Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
About a decade ago, beginning in the wake of the 2008/9 US economic crisis, the pattern of migration between the United States and the state of Oaxaca got turned on its head. To a significant extent it was because of the initial stages of the global mezcal boom.
Depending upon which statistic one reads, Oaxaca is either the poorest, or the second poorest state in all Mexico next to Chiapas. We have agriculture, and we have tourism. While export of mangos, black beans, tomatoes and all the rest have been a relative constant over the years, tourism has not; and the state has relied on beach going and culture seeking visitors for much of its economic fortune.
Tourists from diverse corners of the globe would flock to Oaxaca for its Pacific sun and sand, cuisine, craft villages, archaeological sites, colonial architecture and quaintness. But they would stop coming, especially from the US due to State Department warnings and journalistic sensationalism, at the drop of a dime: the (Mexican) swine flu epidemic, the 2006 Oaxacan civil unrest, drug cartel activity no matter where in the country, zika, and the list goes on. Prospective visitors would eventually forget and again select the state for vacationing … until the next scare; tourism’s economic impact was characterized by peaks and valleys.
To address this schizophrenia, Oaxacans, both skilled and otherwise, would leave the state, emigrating in search of the American dream, or simply relocating to Mexico City or other large commercial centers where work was always available. The former is elusive, and it became especially so when a decade ago both Americans and migrants began either losing their jobs or some of their week’s hours. It grew to be much more difficult for Mexicans to get by, let alone remit money home to family in Oaxaca.
Enter the bold new era of mezcal. Over the past several years, both its production and the agave spirit’s popularity on the world state, have literally been increasing exponentially. Statistics bear this out.
Reverse migration has addressed the first prong of the phenomenon, in part due to the American economic crisis. That is, Oaxacans who were losing their jobs in the US began returning to their rural homesteads to help their relatives make mezcal. In earlier times they were leaving towns and villages and they headed north, in droves. Now, with no or less work than before, they were coming home, and for good reason given the spike in production and sales of the agave distillate.
I personally know of three cases in the hinterland of Oaxaca where immigration into the US has changed to emigration back to Oaxaca; in Santiago Matalán, in San Dionisio Ocotepec, and in San Pablo Güilá. In two cases the direct motivation was to help the family produce mezcal for both domestic consumption and export since these Oaxacans were in need of good reliable labor. In the third case it involved a construction worker who in his youth learned to make mezcal in Oaxaca. He then lived in California as a laborer for 20 years, and now had an opportunity to return home and build and work at his very own traditional distillery, and construct a home.
Oaxacans in the lower classes and rural areas have always imbibed the spirit. But a new phenomenon began around the beginning of this decade, with middle class urbanites all of a sudden jumping on the bandwagon. It was the early stages of the boom in the US which has given Mexicans a sense of pride in mezcal, as a quality sipping spirit much like a good bourbon or single malt scotch, rather than as a gut wrenching way to get drunk quickly. Remember those college years?
Now, mezcal is respected globally, and there is increasing worldwide demand for it. So more mezcal is being distilled for both national and international markets. And, with this popularity has come an influx of visitors; to learn about it either to increase personal knowledge or with a view to opening a mezcalería in their home cities, to film and photograph it for business purposes, to sample and buy it out of pure passion for the spirit, and to begin their own brands for export.
These pilgrims, from as far away as Australia, are not as deterred as the normal tourist by what their governments and media warn. Mezcal tourism is a constant, and growing.
The actual production of mezcal is both causing the return of Oaxacans to their homeland as indicated, and keeping Oaxacans here. However there is more; while the motivation of many travelers for visiting Oaxaca is for mezcal (i.e. learning, documenting and of course buying), the spirit is actually having a much broader positive impact on the state. That is, when visitors come for mezcal, they also buy crafts, take cooking classes, dine in restaurants, stay in hotels, visit archaeological sites, and the list goes on, and on, and on. The dramatic impact is that emigration from the state is either halted, or at minimum significantly curtailed. And this keeps families together, in all walks of life.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He has been witnessing the metamorphosis from the beginning.
The mezcal industry’s upward trajectory appears unstoppable, especially given the global reach of the multi-nationals. Over the past few years they have been buying up quality brands of ancestral and artesanal mezcal. And so the potential is there, for industry growth. But you know what they say about one bad apple.
¨Heroes and Villains, Just see what you’ve done” was the refrain of the 1967 The Beach Boys song. Now while I’m neither, though some might disagree, Mexico’s burgeoning non-tequila agave distillate business contains representatives of both; too many of the latter. But even one person is more than we want, especially since this mezcal industry’s star is still rising, and the rogues and reprobates among us can bring it to a crashing halt.
In May, 2019, I was interviewed by a media type working on a piece about recent changes in the mezcal trade as a consequence of increased commercialization. We spoke about the extent of the likelihood for change in quality and pricing structure; the former going down, and the latter up. It would seem that every step a brand takes towards industrializing the means of production and tools of the trade in the manufacture of its mezcal inevitably reduces quality. I’ve seen it happen. I have tasted the difference in a product distilled by a palenquero 15 years ago, and then today the purportedly same mezcal. He yielded to pressure from the brand owner to produce more, quicker. And over the past five years I have noticed known brands reducing their ABV as a means of lowering cost, and new, start-up brands flogging their juice at 37 – 40 percent --- simply not what traditional mezcal is all about.
Fair enough. We do live in a capitalist society, with “let the buyer beware.” But we also have consumer protection laws (though here in Mexico I would suggest their enforcement is questionable). But they are not designed to address the issue about which I am writing.
As a general statement there’s nothing wrong with lowering quality and/or ABV, since you get what you pay for. That is, sometimes! And it is the qualifier which brings me back to that interview, and a more pressing reason for this discourse.
The interviewer began to relay a story to me, about interaction he had had with a bilingual (Spanish/English) Mexican who regularly flogs mezcal he bottles under his own label, made by traditional distillers, in the US. The carpetbagger, as I would term the interviewee, at one point began to talk about selling a bottle of mezcal for $1,000 USD, presumably premium, and 750 ml. He said something to the effect of “if a dumb American is willing to pay me a thousand dollars for a bottle of mezcal, then I’ll sell it to him.” Can you reasonably call the guy anything other than a carpetbagger, except perhaps a scoundrel? To be clear, he wasn’t referring to a mezcal made with jabalí, aged ten years in a bourbon barrel, then marketed in a hand blown glass bottle with a hand blown glass agave inside.
In this early era of mezcal, that is, referencing its modern age which dates to no earlier than the mid 1990s, such an attitude and behavior is wrong. It does harm to the growth of the industry. At this point in time in the meteoric upsurge in the popularity of agave distillates (aside from tequila), should we allow capitalism and entrepreneurialism to be acceptable and just let it run rampant, or should we be doing all we can to stamp out this type of activity, and more importantly attitude?
You can take what the market will bear. For example retailing a bottle of specialty pechuga in Washington state for $400 USD. In that case the price eventually came down, likely because the market simply did not support that price. However the particular product did create a buzz, and still does today, so that’s fine. Charging high prices for novelty items like pechugas made with ham, iguana, deer, turkey breast, and yes rabbit, is fine; as long as they are truly unique and exceptional to the palate of the purchase; and the brand owner’s motivation is not simply getting as much as he can for the product. (As an aside, in my humble opinion the protein is quite often used not for imparting a particular aroma, taste and texture, but rather utilized for marketing purposes. If you distil with a chicken breast and a dozen different fruits, spices and herbs, how much is the meat relative to the other ingredients altering the end product?)
