Is Your Mezcal a “Craft Spirit?”

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

Is your favorite mezcal or agave distillate a craft spirit? In this opinion piece I attempt to refrain from using brand names of mezcals we tend to consider being traditionally produced (i.e. ancestral or artesanal). The reader, after reviewing the following, will likely be able to place particular mezcals along a craft spirit continuum. And so right off the bat my thinking about the topic should be clear, that is at least my singular broad conclusion.

Understanding and defining craft spirits is a complex topic with several nuances and points of view, even for those in the know. Adding mezcal to the mix further complicates, and makes arriving at concrete answers even more dumbfounding.

Craft Spirit Definitions

A search for a clear definition of “craft” within the context of spirits yields many results. Typically it denotes drink made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by an individual or a small company, or made using traditional methods by small companies or companies and people that fashion it.  This alone reveals problems which arise within the mezcal context, when one tries to define “traditional,” “non-mechanized” and “small.” When the word “craft” is used as a verb, we fine definitions such as “to make with care or ingenuity,” and “to exercise skill in making, typically by hand.” Again there are issues when parsing the phrases to determine their applicability and relevance to mezcal.

The community of the American Crafts Spirits Association (ACSA) has different definitions of “craft,” and thus has elected to not live by a singular definition, but rather to allow its members to each come up with an interpretation which serves his/her needs. However it has indeed passed judgment on what it considers to be subsumed by the term “craft spirits,” and what it considers to be a “craft distillery.” And so ACSA believes that:

Craft Spirits means (1) a product made by a distillery which values the importance of transparency in distilling, and remains forthcoming regarding the spirit’s ingredients, distilling location, and aging and bottling process, (2) a distilled spirit produced by a distillery producing fewer than 750,000 gallons annually, and (3) no more than 50% of the Distilled Spirits Plant (DSP) is owned directly or indirectly by a producer of distilled spirits whose combined annual production of distilled spirits from all sources exceeds 750,000 proof gallons removed from bond.

A craft distillery is a facility which values the importance of transparency      in distilling and remains forthcoming regarding its use of ingredients, its distilling location and process, and aging process. It produces less than 750,000 gallons annually. It directly or indirectly holds an ownership interest of 50% ownership or more of the DSP.

The American Distilling Institute (ADI) is another industry organization. It provides a craft spirit certification designation.  For ADI to certify:

  • the spirit must be run through a still by a certified craft spirit producer [rather self-serving I would suggest],
  • less than 25% of the distillery, and no more, can be owned or controlled by alcoholic beverage industry members who are not themselves craft distillers, and
  • annual sales cannot exceed 100,000 proof gallons.

There is also a requirement of “hands-on production.” With respect to this last pre-requisite, it appears that distillers are required to employ at least some traditional fermenting, distilling, blending and infusing techniques to produce their spirits, thus presumably suggesting the incorporation of a degree of modernity.

Factors to Consider

Based on the foregoing, as well as from a review of several articles centering upon applicable definitions, it is fairly easy to conclude that within the mezcal context a simple answer should not reasonably be proffered, because of the lack of uniformity in the agave distillate industry; perhaps arguably distinct from, for example, the single malt scotch pursuit.  However we can examine a number of factors and reach our own conclusions, both regarding our favorite brands of mezcal, and the spirit in general:

  • ownership of brand / distillery
  • equipment employed / production methods
  • volume produced
  • staff numbers and relationship to owner(s)
  • transparency and values  

Discussion Within the Mezcal Context

Ownership of Brand / Distillery:

Should percentage or type of ownership of the distillery be a factor in designating a mezcal brand as a craft spirit? Perhaps instead we should examine control of means of production. We know that Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Samson & Surrey and Bacardi are all in the mezcal business. If the distillery proper is still owned by the family of palenqueros, but decisions are made by the conglomerate, how does that change our thinking? How “hands-on” can the family be, other than participating in all processes, if its members are excluded from the decision-making process?

Ownership of a brand by a multi-national corporation should not be the determining factor. In many cases sale to one of the big boys simply enables the brand to achieve global exposure than it otherwise would not have enjoyed, a good thing in terms of helping the family of palenqueros, the community, promotion for the region, etc. But once the non-Mexican corporate entity begins to tamper with means of production and tools of the trade, then the other factors come into play. If the corporation, let’s say Pernod Ricard, has purchased 100% of the brand from the previous owner(s), but leaves day-to-day management to them, can the brand still maintain a craft spirit status? Samson & Surrey actually boasts its “craft spirits portfolio” and advantageousness of having the “resources of a larger company.” It appears to be doing all the right things. Its reference to “human touch” would bring its products into the fold of “craft,” noted above as in “with care.”

Let’s examine Mezcal Benevá, a brand which most would likely agree does not produce a craft spirit, even though over the past couple of years it has added equipment to bring some of its production under the rubric of the term artesanal. The brand is 100% privately owned by a Oaxacan family (the last time I spoke with ownership), some of the members of which have a strong pedigree of production dating back generations. Its annual production is less than 750,000 gallons, but sales are more than 100,000 gallons. It lacks transparency only to the extent that, to my knowledge it does not offer access to its plant by the general public; otherwise in my opinion it is transparent in all determinative respects. The main issue with Benevá is means of production and tools of the trade, employing computer technology and finely calibrated scientific equipment, with its autoclaves, stainless steel equipment, diesel fuel and the rest.

