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).

 

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מסקל Kosher Mezcal from Oaxaca, Mexico: Kashrut or Canard

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

How Far Does Kosher Go?

A palenquero in a Oaxacan field is harvesting agave espadín destined to be distilled into kosher mezcal. He comes across a rattler or coral snake.  Can he kill the snake with the machete he is using to cut the pencas off the maguey?  I’m far from a Talmudic scholar or an Orthodox Jew, and I don’t even keep a kosher home, but I have been around the production of agave distillates in southern Mexico for more than a quarter century, so the question intrigues me.  More importantly it leads to the broader issue of the extent to which traditionally made mezcal, labeled as kosher, actually complies with biblical dictates.

How Observant Must You Be?

Can those Jews who are “observant,” a loaded word in and of itself, confidently drink any mezcal, kosher via kashrut certification,  and truly be assured that it is pareve (neutral) or otherwise drinkable?  Should they be at all concerned regarding imbibing the agave distillate despite the label designating the contents of the bottle as COR, U, KA-Kosher, K, or another way of identifying the spirit as kosher? Is there another way of satisfying oneself that the spirit is drink-worthy by rules set out in the Bible?

kosher tequilaDoes Size Matter?

It is suggested that perhaps the only really kosher mezcals, regardless of what’s stated on the label, are the most industrialized products in the marketplace, or perhaps from the most traditional smallest scale production. The latter would likely never find its way out of Mexico based on economies of scale. The corollary is that if the Orthodox Jewish imbiber wants to drink artesanal or ancestral mezcal, he may not be enjoying what the Law of Moses suggests is the only spirit he should be ingesting.  It is submitted that rabbis, directors and employees of kosher certification boards, as well as owners of kosher mezcal brands and their palenqueros, have a vested interest in assuring the public that kosher means Stricly Kosher in compliance with accepted standards. Admittedly I’ve become more of a skeptic while a permanent resident of Oaxaca, and so interviews with any of the foregoing people regarding practices and procedures doesn’t satisfy my curiosity nor allay my trepidation.

Who Decides?

The rabbinical certification of food to make it kosher involves ascertaining  that the food (or drink) has no ingredients or processes forbidden by Jewish law.  Nothing anyone can say or do, including a rabbi, can make non-kosher food kosher. There are organizations which monitor process, from the initial production stages to mezcal being packaged and ready to go on the shelf of the retailer.  The organization is then able to certify something as kosher, with its icon clearly identifiable on a label.  But every organization has its own standards, and not all Orthodox Jews accept every board’s seal of (kosher) approval. In virtually every religion where there is ancient text, different groups, sects and individuals interpret some words, phrases and chapters, differently. So right off the bat we have the makings of a concern, for me an issue when it comes to passing judgment upon what is kosher. If you are Orthodox, perhaps no mezcal should be deemed kosher. In any event, I would suggest that only a tiny fraction of the approximately 22% of American Jews who follow a kosher diet, would be uneasy if their spirits are not Certified Kosher.

 

Does Pareve Make it Kosher?

The agave, a succulent, is, in and of itself, pareve. It’s not meat, and it’s not dairy; nor has it ever swam, hopped, flown or slithered.  But what does happen to agave and with what it comes into contact in the process of becoming mezcal, typically  takes it out of the category of being kosher. Or does it?

What Are the Rules?

Most of what can and what should never be consumed, and in what and when, is contained in Deuteronomy Chapter 14, and Leviticus Chapter 11. Different books in the Torah cover other related matters as will be explained further along. The latter chapter is more comprehensive and subsumes the former, and so its pertinent paragraphs (only) are reproduced hereunder:

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses and to Aaron, saying unto them:

2 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: These are the living things which ye may eat among all the beasts that are on the earth.

3 Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is wholly cloven-footed, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that may ye eat.

7 And the swine, because he parteth the hoof, and is cloven-footed, but cheweth not the cud, he is unclean unto you.

8 Of their flesh ye shall not eat, and their carcasses ye shall not touch; they are unclean unto you.

9 These ye may  eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them may ye eat.

10 And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the waters, and of all the living creatures that are in the waters, they are a destestable thing unto you,

20 All winged swarming things that go upon all fours are a detestable thing unto you.

21 Yet these may ye eat of all winged swarming things that go upon all fours, which have jointed legs above their feet, wherewith to leap upon the earth;

22 even these of them ye may eat; the locust after its kinds, and the bald locust after its kinds, and the cricket after its kinds, and the grasshopper after its kinds.

23 But all winged swarming things, which have four feet, are a detestable thing unto you.

24 And by these ye shall become unclean; whosoever toucheth the carcass of them shall be unclean until even.

25 And whosoever beareth aught of the carcass of them shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even.

32 And upon whatsoever any of them, when they are dead, doth fall, it shall be unclean; whether it be any vessel of wood, or raiment, or skin, or sack, whatsoever vessel it be, wherewith any work is done, it must be put into wáter, and it shall be unclean until the even; then it shall be clean.

33 And every earthen vessel whereinto any of them falleth, whatsoever is in it shall be unclean, and it ye shall break.

35 And every thing whereupon any part of their carcass falleth shall be unclean; whether even, or range for pots, it shall be broken in pieces; they are unclean, and shall be unclean unto you.

41 And every swarming thing that swarmeth upon the earth is a detestable thing; it shall not be eaten

  1. Whatsoever goeth upon the belly, and whatsoever goeth upon all fours, or whasoever hath many feet, even all swarming things that swarm upon the earth, them ye shall not eat; for they are a detestable thing.

44 For I am the LORD your God; sanctify yoursleves therefore, and be ye holy; for I am holy; neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner or swarming thing that moveth upon the earth.

46 This is the law of the beast, and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moveth in the waters, and of every creature that swarmeth upon the earth;

47 to make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the living thing that may be eaten and the living thing that may not be eaten.