There is a good chance that the spirits aficionado who buys a $1000 USD bottle of mezcal, will go back to his Talisker 57 or Lagavulin 16 year old single malt scotch, and be done with mezcal. And that’s something we simply don’t want. You can stick it to him once, but no more. We want to continue to grow the mezcal market with at least some semblance of fair trade, for the benefit of us all; at least most of us. Shame on Sr. X … and every person in the mezcal industry anything like him. As Lynyrd Skynyrd sang, “does your conscience bother you?”
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Can Orthodox Jews confidently drink a traditionally made agave distillate, specifically mezcal, purported to be kosher via kashrut certification, and truly be assured that it is pareve (neutral) or otherwise drinkable? Should they be concerned regarding imbibing Mexico’s increasingly popular spirit despite the label designating the contents of the bottle as COR, U, KA-Kosher, K, or another way of identifying the drink as kosher? Is there another way of satisfying oneself that mezcal is drink-worthy by biblical standards?
A palenquero in a Oaxacan field is harvesting agave espadín destined to be distilled into kosher mezcal. He comes across a rattler or coral snake. Can he kill the snake with the machete he is using to cut the pencas off the maguey? I’m far from a Talmudic scholar or an Orthodox Jew, and I don’t even keep a kosher home, but I have been around the production of agave distillates in southern Mexico for more than a quarter century, so the question intrigues me. More importantly it leads to the broader issue of the extent to which traditionally made mezcal, labeled as kosher, actually complies with biblical dictates.
It is suggested that perhaps the only really kosher mezcals, regardless of what’s stated on the label, are the most industrialized products in the marketplace, or from the most traditional smallest scale production. The latter would never find its way out of Mexico based on economies of scale. The corollary is that if the orthodox Jewish imbiber wants to drink artesanal or ancestral mezcal, he may not be enjoying what the Law of Moses suggests is the only spirit he should be ingesting. It is submitted that rabbis, directors and employees of kosher certification boards, as well as owners of kosher mezcal brands and their palenqueros, have a vested interest in assuring the public that kosher means Stricly Kosher in compliance with accepted standards. Admittedly I’ve become more of a skeptic while a permanent resident of Oaxaca, and so interviews with any of the foregoing people regarding practices and procedures doesn’t satisfy my curiosity nor allay my trepidation.
The rabbinical certification of food to make it kosher involves ascertaining that the food (or drink) has no ingredients or processes forbidden by Jewish law. Nothing anyone can say or do, including a rabbi, can make non-kosher food kosher. There are organizations which monitor process, from the initial production stages to mezcal being packaged and ready to go on the shelf of the retailer. The organization is then able to certify something as Kosher, with its icon clearly identifiable on a label. But every organization has its own standards, and not all Orthodox Jews accept every board’s seal of (kosher) approval. In virtually every religion where there is ancient text, different groups, sects and individuals interpret some words, phrases and chapters, differently. So right off the bat we have the makings of a concern, for me an issue when it comes to passing judgment upon what is kosher. If you are Orthodox, perhaps no mezcal should be deemed Kosher. In any event, it is suggested that only a tiny fraction of the approximately 22% of American Jews who follow a kosher diet, would be uneasy if their spirits are Certified Kosher.
The agave, a succulent, is, in and of itself, pareve. It’s not meat, and it’s not dairy; nor has it ever swam, hopped, flown or slithered. But what does happen to agave and with what it comes into contact in the process of becoming mezcal, in the lion’s share of cases takes it out of the category of being Kosher. Or does it?
Most of what can and what should never be consumed, and in what and when, is contained in Deuteronomy Chapter 14, and Leviticus Chapter 11. Different books in The Torah cover other related matters as will be explained further along. The former chapter is more comprehensive and subsumes the latter, and so is reproduced here in its entirety, for the sake of completeness, and to illustrate the breadth of The Law:
Leviticus 11 King James Version (KJV)
11 And the Lord spake unto Moses and to Aaron, saying unto them,
2 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, These are the beasts which ye shall eat among all the beasts that are on the earth.
3 Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat.
4 Nevertheless these shall ye not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the hoof: as the camel, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.
5 And the coney, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.
6 And the hare, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.
7 And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you.
8 Of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcase shall ye not touch; they are unclean to you.
9 These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat.
10 And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you:
11 They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination.
12 Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.
13 And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the ospray,
14 And the vulture, and the kite after his kind;
15 Every raven after his kind;
16 And the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind,
17 And the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl,
18 And the swan, and the pelican, and the gier eagle,
19 And the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat.
20 All fowls that creep, going upon all four, shall be an abomination unto you.
21 Yet these may ye eat of every flying creeping thing that goeth upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth;
22 Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.
23 But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you.
24 And for these ye shall be unclean: whosoever toucheth the carcase of them shall be unclean until the even.
25 And whosoever beareth ought of the carcase of them shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even.
26 The carcases of every beast which divideth the hoof, and is not clovenfooted, nor cheweth the cud, are unclean unto you: every one that toucheth them shall be unclean.
27 And whatsoever goeth upon his paws, among all manner of beasts that go on all four, those are unclean unto you: whoso toucheth their carcase shall be unclean until the even.
28 And he that beareth the carcase of them shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: they are unclean unto you.
29 These also shall be unclean unto you among the creeping things that creep upon the earth; the weasel, and the mouse, and the tortoise after his kind,
30 And the ferret, and the chameleon, and the lizard, and the snail, and the mole.
31 These are unclean to you among all that creep: whosoever doth touch them, when they be dead, shall be unclean until the even.
32 And upon whatsoever any of them, when they are dead, doth fall, it shall be unclean; whether it be any vessel of wood, or raiment, or skin, or sack, whatsoever vessel it be, wherein any work is done, it must be put into water, and it shall be unclean until the even; so it shall be cleansed.
33 And every earthen vessel, whereinto any of them falleth, whatsoever is in it shall be unclean; and ye shall break it.
34 Of all meat which may be eaten, that on which such water cometh shall be unclean: and all drink that may be drunk in every such vessel shall be unclean.
35 And every thing whereupon any part of their carcase falleth shall be unclean; whether it be oven, or ranges for pots, they shall be broken down: for they are unclean and shall be unclean unto you.
36 Nevertheless a fountain or pit, wherein there is plenty of water, shall be clean: but that which toucheth their carcase shall be unclean.
37 And if any part of their carcase fall upon any sowing seed which is to be sown, it shall be clean.
38 But if any water be put upon the seed, and any part of their carcase fall thereon, it shall be unclean unto you.
39 And if any beast, of which ye may eat, die; he that toucheth the carcase thereof shall be unclean until the even.
40 And he that eateth of the carcase of it shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: he also that beareth the carcase of it shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even.
41 And every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth shall be an abomination; it shall not be eaten.
42 Whatsoever goeth upon the belly, and whatsoever goeth upon all four, or whatsoever hath more feet among all creeping things that creep upon the earth, them ye shall not eat; for they are an abomination.
43 Ye shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creepeth, neither shall ye make yourselves unclean with them, that ye should be defiled thereby.