How different is Benevá from Lagavulin single malt scotch, owned by Diageo? Would you consider Lagavulin a craft spirit? Diageo is a publically traded company. This brings us to “values.” Is the first priority of a company which trades on the stock market to answer to its shareholders (i.e. improve bottom line above all else; of course I’m not referring to “green” companies)? If so, then where do its values lie? Do we put Diageo in the same category as Benevá, both as non-craft enterprises? Lagavulin appears to maintain tradition, but produces well over 100,000 gallons annually, and I would suggest at the end of the day must answer to its parent company.

Equipment Employed / Production Methods:

If a mezcal brand has several distilleries producing for it, using traditional, non-mechanized production methods and tools, but produces one million gallons annually, is it still producing a craft spirit? If one of the brand’s products is a “blend” in the whisky sense, that is, not a traditionally made mezcal, should we refrain from terming the blend a craft spirit? What if a palenquero elects to use a gas powered crushing machine rather than mashing by hand or with horse and tahona, just to make like a bit easier for him? Is it no longer “craft” because the product arguably does not fit within the definition of “traditional” or “non-mechanized?” What if the palenquero switches to an autoclave for one or more reasons, including wanting to:

  • augment production so that he can hire more staff from an economically disadvantaged community,
  • increase profit which thereby enables him to pay his staff more,
  • enable the consumer to better understand the nuance of the agave species without the impact of having been baked in a sealed over for five days and subjected to the influences of the particular firewood as well as variation in degree of doneness, and
  • protect the environment by not spewing into the atmosphere smoke from readying the oven for the bake?

Does it make a difference if he ferments with the bagazo, and also uses the bagazo for the first distillation, these two processes being traditional? What if the only mechanized, non-traditional step in production is fueling the copper alembic with propane or diesel, rather than firewood? What degree of modernity is permitted so as to have the consuming public believe that it is a craft spirit? It appears that the ADI would not take issue with terming the spirit “craft” if the autoclave or simply a fossil fuel is used in production.

Volume Produced:

I have already touched upon the volume of production index. I don’t think that volume should be a factor, at all, if it is clear from an examination of all the other determinants whether the brand or the distillery is craft, or not. If we cannot pigeonhole by looking at the rest, then, and only then, perhaps an examination of volume produced can correctly sway us in one direction or the other. Or, using the continuum model, take us closer to one end versus the other.

Staff Numbers and Relationship to Owner(s):

This, once again, should be one of the lesser important factors in making the craft spirit determination. Staff numbers reflects success of the brand and little if anything more, which returns us to numbers (i.e. gallons produced). What is the maximum staff numbers allowed for the brand, or distillery production team, to be considered craft? Returning to Benevá, the Zignum brand is just down the road, but owned, to my recollection, by non-Oaxacans or at minimum non individuals whose families emanate from nearby mezcal producing villages. Yes the two are large sophisticated operations, and likely each has a comparable number of employees. But in the case of Benevá, likely most are family simply because in a general rural Oaxacan sense, owners tend to prefer hiring family whenever practicable. The Zignum ownership likely hires workers who are not family because ownership is comprised of “outsiders.” So as relative to Zignum, Benevá can boast at least one half of this craft dimension, that is, the strength of family relationships from top to bottom. But certainly this does not mean that Benevá is a craft spirit.  

Transparency and Values:

Should the consumer always be able to readily learn the name of the distiller and location of the distillery? There are typically reasons for withholding this information. The reader can judge for herself the validity, and the extent to which this should impact her thoughts about whether or not the mezcal should still be considered craft. Reasons include:

  • the brand wants to control the narrative for marketing purposes,
  • logistical considerations, and/or
  • the brand has something to fear.

A brand of artesanal mezcal used to label its bottles with the palenquero’s name, then decided to remove the name for fear that someone would come along and “steal” the palenquero for his own new or already existing brand. But if the first brand has a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship with the palenquero, why should it fear anything? Another brand, which has been around for a decade or less, had previously noted on its website that it combined traditional with modern, but stated no more. When I attempted to ascertain the name of the distiller, location, and contact information, simply so I could learn more about the mezcal, I was stonewalled. A red flag went up about the extent to which there were actually any traditional aspects of production. And still in another case the palenquero working for a brand was not allowed to sell me any mezcal for fear of the brand owner finding out. Some brand owners tell their producers that sure, anyone can attend at the palenque and purchase, while others are silent about the matter and allow the distiller to use good judgement. But should any of the foregoing adversely impact the product’s characterization as a craft spirit?

