By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
It’s not uncommon for movie and TV stars as well as famous musicians to pass through Oaxaca, either to the state capital to get a dose of culture, or to a Pacific beach resort such as Huatulco or Puerto Escondido for pure relaxation. Remember the 1950s and 60s when Acapulco was in its heyday, with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., John Wayne, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley and Johnny Weissmuller? They made the resort town, and generated billions (millions at the time) for Mexico.
So why is it that, after their 2018 visit to Oaxaca, Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston, stars of the Breaking Bad TV series, are receiving blowback from many of the mezcal pundits for having embarked upon creating their own brand of the agave distillate, Dos Hombres? Should we not be lauding Jesse and Mr. White for having drawn attention to Oaxaca and showcased mezcal to many who had previously not even heard of it, or our state?
Well, judging from the online criticism by those who are purportedly in the know (that is the mezcal “experts,” geeks, aficionados and even some brand owners), celebrities who understand very little about mezcal have no business intruding on the secret mezcal society and lining their already golden pockets by feeding off the hardworking indigenous Oaxacans who produce the spirit. Certainly their objection would extend to George Clooney, Wayne Gretzky, Dan Aykroyd, and all the other stars who have entered the alcohol business.
But should we not take a step back and more closely examine this case on its merits, prior to lumping them all together as bad actors? Let’s do that. You’re either living or vacationing in one of the poorest two states in all Mexico. Just look around you, a little closer than you might otherwise do. Oaxaca is culturally rich (perhaps why you’re here), yet the underbelly is economically poor. We have agriculture, and we have tourism, both subject to financial peaks and valleys impacting the state’s wellbeing. The former is subject to climate and international markets, and the latter to fear-mongering by foreign governments and journalists.
The “mezcal boom” is increasingly driving the economy, with many visitors to the state arriving as if making a pilgrimage to learn about their new favorite spirit. Some travel to Oaxaca to start their own brands, still others to photograph (e.g., http://www.galleriaspike.com/oaxacan-mezcaleros) and to document for TV, the big screen, and podcasts (www.alasdairbaverstock.com/news/2019/5/20/mezcal-the-fine-line-between-tradition-and-profit). This means more revenue generated for lodgings, restaurants, crafts, tour companies, and the list goes on. Some of it inevitably filters down to folks at the lower rungs of the socio-economic scale. Yet much of the world still does not even know what mezcal is!
Enter Breaking Bad. Some fans of the show, or even of the long gone Malcolm in the Middle or Seinfeld (remember recurring character Dr. Tim Whatley?), who until now have never even heard of the spirit, perhaps out of mere curiosity will pick up a bottle of Dos Hombres. Inevitably many will like it, perhaps for its relatively low percentage of alcohol (42% ABV), which may remind them of the tequilas or other spirits in that range, or for its nose, flavor and finish. Of those, many will continue to purchase it, others will then try other similar brands, yet others will have had their interest in mezcal piqued for the first time. And some will graduate to more “traditional” mezcals of a higher ABV, the agave distillates that the pundits regularly evaluate and critique.
Cocktail bars will be hard-pressed not to stock Dos Hombres, even though their bartenders and mixologists may object due to little more than snobbism. After all, the anti-Hombres movement began the day Cranston and Paul unveiled their mezcal, without the experts even having sampled the spirit. And yet it’s okay to mix margaritas and negronis with mezcals blended from different distilleries.
In the end the imbibing public will rule, and Dos Hombres will be a staple on the shelves. And that will significantly contribute to the mezcal industry, and more significantly for the purpose of this thesis, to the economy of the state of Oaxaca. How can it not? Just as spirits aficionados have flocked to Oaxaca to seek other brands, spending their pesos as fast as they can get them out of their pockets, so too will they stampede, most for the first time, because of Dos Hombres. Remember Acapulco.
My bias out in the open, I worked with Paul and Cranston for a couple of days last year, teaching them about the spirit and attempting to assist with brand development. However, I have not even sampled their final product – but that’s irrelevant, because some will like it, others will not … just as happens with the brands gauged by the mezcal geeks.
Put motivation out of your mind. We live in a capitalist society. Who are we to assume that their only reason for embarking upon their mezcal project is to earn money? And even if it is, so what? Should we not be as critical of silent (or not-so-silent) investors with purely financial interests in the traditional clay- and copper-distilled brands we covet? Perhaps Paul and Cranston also have an altruistic motive for their business venture. Should we not look more to the positives of Dos Hombres for the state, the communities in which mezcal is produced, and the hard-working families who grow and cut the agave, then bake, crush, ferment and distill? If we keep mezcal as a secret society, rather than promote it for all, we hold back the amelioration of Oaxaca’s economy.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca