Growing up, I always knew when my dad was going to start dinner. There was either a Herradura Blanco or Hornitos on the kitchen counter, a shot glass, and some freshly sliced limes ready to go. He’d let out a big “ahhhh” after savoring his pre-dinner ritual. I later learned he did this as a way of connecting to my late great-grandpa, who started the mezcal brand, Mezcal Taurino, in the late ‘50s. “My grandpa taught me the best way to start a meal is to relax, and one shot of mezcal or tequila does just that,” he always says. Like many other families in Mexico, my family has a deep appreciation and respect for tequila and mezcal. It’s a piece of our culture that we can share with the rest of the world, yet something we’re deeply proud of and cherish as a nation. (In its simplest form, mezcal — mexcalli in Nahuatl, meaning “oven-cooked agave” — is technically any spirit distilled from an agave plant. Tequila is a type of mezcal, but we’ll get into its intricacies in more detail later.)
Bertha Gonzalez Nieves, Co-founder and CEO of Tequila brand Casa Dragones, seconds the importance of tequila in Mexican culture, saying, “Tequila is truly part of the social fabric of Mexico; we celebrate every special occasion with tequila, every birthday, every marriage, every anniversary.” It seems the spirit’s celebratory effect has caught on with the rest of the world, as it has become one of the fastest-growing spirits, with imports increasing by 347% in the last 25 years. The country to receive the most significant amount of exports is the United States, given it’s also the country with the most considerable amount of brand owners outside of Mexico. But with anything culturally significant, like this spirit, it’s essential to protect, share, and teach the traditions and stories that come with it. More importantly, one must not dilute a product due to its rapid growth in the market.
Mezcal’s Birth Story
Derived from the sacred, Mesoamerican drink pulque (made from fermented sap of the maguey agave plant), mezcal was one of the first byproducts of colonization. It’s storied that after months at sea and a short supply of alcohol, colonizers were given pulque, but it wasn’t as intense as the wine and alcohol they were used to drinking. When Spanish colonizers introduced distillation to the indigenous groups, they turned the heart of the agave plant into mezcal, which contains about 40% alcohol as opposed to the 6% found in pulque.
So, what do mezcal, Champagne, and parmigiano reggiano all have in common? Protected status. They’re only produced in a certain region in a specific country. Although nine states in Mexico allow the production of mezcal, about 70% of the spirit is produced in the state of Oaxaca. Each mezcal bottle contains a DOM (“Denominación de Origen del Mezcal”) so you know where the mezcal geographically comes from. Mezcal can be made out of espadin (the most popular), tobala, salmiana, and 25 (and other) types of agave plants.
On the other hand, tequila can only be made out of blue weber agave, which is produced in only five states, 99% of it coming from the state of Jalisco. Every bottle of tequila and mezcal has a NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana number) which certifies everything from its distillery to the legal standards that have to be followed by tequila makers. The CRT (Tequila Regulatory Council) monitors this to make sure regulations are being followed. Certain restrictions include: only making it in approved regions, meeting the percentage requirement of actual agave, and a play on words is also not allowed (like when Elon Musk tried to call his tequila “Teslaquila” and Mexico said “no”).
Mezcal’s Social & Economic Importance to Mexico
Economically, both the popularization of the spirit and the geographical restriction has allowed for more job security and supporting of Mexican talent and craftsmanship. “Mezcal in Mexico is a culture. Families and traditions live around it”, says Sebastian Garza Alcalde, founder of artisanal brand Mezcal Peñasco. Based out of San Luis Potosi, Alcalde started his label out of motivation to help and contribute to his community. “I wanted to re-activate an ex-hacienda that produced mezcal as well as help our Maestro Mezcalero [meaning mezcal connoisseur or expert] Patricio Hernandez Zarazua, who had not worked mezcal in years due to lack of demand, until now.” After Zarazua’s unfortunate passing, his 19-year-old son Martin Hernandez Tovar took over the mezcal operations. The art of cultivating and making mezcal and tequila is traditionally passed down from generation to generation. Passing down techniques ensures that they’re getting taught and shared, and as a result, allow small family businesses to keep thriving.
