Trouble in paradise

Mezcal is making its way into the drinking repertoires of new fans worldwide. But it’s not all plain sailing for the agave spirit. Hamish Smith reports

In a few short years, mezcal has leapt out of the smoking pits of Oaxacan obscurity on to the menus of the world’s best bars. The agave spirit is catnip to bartenders – it is full and uniquely flavoured, artisanal and often organic. In fact, in terms of ‘craft’, mezcal has more ticks than there are boxes.

But there is trouble in paradise. The latest mezcal trend is towards wild agave distillates, their virginal, organic credentials drawing swarms of moustachioed hipsters in the likes of New York, London and Mexico City. Brands offering the style have subsequently proliferated. 

But wild agave mezcal is not necessarily the paragon of ethical production its consumers signed up for. “As cool as it is to enjoy wild agave distillates, once they are harvested they are gone. Does the coolness factor wear off once they are gone?” asks agave spirits expert Julio Bermejo. “Producers do replant. However the ‘wild’ species, once replanted, are no longer wild.”

What’s more, many of the 30 or so agaves used to produce mezcal are rare and some take up to 30 years to grow.

Critical time

“Right now we are in a crisis. Wild agave is not in good shape,” says Iván Saldaña, who has a PhD in agave and was the creator of Montebelos, a mezcal that launched in Mexico in 2012 and sells through William Grant & Sons in the US. “The flavours you can get from all the different wild agaves are brilliant but there is no way of supplying all the new brands – it’s not sustainable.” 

Saldaña says the practice is fine in its traditional form but said there is no plan to regulate harvesting and no way to stem demand. “The number of brands that are coming out is incredible. People are starting to get worried. Oaxaca is beautiful but the people are trying to overcome economic difficulties there. They will take the money and will find the agaves for a buyer. “We need to take care of the community – not just buy the product and go. We need to make consumers and bartenders more aware of this.”

Mezcal is mainly produced using the agave roasting technique, so – just as peat is necessary for the smoky taste of Islay whiskies – wood-burning is key to mezcal. “A lot of wood is needed and it is not all coming from sustainable sources – Oaxaca is the second most deforested state in Mexico,” says Saldaña. “We use certified wood for Montebelos and there’s interest from other producers to move that way.”

An agave spirits insider, who wishes to remain nameless, told DI: “Everybody is blinded by the sound of how cool ‘wild this’ or ‘wild that’ sounds. In 20 years when the bar world moves on to pisco or something, all will be forgotten except a ruined environment.  “Tequila at least does as much as possible to produce a great product and be eco-friendly.” Saldaña says that the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal, which has regulated the mezcal industry since 2005 (see box) should legislate on sustainable sourcing, as the category would only benefit.