By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
For previous recent issues of The Eye, I have written essays outlining why in Oaxaca artisanal mezcal has become extremely important on the world stage, for two significant reasons. First, because as distinct from most other spirits, it is acknowledged, and in fact touted, that no two batches of the Mexican agave-based spirit are the same, resulting in its innumerable nuances; and second, because mezcal production is one of the most sustainable and environmentally friendly industries in all Mexico.
Mezcal, and not tequila, is Mexico’s iconic alcoholic beverage. Agave spirits date back, depending on the theory to which one subscribes, to between over 450 and as much as about 2500 years ago. And Oaxaca is the state where roughly 85% of Mexico’s mezcal is distilled. The cultural and economic significance of mezcal for Oaxaca is our third and final reason why the spirit is such a big deal.
Traditionally, mezcal was a spirit for the masses, predominantly in rural Oaxaca. Middle class urbanites shunned the spirit, and drank mainly beer, dark rum (e.g., Bacardi Solera), whisky (e.g., Johnny Walker Red Label over ice and soda water), and more recently cocktails and wine. In the villages back then (and incidentally still today), because of its extremely modest price relative to other alcohols, mezcal was served at virtually every rite of passage, from baptisms to funerals and everything in between. A couple of drops for mother earth before imbibing was and still is rural practice.
My own contemporary experience with culturally based rural imbibing dates back only 26 years, at least that’s as far back as I can remember. Back then (and in fact continuing today), the importance of mezcal was such that it was often distributed in sealed bottles as party favors at weddings, quince años, baptisms, and first communions—complete with labels noting the event and often including a photo of the child or couple, or bearing a representation of Jesus.
Leap forward to about 1995, when Mezcal del Maguey began exporting to the US and then further abroad. The middle classes in Mexico City started to catch on. Then those of substantial means in Oaxaca finally began to exhibit a sense of pride in mezcal. Tequila, rum, and whisky began to be replaced with mezcal, even at the most posh of affairs. It is now commonplace to find a hand-blown glass bottle gracing every table at a middle class wedding, filled with the host’s favorite mezcal made by his preferred artisanal producer.
As distinct from even a decade ago, nowadays I frequently have Oaxacan friends calling to see if I can provide them with bottles of quality handcrafted mezcal that they can take out of the country with them on vacation to gift to friends and relatives; forget the sombreros and onyx chess sets.
Archaeological sites, craft villages, and cuisine have traditionally run the state’s economy, of course now together with the beach destinations of Huatulco, Puerto Escondido, and most recently smaller Pacific resort areas. But beginning with the state’s civil unrest in 2006, travelers found reasons to not visit, unfounded as they were. Then came the (Mexican) swine flu, the US economic crisis, the drug lords (which have never taken over Oaxaca), and just this past autumn the earthquakes. All reason, so the story goes (and to my thinking the US State Department and journalists are to blame), to not visit Oaxaca. But the culture of mezcal has kept the economy afloat, and now thriving.
Over the past decade, mezcal tourism has been born. People from across the globe are now making a pilgrimage to Oaxaca to learn about their new preferred spirit and to visit the artisanal factory of their favorite brand. Entrepreneurs are flocking to the city for advice about opening mezcalerías in their hometowns, and to investigate exporting the spirit to the US, Canada, Germany, Central and South America, Australia, South Africa, and elsewhere. Over the past five years several authors have written treatises about mezcal for the lay populace and spirits aficionados, and social anthropologists are feverishly working on dissertations and book deals financed by academic publishing houses. Bacardi and Pernod Ricard have jumped on the bandwagon, and I suspect other multinational alcohol producers and distributors are following suit.
The spinoffs from the foregoing are significant, providing not only direct benefits for the state in terms of industries such as hospitality, restaurants, and airlines. With mezcal sales exploding, consider the benefits for bottle manufacturers and printers of labels and promotional materials. It seems as though almost every retail outlet in the state sells at least something related to mezcal or agave: carved wooden figures (known as alebrijes) with bar scenes, textile designs featuring the majestic maguey succulent, T-shirts, shot glasses, pottery vessels, agave earrings, etc., etc., etc. And I alone have commissioned baseball caps, market bags, oven mitts, and full color mezcal tasting wheels noting over 200 aromas and flavors. A New York perfume manufacturer (Kelly + Jones) has recently began marketing two fragrances of mezcal perfume. Imagine!
So yes, mezcal is a big deal; but not only for Oaxaca and for Mexico, but for all of us, even those who do not imbibe. Just reflect on the themes of my two previous articles on the topic, that is, its uniqueness as a spirit of unrivalled diversity, and its manufacture as a highly sustainable and environmentally friendly industry. Viva Oaxaca, viva México, and viva Mezcal!
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He cannot keep up with requests for his services.