This article titled “From firewater to fine dining: exports triple for tequila’s poor cousin, mezcal” was written by Jo Tuckman in Santa Catarina Minas, for The Guardian on Sunday 17th August 2014 16.15 UTC
Lorenzo Angeles remembers swallowing his childhood anger when clients bartered hard with his mother during night-time missions to sell the family’s precious moonshine. Today, as he approaches retirement, he savours vindication: that same liquor his family used to peddle door-to-door is now the tipple of choice for connoisseurs of luxury spirits.
Mezcal, a spirit made from the heart of the cactus-like agave plant, was once disdained as poor man’s firewater. But it is now enjoying unprecedented success at home and abroad: consumption in bars has more than doubled in the past four years and exports have tripled in the same period.
“They used to treat us with disdain, but now everybody wants to sell mezcal,” said the 64-year-old at his pristine distillery in the small town of Santa Catarina Minas in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. “I always knew there is no better drink.”
Mexico makes just 2m litres of mezcal a year – less than 1% of the amount produced of its more famous agave-based liquor, tequila. But among fans of fine spirits, mezcal is winning the battle for hearts, minds, livers and wallets.
“Mezcal is at a crossroads,” said Abél Alcantara, a former political activist turned mezcal promoter. “This is the moment when it could really take off to become something similar to single malt whisky, or start to fall behind again.”
Mezcal aficionados say the spirit’s charm – and the justification for its elevated price (cheaper bottles on sale in the UK cost about £25) – lies in the variety of flavours that can be tasted in each sip. This, they say, comes from the 36 species of cultivated and wild agave used in its production, and the different terrains on which they grow, in eight designated regions around the country. The plants require between eight and 25 years to grow so they have – the argument goes – “matured” even before harvesting.
Fans say different techniques used in production can also subtly influence the flavour: whether the agave is baked in pits in the ground or in ovens, smashed with a large circular stone pulled by a horse or by hand, the kind of water used in fermentation, and whether it is distilled in copper or clay. Then there is the individual touch of each maestro de mezcal – the master distiller.
“We still don’t really have the language to compare the complexity of flavours,” said Ulíses Torrentera, owner of In Situ, a mezcalería (mezcal bar) in Oaxaca. “Every mezcal is a work of art that communicates something intangible.”
Torrentera says his fascination began when he read Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano, in which a British consul drinks himself into oblivion with “millions of gourds of beautiful mescal [sic]”. He went on to join a small but enthusiastic movement which, over the past decade, has overturned the spirit’s image as tequila’s poor cousin, only marketable as a cheap route to oblivion or through gimmicks such as a worm in the bottle.
Mezcal, its proponents say, reflects Mexico’s diversity in a way tequila could never do, given the strict regulations laws restricting its production to one species of agave grown in one region in the state of Jalisco. Both have been claimed as symbols of Mexico’s mestizo history – the mix of a native plant with an imported distillation process – but mezcal’s small and often indigenous producers maintain an aura of authenticity that contrasts with tequila’s history of mass production.
“Traditional mezcal is the richness of the underworld we were never allowed to appreciate; it is the story of the vanquished,” said Graciela Angeles, daughter of maestro Lorenzo, whose family brand Real Minera sells its top-end spirit for about £50.
Around the same time as mezcal began establishing itself in Mexico, American enthusiasts began opening up the market in the US, where the drink is now a fixture in expensive restaurants, as well as a favoured ingredient in the craft cocktail movement.
More recently, mezcalerías have also opened in Germany, Spain and the UK, pulling in a new circle of enthusiasts such as Berliner Patricia Guter. “Mezcal is something you discover,” she said, sipping a shot in the Los Amantes mezcaleria while on holiday in Oaxaca. “It isn’t just the taste, it is the story too.”
The latest boom has been propelled by purist enthusiasts and more commercial operations (one company, Zignum, recently signed a distribution deal with Bacardi), but most of Mexico’s mezcal is still produced in tiny semi-legal distilleries in poor communities that have yet to feel much benefit.
In the small town of San Baltazar Chichicapam, flies swarmed around Fortunato Vázquez’s tin-roofed still. “Before, they said people drank mezcal because they couldn’t afford beer; now it is the other way around,” he said, before listing the properties popularly attributed to the drink, which include controlling diabetes and ensuring male offspring. “But at the moment I still sell my mezcal for just 40 pesos [£1.80] a litre.”
Mezcal activist Alcantara is encouraging these tiny producers to organise and get government help to register a collective brand, meet regulatory health standards and set up projects for sustainable agave cultivation.
“The paradox is that mezcal has been embraced by the middle classes, but the majority of what is produced is essentially clandestine,” he said. “There is little sign yet of the government support needed to change this.”
But even if the authorities do get behind traditional mezcal producers, there is trouble brewing in the form of an imminent crisis in the supply of agave. Periodical shortages, related to the plant’s long growing cycle, have always posed problems for mezcal and tequila. This time, however, producers say buyers from the tequila region are driving away with truckloads of Oaxaca agave purchased at higher than average prices, fuelling speculation of sabotage.
Still, amid the fears that a period of fierce competition for agave could lead to the extinction of some wild varieties and drive many producers out of business, there is confidence that mezcal is here to stay. “There are tough times ahead,” said Angeles. “But when the fashion fades we think that there will at least remain a niche that drinks with conviction.”
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