Aside from some of the standard prohibitions of which virtually all Jews and most non-Jews are aware (i.e. against pork and seafood), the paragraphs reproduced also includes additional rules which are particularly relevant to the thesis herein, regarding:

  • flying insects v. those which hop such as our beloved Oaxacan chapulines (grasshoppers);
  • slithering creatures such as snakes and our cherished Oaxacan gusanos (“the worm,” actually a larva);
  • the use of utensils, pots and tools, which have come into contact with the “unclean” or “detestable.”

Kosher is in the Process

Kosher beverages (and food) must start out as such, and follow a kosher process from start to finish, right up until and including imbibing that first sip of mezcal in an appropriate vessel.  Great care should be taken at each step begining with growing of the agave. Consideration should be given to the character of the raw material, tools and equipment used at every stage leading up to and including bottling, as well as  how the maguey has been harvested, cooked, crushed, fermented and distilled.  The transformation into mezcal should take place in facilities that have been retrofitted for kosher production.

Con Gusano?

From the outset, that is planting agave, there is an issue, even assuming that the seed, pup or hijuelo transplanted into a furrow where it will remain for the better part of a decade, is kosher.  When the small maguey is sown, the more industrialized operations may spray a bit of insecticide in each hole to assure no immediate infestation. Traditional campesino growers, and palenqueros producing artesanal or ancestral mezcal, likely will not.  There is a reasonable likelihood that flying insect and/or larvae infestation (i.e. the slithering gusanos), both un-kosher, will begin to interact with the piñas grown by traditional means. If a home remedy 100% natural insecticide is employed, do we have to examine the kosherness of the ingredients used to make it (i.e. how the garlic, the chiles and all the rest have been produced)?

Organic and Kosher Aren’t the Same

The foregoing suggests that, contrary to some lay belief, there is not a relationship between on the one hand kosher, and on the other certified organic, 100% natural, etc. Furthermore, the industrial mezcal (labelled by CRM dictates as simply mezcal, as opposed to artesanal or ancestral) which most present-day mezcal aficionados loathe, is more likely than the others to comply with biblical standards. Traditionally produced mezcal indeed may approximate organic or natural standards, but tends to be further removed from the ambit of kosher, right from the beginning.

Kosher at the Expense of Artisanal?

Taking the Bible literally, perhaps the only truly kosher mezcals are those produced in the most industrialized plants.  Sterility is maintained using stainless steel, versus clay or copper, diesel versus ant infested firewood, bleach versus cola for cleaning floors of concrete as opposed to dirt, and exacting particular tools designed and reserved for each specific task, versus our machete used to both cut agave and kill that (prohibited) snake. Nary a forbidden fly is found in such facilities.  Of course these factories are the furthest removed from those of biblical times.

Traditional vs. Kosher

Means of production and tools of the trade in agave distillate manufacture lie along a continuum. It is suggested that, regardless of kosher certification,  in some respects the closer one moves towards the traditional mezcal production axis (coveted by many, and assumed to be more organic and natural), the less likely the spirit complies with strict biblical standards. Yet in other respects this doesn’t hold wáter.  For example if we move to the absolute smallest scale of production, the palenquero controls everything, from planting through to bottling. It’s his own agave, harvested from the quiote or transplanted from clones.  He simply cannot afford kosher certification and his production is extremely limited, though he has the ability to be extremely vigilant.  By contrast, those who produce kosher mezcal may state that they examine every piña to ensure no gusanos have infested.  But can we really take at face value their assurances? They are successful business people. They, as most who now produce mezcal for export and many who do not, purchase piñas from growers, by the lot or three ton truckload.  Will they discard every piña where they see a gusano? And what about the piñas where the existence of gusanos cannot be readily detected? The non-Jewish grower just wants to ensure that he gets his fair price, infested or not.

A Puff of Smoke

Ants, and well as other creepy crawlers and flyers often infest the logs used to bake agave traditionally in that conical shaped below-ground airtight chamber.  They are surely impacting the flavor and character of those pristine piñas. Is that permisible based on biblical dictates?

Who’s Watching?

A kosher certification board member visits a palenque or factory operation, certifies the premises enabling proprietor  and/or brand owner to put the kosher insignia on the labels, and then returns periodically for audits.  The literature suggests that the representative may return once or twice a year for inspections, but depending on his schedule and the location of the operation, he may not.

What About the Tools?

The Old Testament would appear to approve of crushing the baked sweet agave by hand, provided the machete used to initially chop the maguey hearts has not come into contact with anything un-kosher. It could be ants when it was used to cut the firewood, or that coral snake. The wooden mallet of course must be free of infestation. The rule regarding utensils suggests that those which have come into contact with hot non-kosher food may not be used with kosher food. But hot is relative, and may include spicy hot.  It is so confusing that for generations rabbis have been fielding questions from their congregants, seeking interpretations for biblical conundra on the topic of utensils, and of course much  more.  Now there are websites where those in the know are consulted for their expert rabbinical advice. To what extent, if at all, are campesinos and traditional palenqeros trained in such matters, or even consider kosherness in the course making mezcal?  And even if they are, does one really think that they would thrust a machete into the ground ten times, each time into a different part of the earth, to return it to its usable status? It would appear that it is virtually impossible to meet any reasonable standard of kosherness when distilling in “earthen vessel” clay pots, since degree of hotness is not really an issue and given the frequency of the “detestables” flying around.

And the Animals?

When it comes to crushing traditionally, using a beast of burden, the Bible provides a complete code of conduct regarding treatment of animals.  Chapters in Books such as Genesis, Exodus, Proverbs, Samuel, Deuteronomy and Leviticus instruct, as does the Talmud.  Jewish law  prohibits causing unnecessary suffering or cruelty to animals.  In many cases they are afforded the same sensitivity as human beings. They can be used to satisfy legitimate needs, like food for sustenance and clothing, and even within these contexts we must use and kill using the least painful way possible.  The Bible is specific in forbidding the muzzling of an ox to prevent it from eating while it is working in the field.