44 For I am the Lord your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
45 For I am the Lord that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.
46 This is the law of the beasts, and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moveth in the waters, and of every creature that creepeth upon the earth:
47 To make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten.
Aside from some of the standard prohibitions of which virtually all Jews and most non-Jews are aware (i.e. against pork and seafood), the chapter reproduced also includes additional rules which are particularly pertinent to the thesis herein, regarding:
From the outset, that is planting agave, there is an issue, even assuming that the seed, pup or hijuelo transplanted into a furrow where it will remain for the better part of a decade, is kosher. When the small maguey is sown, the more industrialized operations may spray a bit of insecticide in each hole to assure no immediate infestation. Traditional campesino growers, and palenqueros producing artesanal or ancestral mezcal, likely will not. There is a reasonable likelihood that flying insect and/or larvae infestation (i.e. the slithering gusanos), both un-kosher, will begin to interact with the piñas grown by traditional means. If a home remedy 100% natural insecticide is employed, do we have to examine the kosherness of the ingredients used to make it (i.e. how the garlic, the chiles and all the rest have been produced)?
The foregoing suggests that, contrary to some lay belief, there is not a relationship between on the one hand Kosher, and on the other certified organic, 100% natural, etc. Furthermore, the industrial mezcal (labelled by CRM dictates as simply mezcal, as opposed to artesanal or ancestral) which present-day mezcal aficionados loathe, is more likely than the others to comply with biblical standards. Traditionally produced mezcal indeed may approximate organic or natural standards, but tends to be further removed from the ambit of Kosher, right from the beginning.
Taking The Bible literally, perhaps the only truly kosher mezcals are those produced in the most industrialized plants. Sterility is maintained using stainless steel, versus clay or copper, diesel versus ant infested firewood, bleach versus cola for cleaning floors of concrete as opposed to dirt, and exacting particular tools designed for each specific task, versus our machete used to both cut agave and kill that (prohibited) snake. Nary a forbidden fly is found in such facilities. Of course this is the furthest removed from factories of biblical times (or its subsequent composition).
Means of production and tools of the trade in agave distillate manufacture lie along a continuum. It is suggested that, regardless of Kosher certification, in some respects the closer one moves towards the traditional mezcal production axis (coveted by many, and assumed to be more organic and natural), the less likely the spirit complies with strict biblical standards. Yet in other respects this doesn’t hold wáter. If we move to the absolute smallest scale of production, the palenquero controls everything, from planting through to bottling. It’s his own agave, harvested from the quiote or transplanted from clones. He simply cannot afford Kosher certification and his production is extremely limited, though he has the ability to be the utmost vigilant. By contrast, those who produce Kosher mezcal may state that they examine every piña to ensure no gusanos have infested. But can we really take at face value their assurances? They are successful business people. They, as most who now produce mezcal for export and many who do not, purchase piñas from growers, by the lot or three ton truckload. Will they discard every piña where they see a gusano? And what about the piñas where the existence of gusanos cannot be readily detected? The non-Jewish grower just wants to ensure that he gets his fair price, infested or not.
Ants, and well as other creepy crawlers and flyers often infest the logs used to bake agave traditionally in that conical shaped below-ground airtight chamber. They are surely impacting the flavor and character of those pristine piñas. Is that permisible based on biblical dictates?
The Old Testament would appear to approve of crushing the baked sweet agave by hand, provided the machete used to chop the maguey hearts has not come into contact with anything un-kosher such as the ants when it was used to cut the firewood, and again that coral snake. The wooden mallet of course must be free of infestation. The rule regarding utensils is that those which have come into contact with non-kosher food may not be used with kosher food. This applies only where the contact occurred while the food was hot. How hot out does it have to be for a campesino harvesting agave with his machete, to kill a rattler then continue his harvest, and in good faith be able to maintain that his tool has remained “clean” throughout the day?
But when it comes to crushing traditionally, using a beast of burden, the Bible provides a complete code of conduct, regarding treatment of animals. Chapters in Books such as Genesis, Exodus, Proverbs, Samuel, Deuteronomy and Leviticus instruct, as does The Talmud. Jewish law prohibits causing unnecessary suffering or cruelty to animals. In many cases they are afforded the same sensitivity as human beings. They can be used to satisfy legitimate needs, like food for sustenance and clothing, and even within these contexts we must use and kill using the least painful way possible. Deuteronomy is specific in forbidding the muzzling of an ox to prevent it from eating while it is working in the field.
Now to the extent that The Bible accords animals the same rights as humans (i.e. resting on the Sabbath), palenquero compliance should not be problematic. However, can mezcal be considered Kosher at all if a horse, mule or team of oxen is used to mash the agave? After all, alcohol consumption does not satisfy legitimate needs, although a reasonably argument can be made for drinking wine on Friday evenings and otherwise at Sabbath. This takes us along the industrialization área of our continuum, where machinery is used for crushing and extracting the sweet agave juice. Even if we deem consumption of spirits as a legitimate need, horses are typically muzzled when crushing agave, so as to reduce the likelihood of them constantly having their heads down in an effort to consume that enticing caramelly maguey.
You can ferment in any receptable. Industrially produced mezcal employs stainless steel, which presumably is not problematic. In and around the central valleys of Oaxaca, the traditional vat is roughly 1000 liters and made of oak or pine. Pine can more easily become infested. How does one prevent that from happening? Cedar is not typically used, but perhaps it should be. Depending on the time of year of fermentation, variously bees, flies and knats buzz around the containers, nourishing themselves by feeding off of the sweet agave which has had wáter added. Yes, one can prevent that by using a metal mesh cover. Has the vendor of that piece of equipment been eating pork just prior to lifting it off of his truck?
Can non-Jews even make mezcal? Wine made by non-Jews is prohibited. For agave distillates, assuming at face value they can be certified Kosher, which individuals in the production chain have to be Jewish, and how devout? I’ve never seen a campesino harvest agave in a field while wearing a yarmulka. Wine must be made by Jews because there is a restriction against using products of idolatry. Wine was regularly sanctified for pagan purposes while it was being processed, and thus the prohibition. Should the rule apply to only wine, since mezcal, just as wine, is an intoxicant? Talmudic scholars have debated the suggestion that wine should be no different than whisky, rum and other non-grape based spirits. Further discussion on the issue is beyond the purview of this essay.
Taking any ancient religious text literally is dangerous. When The Bible was written there were no exacting standards. Sanitation and cleanliness were nowhere near where they are today. We pick and choose what suits us. It is not suggested that you should only drink industrially produced mezcal, but rather that that class of agave distillate more closely approximates what the drafters of The Bible had in mind. Satisfy yourself as a devout Jew, that the processes employed in producing your favourite artesanal or ancestral mezcal, meet your personal standards as you extrapolite them from Torah.
Recall the continuum. Kosherness comes in degrees, as is evidenced by the fact that some Jews opt for trusting in one Kosher certification board versus the other. The system of defining which foods are kosher was developed by the rabbis of late antiquity, hundreds of years ago. Given that the word “kosher” means fit or appropriate in Hebrew, perhaps as long as one is confident of sanitary standards, and the treatment of any animal used in the process, that should weight more importantly than that little logo on the can of tuna, or bottle of mezcal. Cleanliness is essentially irrelevant since we are dealing with a distillate. Know your palenquero, visit his palenque to assure yourself of his treatment of any beast of burden used in production, and don’t sweat the rest. Conduct your own rabbinic supervisión (remember that no blessing is required to consider anything Kosher) and drink up: cheers, salud, and l’chaim.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.alvinstarkman.com). His sources researched and quoted are:
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Over the past dozen years I have played a part in the development of a number of brands of mezcal distilled in Oaxaca; for the domestic Mexican market, but mainly for export to the US, South Africa, Germany, the UK and Italy, with projects currently underway for additional US trademarks as well as for Canada and Australia. Some are a source of pride, while others of discomfiture, the latter not necessarily based on quality of product since some are pretty good. However I suggest that since traditionally made mezcal (both ancestral and artisanal) inevitably varies from batch to batch, simple tasting notes in any event are not always very helpful in assisting consumers on a buying quest. And conversely, the brands which have provided me with the greatest gratification do not always produce mezcal to my personal liking. It is for additional reasons that these particular mezcals and agave distillates are worth of being honored. They include Nacional, Atenco, Corte Vetusto, 5 Sentidos, Dangerous Don and Cuentacuentos. There are others, but not all clients keep me updated after the principal job I have been retained to do has been completed.
My involvement has run the gamut and includes:
No, all is not rosy nor altruistic in the Oaxacan mezcal business. I am fortunate enough to be in a position to pick and choose with whom I want to work, and which brands and their reps to expose (though never in writing) for what they are and represent based on my intimate knowledge of and relationships with their owners. Not to overly dwell on the negative, it is important that the buying public at least be aware of some of the issues and undersides out there which I have personally encountered:
Regarding the final point above, how much can that brand owner be paying his palenquero if his mezcal in an American marketplace costs $30 USD a bottle? Consider the costs associated with transportation, warehousing, taxation, agency representation, together with the profit the retailer must earn. Yet the entrepreneur is still making a sufficient enough profit so as to enable him to live a middle class lifestyle. Yes, everyone is entitled. But no, we don’t have to support it.
That’s more than enough of the negative. And yes we live in a capitalist society. But in the agave spirits industry the concept of fair trade, if it exists at all, is in its infancy. However there are brand owners who indeed practice it without fanfare.
Only time will tell if the trademarks named above will meet with significant success the likes of Vago, Del Maguey, Alipus, and the rest. But I’m extremely pleased with what they have done, and the route they have followed. I have been honored to have worked with them, and some continuing to date, each for different reasons which include:
Each has other significantly positive attributes, including the actual agave spirit’s character, with differing broad taste profile, nose, and finish. The product is one thing, but the comprehensive corporate philosophy is another, for me perhaps more important than price and the contents of the bottle. To my knowledge none of the brands enumerated falls prey to the six negatives noted above. Each is worthy of becoming even more efficacious than is currently the case.
How do you evaluate success in the business of branding and marketing agave spirits produced in Oaxaca? For me it’s quite different than perhaps for the brand owners. For me it’s:
Finally, it’s the yearning of many to revisit Oaxaca. In turn, those who make a return pilgrimage will inspire others. Whether or not any of those six brand owners realize it, what they are doing for the industry and Oaxaca is significant, far beyond and much more important than any degree of financial success which comes their way.
True, the brands owned by financially triumphant industry scallywags inevitably at least to a limited extent aid Oaxacan communities and the broader economy. That’s the positive. I still have a scintilla of faith in humanity, at least to the extent that eventually the chickens come home to roost, and thus in due course the good in the business will thrive, and those not deserving will falter. If only the world really worked like that. I’m embarrassed to have aided some brands which I shall not name, the owners of which now enjoy significant success in small part through my tutelage; and I am similarly embarrassed that other mezcal brands have floundered; I can lead their owners to water, but can do no more. Thankfully this club of six appears on its way to continued accomplishment, both in terms of maintaining viable businesses, aiding the industry and Oaxaca through spreading the good word about mezcal, and enticing those who appreciate quality spirits.
Alvin Starkman has an M.A. in social anthropology, and a J.D. from Osgoode Hall Law School. He owns and operates Mezcal Educational Tours of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Of course buying mezcal while in Oaxaca for a short visit has its obvious advantage over purchasing at home. Whether hailing from the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, or even Mexico City, cost will be significantly less. But there are other, arguably more compelling rationale aside from price, to pick up a year’s consumption of agave spirit when in southern Mexico. And truth be told, the reasons alone are good enough to warrant a trip to Oaxaca. Forget about the money you’re saving, and consider the rest.
But first about price. If you come to Oaxaca, and just stay in the city, your savings might not be that great. If you are buying familiar brands, they are “certified,” meaning that for the Mexican market the tax department gets a whopping 69% which is passed on to you. And, I think it’s a pretty sound assumption that the closer you remain to the state capital, the more you will pay. Put another way, the further you go out from the city to source your mezcal, and the more remote the areas you explore, the less you will pay. So for example, the cost of tobalá distilled in clay will be significantly more costly in Santa Catarina Minas which is less than an hour’s drive from the city, than about the same quality product if purchased way out in the hinterland in Santa Catarina Albarradas, hours away.
Now for the rationale which I would suggest is more important than money saved.
Tasting Mezcal Prior to Purchasing
Whether buying your mezcal in the city at a local mezcalería, or out in the villages where it is made while in the course of a mezcal tour, you should be able to sample before you buy; if it’s not your cup of tea you should not feel any obligation to purchase just because you have sampled a few. Yes, in a downtown mezcalería you will likely pay to taste and appraise, however on a mezcal excursion to a few palenques in and around the central valleys of Oaxaca, there should be no cost to sample. When was the last time you were in a retail outlet back home and were welcomed to have a complimentary snort before you bought? Likely never.
Granted, if you know the reputation of the brand, or of the palenquero through online gossip networks or otherwise, or have previously sampled the distiller’s products, you may have a pretty good idea of what’s in the bottle. And many aficionados know roughly the mezcal flavor profiles of different species of agave. But since no two batches of artisanal (or ancestral) mezcal are the same, you are nevertheless at least to some extent flying blind when buying without sampling. It’s even more precarious if considering purchasing an ensamble (mezcla) at your local spirits outlet. If the label states the percentage of each agave specie or sub-specie it’s certainly some help, but if not, then you really cannot be certain of what you’ll be getting.
Buying in the city of Oaxaca after sampling isn’t always the best way to do it since you sample from one container, then buy a sealed, labelled bottle, having to assume that what you sampled and what you are buying are both from the same batch, unless of course you can read the same lot number on each of the two receptacles. It is not necessarily the case that the two are from the same batch, though I would suggest that it should be. On the other hand, sampling a palenquero’s product at his distillation facility is often different, depending on the mezcal excursion upon which you embark. Frequently the palenquero gives you a sample from a 20 or 50 liter tub, then if you like and want to buy it he fills a bottle from that very same tub. You can’t get any more consistent.
Vendor Mezcal Knowledge
There are extremely knowledgeable retail outlet owners and staff around the globe. Many have read extensively and have spent an inordinate amount of time online, been trained by brand reps, and some have been to Oaxaca to hone their expertise. But those who live in the state and have a mezcal pedigree should be a notch above the rest. On a cautionary note however, some folks working in Oaxaca mezcalerías (and even some of those who take visitors to the region around to the distilleries), bars and restaurants might be relatively new to agave spirits, and accordingly care should be taken by both mezcal aficionados and novices wanting to learn the basics.
But a healthy complement of us here in Oaxaca have been around mezcal for years if not decades, steeped in the industry through learning from our palenquero friends and/or family, having participated in all stages of production, and as regular imbibers. We know mezcal inside and out. However in my humble opinion no matter what our level of knowledge we remain students of the spirit. Still we are a cut above the rest, whether shopkeepers, restaurant and bar workers, or teachers and academics eager to impart our mezcal knowledge by taking visitors to Oaxaca into the hinterland to see, smell, taste and above all learn.
Appreciating the Culture of Palenqueros and the Hard Work Required to Produce Arisanal and Ancestral Agave Spirits
And finally, getting out of the city of Oaxaca and visiting palenqueros and their families in their villages, in their small rudimentary distilleries, and sometimes even in their modest homes, provides a new appreciation for the spirit, a passion which one cannot possibly obtain buying mezcal in a store or even urban mezcalería.
