Mezcal, the rustic cousin of tequila, is the latest darling in the craft cocktail, an artisanal organic gastronomic trend that has been hip over the last decade in America. Mezcal drinking is on the rise in the US, while tequila is already one of the most popular spirits consumed by Americans, who cannot get enough of Mexico’s native spirit. From 2002 to 2015, Tequila volumes have grown 106%, an average rate of 5.7% per year.
Tequila is a two-billion-dollar global business and just a specific style of mezcal; is made only in the Mexican state of Jalisco, from the blue agave, through a very much industrialized process.
Mezcal, a distilled spirit, can be made from over thirty varieties of either cultivated or wild agave, or maguey. It’s usually crafted by farmers using labor-intensive and old-school methods, at primitive distilleries called palenques locally. It’s consumed to mark births, funerals, weddings and other celebrations, and is believed to have healing properties. A Mexican traditional saying goes like ”Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también.” (“For every ill, mezcal, and for every good as well.”
Mezcal sales in the US went from a $10 Million industry in 2005 to $126 Million in 2015. Bottle prices can range from US$45 to US$300.
The distinctive smoky tang and the wide variations in flavor due to diverse methods of infusing and spicing it up made the spirit popular with creative bartenders such as Bobby Heugel, Houston’s Cocktail King. “For Heugel, mezcal is an artisanal spirit that can hold its own against the finest liquors in the world in terms of complexity and character. Imagine the botanicals of a dry gin plus the smokiness of an Islay single malt, the long finish of old Cognac and a hint of barbecue. In a good way. Every varietal has a distinctive flavor; the tobala agave is sweeter, even floral, while the karwinskii is more redolent of tobacco and cinnamon”, according to Forbes.
It’s in the production process that Mezcal gets its smoky flavor. The Mezcaleros (Mexican artisans who handcraft mezcal) cook the hearts of the agave plants, piñas, inside pits dug in the ground. After cooked, agave is then crushed, mixed with water, and set to ferment.
“Mezcal hits every magic word-artisanal, organic, gluten-free, vegan. It comes from a small village, and you have to drive there to get it. It’s made by a family. It automatically became cool when knowing what you eat became cool. Tequila got to the point where it’s like Tyson chicken—that’s Cuervo. Now I want to know my chicken’s name. That’s mezcal,” Bricia Lopez, “the mezcal queen of Los Angeles” told the New Yorker.
The enjoyment of the drink in America and the rest of the world means a booming business for one of Mexico’s poorest states, Oaxaca. Besides the exports profit, the trendy spirit is bringing tourists to the small towns where it’s produced. Alvin Starkman, a Canadian who moved to Oaxaca over a decade ago, provides local tours to not only curious fans of the drink but also to business people interested in setting up export lines. “At least once a month, I am taking out somebody who wants to export mezcal to the United States or England or Australia or Germany,” Starkman told NPR.