Now to the extent that the scriptures accord animals the same rights as humans (i.e. resting on the Sabbath), palenquero compliance should not be problematic. However, can mezcal be considered kosher at all if a horse, mule or team of oxen is used to mash the agave? After all, alcohol consumption does not satisfy legitimate needs, although a reasonably argument can be made for drinking wine on the Sabbath and otherwise on religious holidays. This takes us along the industrialization end of our continuum, where machinery is used for crushing and extracting the sweet agave juice. Even if we deem consumption of spirits as a legitimate need, horses are often muzzled when crushing agave, so as to reduce the likelihood of them constantly having their heads down in an effort to consume that enticing caramelly maguey.

Are the Vats Kosher?

You can ferment in any receptable. Industrially produced mezcal employs iron and stainless steel, which presumably is not problematic. In and around the central valleys of Oaxaca, the traditional fermentation vat, the tina, is roughly 1,000 liters and made of oak or pine. Pine can more easily become infested.  How does one prevent that from happening? Cedar is not typically used, but perhaps it should be, but then again the taste of the mezcal would be significantly altered. Depending on the time of year of fermentation, variously bees, flies and knats buzz around the containers, nourishing themselves by feeding off of the sweet agave which has had wáter added.  Yes, one can prevent that by using a metal mesh cover.  Has the vendor of that piece of equipment been eating pork just prior to lifting it off of his truck?

Lawn Fertilizer?

An owner of a particular Certified Kosher agave spirit has stated that he never allows his mash to ferment for more than seven days and relies only on airborne yeasts for fermentation.  However, during the cold weather months it often takes more than two weeks to achieve prime fermentation, unless one adds a chemical compound such a lawn fertilizer to speed up the process. Would you want to drink that mezcal, favoring its kosher status above anything else, given that is is far from being anywhere close to organic or natural by virtue of that innoculation?

Do You Have to be Jewish?

Can non-Jews even make mezcal? Wine made by non-Jews is prohibited. For agave distillates, assuming at face value they can be Certified Kosher, which individuals in the production chain have to be Jewish, and how devout? I’ve never seen a campesino harvest agave in a field while wearing a yarmulka. Wine must be made by Jews because there is a restriction against using products of idolatry.  Wine was regularly sanctified for pagan purposes while it was being processed, and thus the prohibition. Should the rule apply to only wine, since mezcal, just as wine, is an intoxicant? Talmudic scholars have debated the suggestion that wine should be no different than whisky, rum and other non-grape based spirits.  Further discussion on the issue is beyond the purview of this essay.

You Be the Judge

Taking any ancient religious text literally is dangerous. When the Bible was written there were no exacting standards.  Sanitation and cleanliness were nowhere near where they are today.  We pick and choose what suits us.  It is not suggested that you should only drink industrially produced mezcal, but rather that class of agave distillate more closely approximates what the drafters of the Bible had in mind. Satisfy yourself as a devout Jew, that the processes employed in producing your favourite artesanal or ancestral mezcal, meet your personal standards as you extrapolite them from the Torah.

Is the Label Really Important?

alvin starkman, mezcalRecall the continuum.  Kosherness comes in degrees, as is evidenced by the fact that some Jews opt for trusting in one certification board versus another.  The system of defining which foods are kosher was developed by the rabbis of late antiquity, hundreds of years ago. Given that the word kosher means fit or appropriate in Hebrew, perhaps as long as one is confident of current day sanitary standards, and the treatment of any animal used in the process, that should weight more importantly than that little logo on the can of tuna, or bottle of mezcal.  Cleanliness is essentially irrelevant since we are dealing with a distillate. Know your palenquero, visit his palenque to assure yourself of his treatment of any beast of burden used in production, and don’t sweat the rest.  Conduct your own rabbinic supervision (remember that no blessing is required) and drink up:  cheers, salud, l’chaim and quisbheú.

Alvin Starkman owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

 

Sources researched and quoted are:

http://www.answers.com/Q/Does_a_rabbi_has_to_say_something_from_torah_to_make_food_kosher

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/kashering-utensils

https://www.broadwaybasketeers.com/blogs/what-makes-something-kosher

http://kosherfoodsireland.com/does-a-rabbi-have-to-bless-food-for-it-to-be-kosher/

https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/kosher-food/

https://www.kashrut.com/articles/liquor2/

http://www.jewmalt.com/category/kosher-spirits/mezcal/

http://tequilaaficionado.com/2015/12/14/big-business-kosher-tequila-part-iv/

http://www.askelm.com/doctrine/d040402.htm

https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/overview-of-jewish-dietary-laws-and-regulations

http://www.jewfaq.org/animals.htm

http://www.jewfaq.org/kashrut.htm#Utensils

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Leviticus+11&version=NIV

https://www.beverlyhillsliquorandwine.com/el-secreto-no-33-mezcal.php

 

 

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Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

Adulteration and Bastardization of Traditional Mezcal in Oaxaca

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.

 

Adulteration and Bastardization of Traditional Mezcal in Oaxaca by Alvin Starkman for Tequila Aficionado https://wp.me/p3u1xi-64dA 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.

 

Adulteration and Bastardization of Traditional Mezcal in Oaxaca by Alvin Starkman for Tequila Aficionado https://wp.me/p3u1xi-64dLet’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.

 

alvin starkman, mezcal

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.

Click here for other educational and informative Mezcal articles by Alvin Starkman.

Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

Mezcal’s High Tide Raising Economy in Oaxaca

Mezcal's High Tide Raising Economy in Oaxaca https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5OdBy Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

On a recent warm, sunny afternoon, for the first time that I can recall, there was a lineup leading outside the front door at CATOSA bottle distributor in the Oaxaca city suburb of Los Volcanes. Everyone was waiting to place orders for bottles destined to be filled with mezcal, the iconic Mexican agave spirit. The numbers of both office staff and warehouse personnel had indeed been increasing over the past couple of years. But now, even with a good complement, there was trouble keeping up.

The more direct and obvious impacts of the surge in mezcal tourism for the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca certainly are the dramatic increase in sales of the spirit, and the filling of hotel and other lodging style accommodations, and restaurants, for those who visit the city to learn, buy and export; in both cases even during times of the year when visitor numbers are traditionally low. But the recent effect of mezcal on the economy of the state, not only for the capital and central valleys but also for the coastal resorts, runs much broader and deeper.

