Mezcal Industry Carpetbaggers and Scoundrels

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

¨Heroes and Villains, Just see what you’ve done” was the refrain of the 1967 The Beach Boys song. Now while I’m neither, though some might disagree, Mexico’s burgeoning mezcal business contains representatives of both; too many of the latter.  But even one person is more than we want, especially since this agave distillate industry’s star is still rising, and the carpetbaggers and scoundrels among us can bring it to a crashing halt.

 

The spirit industry’s upward trajectory appears unstoppable, especially given the global reach of the multi-nationals.  Over the past few years they have been buying up quality brands of ancestral and artesanal mezcal.  And so the potential is there, for industry growth.  But you know what they say about one bad apple.

Mezcal Industry Carpetbaggers and Scoundrels https://wp.me/p3u1xi-6gLIn May, 2019, I was interviewed by a media type working on a piece about recent changes in the mezcal trade as a consequence of increased commercialization. We spoke about the extent of the likelihood for change in quality and pricing structure; the former going down, and the latter up. It would seem that every step a brand takes towards industrializing the means of production and tools of the trade in the manufacture of its mezcal inevitably reduces quality. I’ve seen it happen.  I have tasted the difference in a product distilled by a palenquero 15 years ago, and then today the purportedly same mezcal.  He yielded to pressure from the brand owner to produce more, quicker. And over the past five years I have noticed known brands reducing their ABV as a means of lowering cost, and new, start-up brands flogging their juice at 37 – 40 percent — simply not what traditional mezcal is all about.

Mezcal Industry Carpetbaggers and Scoundrels https://wp.me/p3u1xi-6gLFair enough.  We do live in a capitalist society, with “let the buyer beware.” But we also have consumer protection laws (though here in Mexico I would suggest their enforcement is questionable).  But they are not designed to address the issue of which I am writing.

As a general statement there’s nothing wrong with lowering quality and/or ABV, since you get what you pay for. That is, sometimes!  And it is the qualifier which brings me back to that interview, and a more pressing reason for this discourse.

Mezcal Industry Carpetbaggers and Scoundrels https://wp.me/p3u1xi-6gL
Las perlas del mezcal.

The interviewer began to relay a story to me, about an interaction he had had with a bilingual (Spanish/English) Mexican who regularly flogs mezcal he bottles under his own label, made by traditional distillers, in the US. The carpetbagger, as I would term the interviewee, at one point began to talk about selling a bottle of mezcal for $1,000 USD, presumably premium, and 750 ml. He said something to the effect of “if a dumb American is willing to pay me a thousand dollars for a bottle of mezcal, then I’ll sell it to him.” Can you reasonably call the guy anything other than a carpetbagger, except perhaps a scoundrel?

To be clear, he wasn’t referring to a mezcal made with jabalí, aged ten years in a bourbon barrel, then marketed in a hand blown glass bottle with a hand blown glass agave inside.

Mezcal Industry Carpetbaggers and Scoundrels https://wp.me/p3u1xi-6gLIn this early era of mezcal, that is, referencing its modern age which dates to no earlier than the mid 1990s, such an attitude and behavior is wrong.  It does harm to the growth of the industry. At this point in time in the meteoric upsurge in the popularity of agave distillates (aside from tequila), should we allow capitalism and  entrepreneurialism to be acceptable and just let it run rampant, or should we be doing all we can to stamp out this type of activity, and more importantly attitude?

You can take what the market will bear.  For example retailing a bottle of specialty pechuga in Washington state for $400 USD.  In that case the price eventually came down, likely because the market simply did not support that price. However the particular product did create a buzz, and still does today, so that’s fine. Charging high prices for novelty items like pechugas made with ham, iguana, deer, turkey breast, and yes rabbit, is fine; as long as they are truly unique and exceptional to the palate of the purchaser; and the brand owner’s motivation is not simply getting as much as he can for the product.

