Oaxacan Mezcal Experts, Brand Reps, Geeks and Aficionados: Do Some Get it All Wrong?
By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Over the past few years entrepreneurs have begun to brand agave distillates produced in Oaxaca, and celebrities have started using their names to market mezcal thereby further endowing their already healthy fortunes. It does not behoove the critics of either to rant if they do not continually witness the positive impact of both phenomena on the state, the communities where distillation occurs, and the families involved in production. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve come around, likely from having lived mezcal, here in Oaxaca, daily for the past fifteen years, and for a dozen before that albeit only part-time. Criticism by the pundits may be warranted, but is ill-advised without first carefully evaluating each incursion on its merits. It is perhaps akin to Americans stating “it’s dangerous to travel to Mexico,” painting the entire country with one broad stroke of the brush.
Mezcal v. Agave Distillates
I have listened to many points of view regarding the pros and cons of promoting agave distillates (as opposed to “mezcal”) produced in Oaxaca which have not emanated from certified palenques. Yes, perhaps some of the brand owners have figured out a way to do an end run, saving money and increasing profits. And yes, government and regulators can on a dime change the rules of the game and put them out of business. And finally, perhaps it is unwise to promote agave distillates when we are still struggling to educate the world regarding mezcal. In Canada more so than in the US, it’s still an uphill battle, with many people never having even heard the word!
I’ve had discussions with brand owners of both Oaxacan mezcals and agave distillates. In most cases we understand and respect the other side’s perspective. And in fact pretty well all of the naysayers of agave distillates understand how the positives outweigh the negatives. Perhaps it’s because they live or visit here several times a year, versus those who are critics from afar.
The pluses of Clooneyism are similar to those regarding agave distillates, so I’ll begin with the negatives of the former, then continue.
When in the second week of July, on screen celebrities Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) launched their Dos Hombres mezcal brand, they and the first product they unveiled were met with accolades on the one hand, yet on the other both verbal and online criticism from the geeks, experts, brand reps and aficionados of the spirit. The allegations go something like this:
- from their website and what Aaron Paul has been quoted as saying, it’s clear that they don’t know anything about mezcal
- rich celebrities don’t really care about mezcal, and are simply opportunists desirous of lining their pockets even more so than the entertainment industry moguls dole out to them
- we don’t need more George Clooneys (Casamigos)
- they don’t even give us information about who distills it, or production details (which has become the trend over the past several years for many marketing artisanal or ancestral mezcal); it must be an industrially made spirit
- 42% ABV just doesn’t cut it, and is not representative of good mezcal
The foregoing is an amalgam of the opinions of those commentators.
Why Perhaps Embrace Clooneyism and Agave Distillates
Owners of successful brands sometimes boast about having dramatically improved and/or made easier the lives of the families of their palenqueros, and about how their business success has been responsible for paving roads and building schools in the villages where their mezcal has been distilled. Is it any different when a movie or TV star gets involved with mezcal, if he is cognizant of his responsibility to his palenquero and the village? The same holds true for owners of brands of agave distillates. They too are improving the standard of living of many; and doing much more.
We should allow celebrity notoriety to be the impetus for sales, and not be overly critical of the stars further improving their own economic lot. Let the owners of agave distillate brands cut corners if they choose. In both cases the implications are increased sales for the distiller; more disposable income for his family and community; greater revenue coming into Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in all Mexico; and a grander global appreciation for the hard work which goes into producing the spirit. One should not underestimate a vital non-economic impact of these two sequelae of the mezcal boom: the sense of pride in one’s craft, thereby raising the self-esteem of rural producers who until the beginning of this millennium were perceived by both Mexican nationals and tourists as farm workers and little more. They are now revered, and hold their heads up much higher than ever before.
Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater
Not everyone in the business of Oaxacan mezcal is created equal. Thus, perhaps Clooneyism is not the correct term since it admittedly unfairly lumps an entire segment of the population, that is, the Hollywood stars, together. I don’t know Sr. Clooney, but I do know Srs. Paul and Cranston. So there’s my bias up front. Perhaps the former is (or was) motivated by money and no more. The latter have tried to learn about mezcal, and are still increasing their fount of knowledge; as am I. When I look back at what I wrote about the agave distillate some 15 years ago, in some cases I was over generalizing, or naïve. I am still learning from palenqueros. So give the celebs a break, and look beyond your pre-conceived assumptions and conclusions.
Mezcal brands owned or promoted by movie stars are not necessarily bad, and are not necessarily industrially produced spirits. In addition to learning about the means of production and tools of the trade employed, you should taste the product before going off on a tirade. It reminds me of the mezcal aficionados and the bar managers/owners who decided they would no longer buy or promote Del Maguey simply because the brand was sold to a conglomerate.
There are those who believe that one should not drink mezcal unless it is between 45% and 55% ABV. Their arguments can be convincing, but closing one’s mind without first sampling is not prudent. As a general proposition I do in fact agree that within that range one is more likely to appreciate subtleties in nuance and be satiated, all other things being equal. But I have sampled agave distillates both a couple of points lower, and much higher, and have been impressed. And so Dos Hombres at 42% should not outright be criticized or discounted because of its ABV. In fact, an argument can be made for lauding the decision to release it at below 45%.
With the release of Dos Hombres, mezcal as an alcohol category has already received a huge boon. Many in the Breaking Bad fan base have never tasted mezcal. They will now go out and buy it, or at minimum start out by sampling in a bar. Some will keep coming back for more, and once exposed to mezcal, perhaps graduate to a brand with a higher ABV. But not everyone enjoys mezcal at 50%. While Dos Hombres is a little hotter than the typical mainstream tequila, it stands a good chance of capturing a portion of that market. There’s nothing wrong with creating a new market for mezcal, with hundreds of thousands of convertees from tequila, other spirits, or even wine or beer, converging on the bars and liquor outlets, even if only to buy a product owned by one of their favorite artists, be it a heartthrob or someone whose work they admire.
But Clooneyism and the mezcal/agave distillate debate do diverge. Now my friends in the latter camp will likely take issue with the proposition hereinafter stated. I still have some difficulty with the sale of agave distillates at $120 USD for 750 ml, if one can buy a comparable quality mezcal for the same or less. And that’s where I am still struggling to give carte blanche respect to those brands. One would think that they should have difficulty flogging their products for that kind of money; that is, but for any misrepresentation by the distillates’ distributors and retailers of what’s in the bottle. To what extent are those in the chain of distribution promoting the mezcal category as I believe they should be doing?
Is the motivation of the agave distillate brand owners any more honorable than that of the Pauls and the Cranstons, the Clooneys and the Gretskys? Impetus aside, are not the celebrities doing more for all that is Oaxaca, than the admittedly likely much smaller batch agave distillate products? It is suggested that the stimulus for the owners of each might very well be the same or similar. We should be much more careful in our denigration of either. And what about those who are merely investors in mezcal brands, driven by dollars and no more. Do they not deserve our wrath, much more so than the celebrities and the agave distillate brand owners?
It’s much too easy to be critical, dogmatic and conclude without first considering and parsing all the arguments. We should look at the context, the motivation, and the impact, all calmly and comprehensively, prior to deciding yay or nay. I still struggle, and so raising the issues is the best I am currently able to do.
I thought I had considered it all when I wrote about mezcal industry carpetbaggers and scoundrels. Some were critical of my words, and so I felt it was incumbent upon me to clarify with an addendum after having given further consideration to the arguments mitigating against my thesis. In the end I concluded that the critics simply didn’t understand my point. As I suggested in that article, the modern era of mezcal is still virgin, and accordingly we must be vigilant and call out the wrongs; but only after the most careful consideration.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
We at Tequila Aficionado have full faith and trust in the work that Alvin Starkman is doing to advocate for artisanal mezcal and its producers and are looking forward to tasting and reviewing Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston’s Dos Hombres Mezcal.