OAXACA – In the rooftop bar of one of Mexico’s most famous restaurants, well-heeled Mexicans and foreign tourists sip mezcal margaritas from tall glasses rimmed with ground gusano (worm) and salt, and garnished with a thick slice of fresh tropical fruit.
The chic minimalist décor of Casa Oaxaca in the southwestern city of the same name stands in stark contrast to the traditional distilleries, or palenques, where most of the country’s mezcal is still made. The posh interior is a sign of how far this traditional Mexican spirit has come. Mezcal, though distilled from the same type of plant as tequila, has long been the poor cousin of the beverage most people around the world identify as the Mexican national tipple. But after hundreds of years in semi-oblivion, mezcal is finally coming of age and enjoying a resurgence among trendy urbanites in Mexico and beyond.
More and more bars specializing in mezcal, known as mezcalerias, are opening up in cosmopolitan cities in Mexico, the United States and Europe as people develop a taste for the potent drink. Once considered a poor man’s quaff made by small-batch producers in backward villages, the spirit has become sought-after among a generation of drinkers keen on rustic, natural and handcrafted products. “Mezcal had a very bad reputation; it was considered a cheap drink and a poor quality drink,” said Leon Lory, the 34-year-old manager of Los Amantes, a hip mezcaleria in Oaxaca. “Nowadays, it is taking the place it deserves among the most recognized spirits in the world.”
As with most fashion trends, it is hard to pinpoint the exact date when mezcal started to be considered cool. Mexicans have been drinking mezcal for hundreds of years, but it is only in the last decade that the drink has become trendy among young city dwellers. “Mezcal makes you happy; it doesn’t take you down,” said Spanish tourist Raquel Rubio Ruiz, 31, as she sipped from a shot glass of mezcal in Los Amantes. “You feel like dancing, talking, meeting people – it’s different from other kinds of drinks.”
Other mezcal converts believe the spirit, when it is made the traditional way, is healthier than other alcoholic drinks. “I like beer, but I enjoy mezcal a lot more,” said Maria Ines Valdez of Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city. “Normally with beer, or wine or tequila, I would have a hangover the next day, but mezcal doesn’t make me hungover.”
As mezcal emerges as Mexico’s hot new quaff, there remains a great deal of confusion locally and internationally about the difference between mezcal and its more famous cousin, tequila. Technically, mezcal is a name for all spirits distilled from agave plants, of which there are dozens of species across Mexico. Tequila, the staple of Mexican parties, baptisms and weddings, is the most famous mezcal. In the 1970s, producers in Jalisco and several nearby regions who made mezcal from blue agave plants were granted the appellation of origin by the Mexican government, which was later registered with United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organization. The appellation of origin means that only mezcal made from blue agave in those specified areas can be called tequila.
What most spirit enthusiasts think of as mezcal, on the other hand, is made from any one of around three-dozen varieties of agave, the most common being the espadin, which is easier to grow and yields more mezcal per plant. In the mid-1990s, distillers in eight Mexican states were awarded the right to market their drinks as mezcal. Critics say the appellations of origin are grossly unfair because they have stripped thousands of mezcal and tequila producers outside those selected states of the right to call their product by its traditional name.
But unfair or not, the popularity of mezcal only started to take off after the official designation. Like most Mexican fashion trends, the mezcal boom began in the country’s capital, Mexico City, but quickly spread to other cities around the country. In 2009, Pedro Jimenez Gurria and his wife opened the first mezcaleria in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco state and the home of tequila. The retro-style bar named Pare de Sufrir, or Stop Suffering, specializes in mezcal made by small-scale producers in traditional distilleries.
Notwithstanding the region’s strong attachment to tequila, Jimenez Gurria said more and more young drinkers are switching to traditional mezcal because it is free of chemical additives and made by people whose families have been producing the spirit for generations. “It’s a culturally Mexican drink they can identify with,” he said. “It gives them a feeling and status of drinking something that is good not only for them, but also for the people who are making it.”
One such producer is Marcelo Santiago Mendez, whose family has been making mezcal for three generations. Santiago Mendez’s distillery southeast of Oaxaca city makes 10,000 to 15,000 liters a year using traditional production methods that give the mezcal a distinct flavor.
Once the agave have matured — a process that takes 10 to 20 years depending on the species — the pinas, or hearts of the plants, are handpicked, brought to the distillery and slowly cooked in a deep earthen oven for almost a week. They are then crushed under a 1.5-ton stone wheel pulled by a horse, fermented in wooden barrels and then distilled in copper tanks with a turkey breast or seasonal fruit to add extra flavor.
It is labor-intensive work, which means the costs of production are high, but Santiago Mendez believes it’s important to preserve the traditional techniques of making mezcal and create jobs for the local community in the process. “We don’t make a lot of money … production is expensive because we need a lot of workers,” said Santiago Mendez, 58, whose six daughters work in the distillery. “What we feel proud of is to give work to local townspeople.” Santiago Mendez said he would like mezcal to become “a big thing and be known all around the world.”
Though mezcal is attracting more attention as a high quality spirit, it is a long way from challenging the domination of tequila in Mexico and abroad. Mexico produced 261 million liters of tequila in 2011, of which 163.3 million liters was exported – nearly double the 88 million liters shipped overseas 10 years earlier. In comparison, mezcal production stands at nearly 2 million liters a year, or around 6 million liters if uncertified production by small-scale distilleries is included, according to the Mexican Regulatory Council for Mezcal Quality. About 800,000 liters of mezcal are exported.
Despite — or perhaps because of — its growing popularity, many traditional mezcal devotees are worried about the future of the industry. Most traditional mezcal distilleries make 1,000 to 1,500 liters a year and cannot compete with the large-scale modern producers in terms of volume or price.
Silvia Philion, one of the owners of Mezcaloteca in Oaxaca city, a tasting room dedicated to the preservation of traditional mezcal, fears the spirit could follow the same path as tequila and become a commercialized product stripped of its diverse and complex flavors. “It is not a war between industrial, artisanal or traditional production,” explained Philion. “The fair thing would be for consumers to try all three of them and decide for themselves which kind of mezcal they like. What is not fair is that the industry decides which is the right drink. That is what happened to tequila.”
But if large-scale producers come to dominate the mezcal industry, as many believe is inevitable, many small-scale agave growers and distilleries may disappear. And that would be a huge loss for the mezcal industry and Mexican culture. “We can’t lose the origin (of mezcal) because if we do, we lose everything,” said Philion.