There’s nothing like walking up to a palenque and immediately smelling that unmistakable aroma of caramel and butterscotch emanating from agave which has been removed from the chamber of hardwood, rocks and earth. Or wincing from the billowing smoke produced while workers seal the oven, or from a palenquero stoking the flames under one of his clay pot stills. Books and youtube videos cannot replicate the feeling, the understanding, or the appreciation you gain. The romanticism is real.
You come to understand as never before the hard work which goes into producing that 750 ml bottle of mezcal with a polished multi-colored label designed by a New York marketing firm. What you buy in a store will seem so far removed from the reality of how mezcal is produced, in some cases means of production and (most) tools of the trade arguably dating back millennia. And you may even be welcomed to participate in the process, of course only to the extent considering doing so piques your interest: filling a still, gingerly tossing agave into the oven, working the horse, trekking out into the field for harvesting of the maguey, and every other phase of production of a handcrafted 100% agave spirit.
For me personally, having been trained as a social anthropologist, culture is the key. And that can only be understood and appreciated through visiting the men, women and children who produce mezcal, in their day-to-day settings. Yes, the young progeny of palenqueros and palenqueras; distillers typically don’t learn how to make the spirit through reading books or going online. Literally beginning before they have learned to walk, they are being steeped in a family tradition dating back generations.
There is sometimes an opportunity to step into their homes which double as tasting rooms. Often depending upon whether or not they have access to the export market, they may live extremely modest existences, or their lifestyles may approximate yours. In both cases across the board their mezcal should be of excellent quality. And whether in their abodes or at their palenques, you will have an opportunity to interact with the families which helps you to understand their motivation, their worldview, and their pride.
You’ll return home with an appreciation of the skill and hard work which goes into making mezcal. The experience will in most cases be the polar opposite of touring a Sonoma or Niagara winery, a craft distillery or even a nano-brewery. Of course each is enjoyable and provides a valuable learning experience. However none compares to visiting Oaxaca and making a priority of gaining a true understanding of handcrafted mezcal.
Alvin Starkman owns Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
So you want to import mezcal from Oaxaca to the US, Canada, the UK, Europe, and/or elsewhere in the world, by starting your own brand. Regardless of the country into which you plan to import the iconic agave based Mexican spirit, it is important to understand that the rules and regulations for importing alcohol are typically complex and onerous. They are much simpler for blouses, blenders, jewelry and most other marketable items. Learn at least a bit about the steps which must be taken and the effort and cost involved, before making a definitive decision and visiting Oaxaca with your mezcal export/import project in mind.
Some jurisdictions have a three tier system, wherein an importer is not permitted to distribute, and a distributor is not permitted to retail. There are permutations of this, depending on the country. Just as importantly there are states and provinces which control virtually all aspects of import and distribution; but presumably you are aware of at least the broad regulatory framework for your own jurisdiction.
Remember that the name you select for your mezcal must be registered not only in the country into which you want to import the spirit, but also in Mexico. This is regardless of whether or not you are interested in the Mexican domestic market for sales. By all means register your name, but prior to spending much effort or resources in brand development, ensure that your name is available in Mexico. You or your lawyer can do a simple search. However, a Mexican lawyer, and better yet a Oaxacan attorney with expertise not only in intellectual property but also in spirits, is best consulted. Such a lawyer can also explain the likelihood of a dispute arising if your preferred name is close to another already registered and the likely outcome, whether or not it is worth fighting for depending on the financial resources of the individual or company which has registered ahead of you, etc. Over a decade ago many entrepreneurs, both Mexicans and foreigners, began registering names for agave spirits; even tequila brand owners with concerns about losing their market share if they did not jump on the mezcal bandwagon.
Have contingency plans in place for your preferred name and marketing plan. Many who visit Oaxaca for the first time with an export project in mind wait until they have a particular palenquero in mind with an artisanal mezcal factory in a specific region of the state. They do this with the hope of gaining some inspiration as to naming their brand from what they learn while here in Oaxaca, or even from taking a history of the family. Sometimes those visiting with only a rough business plan in mind find that an effective name for a brand, or a marketing “hook” as I call it, jumps out at them almost immediately upon getting into a mezcal producing region of the state.
Prospective brand owners come in all shapes and sizes, but I envisage three broad categories along a continuum:
If you’re considering a mezcal export/import project you’re probably somewhere in the middle of two of the categories along the continuum, but not necessarily so. There are indeed those at either end. In both cases they might as well just “go for it.” The altruist will thoroughly enjoy the experience and reap positive benefits, whether the business takes off or fizzles. The no-holds-barred capitalist can’t lose because of his unlimited capital and/or ability to drum up investors. He knows how to pull a rabbit out of the hat. But if that doesn’t work and the rabbit fails to appear, in any event he’ll l write off all losses. That’s what he’s been doing from the outset. It’s the person somewhere in the middle who must be cautious. He cannot afford too much of a financial setback. The only way to realistically rationalize the venture is to figure that worst case scenario he’ll be stuck with inventory he can give away at Christmas, and drink for the rest of his life. After all, he loves the particular mezcal he’s been trying to market, and he knows it won’t go bad over the ensuring years.
Where do you want to position your agave spirit in the marketplace: high end, middle of the road, or inexpensive; sipping, mixing for cocktails, or both; an ABV of 37%, 44%, or 54% (remember that this impacts the price paid for the mezcal, both by you and the end consumer); blanco, and/or añejo; more obscure species of agave, or espadín, madrecuixe and the like; initially entering the market with a single specie, or a more comprehensive line of products; marketing the mezcal of only one palequero or multiple producers, and; artisanal (and/or ancestral) as opposed to more mainstream.
You might discern dichotomies between the tree-huggers (organic/100% natural Birkenstock crowd), the true spirits aficionados, and those always looking for the latest fad. There’s nothing wrong with seeking to attract one camp versus the other. Del Maguey’s Ron Cooper and Scorpion Mezcal’s Douglas French both began their businesses in the mid-90s, the former with “single village mezcal” and the latter with “worms are for wimps.” Both were motivated by, at least to my knowledge, a love of the spirit, wanting to earn from its marketing, and helping Oaxacans through promoting quality mezcal outside Mexico.
Exclusivity over the palenquero’s production is a consideration which virtually always arises for those wanting to get into the industry. If you intend to build or dramatically expand the palenque for your distiller and/or pay all costs for certification and obtaining the permit and equipment for bottling, you will be in a better position to request exclusivity. What kind of arrangement do you envision given that you will in theory be helping out your palenquero business associate for the long haul whether your project succeeds or not? Is it reasonable to expect him to agree to exclusivity if in your first year of production you are buying only 3,000 bottles at 750 ml? Perhaps consider exclusivity over a particular recipe, for importing into a particular country or state, over only the certified spirit, or after your reach certain production and export goals. Think about what’s fair to both sides.
And what about capitalization? During the latter part of the first decade of this century, one now popular (at least in the US) semi-industrialized brand began with a $150,000 loan. On the other hand, what is today considered a superior, quality artisanal mezcal brand began with less than $20,000. Its owners started out relatively recently, during or about the latter part of 2012, doing virtually all of the legwork on their own. This harkens back to where you are along the continuum noted earlier. The brand with the more significant capitalization is owned by people with profit motive and little more in mind, while the owners of the better brand, not surprisingly I suppose, were driven by passion; and yes of course wanting to earn a modest if not decent living. Does reputation within the community of agave spirit commentators matter to you?
