Is the Mezcal Industry Doing Enough to Protect Mezcal?

It’s the latest buzzword of the bar world: sustainability. Brands champion it, marketers co-opt it, and the rest of us pretend we know what it means, if only to feel extra warm and fuzzy while throwing back our favorite cocktail.

But in the quickly changing world of mezcal, sustainability is a lot more than hype. It’s a function of survival. From 2005 to 2015, mezcal sales in the U.S. increased by almost 300 percent, making it one of the fastest-growing spirits in the country and indeed the world. This dizzying uptick in consumer demand comes at odds with an artisanal product that can take years, even decades, to cultivate.

Big brands from far outside Oaxaca are descending upon a fragile ecosystem, lining up for a lucrative slice of the pie. The temptation to sacrifice the future for a fast cash grab is palpable. And now, more than ever, mezcal must take steps to preserve its future. Thankfully, a select group of stewards south of the border are taking action.

About an hour’s drive southeast of Oaxaca City is the town of Santiago Matatlán. You might not guess that this sleepy village of 3,000 is the World Capital of Mezcal if it weren’t for the sign crossing the highway, proclaiming its status.

A truck in Santiago Matatlán transports Cortes agave after the central pina (pineapple) has been stripped of its leaves.

Since the 1830s, Asis Cortes’ family has been producing agave spirit here. As a sixth-generation mezcalero, he has seen more changes over the past half-decade than his five forebears combined. In 2010, he launched the El Jolgorio brand. With its colorful wax-dipped tops and Ralph Steadman design, it’s one of the most respected mezcal labels available in the states today.

“People talk about demand for the U.S. as the only factor, but this is false,” says Cortes. “The demand is global, and the industry wasn’t ready for the growth. It was coming off a period of 20 years of very low production.”

As recently as a decade ago, says Cortes, local young men opted to find economic opportunity elsewhere rather than pick up the family mantle of distillation. “One important aspect of sustainability is sustaining the families that create mezcal into the future,” says Cortes. “We work on every step of production, from growing the plants to bottling and labeling at our plant. Everything is done by hand, and that creates jobs and opportunity. We believe that fostering small-scale production and high quality is the right approach.”

In order to satisfy a global thirst, Cortes, like many other successful mezcal labels, bands together a network of small farmers, sourcing liquid in piecemeal fashion, as it becomes available. “We intentionally rotate the production from wild agaves and agaves in high demand around all of our producers,” he says. “For example, in some years, we might only bottle 300 bottles of tepeztate, split between two different producers. This means that no single producer’s agave stock are overly stressed.”

It also means reigning in exports. “Although consumers expect product to be readily available, this is not realistic to expect from mezcal that is coming from small villages in the mountains,” says Cortes.

When it comes to agave conservation, there are few voices as measured as that of Dr. Iván Saldaña, the man behind Montelobos mezcal. He takes a hardline stance that only cultivated varietals of agave, namely espadín, ought to be used in mezcal production. “We are living in a real ‘gold rush,’ he warns. “I think the use of wild agave should be banned as a general rule for commercial brands when there is no evidence that populations where their agave is obtained can remain healthy in numbers in the years to come.”

Along the rugged hills of mezcal country (centered around the states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Guerrero), overharvesting is eradicating wild agave populations. And just because a brand sticks a USDA Organic certification on its label doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s addressing this concern.

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