Mezcal's High Tide Raising Economy in Oaxaca https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5OdPart of the problem was that because of a dramatic spike in sales, CATOSA was short of inventory from a particular bottle manufacturer outside of the state of Oaxaca, and so customers had to ponder, at least on a provisional basis, what size and shape to buy. And then there was the issue of which top to use, again temporarily, for the bottles actually in supply; natural or artificial cork, wood, plastic, metal, color, and, whether or not plastic sleeves to shrink wrap the stopper should be used, required or not.

These were not even the large commercial clients who would regularly order significant quantities for domestic and export mezcal sales. They were small scale distillers with equally modest retail outlets alongside their palenques, owners of city mezcalerías, bars and restaurants which would buy agave distillate in bulk and then retail by the shot or in 750 ml or smaller sealed bottles, as well as individuals planning to gift the spirit with a personalized one-time label, as a token memory of a family rite of passage celebration (wedding, quince años, baptism, etc.).

Mezcal's High Tide Raising Economy in Oaxaca https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5OdRelated to the increase in bottle sales are the paper and printing industries, and the graphic design and related art vocations, each business competing for new opportunities to work with entrepreneurs both developing brand recognition and expanding market reach. The handmade paper factories a short drive outside the city of Oaxaca as well as downtown and suburban printers, have noted a sharp increase in client numbers and in sales for existing mezcal enterprises. But there is more.

Oaxaca has traditionally been a veritable wasteland for those interested in acquiring antiques and collectibles. But now there is value perceived in anything even remotely related to agave, mezcal and pulque: old wooden mallets used for crushing baked agave in preparation for fermenting; cracked clay distillation pots which can still be used as planters; the shell of the fully tapped majestic Agave Americana which is also used as an adorning planter; ancient rusted laminated metal condensers, an integral part of ancestral distillation; vintage postcards portraying distillation or harvesting aguamiel which when exposed to environmental bacterial becomes pulque; iron implements used in cutting agave from the field such koas; metal tools used to scrape the inside of agaves so as to induce the seepage of aguamiel into the well, and; vintage clay pots known as cántaros, used in decades past for storing and transporting mezcal.  There is of course the most highly collectible of them all, the clay vessel in the shape of a monkey, chango mezcalero, dating to the 1930s and used to market and boost mezcal sales.  While it is a stretch to suggest that collectors now visit Oaxaca for the principal purpose of acquiring antiques, those whose interest have been piqued by agave and its cultural importance over millennia, now find a new reason to spend more time, and money, in the state.

 

Mezcal's High Tide Raising Economy in Oaxaca https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5Od

 

Mezcal's High Tide Raising Economy in Oaxaca https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5Od

It’s not only the collectors of vintage who are making a pilgrimage to Oaxaca in search of anything old and related to agave.

Entrepreneurs are finding ways to benefit by selling online.  Their clients are both collectors, and owners of American bars, mezcalerías and Mexican restaurants with a healthy complement of mezcal. Often the latter visit Oaxaca to both learn about mezcal, and to return to their home cities with paraphernalia to adorn their establishments. Their numbers include American bars and restaurants in Seattle, Portland, Carmel, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Baltimore, D.C., Chicago and New York, with cities in Canada slow on the update yet gradually catching on. They also converge on Oaxaca from a broad range of cities throughout Mexico.

Success has come relatively effortless for such retailers. Almost to a number, at least in the case of American establishments, their owners in due course make return visits to Oaxaca, now with their staff.  Selling mezcal is much easier if your employees have been here and learned first-hand about artisanal production.  There is a newfound passion, unattainable through merely reading articles and books or watching YouTube videos. And so the numbers visiting Oaxaca are literally increasing exponentially.

Some mezcal brands are offering incentives to bars by giving comps:  “if you buy 25 cases of our mezcal, we’ll provide a free trip to Oaxaca for two of your premier bartenders.”  And it works.

Mezcal's High Tide Raising Economy in Oaxaca https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5Od

Antique and vintage items are not the only class of collectible being retailed in Oaxaca and earmarked for mezcal aficionados.  Not since the tourism boom which began in the 1960s with hippies converging upon Oaxaca in search of the magic mushroom, have craftspeople begun to think outside-of-the-box. Thanks to mezcal we now have more than the typical blouses hand-embroidered with flowers, wool rugs woven with motifs representative of the Mitla archaeological site, carved wooden figures (alebrijes) with dragons, and traditional designs on clay pots and figurines in terra cotta, barro negro and green glaze.

Mezcal's High Tide Raising Economy in Oaxaca https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5Od

Just walk into higher end downtown Oaxaca retail outlets like La Mano Mágica or Mis Mezcales, or saunter through any of the umpteen craft shops and indoor marketplaces. Agave and mezcal are now well-represented, whereas only a decade ago it was “same old same old.” Craftspeople and their retailers are now in a position to double and even triple sales by marketing anything related to mezcal and agave. We can easily find contemporary changos; drinking vessels for spirits in hand-blown glass or in clay fashioned with raised agave leaves; ceramic water and pulque serving pitchers again with agave; hand woven agave table runners, coasters and bottle carriers; carved wooden boxes, bar stools, sofas and more, all with the succulent whittled into the wood; jimador stone carvings; linen shirts with embroidered agave; silver agave earrings; etc., etc. etc.  Whether a novice with merely a passing interest, or an ardent mezcal aficionado, it’s almost impossible to resist buying just something, anything relating to mezcal, pulque or agave, regardless of your taste, level of sophistication, or budget. Just as the vintage, the contemporary is finding a place adorning American bars, restaurants and mezcalerías.

And, mezcal tourism is immune to the usual vagaries impacting travelers to Oaxaca. Those who typically visit to experience the state’s renowned cuisine, pristine beaches, archaeology, more traditional crafts, museums, vibrant marketplaces, the capital’s café-lined zócalo, and colonial architecture, change or cancel plans based on a media reports, typically making unwarranted decisions. Oaxaca’s economic fortunes are appropriated described in terms of extreme peaks and valleys:  the 2006 civil unrest, the Mexican swine flu, the US economic crisis, the warring drug gangs, zika, and then the next report which is undoubtedly just around the corner. Most people forget a short while after each, and then there is another reminder to not visit Oaxaca. But those who come for mezcal appear to be a different breed of visitor. They take the media and their home country state department cautions with a grain of salt, and/or do their own more directed and detailed investigation. They come, and they spend.

