The Business of Mezcal Unraveled by an Expert: A Book Review
By Alvin Starkman, MA., J.D.
Who better to write a book about the business of mezcal than a Oaxacan lawyer who specializes in advising palenqueros, brand owners and prospective agave distillate entrepreneurs, about the quagmire of industry rules, regulations and nuances? In El ABC del Negocio del Mezcal [Carteles Editores, 2021], Blanca Esther Salvador Martínez accomplishes that end in spades. And who better to put mezcal in its historical and global context than an academic who teaches a class centering upon international marketing? Maestra Salvador Martínez does that as well.
Translated as “The ABCs of the Mezcal Business,” the book is an easy yet detailed read, even for those of us who are not 100% fluent in Spanish. The 100-page publication consists of four well-footnoted chapters, in addition to a preface, introduction, epilogue, glossary and bibliography. The author breaks it all down into close to 90 headings plus charts and diagrams, thus making every point she endeavors to convey relatively simple to digest. And for those wanting to delve further into the subject matter, even the references are categorized; into legislation, books and related documents, websites, and journalistic coverage.
Ms. Salvador Martínez’s initial chapter contextualizes mezcal as a unique spirit by explaining the development and importance of the DO [Denominación de Origen]. Her Roquefort cheese analogy hits home. She then answers those who would be critical of the concept of the NOM [Norma Oficial Mexicana].
The chapter dealing with concerns within the industry is extremely thorough. But it would be wrong to assume that the issues the author identifies are restricted solely to this section of the book. Indeed the problems and pitfalls are woven throughout the remainder of the treatise. Those subsequent chapters primarily address (1) action steps reasonably required as prerequisites for entering the industry, and (2) practical advice.
The book canvases the vagaries of agave production based on:
- government incursion into the industry;
- the fickleness of the consumer and how that impacts price of the raw material, when and how much to plant, etc.;
- agave being at the mercy of plagues, and its owners of crop thievery;
- the vulnerability of small producers and growers due to lack of education and level of sophistication [explained with respectful objectivity];
- the sometimes loggerhead between land ownership and rural custom;
- the onerous requirements of the CRM [Consejo Regulador del Mezcal] as pitted against production of “destilados de agave.”
The foregoing are but some of the considerations about which Ms. Salvador Martínez enlightens the reader.
The mezcal industry is complex. The roadblocks which potentially preclude entry and certainly delay, are numerous. Ms. Salvador Martínez stresses, as a cautionary note, the importance of seeking out different individuals, each an expert in his/her field, rather than adopting a one-stop-shopping attitude when it comes to relying on the advice of others. She quotes Albert Einstein as stating “a smart person resolves a problem, a wise person avoids it.”
Ms. Salvador Martínez accurately pinpoints and explores the barriers to embarking upon a successful business plan, together with resolution mechanisms. However for me it was the ethical dimension which receives comprehensive treatment which most drew my attention. She identifies what I refer to as an inequality of bargaining power to which we all must be cognizant and find a way to reasonably and fairly address.
For the pure imbiber, whether novice or aficionado, the book it important because to a certain extent it is a primer which covers some of those basics in a readable to-the-point fashion. They are the tidbits which are not readily discernable from other literature about mezcal, or from attending a bar or mezcalería and inquiring of those who at first blush appear be in the know.
And to be clear, El ABC del Negocio del Mezcal is a book for more than those contemplating or in the process of getting into the industry. It should also be read by those already integrally involved with the business of mezcal. It encourages the reader to take a step back and re-evaluate why the desire to be or remain in the industry. In order to truly respect mezcal and all those involved in its production from field to bottle, there must be an impetus beyond the spirit as simply a vehicle by which to earn income. And so for all, this book is a must read; once, and again as a refresher.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca [http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com]. As part of his mission, he counsels clients on several of the dimensions explored in Ms. Salvador Martínez’s book.