The foregoing are but a few of the considerations for thought, best pondered early on in your voyage into the world of the business of mezcal. The enumeration is certainly far from exhaustive, and is meant to be a starting point and no more. And remember, at least into the third decade of this century the price of agave will likely continue to rise exponentially.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He has assisted brand owners on four continents.
Mezcal Real Minero Bats 1000
No, to my knowledge mezcal Real Minero does not have a crack baseball team. But the Oaxacan brand of artisanal (and ancestral) mezcal does excel at different games. That is, it is at the forefront of both clay pot mezcal distillation, and of research and development regarding agave. And concomitant with the latter has been Real Minero’s recent promotion of cross – pollination of agave (locally known as maguey) through bats, or murciélagos. You see, without bats our traditional mezcal industry may falter for lack optimum sustainability through genetic diversity.
The night of June 30, 2018, Dra. Graciela Ángeles Carreño of Real Minero convened a diverse group of about 20 individuals, each involved in one way or another with the Mexican cuisine or spirits industry. They were predominantly Mexicans, but included a couple of Americans and Canadians; academics, chefs, food or agave spirit authorities/promoters, and writers. The primary objective was to explain and illustrate the importance of bats for the propagation of agave and hence the viability of mezcal as a growth industry.
The evening began as an educational and promotional tool for Real Minero to explain two key aspects of its operation: its propagation and sustainability research programs and their application; and how it produces mezcal utilizing traditional in-ground ovens for baking, both rudimentary and more sophisticated custom designed machinery for crushing, wooden slat vats for fermenting, and clay pots (ollas de barro) for distilling.
Real Minero is for all intents and purposes the most well-known export brand of mezcal distilled in clay pots. On balance it produces olla de barro distilled agave spirits utilizing a greater diversity of maguey species and sub-species than any other small scale family distillery (palenque) in the state of Oaxaca, if not all of Mexico.
After a scrumptious outdoor candlelight dinner of tlayudas con cecina and café de olla, accompanied by a couple of Real Minero’s signature mezcal ensambles, the two main events began. Biologist and bat expert Dr. Matías Domínguez Laso and his team took charge of the balance of the night’s activities.
Now many have read of the importance of murciélagos in the reproduction cycle of Agave tequilana Weber (blue agave) used to make tequila. But the literature is relatively scant regarding the key role which bats play for cross – pollinating agave used in distilling mezcal. Not all bats feed off of the pollen of the flowers which develop on the stalk (quiote) of the agave as it reaches maturity. And by corollary not all species of agave are cross – pollinated by bats. A slide show of about an hour in length with explanations by Dr. Domínguez Laso was the medium employed to provide us with a comprehensive bat education.
The murciélago is a mammal. Mexico boasts 564 species of mammal, third largest number in the world, 138 of which are bats representing eight families. Their size, depending on the region of the globe, ranges from less than an ounce, to heavyweights with a wing span of about three feet. While perhaps surprisingly there is a great deal that science still does not know about bats, we learned a tremendous amount about these fascinating animals, aside from the crucial role they play in agave reproduction. For example we received detailed explanations with the aid of photographs, drawings and charts, regarding bats’ anatomy. We also learned about similarities and characteristics in common with all vertebrates including other mammals (even human beings), as well as insects, reptiles, birds and fish. Then particular facts about bats were shared: means of flight and communication; diversity of habitats and diets; migratory patterns; geographical distribution; susceptibility to disease, as well as both carrying and transmitting of infection, fungus, etc.; threats to the continued existence of certain species (i.e. endangered species) due to primarily human intervention; and of course distinguishing bat facts from fiction and myth.
The specie of bat which pollinates Agave americana, which we observed later in the night at work on the quiotes of a few magueyes, is typically Leptonycteris yerbabuenae (commonly known as murciélago magueyero). It flits from flower to flower, extending its long tongue into the center of each, thereby extracting the agave nectar (which can be up to 22% sugar) that provides sustenance enabling it to remain in flight. It gets covered with pollen (about 50% of which is protein) which it transfers to a new flower on a different quiote, resulting in cross – pollination. This ensures genetic diversity of the specie of agave reproduced in this way.
A significant problem is that with the increase in demand for mezcal, many growers are reluctant to wait until the quiote (and therefore flowers) appears, preferring to harvest after cutting the quiote prior to flowering, thereby inducing the succulent to preserve its nutrients (carbohydrates) in its heart (piña). A higher yield of a “better” mezcal results, but there is no cross – pollination. This reduces the food available for the murciélago population which prefers nectar from the flowering quiote. There are other sources of nutrition for bats; just as there are hummingbirds, bees and other insects capable of doing the cross-pollination job of murciélagos. But bats do an extremely efficient job, maximizing agave genetic diversity, size and strength.
Mono – cropping is the alternative, with reproduction achieved by harvesting clones of the mother plant, that is, pups or hijuelos produced by the agave sending a number of runners out under the ground with babies then popping up. Alternatively clones can be produced from unfertilized flowers. In both cases, however, genetic diversity is lost. The agave is weaker, smaller, and more susceptible to disease from there being genetically identical plants. And, in the end there is less nutrition for the bat population.
Perhaps the problem is more serious in tequila producing regions of Mexico. Even if cross – pollination is promoted, because there is almost exclusively blue agave being cultivated as opposed to the much broader diversity of agave species grown for mezcal distillation in Oaxaca, a blue agave plague can spell disaster for much of an entire industry. And, this may result in danger of extinction of certain bat species which rely on agave nectar for their sustenance. One study found that a particular specie of bat in and around Jalisco was reduced to 1,000 in number in 1988. Fortunately, as a result of a concerted effort by a diversity of scientists, government agencies and interest groups in both the US and Mexico, by around 2015 the population had rebounded to roughly 200,000.
Real Minero is cognizant of all this, and ensures that a satisfactory percentage of its maguey under cultivation is reserved for the murciélagos. Other brand owners and growers are also setting aside enough agaves for the bats and so as to ensure genetic diversity of their crops.
Later that night after the lecture and slide show had been completed, we walked a short distance to where, with the aid of lamps, we were able to observe perhaps 200 or more bats. The flowers open at night, prime time for feeding. The bats were flying from quiote to quiote, extending their tongues into and then out of the flowers. But the rapid succession of their feeding frenzy made it impossible to trace the tracks of any one murciélago. However all that we had come to learn had finally come to life, literally, our necks stretched upward, our thoughts in awe.
Alvin Starkman owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He takes predominantly visitors to the region, including Mexican nationals, into the central valleys of Oaxaca and beyond to teach about mezcal and pulque and the cultures of their makers; spirits aficionados, novices, photographers, documentary film makers, and those entrepreneurs interested in exporting Oaxacan mezcal to countries throughout the globe.
Alvin Starkman & Yvette Astorga
Mezcal, the iconic Mexican agave based spirit, has taken the world by storm over the past decade. Exports to the US, the UK, Europe, Australia and elsewhere around the globe continue to increase exponentially. However mezcal has been slow to arrive in LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) outlets in Toronto, Ottawa, and elsewhere in Canada’s most populous province. But now it’s here, and its recognition and esteem are finally growing, albeit nowhere near with the gusto encountered south of the border. But why is it so expensive, especially given the low wages and subsistence economic status of many in the state of Oaxaca, the southern Mexico state where most is distilled?
