Mezcal has become one of the most popular liquors in the United States in recent years, but with that popularity has come complications. Despite historically high demand for mezcal, many Mexican producers are abandoning the product, at least by name, reports Business Insider.
What is mezcal?
Agave is the key ingredient to both mezcal and tequila (more on that process in a bit). However, mezcal is a broader category of distilled agave-based spirits that come from Mexico, whereas tequila is a type of mezcal made using blue agave specifically. Although Americans have long enjoyed tequila, it wasn’t until the past few decades that mezcal started making a name for itself in the United States.
In 2021, mezcal increased in value by 53% compared to 2020, while tequila only grew 27% over the same time period, according to research from IWSR, a London-based market research firm focused on global alcohol trends. Mezcal’s popularity has only continued to rise since then, even surpassing “American” liquors like whiskey, reported Bloomberg in June. This year, Americans will have spent more money on tequila and mezcal than on U.S.-made whiskey, and those two spirits are poised to beat out vodka by 2023.
How mezcal is made
Here’s a crash course on how mezcal is made and why it’s so special. Mezcal makers in Mexico have been using the same techniques for generations, and it all begins with the agave plant.
Visually similar to large pineapples, agave hearts are harvested and arranged in a pit in the ground, which serves as an oven. Next they’re covered in an insulating layer of dirt and plant fiber to retain moisture as the hearts are roasted for days. After that, the roasted hearts are placed on a stone mill, often pulled by a donkey, to be crushed. The crushed fibers are put in fermentation tanks, where they sit for around a week. Once fermented, the alcohol is distilled to become mezcal.
The longstanding tradition of making mezcal using these methods, and the significance behind the practice, is what sits at the heart of the current conflict within the industry.
The mezcal industry’s biggest issues
Mezcal was first made in or around the Mexican state of Oaxaca in the 16th century, and from there it spread to other states in the country. The spirit was originally considered a poor person’s drink, but as its popularity grew across the centuries, the Mexican government wanted to give the alcohol some legitimacy. As recently as 1994, the government established a Denominacion de Origen, or appellation of origin.
On its surface the establishment of this certification—and, later, the creation of an organization called COMERCAM to oversee the certification process—was meant to protect the traditions that surround the making of mezcal. However, overtime it seems the certification process has become corrupt, and many smaller traditional distillers are abandoning their efforts to get their mezcal certified, reports Business Insider.
Today the process can cost between $375 to $2,500. Mezcaleros have to pay to have their product tested, buy equipment that meets the certification standards, and wait up to a year for the certification to go through. On top of the costs, smaller mezcaleros have had to deal with corrupt practices on the part of COMERCAM, which was fined close to $50,000 by the Mexican government in 2020 for favoring large companies over smaller producers (among other issues).
In addition to these challenges, many smaller mezcal producers have found that meeting the standards for certification puts the traditional methods of making mezcal in jeopardy. The certification requires that the mezcal have a specific alcohol and methanol content, but this is difficult to achieve using non-industrial processes. For these reasons, brands that have long carried the label “mezcal” are choosing to stop certifying their product as such. These mezcaleros are still making the same spirit they have always made, but instead labeling it “distilled agave” or something similar.
Some of these issues could be chalked up to the growing pains of a budding industry, but it’s concerning to see that this conflict has the potential to be the demise of a tradition that has been passed down for generations and is a point of pride for many families throughout Mexico. A recent article from Civil Eats details how an increasing number of farmers in California, Arizona, and Texas are turning to growing agave plants as a way to combat drought. If mezcal makers move away from calling their product mezcal, it opens the door for larger producers outside of Mexico to also begin selling “agave spirits,” which may confuse consumers.
The average person likely doesn’t know about the traditions of the mezcal industry, and when you’re standing in the liquor store looking for an affordable bottle to take to a party, you might not care. But if you’re genuinely curious about this unique beverage with a long and storied history, it’s worth doing your research and finding a bottle made the traditional way, if only to see if you can taste the differences.