By 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.
Part 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.).
Related 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.
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.
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.
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).