New markets for mezcal and consequently opportunities for its export are rapidly opening around the globe. And so there is a resultant dramatic influx of visitors.  Aficionados and entrepreneurs alike from Germany, Italy, the UK, South Africa, and Central and South American, are now picking up mezcal on their radar screens. At least into the foreseeable future, industry growth and the concomitant economic opportunities for Oaxaca will continue to surge.

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

Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

Artisanal Mezcal in Oaxaca 25 Years Hence: No Two Batches are Different

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

Artisanal Mezcal in Oaxaca 25 Years Hence: No Two Batches are Different http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4XONot to scare the bejesus out of mezcal aficionados, but the industry must be careful as the popularity of the spirit skyrockets, so as not to lose one of its hallmarks, that is the uniqueness of every lot distilled.  We still hear and read that no two batches of (artisanal) mezcal are the same, and I for one continue to tout this aspect of Mexico’s iconic alcoholic beverage. But with each passing year of the spirit’s skyrocketing popularity, with each new entrant into the export market, and with maintaining healthy profits a major motivator for most in the business, the industry runs a risk of no longer being able to promote the spirit by using the adage. Here’s why.

We must begin with four premises:

  • Corporations, large or otherwise, and many individuals with substantial resources, each wanting to enter the mezcal business is motivated by profit more so than altruism;
  • Increasing production often requires greater efficiency;
  • Efficiency of the steps in production, from growing agave right through to the last stage in arriving at a distillate of the desired ABV, increases profit while at the same time results in standardization of the spirit’s nuances, intentional or not;
  • Many of the umpteen factors dictating that no two batches of true artisanal mezcal are the same are admittedly miniscule, but with cumulative impact.

Artisanal Mezcal in Oaxaca 25 Years Hence: No Two Batches are Different http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4XOBacardi Limited, purportedly the largest privately held family-owned spirits company in the world with a portfolio of more than 200 brands and labels, is now reportedly in the mezcal business having begun an association with a traditionally artisanal brand; individuals closely associated with The Coca-Cola Company are purportedly now in the mezcal business; and, large beverage producers and distributors are fishing to purchase successful artisanal brands of the spirit.

Artisanal Mezcal in Oaxaca 25 Years Hence: No Two Batches are Different http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4XO
The many facets of Montelobos mezcal.

Over the last few years small traditionally artisanal mezcal brands have been under pressure to increase production beyond the capabilities of their associate palenqueros and their families. They have two choices: increase efficiency through altering means of production and tools of the trade through at least a modicum of industrialization; or, find additional palenqueros with whom to associate, and keep all working at maximum capacity without yielding to the alternative. A few entrants into this new burgeoning marketplace have opted for the latter, but many use the former approach. Best to not name names, especially regarding those brands which have moved towards industrialization over the past decade or so; it’s enough to comment on the issue with my clients within the context of discussion about the diminution of quality.

The foregoing is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with ardent entrepreneurs making or distributing mezcal, or those of more modest ilk attempting to maintain or increase market share and profit. The examples are merely a precursor to explaining the movement towards greater standardization of product from batch to batch and contextualize it. And the following constitutes only a few of the plethora of factors threatening our perception that “no two batches are the same.” Let’s look at a couple of these explanations relating to each of agave growing, cooking, crushing, fermenting and distilling.

Growing

Agave angusifolia Haw, usually referred to as espadín, is the most common specie of the succulent used in Oaxaca to make mezcal. It grows in a wide diversity of climatic regions, relatively large and relatively fast, taking an average of eight years to mature. Many subsistence farmers grow it and then sell it to palenqueros. Since many such campesinos simply cannot afford to wait close to a decade to turn their land into money, in between the rows of maguey (agave) they plant cash crops such as corn, beans, squash, alfalfa and garbanzo. Each crop affects the soil in a different way, thereby impacting the growth of the plant, ultimately influencing the flavor of the end result, mezcal. Some farmers grow different crops from year to year, distinct from what their neighbors do. The point is that the flavor of the mezcal made from one field of agave is necessarily different from that which comes from another.

With the growth of the industry, more large plots of land are being put under cultivation by palenqueros and their brand owners who want to grow only agave, and grow it fast. They don’t need the money cash crops bring in, and don’t need that land to grow the vegetables for their own survival. Accordingly, they do not plant in between the rows of agave for fear of taking away nutrients from the maguey; and they continually weed. This results in greater standardization of the agave, and ultimately leads to less variation in their mezcal from batch to batch.

Two additional factors relating to agave growth viz. flavor consistency are: (1) with more cash infused into mezcal production, the greater the likelihood that the producer will strive to invest in land closer to his palenque with soil of similar quality since it is in the same region and easier to access, and; (2) rather than use natural mulch and fertilizer each of which varies in character from truckload to truckload, he will use a single, specified chemical product which will result in consistency of growth, and, ultimately flavor of his mezcal.

Cooking

Some palenqureos are now moving away from using typical in-ground airtight ovens in which they had traditionally baked their piñas over firewood and rocks. Steaming in a sealed brick room or iron chamber provides greater efficiency, and, consistency of flavor at the end of the day. Artisanal Mezcal in Oaxaca 25 Years Hence: No Two Batches are Different http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4XOThese new “industrialists” crank up the fuel to a set temperature for a pre-determined period of time. In their younger years, as they had learned from their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers, they would put the firewood in the oven, then the rocks, then the bagazo, then the piñas, then cover it all up, ultimately with earth. Of course there are broad variations on the theme from producer to producer, but the point remains; no two batches of mezcal produced in this way were the same because they never used the same exact amount of firewood and often the specie of log differed from bake to bake, the temperature at which they baked was essentially unknown and of course varied, and some piñas would always get charred more than others despite best efforts for consistent baking of the raw material in the oven. Type of firewood employed, baking temperature, degree of doneness, all ultimately impact flavor, and it’s never the same from batch to batch. Diesel and steam help create consistency.

