Striking a Balance: Mezcal Brand Owners Can Avoid Exploitation Allegations

Written by Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

The allegations come to the fore within the context of remarks of some mezcal commentators. They assert that “foreigners” who own brands of the agave distillate are guilty of cultural appropriation. Of course, the few are far from being the great thinkers of our generation, though they do get some traction; thankfully only from those who similarly fail to carefully if at all delve below the surface. All that can be done to combat the oft erroneous charge is to take steps to do the right thing: strike a balance between advancing one’s entrepreneurial tendencies on the one hand (if you don’t like capitalism, then move), and on the other, openly helping the mezcal brand owner’s palenquero associates, their families and their communities. One must go beyond buying mezcal for resale and having villagers bottle, label and pallet. That is not enough.

Many brand owners do indeed work towards and in fact achieve altruistic goals, but do not, I suppose to their credit, advertise what they do. Perhaps that should change if for no other reason than to keep the naysayers in their Neolithic caves.

This musing addresses primarily readers who are considering starting their own brands, and those with existing brands who may want to do a little better for their Mexican palenquero brethren. This would go a long way to quieting the holier than thou out there. But first we should all acknowledge that Mexican and foreign-owned brands should probably be lumped together. In both cases there is generally an inequality of bargaining power; think about it for a moment! Yes, the imbalance can easily be redressed, if the motivation exists.  

Palenqueros are doing their part to react to the problem, if not by design then by default. They are using their new-found wealth to advance the education of their progeny through entry into university degree programs. This in turn leads to a different, more critical way of thinking, or perceiving the world and its players. Many of these young lawyers and engineers remain in the villages of their parents, assisting in whatever way they can given their new-found worldview.   But that’s a baby step. Something more is needed right now since we don’t know what 20 years hence will mean for the industry. Consumers are fickle, especially in the world of alcohol.

How do the rest of us eschew the notion of exploitation? Us? Yes, even those without an ownership interest in a brand of agave distillate, but who are somehow benefiting from the mezcal boom. Here’s how, addressing both prospective and existing brand owners, and yes to some extent the rest of us:

  1. Partner with your palenquero, rather than simply pay him per liter and for labor readying for export.
  2. Collaborate in arriving at price paid for the juice, for bottling, and for the rest, rather than simply negotiate a price.
  3. Bond beyond just buying. Establish a friendship which will foster greater mutual respect and help you to better understand the life challenges of the entire family. A patron/client (seller/buyer) relationship is not enough.
  4. Set up a charitable division of your company to benefit perhaps the community of the palenquero (i.e. paving roads, building schools, etc.), or agave sustainability, or any other cause important to you such as the education of bright young indigenous women which is my personal preference.
  5. Shed your ethnocentrism; meaning adopt a cultural relativistic way of thinking, and acting. If you’ve been schooled in the social sciences, hopefully you will have already understood that the only way to understand a culture foreign to your own, is to at least to a limited extent, live it.

It’s easy to rationalize doing nothing, and believe that you’re effecting more than enough for the industry when purchasing mezcal by the pallet or the container. And to be sure, buying a single bottle, a case of 12, or a container of 8,000, each provides a benefit. But is that enough? And certainly we’re all, through whatever means we’re involved in the industry, helping out. But is that enough? Yes – at least to the extent that I don’t want to feed into the narrative of the exploitation accusers. And what are they doing?

Giving enhances our own self-esteem. But you’re reading this not to support feeling good about what you are already doing, but to consider doing more. And of course to confidently dismiss all those who would be critical. We’ve already bolstered the self-esteem of palenqueros, arguably something very tangible. But is that enough?

Whatever you decide to undertake, consider letting the world know, even though doing so may run contrary to your best judgment regarding maintaining humility and a low profile. How else can we shout them out and proclaim “we’re doing more than enough; what are you doing?”

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (


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