It takes an average of about eight years to bring one of these often majestic looking succulents to maturity, the best time to then harvest and process the plant into mezcal. One need not wait that long, however. And, in any event the length of time to maturity varies a great deal depending on the specie and sub-specie, microclimate where the agave (also locally known as maguey) is grown, whether it is wild or cultivated, if other crops have been under cultivation in between the rows, plus other factors. But assuming the maguey will be in the field for the better part of a decade, and that only recently have brand owners, distillers (locally known as palenqeros), and growers begun to plant much more than previously, we are still a couple of years away until there is enough agave ready to harvest to meet the growing demand. This translates to a “shortage” of raw material. Less than a decade ago a three ton truckload of piñas (the heart of the plant used to make mezcal) of Agave angustifolia Haw (known as espadín, the most common sub-specie used to make mezcal in Oaxaca), sold for 1,200 pesos (about $80 CDN using today’s rate of exchange). Today that same three ton truckload costs over 30,000 pesos! It takes about 10 – 12 kg to produce a litre of the spirit made with espadín at 48% ABV (alcohol by volume). While the cost of raw material has been increasing rapidly, that’s not the main reason for the lofty prices in Ontario today.
In any event one ought not begrudge subsistence farmers who grow maguey. Their agave only 15 years ago was left to die in the fields because no one was buying it. Now they have the opportunity to hop on the gravy train while it is in the station. Regardless, they have by now sold off all of their mature plants, and must wait until their recently sown succulents are again reaching maturity. No one knows what the pricing will be like in the next decade. It is grueling work, that is planting, weeding, checking the fields to ensure there are no infestations, harvesting and preparing the land to once again sow. When co-author Starkman, more of a hobbyist grower has been out in the fields, invariably he returns home tired, sunburned, bloodied from the sharp tips of the agave leaves, and even literally burned from setting the brush and roots ablaze to prepare his field for re-planting.
Palenqueros ought to be given a chance to charge their 150 – 250 pesos per litre (of espadín) while opportunity knocks. They too put in long hours of arduous work, at times in their palenques for 24 hours straight depending on where in the production cycle they find themselves. For generations their families have been producing mezcal while eking out a hard, lower working class existence. The yield of species other than espadín (i.e. tobalá, tepeztate, jabalí) is much less. The palenquero often doesn’t know the yield he will derive from an oven-full of agave, regardless of specie. There are processes of caramelizing through baking, crushing, and finally pitching into the vat. When the mash has begun to bubble after the addition of water, the first sign that the environmental yeasts have begun to do their work, fermentation has begun in earnest.
Yes, there are those entrepreneurs, wannabe export brand owners, who try to squeeze prospective business associate palenqueros as much as possible with a view to obtaining as cheap a price per litre as possible. But are those the mezcal brands you really want to drink? In the course of Starkman’s work matching brand owners with distillers, he will not even work with anyone working towards buying for the cheapest price at the expense of palenqueros.
The average Oaxacan wage is about 80,000 pesos ($5,300 CDN) per year. All mezcal legally and commercially reaching Ontario must be certified by a board known as CRM (Consejo Regulador del Mezcal). The cost of obtaining certification for a palenque is about 35,000 pesos. Think of the belt tightening required to come up with that amount of money. Then, every batch produced must be individually certified. Samples of the raw agave, and of the distilled mezcal, must be sent to a laboratory. The double distilled product is tested for ABV so the consumer is assured that what the label states is what is in the bottle, and to ensure that there is not above the legal limit of methanol and other chemicals in the sample. A CRM employee must attend at the palenque. Each attendance and each submission to the lab, costs the palenquero.
All artisanal mezcal is made with 100% maguey. By contrast, tequila can legally be made with only 51% sugars derived from blue agave; with 49% corn, fruit, sugar cane, or whatever, each of these non-succulent raw materials being much less expensive to grow and able to produce a high yield. As compared to about eight years to grow an agave, corn and the rest can often be harvested twice a year. Look at the proof of a bottle of middle-of-the-road tequila, and it will likely be 76 – 80%, as compared to quality artisanal mezcal which costs much more to produce and is around 90 - 100%.
The labour costs of making artisanal mezcal are much higher than distilling an industrial tequila (or mezcal) product. Typically the former is distilled in either 70 – 80 litre clay pots or 300 liter copper alembic stills in both cases the agave having been baked over firewood and rocks then crushed by hand or with a horse pulling a one ton tahona (stone or stone compound wheel). Industrial tequila by contrast is mass produced in multi-thousand litre diesel fueled iron autoclaves or diffusers, stainless steel fermentation vats and sophisticated continuously running column stills. What type of agave spirit would you prefer imbibing?
Certified bulk mezcal produced in an artisanal fashion must be bottled, sealed and labelled, placed on a pallet with the boxes of six or 12 well protected bottles of usually 750 ml. Then it is trucked from southern Mexico to the Mexico-US border, Mexico City, or a Mexican port town. In each instance it is processing by a customs agent and sometimes warehoused before shipping to Ontario.
Let’s begin using CDN dollars to do our rough costing of a bottle, and say the spirit, an espadín, is at 45% ABV. The price of the liquid is $9, the bottle, cap, label including labour readying it for shipping is another $2.50, and getting it to the city from which it will be transported to Ontario, including clearing Mexican customs, another $1, assuming the shipping is for a full pallet of 800 – 900 bottles. There may be additional charges, such as if the pallet must be warehoused before the next leg of shipping, so let’s up our total out of an abundance of caution to $14. Now obviously the cost per bottle of artisanal mezcal FOB Oaxaca, or even from Mexico City, the border, or one of the ocean ports (for example Salina Cruz or Veracruz), is not what causes the cost at your local LCBO outlet to be so high.
Both the Canadian entrepreneur/brand owner and his agent (though the latter is not required) must make money, so let’s say between them there is an additional $15 which must figure into the equation (entrepreneur/brand owner $12 and agent $3), bringing our total to $29. Assuming the LCBO is entrusted with getting the mezcal to the LCBO warehouse, there is about a further $5 for shipping to Ontario which is tacked on, bringing our total to $34. The LCBO then marks up the cost by about 140%, elevating the total per bottle to $85. Add a further roughly 15% to cover the Ontario HST (health services tax) and what’s known as the enviro fee, and our total at the counter ready for checkout is $97.75.
In co-author Astorga’s work she advises clients about such matters, in a more precise fashion. For our purposes for this article, the foregoing ballpark figures serve to illustrate the point. We must also consider that the brand owner has legal, accounting and office expenses and must spend time in meetings, selling, sourcing the agent and being an employer, etc. And, we started with a very modest bottling amount. If we examine artisanal espadín on the LCBO shelves today (July, 2018), we find YUU BAAL at $96 and Marca Negra at $98.75, consistent with our sample itemization and calculation of figures.
In the back of your mind it might be helpful to understand that the LCBO is the second largest single purchaser of wines and spirits in the world (next to Tesco, the UK retail chain). This means that those in the alcohol business are anxious to get their products into Ontario, which means that the LCBO is in the driver’s seat.
Now consider a mezcal made with an agave other than espadín, perhaps a tepeztate (Agave marmorata), sometimes referred to as a wild specie. It often takes three times longer than an espadín to grow, and has a smaller piña. One of the main determinants of the cost of mezcal in Oaxaca which is sourced for export is the carbohydrate content of the raw agave. The starches will be converted to sugars, and the more sugars in the piña the higher the yield. Generally, the carbohydrates in a tepeztate, or a tobalá (Agave potatorum), are much less than in an espadín, so the exporter’s cost of buying mezcal made with either of these two species (and others) can increase perhaps fourfold. So if we now begin with a liquid cost of $36 (4 X the $9 for espadín), even leaving the other expenses the same upon arrival at the LCBO warehouse, the retail price still reaches upwards of $180. In fact today YUU BAAL tepeztate retails at the LCBO for $222.10.