Crushing

 

Be it using a beast of burden pulling a tahona, or a palenquero hand crushing using a mazo y canoa (wooden mallet and shallow long pit of wood or concrete/stone), to mash the baked, sweet agave in either of these two methods results in variability in the time and extent to which environmental yeasts cause fermentation. The recent federal government subsidy program has provided artisanal producers with a fossil fuel powered wood chipper of sorts, which provides consistency of mash. At least one previously artisanal producer is now using a conveyer belt with metal blades for crushing, which again provides consistency.

Fermenting

Artisanal Mezcal in Oaxaca 25 Years Hence: No Two Batches are Different http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4XOThe aforementioned subsidy program also discounts the cost of purchasing wooden fermentation vats (tinas), the size and composition of which is selected by government or its agents. Again, this leads to standardization. Artisanal producers have traditionally purchased their vats based on price, not necessarily the type of wood used in their fabrication. What you ferment in impacts flavor.  The character of the wooden slats joined to make the tinas changes over time.

The program also provides a 1,000 liter stainless steel container, which while presumably intended for storing mezcal, can also be adapted into a fermentation tank. If it’s wood, natural yeasts relied upon for airborne fermentation live in the wood, and they continuously change. Not so with stainless steel, at least not to the same extent especially if stationed in a controlled environment.

Traditional wooden tinas are seldom more than 1,000 liter capacity. As business dictates greater production, much larger vats of stainless steel become normative, and flavor is more controlled, either by design or default.
Well water and mountain spring water are frequently used in fermentation. The character of the water is never the same. There is a worsening water crisis in Oaxaca, with some villagers in mezcal producing regions having been without water in their wells for a year or more. Much more so than a decade ago, we now find mezcal production facilities with water filtration systems whereupon a certain quality of water is trucked in, then further standardized through filtration prior to being added to the sweet, baked, crushed agave.

Distilling

Artisanal Mezcal in Oaxaca 25 Years Hence: No Two Batches are Different http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4XOTemperature at which distillation occurs impacts mezcal quality. With both traditional copper alembic and clay pot distillation, firewood is employed as the fuel, and as such temperature is determined by skill, that is an art form. If it’s burning too hot, water is doused on the flame, and if not hot enough more firewood is added. And batches are small, as little as 70 liters at a time using clay pots, and perhaps an average of 300 liters for copper alambics.

Our previously artisanal palenquero now employs a relatively sophisticated multi-chamber still, and a column still, fueled by either firewood or fossil fuel, at his option. Another nearby palenquero has outright switched to fossil fuel. The movement away from firewood on the one hand ensures an arguably environmentally cleaner burn, and there is no concern with deforestation, yet on the other it provides a less variable end result; just crank it up to the desired temperature where it stays if you are so inclined throughout the entire distillation.
Ancestral and traditional palenqueros usually rely on knowledge and experience gained through generations of family mezcal distillers to determine the “cuts,” that is for example how to adjust and reduce the ABV of the “head and body” by adding back the “tail” of the distillation. And the end result is always a little different. Big business, or little business wanting to ensure a brand following, now more than before is reluctant to leave the cuts to their palenquero associates. Hence, while taking off the tail may be left to the distiller, they are achieving greater predictability by using distilled or filtered water.

Artisanal Mezcal in Oaxaca 25 Years Hence: No Two Batches are Different http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4XOAnd so, even if there is still variability in the face of all of the foregoing “advancements” and more, simply by virtue of the fact of wanting to fill even as little as a container (let’s say 9,000 bottles at 750 ml) for export, thus producing a batch of 6,750 liters of the same quality is a change from artisanal mezcal production and export a decade ago.  Just keeping up with volume strongly suggests greater standardization. And this is without even considering the use of autoclaves and diffusors in the industry.

Furthermore, regretfully many producers and brand owners are concerned with public perception, leading to attempting to outwardly produce a sterile production environment. Take for example the use of a wire mesh dome over even traditional wooden fermentation vats, indeed keeping out bees and other insects during susceptible times of year. All that enters into the vat impacts ultimate flavor, of course once again stressing the minutiae of variability.

It all adds up!  There’s nothing wrong with improved efficiency nor sterility nor profit driving mezcal production, all of which of course more broadly paints mezcal’s popularity, and yes, often improves the economic lot of artisanal mezcal distillers. But there’s a cost which should not be overlooked or underestimated.

Permanent Oaxaca resident Alvin Starkman owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

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Why Now, Mezcal: The Lone Ranger Rides Again

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

lone-ranger-and-tontoThe branding of Kimo Sabe mezcal is brilliant.  Perhaps not since the mid 90s when Ron Cooper coined the phrase Single Village Mezcal for his Mezcal del Maguey, has anyone used a name so effectively to attract a particular demographic in the alcohol buying public. Back then it was a take-off on single malt scotches.  Now it’s addressing those of us in our sixties who recall the weekly TV show, The Lone Ranger, affectionately known by his sidekick Tonto as Kimo Sabe.  Most, however, don’t know that its literal translation is something like “trusted friend.” The name nevertheless calls us, despite the fact that when I first heard it I thought there could not have been a hokier moniker on the planet. I couldn’t have been more wrong, at least from a marketing perspective, especially after I understood what the brand owners, at least in my mind, are trying to achieve.

logoThe peace and love generation has finished raising its children and put them through college, paid off mortgages and retired other debt, all the while having forgotten about the counter-culture.  It sold out to become part of the corporate and professional western world. But there has been a significant positive: its members now have sufficient disposable income to spend as much as they want on whatever they want.

Enter mezcal, taking us back to our roots, that is our desire for something real, natural and organic, reminiscent of what back then we coveted but couldn’t afford.  Sure, there were Birkenstocks.  But unlike a bottle of $200 USD mezcal (not Kimo Sabe), they didn’t empty and then require replenishing.

