journey — one that I’ve been on for the last few years, and that I encourage you to join via the Mezcal Appreciation Society.
But what’s happening now is this traditional, sustainable, community-specific elixir of the gods clashing head-on with the forces of capitalism. We all know by now what capitalism does. It encourages large corporations to dig holes in far away places and over-extract all the mineral wealth. It creates financial institutions ‘too-big-to-fail’ that make people homeless and keep most of us in a lifetime of debt. It puts us on zero hours’ contracts and in constant competition with whoever’s prepared to work for an even worse deal. It creates absurd lifestyle aspirations that make us believe we should give a shit what the latest reality TV star is wearing, or indeed drinking. It doesn’t care about culture and tradition, and just like that mineral wealth it will come and extract as much agave as possible, if that’s what’s selling. And that is what’s selling.
So what’s happening right now is big money brand owners and international conglomerates are going to these previously harmonious rural communities and using their buying power and relative economic might to drive hard bargains for increased production. Agave would historically be harvested from the wild, or cultivated within a milpa — the traditional agriculture system of Mesoamerica that sees complementary crops grown in a holistic and sustainable way, giving and taking different nutrients from the soil. It’s not uncommon to still see agave being grown as part of a milpa in more remote mezcal communities. But you’re increasingly likely to see field after field of a mono-crop. It’ll be the agave that produces the most sugar the quickest that you’ll see in the field, and very possibly it will have its maturation accelerated with chemical fertiliser.
Over the last five years I’ve travelled fairly extensively through rural Mexico, particularly around communities that work with agave, and even in that relatively short time I’ve noticed a pretty shocking level of deforestation. Towns like San Juan del Rio in the Tlacolula district of Oaxaca, that a few years ago had just a patchwork of agave fields visible in the surrounding hills, now have those hillsides planted entirely with row after row of Espadin plants. It looks like a flood risk if nothing else. I’m also finding it increasingly common to hear stories of agave shortages and the sale of under-ripe plants, agave theft, and other less than holy activity. Aside from the fact that it’s bad for the soil and the environment, given that a lot of this deforestation, mono-cropping, etc, is being driven by relatively wealthy outside interests, I can see a route to the argument that the ‘mezcal boom’ is a form of neo-colonialism, bringing with it signs of cultural homogenisation and the deterioration of the integrity of local culture — witness the afore-mentioned agave theft.
We have celebrities and conglomerates flying in to make a ‘lifestyle brand’. They find a producer, ask them to increase production and of course the forces of capitalism dictate that they water it down to increase their yield, lower their tax burden, and hit the required margins for the cocktail bars it’s being sold in. This brings me to the concept of ‘gusto historico’ or ‘historical taste’, which is arguably being lost as the market floods with mezcal at 40% AVB, well below the strength of the traditional drink, and therefore with far less diverse and interesting flavours.
Plenty of people make the argument that this softer and cheaper version of tradition mezcal is necessary, so consumers can try it in a cocktail that will act as a gateway to sipping on the good stuff. Personally I see mezcal a lot more like wine than other spirits, and I don’t think the best way to get someone into quality wine is with a jug of sangria. But nor do I think mixing with ice and lemonade is the best way to enjoy exceptional whisky. However you like to drink it wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if all things could happily co-exist (aside from the fertilised mono-crop issues already discussed of course). But if the export market continues to grow at its current rate, and foreign brand owners continue to ask producers to sign contracts that restrict them from selling to anyone else, maybe the local stuff and the complex patchwork of gusto historic profiles across the whole country just slowly homogenise into the same thing. And that would be very sad indeed.
You might say “but all this stuff is protected by a Denomination of Origin, like Champagne”. Well I’m sorry to tell you that the D.O. does no such thing. There’s any number of reasons why the distillate of a particular community, made to its gusto historico, might not fit into the relatively narrow parameters of the mezcal D.O. D.O’s are geographical things, and ‘Mezcal’ is the largest in the world, covering the majority of the large country of Mexico. Given the huge diversity and local nuance already discussed, it’s just an unrealistic task to create one piece of legislation that adequately protects all of it. In reality the way it works is to have taken the middle section of the spectrum and called that ‘Mezcal’ for international expansion purposes, leaving out a lot of fringe producers and their traditions.
For commercial purposes this works extremely well. It puts a stamp on the product that says to the consumer, “it’s all good, go ahead and consume”, regardless of the deforestation and cultural homogenisation going on in the background, and without concern for independent producers at the fringes being squeezed out of the growing market. And when the agave starts to run out they can simply adjust the D.O. to expand it to more regions or dilute its standards. At the moment certified Mezcal has to be made with 100% agave, but how long until a mixto category is introduced that can include other sugar sources and additives, to keep up with the demand created by the celebrity brands? I’m not saying anything radical here — that’s exactly what happened with the Tequila D.O, which is fundamentally where the regulation comes from. Today the tequila industry is dominated by a handful of large distilleries that produce for multiple brands, differentiating their products with secret mixes of additives. As sad as that sounds for mezcal, maybe we actually need that mixto category ushered in asap, to alleviate the demand for agave and the deforestation and other issues that have come with it.
Mezcal isn’t a lifestyle brand, it’s a way of life that we should all pay more attention to protecting. We all know we’re in the middle of an ecological disaster right now. Some people even think earths’ 6th mass extinction event has already started… because of our extractive consumerist lifestyles. I heard on a podcast the other day that, at the current rate, the planet is losing 10% of its biodiversity every 10–12 years. That impressive stat about the state of Oaxaca having more plant species than the whole of Europe isn’t pure chance — we’ve killed ours while Oaxaca remains mercifully untouched, until now.
Mezcal is this thing that’s been bubbling away unchanged for centuries, sustainably and in harmony with nature. Now it’s being ‘discovered’, ‘having it’s moment’ or whatever. It’s the fastest growing ‘category’ of spirits globally. But amongst the celebration of growth and the clamour for profits we’re at risk of destroying the very diversity that makes it great. If we can’t stop ourselves from destroying the diversity of mezcal, what hope is there for the less delicious parts of our eco-system?