By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
What is your favorite brand of mezcal doing, if anything, to support the local economy of the town(s) or village(s) where the agave distillate is being produced. Beyond purchasing product? Does it donate to the worthiest of Mexican charities, and if so to what extent? Some brands do the right thing, even some of those owned by celebrities believe it or not.
Selecting what brand or expression of mezcal to buy should be determined by more than considering price and your own or published tasting notes. Of course they will form part of the equation, but so should your knowledge and understanding of to what extent, if any, the brand owner(s) is/are giving back to the community.
Over the past decade, several times a week I have met different mezcal aficionados (and novices to the spirit). I can perhaps count on one hand the number of times anyone has mentioned a brand giving back to either the local or broader Mexican community. The discussion the imbiber begins is virtually always about nose body and finish, and/or value. Sometimes there is the odd commentary about the multi-nationals’ or movie/sports stars’ incursion into the industry.
Brand personality lies along a continuum. At one end are those motivated by strictly altruism (to the extent it can ever exist at 100%), and at the other are those concerned with profit and little if anything more. I suspect that a fair number lie towards or even hug the latter, while nary a single one is to be found at the former. But being in a capitalist society suggests it’s okay to make improving one’s brand’s bottom line rather important. But that doesn’t mean we should willy-nilly accept brands which do their best to buy bulk agave distillate for as cheap as possible, even if part of the motivation is to benefit the end consumer. And we should reject those who do not give back to one or more segments of the community in need, by not supporting those brands nor singing their praise, no matter what the quality of the various expressions. If you want to continue to witness the industry thrive, that is those brands producing ancestral and artesanal mezcal, investigate before making a purchase, or promoting on social media or via any other means. You’ll feel better about yourself.
Red flags should go up, at least provisionally, regarding a product seemingly under-priced, just as for the mezcal appearing to be over-priced. Does $25 USD for an espadín at 45% ABV a bottle of 750 ml suggest the brand is squeezing the palenquero as much as possible to get the best price? Does $60 USD suggest the brand is paying a lot and at the same time donating to a worthy charitable cause? Perhaps the brand is even partnering with the palenquero, which at least to some extent removes that inequality of bargaining power. The imbalance is evidenced by a brand owner knowing that the producer is in dire need of sales and thus he has the upper hand in negotiating price. The two as partners, on the other hand, suggests that as the brand flourishes in the marketplace, so does the economic lot of the palenquero.
So what should you do before buying? What do I mean by “investigate?” We can begin a groundswell in the industry, as long as we do our part. Admittedly, it may require that you depart from your comfort zone.
At the Retail Level
When you go to your local wine and spirits store or mezcalería, ask the salesperson or better yet manager if the brand gives to charity or does anything else to support the state or community where the mezcal is being distilled. The answer will likely be “I don’t know.” Follow up by asking the person to contact the distributor to find out. Now many brands, for good reason, do not promote their charitable endeavors, but once asked should readily explain with details. Often the distributor does not know although he should so as to enable him to better promote the brand. It’s simple to give out your cel number and ask to be called once the vendor has an answer for you. But walk out of the store without buying! The next retail outlet you attend might have the answers you should be seeking.
At the Trade Shows & Tasting Events
At the trade shows, spirits competitions and tasting events conducted by brand owners or third parties it should be easier to get the answers you want. If not, then there’s a problem. Those promoting particular brands should be armed with a lot of information beyond telling you how great their products are and a little about the family which produces the spirit. When you are then told about the mountain of revenue the palenquero is given in reply to your query, remember that the members of his family are the ones awaking at 4 am to harvest and staying up all night to distill; not the brand owner who lives a much more comfortable lifestyle. And if you are told about how many hands the mezcal must touch before landing in a bar, store or mezcalería (i.e the Three Tier system in the US), and thus that the brand owner makes very little, that is simply a way to avoid answering your pointed question. You might even want to ask about any belief in tithing, and have a fruitful discussion about the practice as it relates to the business of mezcal production and sales.
At both of the two foregoing levels you should press for details. Get the name of the charity, the address of the school the brand rep states it built, or water filtration plant it constructed for the entire community. Ask if there is a partnership agreement between the palenquero and the brand as opposed to simply an agreement fixing price per liter for the term of the contract.
Brand websites and Facebook or other online mediums might provide the information outlining the information you should be seeking. But as suggested earlier, many brands might be uncomfortable promoting their charitable giving. But some are not. Several brand owners over the past few years have in fact asked me where they should park some of their profits in order to help the state of Oaxaca.
Do your research. Be just as critical as you are of brands of clothing, shoes and widgets which profit from the cheap labor encountered in third world or developing nation sweatshops.
Help the agave distillate companies operating towards the ultra-capitalist end of the continuum to understand that making their charitable nature known to the public will ultimately cause profits to spike as consumers come to understand that buying the brand is a good thing. Quality of product will remain important, and price paid will diminish as a determining factor. Or, assist brands to rethink their business practices in order to then assist the palenqueros a bit more than is presently the case.
I am not suggesting that donating to charities or partnering with the palenquero is the only way to help nor that and one or both should be a prerequisite for supporting a brand. There are umpteen ways. And it’s not only the brand owners who should be encouraged or even shamed into “doing the right thing;” rather every person or business along the chain making a profit. They should understand that perhaps helping to grow the industry at large is just not enough; especially here in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in the country.
Alvin Starkman is the author of the recently published third edition of Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances. He operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (mezcaleducationaltours.com).