Buying Mezcal From Oaxaca: Exercise Due Diligence & Beware of Misrepresentation
By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
If you like it, and you think it’s decent value, then buy it. This is not a treatise on being critical of market changes in the promotion and sale of what at face value may appear to be traditionally made mezcal in Oaxaca. Rather it’s a modest attempt to help the public, both novices and ardent aficionados alike, who do not do the due diligence they perhaps ought to be doing before they buy their agave spirits.
A mezcal distiller friend recently exclaimed to me “it’s just marketing” and then “let the buyer beware.” But far too often what we read online about agave spirit brands, see on the labels, and hear in bars and mezcalerías, is misleading, confusing, incomplete, or outright fabrication. It’s too early in the modern era of mezcal, which dates back to only the 1990s, to expect buyers of the spirit to be able to parse and evaluate what they read. Sure, best option before buying mezcal produced in southern Mexico is to visit Oaxaca and tour a good smattering of palenques for a couple of weeks. But not everyone can do that. And believe it or not, there are brands which are not thrilled to receive consumers to their facilities. Why? For example a mezcal aficionado might be interested in learning what precisely is meant by online promotion such as “produced by modern and traditional ways.” He might be disappointed to learn that “modern” means highly industrialized; and similarly that “traditional” means no more than harvesting, cooking, crushing, fermenting and distilling which employs means of production and tools of the trade as high tech as can be.
I’ll refrain from making this a denunciation of terms like handcrafted or artisanal. The regulatory board of mezcal has weighed into the fray with its labelling requirements regarding the latter as well as ancestral. However some brief comments on terminology are useful in order to assist the spirit’s drinkers.What does “100% estate grown agave espadín” or “100% natural” really mean these days, at least in Oaxaca? Are madrecuixe, barril, mexicano and tobalá really all wild agaves used today to make mezcal? Does tepeztate really take 35 years to mature before it is then harvested and transformed into mezcal? Is there anything artisanal about agave having been steamed in a hermetically sealed brick room, then crushed by machinery, and finally distilled in a stainless steel column still fueled by diesel?
Yes of course we all want to make life easier for hardworking palenqueros and their families. However, there is a profound difference between modernization for the sake of churning out more juice to better line the pockets of entrepreneurs, and in some modicum advancing the cause of altruism for the benefit of those who toil in the fields and distilleries. In other words, using a gasoline powered machine to crush the sweet baked agave rather than for example a heavy wooden mallet to mash by hand, serves the latter and is difficult to view as objectionable. On the other hand, mezcal made through modern methods strictly to increase profits, is a completely different animal. In my estimation, motivation should figure into the equation.
A palenquero who produces for an export brand which labels its mezcal as made with “estate grown” agave asked me to sell him some maguey from my field. I had no idea that the espadín, madrecuixe, tobalá and weber on my land are estate grown! Perhaps I should begin referring to my land as my Estate, and put Don Alvin on my business cards.
Sarcasm aside, typically “estate grown” means that the agave is grown on the land owned by the distiller. In wine parlance apparently it can also mean the land is managed by the vintner but owned by someone else. With mezcal production it can connote a better quality spirit, but not necessarily, and perhaps not at all. One might surmise that the growth is better controlled by the palenquero who is carefully watching the land for a decade, if he is. But he might be chemically fertilizing and fumigating his estate. And there are almost innumerable factors which impact ultimate quality. If it’s estate grown and certified organic, I might be convinced, but anything short of that sends up red flags for me. So the buying public can in my estimation easily be misled. And more recently almost all artisanal and ancestral mezcal producers are seeking to buy agave from anyone selling it. Their own actual “estates” are either barren, or lined with rows of young succulents years away from harvest.
On to wild as opposed to cultivated. In a Oaxacan village noted for handicrafts, a few years ago a family decided to venture into the mezcal industry, so created its own label. On the display stand below each particular type of mezcal being promoted, there is a little card describing the maguey used to distill the particular product. Espadín is noted as cultivated, but all the others are described as being made with wild agave; madrecuixe, tobalá, arroqueño, jabalí, and the rest. Most species of agave used to make mezcal in Oaxaca are now cultivated. However one can still find mezcal which is actually made with wild tobalá, for example, and likely most tepeztate is still being produced with wild maguey. But most varietals, even jabalí, are now being cultivated. The other day a friend was telling me about all the species and sub-species he has under cultivation, grown from seed in his greenhouses, 16 all told, about 200,000 plants he’s been offering to growers and palenqueros.