(As an aside, in my humble opinion the protein is quite often used not for imparting a particular aroma, taste and texture, but rather utilized for marketing purposes. If you distill with a chicken breast and a dozen different fruits, spices and herbs, how much is the meat relative to the other ingredients altering the end product?)

alvin starkman, mezcal

There is a good chance that the spirits aficionado who buys a $1000 USD bottle of mezcal, will go back to his Talisker 57 or Lagavulin 16 year old single malt scotch, and be done with mezcal. And that’s something we simply don’t want. You can stick it to him once, but no more. We want to continue to grow the mezcal market with at least some semblance of fair trade, for the benefit of us all; at least most of us.

Shame on Sr. X … and every person in the mezcal industry anything like him.

As Lynyrd Skynyrd sang, “does your conscience bother you?”

 

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He firmly supports the future of a healthy and ethical mezcal industry.

 

Editor’s Note:

By Lisa Pietsch

As in many small communities, the agave spirits community has it’s share of busybodies who feel that rumor mongering, naming and shaming without evidence, and even extortion are completely acceptable behaviors.  They’ll troll social posts, hack sites, and even send disappearing private messages or emails with extortion threats.  Mike Morales and I have encountered much of this ourselves.  Unfortunately, the author of this piece, Alvin Starkman, has received some blowback from this article.  In this case, he has chosen to respond with an addendum which we welcome you to read below.

 

Addendum to “Mezcal Industry Carpetbaggers and Scoundrels”

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

The fine people at Tequila Aficionado were kind enough to publish an article I penned regarding one of the downsides in this new and burgeoning era of mezcal: industry carpetbaggers and scoundrels.

I published a link to the article on a few social media platforms, including a site designed for tequila and mezcal geeks, aficionados, brand owners and others in the agave spirits industry. I felt honored and humbled that well over 90% of the commentaries praised the piece in terms of both content and style. Some reviewers were agave spirit brand owners, others were aficionados, and still others do their own writing about mezcal.

But a couple of people were extremely critical of what I wrote;  they just didn’t understand what I was trying to communicate and didn’t seem to appreciate how I write. I can’t help how I write, but can clarify the content and point of the article. All but two commentators fully understood the argument I was making about the current state of the business of mezcal.

Regarding style, I am not a journalist and have never taken a writing course. Perhaps it shows. I have learned through trial and error over the past couple of decades.  Nevertheless, when practicing litigation law I was required to be able to express myself well so as to maximize the benefit for my clients.

Furthermore:

  • My articles and book editor is a former Chicago English teacher.
  • The federal government selected me as one of 24 writers in Mexico, Canada and the US to promote tourism and investment through writing articles, as part of its Mexico Today program.
  • I currently write regular columns for two print magazines.
  • I have writen pieces for airline in-flight and international vacation magazines, as well as for umpteen other print and online newspapers and magazines, with about 40 such articles centering upon mezcal and pulque.
  • I write to promote Mexico and mezcal, and not for the purpose of receiving remuneration.

However I am not a writer.  I just do what I enjoy doing, with a view to promoting the things about which I feel passionate.

Before addressing the negative comments I received, in fairness some of the positives should be noted, including from a couple of brand owners with similar concerns to mine:

“Bravo ALVIN you all ways hit the nail on the head. I too say booo to the carpetbaggers and gold diggers”

“You’re a good writer, Alvin. Clear writing is indicative of clear thinking. Enjoyed the piece”

“Well articulated”

“Good read. Mezcal can, and, like Tequila, leverage whiskey practices to create a new strata of super premium. However, consumers on the whole can’t even crawl yet with the Joven bottles. The greedy and opportunistic business side thinks they can fly and hence why this mindset will take years, if not a decade, to actually impact market behavior”

“Wherever there is money to be made there will be scoundrels”

One person didn’t understand the thesis:

“I don’t understand the point of this. If you don’t hold the person accountable then you are complicate” (he likely meant complicit)

Then someone else appeared to come to my defence in his reply to the foregoing:

“…this insular group will judge and point fingers regardless. It’s because we care. We don’t need further fodder, by seeing a name, to shape our already curated opinions. The semi-swindling efforts of these types of unnamed people is only a confirmation bias for us.

