In the heart of mezcal country

Gillian Ferguson reports on the mezcal boom from the state of Oaxaca, where 70% of mezcal is made. Business is good, but it's also raising concerns.

From Oaxaca City, it takes about two and a half hours to drive to Miahuatlan, a tiny town on the edge of the Sierra Sur, where agaves line the edge of the road and plantings of maize ripple across every hillside.

Victor Ramos is a maestro mezcalero from Miahuatlan. (Elena Marini)

Miahuatlan is one of a handful of towns in this part of Oaxaca that have become synonymous with the production of mezcal. Not the worm in the bottle stuff you see at duty free in the airport, but traditional mezcal, the kind of small batch spirit that’s been made for generations in rural communities across Mexico.

Snaking through the hillsides in her dusty SUV, Silvia Philion points at wild agaves outside the car window. “Those are karwinskis,” she says. “Miahuatlan is the land of karwinskis. So the flavor of mezcales in this region is very grassy, green, floral.”

Philion is the general director of Mezcaloteca, a small tasting room in Oaxaca City dedicated to preserving the tradition of mezcal and the biodiversity of agave. She and her team work with 45 different maestro mezcaleros across eight Mexican states, and each of their mezcals tastes wildly different. Some are herbal or spicy, others taste like chocolate or even parmesan.

“Sometimes when you drink a mezcal from Miahuatlan that tastes like chiles you wonder where the flavor of the chiles come from,” she says, “and it comes from the plant growing near chiles every year.”

After the piñas are crushed, the fibers and juices are taken to open air barrels where they will ferment, taking on the flavors of the local environment. (Elena Marini)

Just like wine, mezcal is all about terroir. The flavor depends on the type of agave, where it was grown, who produced it and how it was distilled. It is not, as is often said, the smoky cousin of tequila. It’s more like tequila’s grandfather, because before it was commercialized tequila was just one type of mezcal.

In the traditional sense, the word mezcal just means a distillate made from agave, and historically it was produced all over Mexico, including in a little town in the state of Jalisco called Tequila. It was there in 1795 that the Spanish government awarded the first permit to distill mezcal to a family by the name of Cuervo.

Over the years, as “mezcal de Tequila” gained popularity, they shortened the name to tequila, and by the 1970’s the spirit had become so well known that the region was awarded the first designation of origin or D.O., outside of Europe. So just like there are rules to protect Champagne or Roquefort cheese, the Mexican government created its own protections for tequila, which said it could only be produced with one type of agave – the fast growing Blue Weber.

Mezcal has its own protected status, stating that only nine Mexican states can legally call their product mezcal, but unlike tequila it can be made with more than 30 varieties of agave and when you drive the country roads of Oaxaca you can see all that diversity on the side of the road. The State of Oaxaca is the epicenter for the world’s biodiversity in agave, and Silvia Philion’s mission at Mezcaloteca is to keep it that way.

Victor Ramos distills his mezcal in copper pots, heated by wood fire. (Elena Marini)

Our first stop in Miahuatlan is Victor Ramos’s palenque, a traditional outdoor distillery where three generations have made mezcal on a hillside surrounded by spikey agaves interplanted with corn, beans and squash.

“The father’s teach the sons when they are kids,” Silvia says, “because making traditional mezcal is a family labor. All the tios and primos and sabrinos come to help because it’s a lot of work.”

Felipe Cortes is one of the 45 maestro mezcaleros that Silvia Philion works with at Mezcaloteca in Oaxaca City. (Elena Marini)

At these traditional palenques, nothing is automated. The agave hearts, or piñas, are roasted in an earth oven for up to a week, which gives the mezal its signature smoky flavor. Then they’re smashed by hand with a wooden mallet or here at the Ramos’s palenque, they are crushed by a big stone wheel pulled by an ox. Once crushed, the pulp and all the juices are fermented in open-air barrels and distilled over wood fire in clay or copper pots. There are no temperature dials, no timers to set, every aspect of the distillation is done by feel, which is mezcal fans insist that you can actually taste the hand of the maker in every batch.

As recent as ten to fifteen years ago, mezcal had a dodgy reputation in Mexico. In urban centers it was considered the drink of the poor, but now Mexico City is dotted with mezcalerias boasting chalkboard menus that call out the maestro mezcaleros by name.

The trend has reached nearly every major North American city, from Baltimore to San Francisco, which is home to Mexico in a Bottle, the largest mezcal tasting in the country. According to one L.A. bartender I spoke to, “mezcal is the hipster’s cognac.”

Compared to tequila, mezcal exports are a drop in the bucket, but it’s the fastest growing spirit in the marketplace, with exports growing between 20 and 30 percent each year and major brands are taking notice. In the last two years, three of the world’s largest spirits companies, the same multinationals that own brands like Johnnie Walker, Absolute and Grey Goose, all invested heavily in mezcal brands, suggesting that mezcal is ready to go big, and that makes some mezcal fans apprehensive.

Before Tequila went global, the state of Jalisco was home to ten species of agave, but they took a long time to grow and couldn’t be used to make tequila, so they disappeared leaving behind only one variety, the Blue Weber.

As demand grew, growers started cloning the agave instead of planting from seed, which hastens production, but weakens the plant and leaves it vulnerable to disease and pests. For years Jalisco has struggled with agave shortages which forces the tequileros to come into communities like Miahuatlan to buy plants.

Buyers from Tequila who are struggling with agave shortages in Jalisco are offering Felipe Cortes high prices for his agave plants. (Elena Marini)

This exact scenario is what’s happening to Felipe Cortez, another maestro mezcalero in Miahuatlan who sells his mezcals through Philion at Mezcaloteca. Buyers from Tequila have offered him a lot of money for his agave, making it hard for him to say no. It’s a scenario that is both familiar and terrifying to Philion, who encourages mezcaleros to continue their craft by paying fair prices for their mezcal.

“They have a lot of problems with the mono-cultivation of blue agave,” Philion says of her neighbors in Jalisco, “so they are actually not respecting the D.O. of Tequila and they are coming to Oaxaca to buy plants.”

And it’s not just the tequileros that are driving prices up. Demand for agave syrup is another culprit. And as the mezcal industry in Oaxaca grows so does competition for these plants, which is why activists like Philion are encouraging the maestro mezcaleros to plan for the future by building greenhouses and planting from seed.

So far, about 30 percent of the maestro mezcaleros Mezcaloteca works with keep greenhouses. Others have to rely on plants from local farmers. but the marketplace is competitive and if the small producers can’t find plants or a space in the marketplace, Philion says we lose a lot more than a delicious sip of mezcal.

“If we lose the tradition of mezcal we lose a big story for Mexico,” she tells me. “How people live. What they do with their hands. What do they like to create and produce with all that they have. It’s not just a drink that is going to get you drunk and you’re going to have a nice night, this is the culture of Mexico and it’s what farmers in Mexico live every day.”

Special thanks to DJ Ekg (aka Edgar Santamaria) for music supervision on this story. This post was made possible with help from KCRW’s Independent Producer Project.