Where I think a mezcal’s characterization should be impacted, is regarding misrepresentation of the contents of the bottle. And regretfully this does occur. There are brands of traditionally-made mezcal which label every bottle, except those distilled with espadín, as being made with wild agave; wild tobalá, wild madrecuixe, wild mexicano, and all the rest. Now yes of course there are still wild agaves up in the hills and otherwise far off, but currently virtually every agave currently used to produce mezcal in the state of Oaxaca is under cultivation. How could the Diageos and the Pernod Ricards of the world, each with a global reach, meet demand if they were not having these species cultivated for them. A good friend of mine has 16 different varietals under cultivation, only one being espadín.  Yes there is literature stating that only after the fifth generation of production, should one begin to classify the plant as cultivated. But how does the public know? The better and more honest route is to label “semi-wild” or “semi-cultivated,” or not preface the name of the species with anything. Not following this suggestion illustrates a significant lack of transparency.

But thankfully the good and the righteous outweigh the bad and the scoundrels. It all comes down to the values the brand and the palenque embrace. If profit is first and foremost, then you’ll mislead regarding the character of the agave, since the average consumer assumes that a mezcal made with wild agave is better than one made with cultivated agave, and thus pay significantly more for the former.

A movement has emerged over the past decade or so, towards putting as much information as reasonably possible about the mezcal’s production, on the back label. However this is not to suggest that brands with sparse labelling information are less committed to transparency as a value. It might be more in the nature of what the brand owner wants to promote most about the product line, while still being 100% transparent about the product.

Epilogue

It all comes down to the due diligence upon which the consumer is prepared to embark in order to investigate the extent to which his favorite mezcals are craft spirits. He should educate himself by asking the right questions of the brand reps, the bartenders and the mezcalería and restaurant staff. Test them all and try to discern their level of knowledge and forthrightness. And read the brand websites and blogs; what are they telling you, and what are they omitting and why. Try to have the unanswered questions answered by making inquiries. You might lose some respect for your favorite brands, and gain respect for others.

Perhaps break down all of the foregoing into 10 – 15 determinants of craft-ness. Then grade the brands accordingly. I let the cat out of the bag at the outset when mentioning the word “continuum.” Brands lie along it. Those who have read my musings know that I tend to reject absolutes. Here, I have been clear that mezcal as a category should not be labelled as a craft spirit. In fact just because it’s labelled ancestral, should not be determinative that it’s a craft spirit; at least not until you’ve done that due diligence and investigated as many if not all of the determinants on your own list.

And just because the distiller uses an autoclave should not cause you to discount the brand or factory. Briefly examining the brand Scorpion Mezcal using some of the determinants, exemplifies the kind of exercise we should be doing when placing any mezcal operation along the craft spirit continuum. In the Scorpion case, owner Douglas French works at the distillery daily, and is in charge of operations. His staff are mainly single mothers, some of whom have been with him for a quarter century. He welcomes visitors to his facility, with a bit of advance notice, and anything not noted on his labels he is happy to explain on a visit or a call or via email. Ask him the extent to which he has expanded his operation over the past two decades, and why. Labelling for brands such as his and others which date to the 1990s are usually as they appear, without a plethora of descriptors explaining means of production and tools of the trade, because that was the custom at the time, and the marketing has boded well for them.  Why change what has worked in the past, and continues to do so? It is not necessarily indicative of a conscious attempt to inhibit transparency.

Lest we forget flavor, and texture. It’s indeed curious that the umpteen defining characteristics of “craft,” many of which have been noted above do not mention quality of product, although a major related consideration, impact of the hand of the maker, is tangentially included in most cases. Three considerations are in order:

  1. Some readers have been to far-off remote villages, and sampled mezcal, craft to the extreme based on any measure of the foregoing determinants; so bad that they wouldn’t gift it to their worst enemies. And yet it is craft mezcal. Craft does not necessarily mean good.
  2. In most of the nation’s mezcal-producing regions, CRM (previously COMERCAM) is the regulatory board governing what can be termed “mezcal.” In my opinion your favorite quality hooch that you buy in New York, LA, Chicago or Dallas, is not the same product as was being produced “traditionally” (craftily) prior to the early 2000s when the board began passing judgment on what could be deemed worth of having the word “”mezcal” on the label. Typically the methanol was not removed from the distillate, and it was being drank without adverse side effects. Methanol contributes to flavor. And so recent regulation has governed how mezcal can be made, and its flavor, requiring that palenqeros alter their generations-long recipe by forcing them to remove the amount of methanol as required. Is it still craft, once government regulates by dictating change from traditional means of production? Is it any different if the palequero or brand owner makes the change?
  3. If what “the suits” would deem non-craft for not meeting their criteria (i.e. ownership, equipment, volume and the rest), seriously stimulates the palate and gets our juices flowing, should we worry about whether or not it is “craft?”

Mezcal as a category is not a craft spirit. Thoroughly investigate each brand of mezcal which interest you. Question the maker or brand rep why you are being stumped regarding any doubts which have arisen. While at the end of the day you may not be able to conclude one way or another whether or not it is a craft spirit, what you will have learned will be immeasurable. And if you like what you’re drinking, and answers to your questions do not seriously offend your sensibilities, don’t change your pattern of imbibing.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com), a small, two-person federally licensed company with full transparency, and altruism as a primary focus of its raison d’être. Thus, it is a craft enterprise.