Kimo-Sabe-Mezcal--241x300I’m asked at least twice monthly, why only now is there a mezcal boom, when the spirit has been around for some 450 years, if not longer.  My retort has been pretty standard, citing the hippie generation, the values of which were consistent with the production of artisanal mezcal.  But back then we couldn’t afford to put our dreams, our words and our passions into action.  Now we can, and we do. Not me literally, since I live and breathe mezcal and don’t have to pay what Americans customarily fork out. And it’s even more costly for those who live across the pond in the UK, or worse yet Australia.

And so it appears to me that the makers of Kimo Sabe are targeting my generation, though probably not the higher end purchasers since the price-point of Kimo Sabe is extremely attractive. Why else select a name that conjures that era of B & W shows on an Admiral television built into a console?

The brand recently took first place in a spirits competition, even ahead of quality tequilas. It won “Best of Class International Specialty Spirit” judged by the American Distilling Institute.  

alvin starkman, Oaxaca, mezcalBut Kimo Sabe may just be a flash in the pan.  I haven’t tried it so am not in a position to proffer an opinion.  But I’ve been around the mezcal industry long enough to know that winning a competition is at least occasionally the result of no more than building relationships, and at times payola in one form or another, definitively not suggesting that this is the case here.  Let’s just hope that would-be mezcal aficionados just don’t end up being tontos, and that Kimo Sabe ends up being a trusted friend of throngs of spirits consumers, both first time imbibers and those with a discerning palate.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

Oaxacan “Vintage” Chango Mezcaleros Makes a Comeback

Contemporary ChangoBy Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

For a half century if not longer, the state of Oaxaca has been known for its mezcal, in the US, and to a lesser extent further abroad.  The region’s pre-Hispanic ruins, colonial architecture, cuisine and craft villages have been noted in travelogues and guide books for some time; but recently the iconic Mexican spirit has taken center stage, and hence the arrival of mezcal tourism.  It has gripped Oaxaca, and along with it, a revival of the chango mezcalero.

Chango mezcalero is a clay receptacle in the shape of a monkey, generally a liter in size or smaller.  Traditionally, and arguably dating back to the mid-1800s, it was used as a bottle to market and sell mezcal. It was a natural, since the primate has been associated with drunkenness for eons. Vintage ChangoIn the second of three articles authored by the writer, its history was dated to the 1930s based on uncovering a chango mold dated July 12, 1938, owned by the late Juventino Nieto of the Oaxacan town of San Bartolo Coyotepec.  In a cardboard box alongside it was a somewhat larger undated chango mold of the same vintage. Don Juventino was the husband of the late Doña Rosa Real of black pottery fame.  However, an alternate theory of the inventor of the chango, from the same village, has been put forward by members of his family.

Many of the old chango mezcaleros found today have written on the back, Recuerdo de Oaxaca (souvenir of Oaxaca), some have a couple’s first names on one side or the other (celebrating their marriage), and most but not all are multi-color, painted with the gloss in various stages of decline.

New "Vintage" ChangoFor the past couple of decades, and likely longer, vintage chango mezcaleros have become highly collectible, mainly by Americans interested in one or more of Mexican folk art, non-human primate imagery, and mezcal and its associated appurtenances.  “Old” clay monkey bottles are available on ebay, and on other websites specializing in the purchase and sale of vintage Mexicana and what are otherwise known as “smalls” from Mexico and the southwest US. Prices can be as low and $50 and as high as $500 USD.

It’s very difficult to discern whether or not a chango mezcalero was indeed made in the 1930s or earlier as some are represented. Antique dealers and aficionados know best how to date collectibles.  Most in the general public, however, do not have a clue, and if it looks old to them, it is.

There are currently at least three pottery workshops in the town of Santiago Matatlán which have been producing chango mezcaleros for decades, and continuing to date.  Matatlán is known as the world capital of mezcal, boasting the globe’s highest number of artisanal (and at least somewhat industrialized if not more so) small family owned and operated distilleries, or palenques as the traditional ones are locally known.  Some of these contemporary changos are upright, others are sitting on a log, and all are formed with the monkey in different poses.  Until recently, if the changos were painted, and most of the time they were, they were glossy.  The older ones, both tucked away gathering dust in the back of a palenque, and in local purchasers’ homes having been used, often show nice wear.

1938 Chango MoldAs of early 2016, or thereabouts, vintage looking changos have begun to appear in the marketplace in Oaxaca.  They have been spotted in at least one antique shop and one mezcalería. The coloring and patina is matte, and exquisite.  There are at least two sizes.  Most likely they are coming from the same workshop, using the same or similar molds as the shiny bottles, as is easily borne out by anyone who places the old and the new vintage side by side.

It is not suggested that the retailers noted above are motivated by misleading or defrauding the buying public, despite the fact that some are for sale in an antique store.  On the contrary, of those found in the latter outlet, some but not all are marked with the date 2015.

Visitors to Oaxaca and elsewhere in Mexico, collectors surfing the net, and retail shoppers in the US and further abroad , should all be vigilant, and not be misled by the outward look of years of use.  Oaxaca’s chango mezcalero has now come of age as a much more popular collectible than previously.  alvin starkman, mezcalCongratulations are indeed in order to the workshop which has identified the market.

About the Author:

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). Alvin has been collecting chango mezcaleros for the past decade.  He has been a permanent resident of Oaxaca since 2004.

 

 

 

 

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Mezcalaria, The Cult of Mezcal: Book Review by Alvin Starkman

Mezcalaria,The Cult of MezcalMezcalaria,The Cult of Mezcal:  Book Review

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

Mezcalaria, Cultura del Mezcal, The Cult of Mezcal (Farolito ediciones, 2012) is the third edition, first bilingual (English-Spanish), of the seminal 2000 publication by author Ulises Torrentera.  The book is highly opinionated on the one hand, yet on the other contains a wealth of both historical and contemporary facts about agave, mezcal and pulque.  Torrentera places his subject matter within appropriate social, cultural, ethnobotanical and etymological context, at times referencing other Mexican as well as Old World spirits and fermented drinks.  And where fact is uncertain, or when Torrentera feels the need to supplement in order to hold the reader’s interest, he infuses with myth and legend.