Other determinants of price enabling the palenquero and/or the brand owner to ask for a higher price include: the reputation of the distiller and the brand, the district in Oaxaca where the palenque is located (i.e. some of the towns in Tlacolula such as Santiago Matatlán and San Juan del Río), the batch size (which can be as little as 100 bottles in some instances although likely nothing that limited would ever reach the LCBO), whether distilled in copper or clay (i.e. regarding the latter, many of the palenques in Santa Catarina Minas), sustainability of production (based on the reputation of the palenquero), and the effectiveness and cost of marketing including the desirability of the product based on the shape, style and quality of the bottle, cap and label. Both YUU BAAL and Marca Negra appear to be making a run at the Ontario market, and have seemingly spend a considerable amount of capital in marketing, be it promotion or bottle design.
Mezcal prices will continue to rise exponentially, globally, at least until production catches up with demand. The LCBO will likely not change how it conducts business, nor will the entrepreneurs bringing the spirit into Ontario. However at least from the perspective of the authors, a bigger piece of the pie (or simply more income) ought to stay with the dedicated, hardworking palenqeros and their families who have been producing this fine spirit all their lives, just as their forebears over the course of hundreds if not thousands of years, generation after generation. Support palenqueros through purchasing mezcal whether retail at the LCBO, in local bars and mezcalerías, or by visiting Oaxaca.
LCBO will continue to call the shots. But the greater the demand for artisanal mezcal in Ontario, the greater the likelihood that the regulatory board will moderate its pricing structure since cases will spend less time in the warehouse and the province will increase net profit by virtual of increased demand. Remember that higher price does not necessarily mean better quality; buy what tastes good to you. Drink responsibly, and enjoy your mezcal!
Yvette Astorga lives in Toronto. She owns and operates www.mezcalpeople.com, assisting Mexican wine and spirits importers to promote and market their products in Ontario. Alvin Stakman lives in Oaxaca. He owns and operates www.mezcaleducationaltours.com, assisting those wanting to export mezcal from Oaxaca, photographers and documentary film makers, as well as both spirits aficionados and novices alike wanting to learn about mezcal through visiting small, rural, family owned palenques.
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).
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
We know that fermenting was practiced in Mexico dating to several thousand years ago with the extraction of aguamiel (honey water) from certain species of the majestic agave succulent, which when left to ferment becomes pulque. And that agave itself otherwise has a history of being used as a source of nutrition going back roughly 10,000 years. But there’s a big difference between (1) allowing fruit, agave nectar or anything else to ferment, inhibiting its decomposition and enabling its imbibers to become inebriated, and (2) deliberate advance planning and the use certain tools, resulting in distillation (i.e. the production of mezcal).
Perhaps the story of distillation and the history of mezcal in Mexico begins with the arrival of the Spanish during The Conquest in the first quarter of the 1500s. Or with Filipino seamen in the Manila galleon trade who reached the country’s western shores that same century. Or with indigenous cultures some 2,500 years ago. Mezcal of course is Mexico’s iconic agave distillate, often thought of as a generic term, one subset of which is tequila, its more popular cousin.
We also know with a reasonable degree of certainty many specifics about the global history of distillation and styles of still manufacture, all of which aids us in our conjecture. But it must be kept in mind that most is scientific speculation often based on inference, regardless of how adamant our historians, geographers, chemists, biologists and anthropologists might be in their discourse (or me in mine).
The Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula about 711 AD. We have them to thank for the introduction of many food products including rice and saffron, integral in the preparation of Spanish paella. Despite their Islamic beliefs together with a prohibition against imbibing spirits, Moorish influence in Spain is connected with the distillation of mezcal.
During or about the 9th century, the modern alembic, or still, made with a serpentine condenser alongside, arrived in what is now Spain as a consequence of the invention by Arab alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan. Non-Muslims who were already fermenting grapes quickly realized that distillation, for whatever purpose initially intended, could result in production of a high alcohol content spirit extremely agreeable to the palate. And so when The Conquest began, the Spanish armed with this knowledge came across indigenous populations which were already drinking pulque, and likely baked sweet agave piñas (pineapples, or rather the hearts of the carbohydrate-rich agaves) which had been fermented. The bridge had been gapped. It is this style of still, the two sided alembic, which is frequently used in mezcal production today. It has been suggested however, that the technology had its first application in the distillation of sugar cane which the Spanish imported for rum production.
But throughout various parts of Mexico there is a different type of still being employed to make agave spirits including mezcal. It is a single unit comprised of two or more pieces stacked on top of one another, made primarily of wood, metal and/or clay. It is frequently encountered in Oaxaca, Michoacán, and elsewhere throughout Mexico including tequila country (i.e. Jalisco and thereabouts).
It has been suggested that this type of still was introduced to what are now Colima, Guerrero and/or Jalisco, during the 16th century by immigrants from the Philippines and the Solomon Islands who established a community for the purpose of developing coconut plantations. Local materials used in their homelands for fashioning small yet effective equipment for making their coconut distillate, principally clay (and likely reed), were available in this new North American environment. In fact, to this day the term tuba, the fermented coconut liquid which was thereafter distilled, is used in some parts of Mexico to describe fermented agave, despite its origin.
Various sources confirm that the beginnings of and motivation for the prohibition era in Mexico (yes, we also had prohibition) were to protect the interests of Spanish brandy importers and rum producers, and to assure tax revenue. Banning production, sale and consumption of pulque, tuba and coconut distillate started the movement which eventually lead to full-scale prohibition. But it was the portability of these small single unit and easily fashioned predominantly clay stills which (together with below ground ovens and stone fermentation chambers) made detection of distillation, including the production of mezcal, all but impossible by the “revenuers.”
The 2016 publication of El mezcal, una bebida prehispánica at minimum makes us rethink our understanding of the origins of agave distillation in Mexico. Authors Mari Carmen Serra Puche and Jesús Carlos Lazcano Arce together with their associates from various disciplines spent in excess of a decade researching in Oaxaca and Tlaxcala. They have purportedly debunked all previous theories, having uncovered ovens containing burned stones with runoff stains they concluded after analysis had been created by baked agave piñas. But has literally hundreds of years of research and umpteen publications been thrown to the wind? Certainly not. The foregoing finding in and of itself is not determinative, since it suggests nothing more than converting carbohydrates to sugars, and a reasonable likelihood of fermentation thereafter. It’s the unearthing of pre-Hispanic pottery fragments they identified as parts of stills, which is most significant, suggesting pre-Hispanic distillation dating to perhaps 2,500 years ago. Others have previously proposed similar theories, but that of Serra Puche and Lazcano Arce is the most comprehensive and convincing to date.
Since the book’s publication there has been a considerable amount of chest beating, a renewed or additional sense of pride that the indigenous peoples of Mexico did not need the Spanish nor the Filipinos to distill mezcal. Of course there is academic significance to the most recent work. But regardless of origins, one can never take away from our Mexican brethren of predominantly pre-Hispanic heritage, that mezcal, the pre-eminent agave spirit, owes its recent and exponentially growing popularity to not foreign interests, but rather to its dedicated artisanal producers, beginning with subsistence lifestyle agave growers, and concluding with expert distillers.
Agave is Mexican. It has been of such importance over millennia that it warranted its own goddess, Mayahuel. Her husband, Patecatl, was the god of pulque. Yet curiously there is no pre-Hispanic deity for an agave distillate. Food for thought.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).