How To Select Mezcal from Oaxaca: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly(Brand Owners, Reps, Guides, Retailers, Distillers and More)
The mezcal industry, in the state of Oaxaca in particular, has had its recent issues, most of which have been noted in print and through gossip networks. They’ve come to the fore primarily in Mexico and in those American states where there is now a plethora of mezcalerías and bars carrying a significant complement of the agave based spirit. They include: the pros and cons of the regulatory board’s current dictates, and enforcement; the maguey shortage, and the disappearance of wild species; the production, consumption and distribution of “agave distillate;” the adverse environmental impact; the intrusion of multi-nationals into the mezcal business and the future of artisanal production.
But there is a disturbing underside to mezcal, different from the foregoing, at least here in Oaxaca, of which few are aware unless they are industry insiders. And even then, blinders and wilful ignorance maintains the hush: misinformation, greed, broken promises, little if any concern for palenqueros and growers, and more generalized sleaze. However there are ways to keep the perpetrators honest.
Consider the brand owners in their 30s, 40s and 50s who drive Mercedes and BMWs and live in Manhattan or Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive condos. In a capitalist society one cannot begrudge them the lifestyle, except when they squeeze their palenquero suppliers in their 60s and 70s who still have to wake up at 5 am to head into the fields to work. They are intent upon buying mezcal for export from hard working distillers for as cheap as possible a price per liter. And yes, distillers do succumb, reckoning that there is a competitor around the corner who will sell it to the exporter for five pesos less; so they’d better leave the status quo alone despite their rising cost of living, labor and especially now, agave.
Fair trade in mezcal as a movement is in its infancy, if it exists at all. I know some of the exporters who do ensure that their producers are treated “appropriately.” On the other hand, the individual who has told me that he pays twice as much for his mezcal than a major competitor, well, perhaps one should take that with a grain of salt without some corroboration. Counterbalancing, there are for example the people from Aventureros who are trying to help palenqueros understand how much it actually costs them to produce a liter of mezcal, be it espadín, tepeztate or tobalá.
At least for now, small scale growers (i.e. campesinos) are not the issue in terms of getting a fair price for their agave, although I am certain there are those in the mezcal industry who believe that they are being paid too much. But they should remember how long it takes to grow an agave to maturity, the current problem with agave theft, and that it wasn’t that long ago that their maguey was dying in the fields because no one was buying.
It’s that same group of avaricious entrepreneurs who at the outset promise to start a charitable foundation to help needy Oaxacans with education or access to quality healthcare, yet once they get a taste for the potential for profit, the idea is forgotten. Some boast how they’ve built schools and roads in the villages, but braggadocio is cheap. Again on the other hand, there are those in the industry who can, and actually will for the asking, illustrate how they have done good for Oaxacan folk who otherwise would be struggling to eke out even a subsistence lifestyle.
Labelling and oral representations are other issues which don’t seem to receive the critical eye of the consuming public they deserve. CRM (the regulatory board) had been working on the former when it promulgated its 2017 designations of ancestral, artisanal and just plain mezcal. But there are still shortcomings and abuses, ranging from questionable representations to outright fabrications. A year or so ago a client showed me a photo of a mezcal label he has seen on a bottle in a Mexico City establishment, which read “90 years old.” Neither of us could discern if the suggestion was that the succulent had been growing for 90 years, or if the mezcal had been stored for almost a century. And there are those in the industry, in fact shockingly for this day and age in Oaxaca, who state as a matter of fact, “tobalá is a wild agave” or “tepezate takes 35 years to grow.” Who could possibly know that the agave, certainly if it was wild, had been growing for any extended period of time? Was the brand or mezcalería owner there when the palenqero or campesino harvested it? Now if the farmer had been walking that field or mountain slope for 30+ years, and made mental or written notes, then sure. But really; think about it. Wild v. cultivated; should we take such representations at face value just because it’s on a label, or some “expert,” brand rep or other, tells us? Even if cultivated, there can be doubt as to age, especially during this decade leading up to 2020, when growers are harvesting well before maturity in order to meet demand. Dogmatism, in any form, harms the industry.
Then there are those a step removed from the brand owners and their reps, the palenqueros, and their growers. That is, those who receive an income from the industry more indirectly; the tour guides, the teachers and instructors, the website owners, and the bars. They also profess that they want to help the industry, the producers and the people of Oaxaca.