Torrentera takes the reader far beyond the decades old introductory book, de Barrios’ A Guide to Tequila, Mezcal and Pulque and much deeper into the field of inquiry than the more recent series of bilingual essays in Mezcal, Arte Traditional, although the latter does include excellent color plates(the Spanish first edition of Mezcalaria contains a few color plates). It stands at the other end of the spectrum from the monolingual coffee table book Mezcal, Nuestra Esencia and is far more comprehensive than the English portion of Oaxaca, Tierra de Maguey y Mezcal.

Torrentera’s passion for mezcal rings loud and clear.  In discussions with him and in the course of hearing him hold guidecourt, he has repeatedly indicated that it’s crucial that more aficionados of alcoholic beverages taste and appreciate all that mezcal has to offer.   That’s his motivation for writing, speaking, and exposing the public to mezcal in his Oaxaca mezcaleria, In Situ. The spirit, paraphrasing his viewpoint, leaves its main rival tequila behind in its wake, primarily because of the numerous varieties of agave which can be transformed into mezcal, the broad range of growing regions and corresponding micro-climates, and the diversity of production methods currently employed,  the totality yielding a plethora of flavor nuances which tequila cannot match.

His treatise, on the other hand, to some extent does his raison d´être a disservice. He is overly critical of mezcal that is not to his liking.  For example, in the Prologue to this first English edition (don’t let the poor and at time incomprehensible translation of the Prologue dissuade an otherwise prospective purchaser; the balance of the book is well translated) Torrentera writes of mezcal with more than or less than 45 – 50% alcohol by volume:  “above that graduation [sic] the flavors of mezcal are lost and there is more intoxication; if it is below this one cannot appreciate the organoleptic qualities of the beverage.”  He also writes that unaged or blanco is the best way to appreciate mezcal.  He continues that in his estimation “cocktails are the fanciest manner to degrade mezcal.”

Indeed, I regularly drink one particular mezcal at 63%, which is exquisite, and numerous other mezcales in the 52% – 55% range which my drinking partners and I enjoy; we appreciate flavor nuances without becoming overly intoxicated.  At the other end of the spectrum, a recent entry into the commercial mezcal market, produced in Matatlán, Oaxaca, is 37%.  The owners of the brand held well over 50 blind taste testings in Mexico City, including mezcales of less percentage alcohol, of greater potency, and of popular high end designer labels; 37% won out by a wide margin.  In the first year of production it shipped 16,000 bottles of 37% alcohol by volume to the domestic market only; not bad for a mezcal lacking organoleptic qualities.

Regarding the blanco/reposado/añejo issue, why not encourage novices to try it all and decide for themselves?  Why dissuade drinkers of Lagavulin, or better yet Glenmorange sherry or burgundy cask scotch from experimenting with mezcal aged in barrels from French wine or Kentucky bourbon?  While I appreciate Torrentera’s zeal and his belief, his dogmatism may very well serve to restrict sales of mezcal and inhibit valiant efforts to find convertees.  Many spirits aficionados might prefer a mezcal which he does not recommend.  Furthermore, if mixologists and creative bartenders can increase sales and market mezcal through mixing mezcal cocktails, isn’t that what the Maestro wants?

Torrentera’s reflections are otherwise sound and should find broad agreement with readers, be they mezcal or tequila aficionados or novices, or those who are otherwise followers of the industry.  I’ve often expressed his point that far too many exporters and large scale producers are padding their bank accounts at the expense of campesino growers and owners of small distilleries, the mom and pop “palenques” as they’re termed in the state of Oaxaca.  He laments the regulatory direction mezcal appears to be heading, and pleads for change in the NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) and for a better and more discerning and detailed system of classification.  He warns of mezcal heading in the direction of tequila in terms of homogenization.

Torrentera’s work is the most comprehensive and detailed endeavor available in English, which combines and synthesizes literature about agave (historical uses and cultural importance), pulque (within global context of fermented beverages) and mezcal (as one of a number of early distilled drinks). He appropriately criticizes, mainly in the Prologue, academic studies which have provisionally concluded, using a bastardized form of scientific method, the existence of distillation in pre-Hispanic times.

alvin starkman
Available from the author for $12pp via PayPal. Click on image to email for availability.

The author shines in his compiling, extensively drawing from, and quoting diverse bodies of work; scholarly, historical anecdotal, as well as both secular and religious Conquest era laws and decrees.  His bibliography is impressive.  He correctly cites inconsistencies in and difficulties interpreting some of the centuries old references, allowing the reader to reach his own conclusions.  If a criticism must be proffered, occasionally it is difficult to discern when he is quoting versus using his own words.  But this is likely an issue with editing and printing than fault of Torrentera. At times he does neglect to indicate dates and sources, making it hard to determine precisely how much is independent research.  Footnotes would have helped in this regard, and also would have made it easier for the reader to go to the original source material.

Torrentera vacillates between seemingly attempting to write in an academic manner, and inserting intra-chapter headings and content which would appear to be attempts at humor.  To his credit, however, the difference is easily discernible, and accordingly the reader should have no difficulty distinguishing fact from lightheartedness.

Mezcalaria, Cultura del Mezcal, The Cult of Mezcal, is an important and extremely comprehensive body of work.  It should be read by everyone with an interest in agave, mezcal (or tequila) and / or pulque.  Torrentera is to be congratulated for compiling an excellent multidisciplinary reference text which no other writer to date has been able to do.

Alvin Starkman

alvin starkman, mezcal, Mezcalaria,The Cult of MezcalAlvin Starkman has been an aficionado of mezcal and pulque for more than 20 years.  A resident of Oaxaca, Alvin frequently takes visitors to the state into the outlying regions of the central valleys to teach them about mezcal, including different production methods, flavor nuances and the use of diverse agave species. He owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca.  Alvin has written extensively about mezcal and pulque.  He is the author of Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market:  Unrivaled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances.

 

Read more articles by Alvin Starkman at MexConnect.

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