Craft distillers fear mezcal could become a victim of their own success

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Villa Sola de Vega (Mexico) (AFP) – With just a glance, Sosima Olivera knows when her beloved agave plants will be ready to make mezcal, the lesser-known Mexican cousin of tequila whose growing popularity has raised fears of overexploitation.

The mezcal boom means an increased need for land, water and firewood used to produce the smoked spirit, Olivera said.

“This excess demand from national and international markets has consequences. If more plants are needed, there is sure to be more exploitation,” said the 50-year-old, who heads a collective of producers.

Craft distillers like Olivera, who has dedicated his life to the process, aim to safeguard the future of mezcal with measures including seed banks and efforts to showcase artisanal methods.

“One bottle sums up everything we’ve done for years,” she told AFP during a visit to a field in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, where magueys – a type of agave – grows slowly under the sun.

Once drunk only in small Mexican communities, mezcal has seen an increase in demand, both at home and abroad.

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It is traditionally sipped neat, accompanied by slices of orange and salt mixed with dried chili peppers and ground agave worms.

Today, it can also be found on the menu of trendy cocktail bars from New York to Tokyo.

Celebrities who have jumped on the bandwagon include co-stars of the hit TV show ‘Breaking Bad’ Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, who founded the drinks company ‘Dos Hombres’.

No maguey, no mezcal

The value of Mexican mezcal exports has increased from nearly $20 million in 2015 to around $63 million in 2020, according to official figures.

The United States, Canada, Spain, France and Germany are among the main consumers of the drink, which is produced in several Mexican states, but especially in Oaxaca.

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Although mezcal and tequila have similar production methods, there are some important differences that set them apart.

The tequila is made with blue agave in the western state of Jalisco.

Mezcal uses other types – including highly prized wild magueys – some of which take 15 years or more to mature.

For this reason, growers such as Graciela Angeles believe it is crucial to preserve plants for future generations.

“What will happen to biological diversity? There is very little effort to conserve these species,” said the 43-year-old creator of the “Real Minero” brand.

“Without magueys, there is no mezcal,” added Angeles, who saves seeds to ensure the plants will always exist so her children can harvest them one day.

“Balance in Life”

The complex process of producing mezcal relies heavily on the skill and sense of smell of the distiller.

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But with the arrival of deep-pocketed companies, high-volume producers have become little more than “assembly plants” blending mezcal from different communities, Angeles said.

On average, a 750 milliliter bottle costs around $40 in Oaxaca, but the more exclusive varieties are priced over $100.

In the United States, a limited-edition bottle of “Dos Hombres” mezcal made from agave tobala sells for over $300.

The mezcal produced by Olivera and Angeles is the result of a painstaking process stretching back generations – something they are determined to live by.

“Small growers will always exist…who know you have to plant a certain amount of plants, distill a certain amount. There’s a balance in life,” Olivera said.

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The two women organize tastings to highlight the flavors and aromas of their products.

In Oaxaca City, tasting mezcal has become a must for many tourists.

Australian visitor Christopher Govers said he learned all about the spirit “after falling in love with the taste and the effect”.

“The history and culture behind it is tied to taste,” he said at a busy trade show, where a neon sign read “Make Mezcal, Not War.”

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