Mezcal: Freeing the spirit

11 November, 2015

Mezcal is a spirit steeped in the rituals of mexico’s ancients. Hamish smith discovers how it is finding its way in the modern world.

Decimated to a 10th of their population by the conquests of the 1600s, the indigenous Zapotees of Oaxaca spent the next 400 years recovering. Like many indigenous groups across Mexico they were marginalised from industry, wealth and communication. Only their culture thrived, but weaving and arts and crafts could scarcely improve their fate beyond a few pesos from strayed tourists. However, another of their ancient ritualistic practices is having a profound impact on their lives. Mezcal is bringing money and living standards to a historically destitute people. Not just in Oaxaca but across the eight states that produce the agave spirit. Mezcal is probably the original ‘fair trade’ spirit.  

But where there is growth – mezcal sales grew 22% last year – there is money to be made and commerce has flocked. Some out of love for the spirit and the communities that make it, others to simply supply the feverish demand.

The number of brands increased 48% between 2011 and 2014 to 362, according to the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (all figures), which regulates, organises and promotes the industry. Unlike many categories in which few distilleries supply many brands – Kentucky bourbon, Irish and Canadian whisky spring to mind – it is the opposite for mezcal. The CRM claims there are 1,388 ‘service units’ all in separate geographical regions.

Probably there are more. Mezcal exists in large distilleries but mostly in villages, shacks, in canisters, pots and plastic bottles. To export it you have to be registered, but otherwise it can be as informal an arrangement as growing garden vegetables.

Monte Alban is the major brand, if we can call 18,000 cases in 2013 major, while, according to the regulator, Ron Cooper’s Del Maguey – which incorporates the mixable Vida and Single Village expressions – was second that year.

This puts mezcal into perspective. Overall volumes are still very low: 231,000 cases, which is 0.02% of total spirits, says the CRM. So despite mezcal’s reputation as the coolest spirit in the world, in volume terms you might say it’s a case of much ado about nothing.

Then, volume isn’t everything, particularly when talking about high-value spirits. The average bottle price in the Mexican market was $20.64, while export average was $38, says the CRM. This is comparable to the likes of scotch and cognac. That all adds up to $88,274,711 – not bad for what for centuries has been a village industry, and largely still is.

Costs associated with production are also very high, so margin isn’t necessarily significant. “Mezcal has no economy of scale,” says Stephen Myers, of Illegal Mezcal, one of the top 10 sellers. He says producers pay the highest price for all parts of the process – from “plant to consumer”, commonly an eight to nine year cycle. This cost is passed on to consumers. So far, they don’t seem to mind.

Del Maguey, a brand that has been supporting Zapotec communities for decades, appreciates mezcal’s attraction is in its authenticity and handcrafted nature. “There is high stress on the microeconomies and microagricultural systems in Oaxaca,” says Michael Gardner, partner of Cooper at Del Maguey. “Del Maguey has sustainability measures in place to protect supply chain and families that have been with us for 20 years now. We are watching this closely.” 

Keywords: mezcal, Del Maguey

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