Just think of the mezcal boom, and how much of the spirit made in the state of Oaxaca is now on the shelves of liquor stores, bars, restaurants and mezcalerías, in Mexico, throughout the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and the rest of the world. Can the labels be accurate if so many describe the juice as made with silvestre? Of course not. But some brand owners believe that the buying public will pay more if the mezcal is described as having been made with wild agave. Sure, if you visit Santiago Matatlán, the sides of the highway are filled with fields with almost exclusively espadín under cultivation and little more. But visit other areas, and traverse the dirt roads on the other side of the mountain, and you’ll find arroqueño, tobalá, mexicano, madrecuixe and barril, all in neat rows, awaiting harvesting and processing; then to be labeled as wild in some cases.
Let’s assume for a moment that every label describing a mezcal as having been distilled using wild agave is accurate. That does not mean that the mezcal is of better quality than the next bottle which lacks the word silvestre as a descriptor. Just think about it. One should consider microclimate (including airborne yeasts and water source), means of production, tools of the trade, type of wood used to bake, skill of the palenquero, and so on. Each is just as likely if not more so to impact quality, as is wild v. cultivated.
Some communities are dictating to their palenqueros that for each wild agave harvested, two must be planted. And some brand owners seek volunteers during the rainy season to plant small agave grown from seed up in the mountains. In both cases let’s assume that those magueyitos will be left to grow in the wild for a decade or so, without irrigation, fertilizers, weeding, or otherwise having been tended. How should the resultant mezcal be labeled? I suggest, as some have termed it, semi-wild. But once again, that does not aid us in determining the quality of what’s in the bottle. We must know more, much more, including the reputation of the producer. And of course the type of agave used will likely also impact our buying decisions.
One brand promotes its mezcal as gluten free, feeding off of the celiac frenzy. Are there any mezcals which are not gluten free?
Just because one liter costs 500 pesos, and another costs 1,000 pesos, both from the same palenquero yet different species, does not mean that the latter is of better quality than the former. Does age really matter? Perhaps. But more likely than not, those brands which on their labels boast the age of the agave used to produce the particular mezcal, are simply trying to boost the price. One employee of a downtown Oaxaca mezcalería used to tell patrons that tepeztate takes 35 years to mature. As a palenquero friend once told me, if the campesino harvesting that tepeztate from the wild doesn’t know his own age, how does he know the age of the maguey?
Be wary of those who are overly dogmatic in their promotion of their own or other brands of mezcal, and of those who tend to speak in absolutes. What is their motivation? I would suggest that they are trying to either build up their reputations as mezcal experts, or inflate the price of the agave spirit they are flogging.
One might reasonably expect to pay more for a mezcal made with cultivated agave which has been in a nursery and then in a field for 15 – 40 years, given the attention paid to it for such an extended period of time, and the cost of having it occupy its own square meter on valuable land. If it’s cultivated, then on balance it would seem to have a more modest value, subject of course to how many kilos of raw agave it has taken to produce a liter, clay v. copper distillation, age, and the rest. But it’s unlikely that it’s been in the field for much longer than a dozen or so years.
If it’s wild, then why should it cost more if it has simply been growing unattended in the hills for a couple of decades? True, wild agave in the field for 25 years might have a richer flavor because of the time it has had to take in valuable minerals and carbohydrates. But the same can be stated for cultivated agave grown on the steep slope of a deep river valley, or left for a year after the quiote has been cut down. If you are convinced that it’s wild, and that the person who has harvested it has toiled to get into the mountains and back out again, then sure. But wild can also mean grown on flat land adjacent to the palenquero’s distillery. Ask the hard questions before believing what you read and hear, and use common sense.
Epilogue: A cursory examination of the labels on the commercial mezcals in my collection reveals that the better agave distillates do not boast and do not mislead. The labels are factual and provide information which even I can understand without the use of a dictionary. These are the brands which have essentially stellar reputations amongst the most dedicated and knowledgeable aficionados. When their owners speak, their words have that ring of truth.
Alvin Starkman owns Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He has gleaned his knowledge of agave and mezcal over the past three decades.