Rafael Shin, who founded Agua Magica Mezcal, ensures his team has what they need to succeed and be content with making a good quality product.“In Oaxaca, we’ve partnered with Maestro Mezcalero Don Rogelio Juan Hernandez in the town of San Juan del Rio. He had stopped producing mezcal for over a year mainly because he didn’t want to compromise the quality of his product by selling at low prices to mezcal brokers (who tend to mix his product with the product of many other producers).” Shin is Mexican-Korean, and when creating Agua Magica, he wanted to highlight Oaxaca’s many elements: its magical realism, mysticism, and pre-Hispanic roots.
Shin helps mezcaleros [mezcal makers] by providing upfront investments and pays higher premiums to the current “market price” for higher quality products and ingredients. He’s also been able to help local mezcaleros with beneficial programs to help with their growth. “The success of our partnership with Don Rogelio is the reason we started our “Empowering Mezcaleros” program, where we will be donating 5% of yearly profits to help small Mezcaleros certify their product and sell at higher prices.”
Is Rising Popularity A Good Or Bad Thing?
Tequila and mezcal’s fast growth has allowed the world to get a taste of Mexican talent and culture in just one sip. Specifically, for Gonzalez Nieves, it’s allowed for Mexico to compete and be recognized in more luxury markets. On the other hand, Tequila and mezcal are also victims of their popularity. The demands for both have attracted other multinational companies to dabble in the industry, causing an influx and need for more land and resources. To create a product faster, regulations have loosened over the years to meet the market’s needs. Less-quality tequila has caused many tequila and mezcal aficionados to seek more artisanal brands containing little to no additives, and they want others to start doing the same.
“That is why being vertically integrated is extremely important to deliver in our mission to redirect the current growth path of mezcal,” says Shin. He adds, “We need to try to change everything across the value chain: how you educate consumers and market the product, to how you structure the partnerships with mezcaleros and agave farmers back in Oaxaca. It all requires long-term planning, extensive knowledge of the area, and a desire to protect what makes the spirit special.”
The Celebrity Effect
Over the past couple of years, smaller mezcal brands have complained about how celebrity brands have diluted much of the actual connection between Mexico and their product. With multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns, they’ve also loosely used terms like “family-owned and operated,” when the so-called “family-owned and operated” business produces more than 100+ brands.
Ultimately, labels like Casamigos, Teremana, and 818 have the capital and a celebrity to promote the brand, while artisan mezcaleros struggle to stay in business. As a smaller company, Alcalde says his main struggles have been marketing his product and keeping up with the high demands, given his small business still works on small-batch production. This is important to him, given he wants to respect tradition, be sustainable, and create social equality within his company. “There is a lot of (Mexican) tradition to share, and each mezcal has its character and its story to tell,” says Alcalde. “But, it is extremely important that the culture of mezcal is transmitted correctly and that it doesn’t just become another ‘fad’ in consumer culture,” he emphasizes.
How To Properly Vet Your Mezcal & Tequila
After looking at the origin, understanding its importance to Mexico, and realizing the need to support smaller brands, I follow this criterion when choosing my tequila and mezcal:
- I support Mexican-owned: Take a closer look at how much a brand actually cares about the spirit’s story-telling and cultural significance. Avoiding this shows me that the brand isn’t really interested in the product and that it is just any other spirit for a multinational corporation.
- Research the NOM. I do my research when trying out new mezcals, but I specifically look at the NOM to confirm the distillery it’s coming from and (if I have enough time) how they treat their workers. There’s often a strong correlation between the number of brands a distillery has and the quality of the product. The fewer brands a distillery has, the better quality, in my opinion.
- Never settle for a favorite. I always make sure I’m exploring new brands when trying mezcal. Different agaves and cooking methods make each brand unique in its own way. Most bars might not have a selection of tequilas or mezcals, but if you go to an authentic Mexican restaurant, you’ll most likely have many options. If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to check out my handy tequila guide. Salud!
I dedicate this article to my great-grandpa, who’d be proud of where mezcal is today.