Skepticism and Terror
In early June 2017, I was interviewed via email by VinePair’s conscientious staff writer, Nickolaus Hines, on whether I thought that mezcal could “…Grow its way to the Mainstream Without Losing its Roots.”
Skepticism usually sets in whenever we’re approached for quotes by writers attempting to compose complex articles about the plight of agave spirits.
Skepticism turns into sheer terror whenever the writer represents a website that is not known for its thoughtful content.
More often than not, facts get muddled and the same old tequila cliches are regurgitated.
Such was not the case here.
When interviewing several people at once to create a relevant article, it’s a rarity for a journalist to be able to use all of the interviewee’s replies to produce a coherent final piece.
It’s a common practice in the movie industry to edit a character’s scenes only to later add them back in. It’s what becomes the Director’s Cut once the movie is available to buy or rent.
What follows are the exact questions Mr. Hines asked, and my answers, including what wound up on the cutting room floor.
NH: Was there a defining moment that you’re aware of when tequila became a mainstream spirit in the U.S.? Did it have to do with a multinational liquor company’s investment?
Jose Cuervo’s Especial and 1800 “mixto” brands (51% agave, 49% other sugars) had been mainstays in clubs and restaurants for decades prior to that, mostly consumed in shots and margaritas. At that time, 100% de agave tequilas like Chinaco, El Tesoro de Don Felipe, and Herradura Blanco Suave, were out of most people’s price ranges, and sipping them was a foreign concept.
I had visited Herradura’s historic San Jose del Refugio distillery earlier in 2006, and was shocked to hear news of its sale to B-F, a transnational corporation.
I knew then that things would never be the same.
NH: How has tequila becoming a mainstream spirit impacted tequila producers? Is it harder than ever for small and independent producers, or is it easier because consumers are more familiar with tequila in general?
MM: According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), tequila volumes have jettisoned 121% since 2002. Much of this consumption is due to multinational corporations and their massive distribution, sales and marketing channels.
As of the current Consejo Regulador del Tequila’s (CRT) NOM list (dated May 31, 2017), there are 1373 brands of tequila being produced by roughly only 130 distilleries. Most are what are called “maquiladoras,” that distill tequila for various brand owners.
Small and independent craft tequila producers, as well as reputable small-to-mid-sized maquiladoras are few and far between, but they do exist.
Most don’t have the funding, marketing budgets and distribution channels that the Big Boys have, so they struggle to compete on a level playing field.
Constant and consistent education of the average consumer by smaller brands of their quality is a key component to their success, and vital for their continued existence in the marketplace.
NH: Mezcal has less restrictions on where, with which types of agave, and how it can be produced than tequila does. Is that an advantage that could make mezcal as popular (or more) than tequila?
MM: Actually, like Tequila, Mezcal has a Denomination of Origin.
It is currently produced in the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, Guerrero, and Tamaulipas. Michoacan has also been recently admitted, and many other states are expected to be added in years to come.
Because several other types of agave can be used to distill mezcal (as well as bacanora and raicilla), unlike the singular blue weber agave from which tequila must be produced by law, that is its main attraction to consumers.
The fact that it is relatively new, unusual, has a story behind every bottle and batch, and is arguably the most artisanal product in the world, makes mezcal particularly attractive to Millennials and connoisseurs alike.
The danger is that these characteristics COULD, indeed, make mezcal even more popular than tequila.
NH: Does the rise of tequila provide a blueprint for mezcal, or is the intended consumer base too different?
MM: The rise of tequila does provide a blueprint for mezcal, but not in the way you think. The Mezcal Industry has shown that it has learned from the mistakes made by the Tequila Industry.
In February 2017, the Mezcal Regulatory Council passed into law an amendment to its normas that would categorize mezcal by its methods of processing (mezcal, mezcal artesanal, and mezcal ancestral).
These new categories will allow for small producers to continue making mezcal their way, and for large, multinational corporations to attempt to mass produce juice that can still be labeled mezcal.
Unlike the Tequila Industry, where consumers who are tired of the same cookie-cutter flavor profiles of the more popular brands, and are desperately seeking authenticity and quality, this type of transparency lets all consumers choose for themselves which type of mezcal best suits their tastes.
NH: Where do you see the mezcal business in 10 years? Will it be mostly owned by multinational corporations, or will smaller companies retain control?
MM: The above mentioned new law will presumably allow both large and small producers to thrive, but mezcal finds itself in a conundrum:
That is, how to simultaneously protect the industry for future survival while meeting the burgeoning global demand.
Aside from the more commercially grown espadin variety, many of the more sought after agave are wild harvested and take years to mature. As I mentioned in question #3, the different types of agave used for mezcal is the attraction, but could also lead to its demise.
Unless sustainability and preservation of all types of agave–and the cultural and economic well being of the communities in which mezcal has been historically distilled for decades–is part of any business plan (especially by transnational corporations), then the Mezcal Industry is doomed and the collateral damage could be devastating.
NH: Is there anything that happened to small tequila producers and small villages where tequila is made that you believe could happen to small mezcal producers small villages where mezcal is made?
MM: Tequila and mezcal don’t share parallel histories.
When Jose Cuervo was granted permission by the Spanish Crown to commercially produce tequila in the mid-18th century, distillation of mezcal (or pulque) was legitimized (taxed) and refined for the aristocracy.
Throughout tequila’s over 250 year history, several other clans emerged as wealthy landowners settling in various regions, growing their own agave and establishing family brands.
The tequila industry charged forward when the Sauza family first exported tequila, then known as vino mezcal, into the United States in the late 19th century.
When the Sauza’s sold the brand in the late 1980s to Spanish brandy maker Pedro Domecq, it signaled that the industry was open to foreign interests, mergers and acquisitions.
Over several decades, some small commercial agaveros (blue agave farmers) made their fortunes during times of severe agave shortages. With their newfound wealth, many started their own brands and constructed distilleries.
Mezcal, on the other hand, had continued to be clandestinely produced all this time by indigenous people in rural areas of Mexico. It had remained largely unchanged.
While tequila struggled to elevate its image throughout the 20th century from a poor man’s drink, to a party shooter, to an elegant sipper, mezcal’s has always been akin to white lightening.
Its booming popularity in the 21st century has only proven how every facet of mezcal production—from commercial farming of espadin and other agave, to mass production and even regulation—is still in its infancy.
Mezcal can no longer be ignored, though.
The recent positioning by multinational companies capturing significant stakes in popular and pioneering brands has now made mezcal a valuable asset to any spirits portfolio.
It remains to be seen, however, whether anybody outside of these transnational corporations gets rich from distilling mezcal.
NH: Is mezcal as scaleable as tequila?
MM: Not at the present time.
Can it be? Sure.
But concessions by the Mezcal Regulatory Council would have to be made, for instance, by allowing for the distillation of “mixto” mezcal.
Tequila’s Denomination of Origin is currently the only one in existence that is allowed to be adulterated by the production of mixto.
I doubt seriously that the Mezcal Industry would agree for its DO to be bastardized in this way.