Consumers need the education. That’s on us, and they don’t care about names”

Yet others still wanted the name of the skalawag mentioned, while lauding my article:

“Well said Alvin. In the spirits industry we tend not to name and shame brands or individuals that are not trading responsibly, but for mezcal I feel it’s time to start doing so. There is too much at stake and too much potential for exploitation, like is the case of this leech in your article”

Naming names would have detracted from the main point of the article. The anecdote about the carpetbagger was meant as a vehicle only, to elucidate a conundrum we now face in the industry, and to hopefully convince aficionados and others to confront the malfeasants. Thankfully almost everyone who commented understood the point of the article, but not all. Some commented that they knew the person.  Then why not tell us his name? I certainly wouldn’t! It was hearsay. It was stated to make the argument more convincing. But yes, it is what I was told, and it was accurate, based on some of the other comments:

“Would I be wrong if I were to surmise the central character in this article is an individual that is not unfamiliar with some of the folks on this board?”

“If this is referring to the person I’ve heard about, he’s also selling that mezcal illegally. And illegal sales, besides undercutting those who go about the process legally, are one anonymous phone call to the feds away from landing the person in big bad trouble. As someone who works in the industry, I would not want the ATF and any number of other federal and state agencies breathing down my neck, but that’s just me….”

Okay, I’ll name three names:

Ron Cooper:

Without Ron we wouldn’t be having this conversation, because he got the ball rolling back in about 1995, and to my knowledge pretty well all of the other well-known brands of traditionally made mezcal currently in the US, came after Del Maguey. We should all be bowing down to Ron. Sure, perhaps the time was ripe, but before there was Ron, the skies were dark in the world of mezcal.

Douglas French:

When I first met Doug in the early 1990s, he was distilling with Encantado. While he went in a different direction from Ron, with his Scorpion Mezcal, and now also Escorpión and Sierra Norte Whiskey, what he has done for single mothers he has been employing for decades is remarkable.  And even when the regulatory board refused to certify his product, he kept the women working.

Judah Kuper:

Judah is a relatively new kid on the block, but in six short years, who has been able to accomplish with a brand like Judah Kuper and Dylan Sloan have done with Vago? And now there’s their Paranubes. The partners’ dedication to transparency and principles of fair trade leads the way for others. Ron and Doug both struggled for a long time, and have paved the road for the likes of Judah, Dylan and a plethora of other good people behind quality brands.

But the brand owner who did not understand the article is another story.  He doesn’t know me, he was presumptious in his (lack of) knowledge of my motivation for operating a small mezcal excursion business, and it appears he didn’t even read the article aside from taking a cursory glance. He wrote:

“Late to the discussion (again), but I’m with [the commenter who just didn’t get it] and don’t really understand the point of this article…it’s a bit all over the place and I don’t think brand and you wouldn’t want to taste a mezcal made by me (I need an expert but offer my commercialization expertise in exchange)…If you sell palenque tours, you’re also benefiting off their work…if the intent is to single out people (or a person) who sells product at high prices, then I don’t really understand either….I am a huge record collector and people (certainly, my wife) think I’m insane for paying the prices I’ve paid for some of my vinyl…it’s up to the buyer, really…many of the people bringing rare mezcales up to US are doing a great service…and most people on this forum have benefitted from such service (illegal or not)…it’s why we started our VdM series…back in 2012, there was very little (if any) access to really small-batch mezcales particularly from states other than Oaxaca … it brought awareness that there are amazing mezcales from all over Mexico (something we now take for granted)…

I don’t know what brand he owns or what he means by “our VdM series.”  Perhaps he is friends with the offender and knows full well that no one would expose him (or her), at least certainly not in print. He appears to be a businessman, here to ride the wave. In and of itself, that’s absolutely fine.

