By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Not since the advent of the Margarita in the mid-20th century, has the world been taken by storm by a Mexican alcoholic beverage – but here we are, in the age of mezcal. Of course, we still have tequila, and there are now other spirits being exported from Mexico, including rum and whisky. But it’s mezcal, tequila’s older sister and also an agave distillate, that is receiving global attention. But why, aside from the internet, which reshapes our universe second by second?
Here are a few thoughts.
- It all began around 1995, with the arrival of two brands, Del Maguey and Scorpion. The former aimed at attracting a select imbibing audience, that is, spirits aficionados, while the latter sought to pique the interest of mainstream America. Over the past quarter century each has spawned a plethora of other mezcal brands.
- It’s been in large part due to the portrayed romanticism of every step of the process: indigenous Mexicans harvesting agave hearts (piñas) from the field by hand and transporting them to their family distilleries on the sides of mules; converting carbohydrates to sugars through baking the agave in a rudimentary pit over firewood and rocks; crushing by hand using a mallet or employing a beast of burden to drag a limestone wheel over the caramelized piñas; standing over wooden vats while the environmental yeasts work to ferment; then finally the smoke billowing into the sky from the wood fueling clay or copper stills. Over those 25 years, and in many instances, industrialization has crept into the process. Some of those big commercial brand owners in fact mislead by representing their methods as those of an era long past. The consuming public eats – or rather, drinks – it up.
- The last decade has witnessed a cocktail trade explosion, with mezcal brand owners seeking to capitalize on it by introducing lower-priced agave distillates that restaurant and bar owners can afford to use. We still have those Margaritas, Negronis and the rest, but mezcal is now being introduced as the spirit of choice in their making. Brands, distributors and bartenders work feverishly to develop and promote new cocktails using mezcal as the liquor of choice.
- A surfeit of entrepreneurs recognizes the popularity of mezcal, and seeks to capitalize on faddism: alcohol distributors are anxious to represent a brand; restaurateurs are opening mezcalerías; well-known figures in the entertainment industry who want even more recognition are interested in having their names associated with their own or others’ brands; and residents of countries south and north of Mexico, and on the other side of both the Atlantic and the Pacific, are hiring marketing consultants to assist in new brand development.
- Over the past several years, multinational corporations – each with an already well-established global reach – have been buying up popular brands of mezcal that continue to be made using traditional means of production. Mezcaleros who have elected to sell their brands did not have the resources to enable them to reach many countries. Not only is mezcal now arriving in far-off lands such as China, New Zealand, Argentina and the Yukon, but the big guns have the financial ability to promote the spirit.
- There’s an abundance of money in the pockets of consumers. Despite COVID-19, today a growing middle and upper class has more disposable income than ever before. Both dotcom youths and the older hippie generation now retiring, with their debts paid off and their flock flown the nest, are flush. The former no doubt want to enjoy their wealth, the latter grew up with The Beatles, Iron Butterfly and Jethro Tull, worshipping organic production, Birkenstocks, The Whole Earth Catalog and everything else representing “back to the earth.” Both have the capacity and in many cases the desire to spend $350 US for a bottle of mezcal de pechuga distilled in clay.
There are of course other reasons for the meteoric rise in popularity of mezcal, and some might disagree with this enumeration, but the one point that garners universal consensus is the increasing popularity of the Mexican agave distillate, with a strong likelihood that our love affair with mezcal will continue for decades to come.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com), and has been playing his part in advancing mezcal’s global popularity.