Consider the specialized mezcal guide who keeps the names of far off villages he visits with his customers secret from others who might be interested in visiting and buying from the distillers. Many of these producers are in dire need of additional sales given their remoteness. He purports to want to help the palenqueros, yet he is afraid someone else, in his mind competitors, might take aficionados there. He purports his unwavering and fervent desire to help small producers, yet won’t help them move product, except for when his owner buyers attend to purchase a mere liter or two, if anything. He relishes building himself up, and putting others down. He knows it all; just like those who know how long it takes to grow an agave and state with certainty that it’s wild.
He might even be the same person, but certainly not necessarily so, who comes and goes with prospective purchasers, palenque to palenque, encourages his people to sample, but when they fail to buy, he leaves nothing behind for the distiller or his family members who have taken time out of their day to welcome guests. He’s making money, but does not even think that if it were not for his distillers, he would be without work. And he might even demand commission for every sale made. I suppose to really appreciate this part of the thesis, you must first have seen the lifestyles of some of the families of palenqueros who make quality artisanal mezcal.
Now not all palenqeros, both those with access to the export market and those without, are struggling, certainly not from their own perspective and often not from ours. Some have benefited to a considerable extent from “the boom,” having dramatically improved their living conditions (and I know many in this category), some using the new disposable income to educate their children who may in turn further assist their families, and so on. Accordingly, of course we should not begin to shed tears without delving further and doing our own due diligence whenever possible.
There are many who make a living though the industry who treat their producers well, acknowledge that there are very few absolutes when it comes to agave and mezcal, believe in transparency, and who regularly give back to the community and/or industry in one way or another. Mezcal aficionados and industry professionals, and in fact novices, must do more to ensure that the people who are benefiting from their love of mezcal are those who should be. Or at minimum they should satisfy themselves that their pattern of mezcal purchasing is working towards aiding solutions rather than perpetuating problems.
None of this is to suggest that retail prices in Mexico or further abroad are not appropriate, because many hands (in particular outside of the country) touch mezcal before it reaches store shelves; tax must be paid; the cost of transportation, warehousing, packaging and marketing must fit into the equation; and there are other considerations.
The abuses are seemingly nowhere close to as extreme as those many of us have read regarding the cacao (and perhaps to a lesser extent the coffee) industry. Yes of course there are those who are pushing the fair trade envelope in such cases, and the public has indeed been informed. But except in very limited circumstances such advances are more or less lacking in mezcal.
Indeed each topic covered here is worthy of its own essay, article or book, so this is but a cursory statement designed to raise awareness in the broadest sense.
We have an obligation to at least try to keep them honest, and ask the hard questions, perhaps of everyone in the supply chain. Some aspects of sharp business practices are hard to uncover, but not all. Hopefully you won’t find any and can then sleep easy. And if you do, perhaps your inquisitiveness and probing will change business practices; failing which I suggest that you have an obligation to move on to support others who are already doing the right thing.
“I give back to the community big time.” Ask how, and for an opportunity to witness it. Just because someone is buying a considerable amount of agave or mezcal, does not mean he is giving back in a meaningful way.
“This agave took 35 years to grow.” Ask how he knows that for sure. Press him.
“This batch is made with wild agave.” Ask how he is so certain, then what he is doing to ensure there is a supply of wild agave in 30 years, and to accompany him to the slopes where he has participated in the reforestation.
“We run a not-for-profit.” Ask what he means by that, how many are drawing an income in the operation, and to see the registration papers. Now this might be a delicate balance, but if someone is publicizing such altruism, you have a right to understand a little better. Is it any different than having the right to know how much of every dollar you donate to The United Way goes to actually paying for the mosquito nets distributed in Uganda or the labor and materials spent for building classrooms in the Phillipines?
“I donate to charity.” How often? To which charities? Can I visit them?
“I pay my producers well.” Now I am not suggesting you have to right to know numbers, but you should have an opportunity to visit the palenque and have a talk with the master distiller so you can understand his perspective, his lifestyle, his health and about how his family members live.
If you are visiting a palenque with a driver or guide, and do not purchase anything, note if your facilitator gives a token of thanks to the producer or his family, and if not, ask about the arrangement.
Support artisanal mezcal. Come to Oaxaca and visit palenques. But do have a critical eye, and do your part to right any perceived wrongs by asking questions and perhaps demanding answers. You may not succeed in changing anything, but at least you will have a better understanding of the industry, and can proceed with supporting a particular segment of it through buying based on having been better informed.
The potential exists for making a good industry much better, for the benefit of all. The current era of artisanal mezcal is new, bold and with unbridled potential, but we must not let it slip away into an abyss.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).