Constructive criticism has helped me to be a better writer.  Suggestions as to how I might improve my mezcal tours are always taken to heart and are usually incorportated into what we do at Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca. But to suggest that I am opposed to providing access to really small-batch mezcal is patently absurd. He writes about 2012. The pioneering began in the mid 1990s, sir, and has continued, and will thrive and benefit the spirits drinking public  without you.

Perhaps there is a scintila of altruism in what he does, but who really knows, based on his admission. It appears the raison d’etre for his criticism is to build up his brand, since he seems to assume that most readers are aware of it by knowing his name and/or the “series” about which he writes. Why not maintain anonymity and simply be critical of me?

Let’s parse the most offensive of his comments:

1)    “If you sell palenque tours, you’re also benefiting off their work” 

No, I don’t, assuming that he means personally financially benefiting from what I do. Our firm believes in ethical mezcal tourism. In my case, while I am usually loathe to write of or mention to people other than clients and prospective clients regarding where my earnings go, forgive me this time, but I now feel compeled. All of my earnings support the education of bright young indigenous women and their families/communities. Ask me, if you doubt the veracity of this. Those who know me know this. A close friend recently commented that what my wife and I are doing through my earnings is the biggest mitzvah anyone could ever do. I shrug it off as “whatever.”

2)    “if the intent is to single out people (or a person) who sells product at high prices, then I don’t really understand either” 

There was never any suggestion in the article that I object to people selling product at a high price. Read the article, thoroughly this time, my friend.  You simply missed the point of it. I wrote about the value in selling $400 USD bottles of pechuga if that’s what the market will bear for such unique products. And that the scoundrel was not selling anything unique, that is not, for example, as I noted, “a mezcal made with jabalí, aged ten years in a bourbon barrel, then marketed in a hand blown glass bottle with a hand blown glass agave inside.”

3)    “I am a huge record collector and people (certainly, my wife) think I’m insane for paying the prices I’ve paid for some of my vinyl…it’s up to the buyer” 

Again, with all due respect, you missed the point. In the case of the modern era of mezcal we must police and call out the ne’er-do-wells. If we want our industry to grow, and thrive, at this point in time we must do more than sit back where we see or hear of misdeeds being perpetrated. We want to increase the number of buyers, not turn them off to mezcal after having been screwed once by the unscrupulous.

Yes, in most cases caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) ought to govern.  But not in the case of traditionally made mezcal, today; not yet. I might be mistaken, but my recollection is that vinyl records have been collectible since the advent of eight tracks, if not earlier. It’s now a more or less sophisticated market. Not so with mezcal.

The positive comments reproduced above, and others, reinforce my thinking on the topic.

Read it again.

How can the industry grow if anyone with the attitude “if a dumb American is willing to pay me a thousand dollars for a bottle of mezcal, then I’ll sell it to him” is permitted to garner the respect of any of us?  If I were an American I would be appalled, and jump on that comment.

I’ve both written and commented about the mezcal continuum. It applies to those who sell agave distillates, to tour operators, and to brand owners.

At one end are the true altruists, the pure good-deed-doers of the mezcal world, with no profit motive and 100% interest in the amelioration of distillers, their families and their communities; working for the betterment of the regions of Mexico where the spirit is being produced.

At the other are those who are interested in themselves only;  nothing else and no one else. They sell illegally, they are always looking for ways to avoid tax, they squeeze everyone in the chain for every centavo they can, and they have no scruples. Believe it or no, brand owners are included in this class. I recall being involved with a brand more than a decade ago (thankfully no longer). We spoke about setting up a charitable foundation once the brand became established. It has become rather successful.  And guess what, no charity. The allure of the almighty dollar. Regretfully, amongst brands, tour operators and vendors, there are too many towards the one end of the continuum. Thankfully, there are many who lean towards the other. Yet there are commentators amongst us who do not care about the ethics of mezcal, over-charging just because one can get away with it, whether or not tax is paid to government or the person is registered anywhere with the authorities, the pedigree of transgressors, their motivation, giving back to the community, and all the rest.

For the future of our industry, we must be vigilent of the snakes among us;  just like rust, sleaze never sleeps.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Tours of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

 

.