Para consumo sacro, todo exceso es profane. “For sacred consumption, all excess is profane.”
-Ulises Torrentera on drinking mezcal
Here we are again, my friends –thirsty and curious. It’s time for phase two of the ultimate mezcal guide, “Today’s Mezcal ‘Aint your Grandmama’s Mezcal.”
You can read or refresh your memory of Parte Uno: History and Folklore right here.
Last time, we talked about myths and legends in the curious past regarding mezcal and agave. As 1/3 aficionados, it is clear that mezcal has a rich history and a close tie to the culture of today. Now we get to talk about the changes and shifts, cultural blending, and traditions that have evolved. We also dive into what the heck made the stuff so popular as of late.
On the Rise
The change in the mezcal market is the result of a certain perfect storm of stuff.
First, the Texas market
Their availability is a result of the craft-cocktail renaissance that has swept the country in the last 15-plus years, creating a subculture of bartenders, industry professionals and consumers that, like the “foodie” culture with which it overlaps, favors freshness, quality, vintage recipes and exclusive or exotic ingredients.
-Marc Ramirez, Dallas Morning News
A resurgence of a culture which values crafted cocktails made of unique and exotic ingredients has spurred competition to experience the unusual. In the quest to get an edge up, restauranteurs are looking for new ways to impress their audience by finding new products from around the world. These travelers return home with incredible stories of small shacks budding with bottles of home-made mezcal. Because of Texas’ Mexico border, many have looked to the south for inspiration. The market has grown so large that the U.S. is drinking more tequila than Mexico — and where there is tequila, there is the lesser known and seemingly exotic mezcal.
Tequila has been a staple in bars for centuries. Though recently, restaurants and bars have emerged that offer more specialization of a certain spirit, the “four horsemen” of booze are ever-present. In bars and restaurants that jumped on the tequila train early on, mezcal is accessible and has a built-in market. A business that is already successful in tequila specialization has a fool-proof plan for the introduction of a new sister-liquor, often as a smokey float on an already available cocktail. There is less risk in investing in a new venture if the market is already built-in, which encourages business owners to try the new liquor.
Third, social justice
Mezcal is still produced traditionally. The recipe requires the adherence to old methods.
Mezcal hits every magic word—artisanal, organic, gluten-free, vegan. It comes from a small village, and you have to drive there to get it. It’s made by a family.
-Dana Goodyear, The Newyorker
Mezcal is produced by families that have worked in the industry for generations. It’s production is lengthy and laborious, and requires insider knowledge. This type of familial heritage has kept mezcal fairly closely guarded. Though with the rise of demand, some corporate interests are attempting to infiltrate the market, it is early enough in its rising popularity to face resistance. Because the major market for mezcal is demand by small business that operate in a niche market of organic, farm-to-table, environmentally aware owners, it is difficult to sell a corporate bottle of mezcal in a marketplace that has a multitude of inexpensive options straight from a family operation.
The increased production of mezcal has come at a cost. Because the agave plants take many years to fully mature, an increased demand is increasingly difficult to predict and produce for. A mezcal producer would have to have the foresight of about 8 years on average. This seems like an even greater challenge when one considers the rapid rise to popularity in the last year alone. This has left many producers to turn to wild agave to make up for the deficit, which has placed a strain on the environment in some regions.
The quote at the top by Torronter says a lot about the way mezcal is produced and viewed by Mexican people. There is a historical sort of sacredness that is imbued in the drink. It points to the history of the country, its cultures, traditions, and a strongly connected heritage. The type of familial bond that mezcal producers value is the reason corporate interests have been so slow to flood the market, and the reason horses pulling wheels are still a key part of the production process.
With any boom, though, there are changes. Consumers demand increased production, and connoisseurs seek out the most exotic and luxurious types. A controversial attempt at combatting some disputes over the production and classification system. The Norma Official Mexicana or NOM, a set of laws that regulate the tequila and mezcal industries, have been re-written to create more solid archetypes around ownership and bottling. at Mezcal PHD , I found this great chart of the new classification system. This points to the push to maintain the traditions surrounding mezcal. Ancestral mezcal has a strict set of guidelines that bar any modifications of the mezcal-making process.
|Three New Categories||Cooking||Grinding||Fermentation||Distillation|
|Mezcal||Pit ovens, elevated stone ovens, and autoclaves – diffuser use under review||Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, trapiche, shredder or series of mills||Wood, masonry or stainless steel tanks||Stills, continuous stills, columns stills made of copper or steel|
|Artisanal Mezcal||Pit ovens or elevated stone ovens||Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, mallets, trapiche, or shredder||Wood, clay or masonry tanks, animal skins, hollows in stone, earth or tree trunks, and process may use maguey fibers||Direct fire on copper stills or clay pots and coils made of clay, wood, copper, or stainless steel, and process may include maguey fibers|
|Ancestral Mezcal||Pit ovens only||Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, or mallets||Wood, clay or masonry tanks, animal skins, hollows in stone, earth or tree trunks, and process must use maguey fibers||Direct fire on clay pots and coils made clay or wood, and process must include maguey fibers|
There are a few points of contention, and this process is still underway. Many object to the inclusion of the category of “mezcal.” Because of the low level of qualifications, and modernization involved, generally the producers working in this category are corporations trying to mass-produce. The loose guidelines stray from what generational mezcal producers have been crafting, and leads the way for business interests looking to break into the market.
One other concern that I can foresee: the mezcal industry is a rising market for tourists looking for an, “authentic experience.” With any market boom, there is a concern about the effects it will have on the local people. At times, this can mean an increase in income and financial stability. Other times, it can mean a rapid commercialization of a craft that has lasted in near solitude for many many years. Let’s all just hope for the former.
Do you have any thoughts or experiences that involve mezcal? Posted them below!
Well I guess that’s all I’ve got for parts dos. Drink up lovelies.
The featured photo is not my own — it is the property of this blog