The Rise of Mezcal and the Quest For a Sustainable Solution

Anni Irish

Step into any craft cocktail bar today and you’re likely to find a mezcal drink on the menu. Complex and smoky in flavor, mezcal is the agave-based parent to the more popular (and often mass-produced) tequila. Until a few years ago it was mostly an obscure, hard-to-find liquor sought after by connoisseurs, but that’s changing—and changing fast.

Today, the United States is the second largest market for mezcal outside of Mexico, according to Market Watch Magazine. Made in small batches often by local farmers using techniques passed down through generations, mezcal’s exclusiveness made it perfect for high-end, specialty cocktail bars and Instagram-loving foodies looking for the newest highball to selfie with. But popularity comes at a price.

Where tequila once reigned as the one true king of mass-produced, made in Mexico liquors, major manufacturers are now realizing there is big money to be made from mezcal’s popularity. In 2017, Bacardi purchased a minority stake in Ilegal Mezcal, and in 2018 Stoli Group launched Se Busca Mezcal. Big-name backing means big production. In 2016, mezcal was Mexico’s third largest alcoholic export after beer and tequila; the spirit generated more than $26 million in revenue. The price of agave has risen nearly six-fold since 2016, and mezcal production has doubled since 2011. To meet the demands, mezcal production had to increase, but mezcal producers are straining to keep up.

Meeting mass consumer demand is at odds with how mezcal is traditionally produced. Both mezcal and tequila are made from the agave plant, but that’s where the similarity ends. Tequila, made from blue agave, is often made on a large scale, using massive farms and occasionally chemical baths to speed extraction. Mezcal is crafted from 30 different types of both wild and farm-grown agave strains, each producing a unique flavor, cooked in wood-lined earthen pits, and distilled slowly in clay pots. Production is limited to nine regions, with Oaxaca considered the drink’s official home—it’s where upward of 85 percent of all mezcal is made. And production requires patience: On average, it takes an agave plant seven to 30 years to reach full maturity.

But the demand for mezcal and tequila has made it difficult for some agave farmers to wait that long. Reuters reported about farmers using immature blue agave plants for tequila production, possibly as a workaround for the shortage of agave at full maturity. In 2011, there were 17.7 million blue agaves planted for the 2018 fall harvest season, more than 24 million short of what was actually needed to supply all the tequila manufacturers. Likewise, a new process in the Mexican state of Jalisco can extract sap from immature agave plants for mezcal production, according to National Geographic.

But those methods can realistically only be a short-term stopgap. Long term, harvesting immature plants will make the problem only worse, as more and more plantings will be needed to meet production, a particular problem for mezcal, which is often created from wild varieties rather than those harvested from large farms.

Mezcal also faces another problem. Cooking agave in wood is a key component to developing the flavor of the drink, but wood is a precious resource in many of the regions where mezcal is produced. As distillers ramp up production, they’re forced not only to find additional sources of agave but to find more wood. This could lead to increased deforestation in Mexico.

To keep mezcal production going, some industry experts believe the whole process—from planting to burning wood to enhance flavor—needs to become more sustainable. One of those experts is Dr. Iván Saldaña Oyarzábal, who founded Casa Montelobos in 2011, a mezcal brand produced by a fifth-generation mezcalero, Don Abel Lopez. Saldaña is also an expert in the field of agave and an advocate for agave conservation. Under Saldaña’s direction, the company’s sustainability has become a top priority.

“For Montelobos, we are continuing to work hard towards even greater sustainability—from the production of plants to the bottling process,” says Saldaña.

Currently, Montelobos controls 100 percent of its supply of sustainable agave. By working with a producer, the company can create its own seed banks and control what is planted and harvested. In 2018, the producer was able to establish about dozens of different agave varieties, according to Saldaña, helping to aid in the cross-pollination that is necessary to keep the plants growing healthy both on farms and in the wild.

To keep the industry sustainable, Saldaña believes large producers should be restricted from harvesting wild agave, limiting the strain on the natural landscape. He also supports reforestation efforts on a regional scale to combat the rising demands for timber. It is a regional initiative, but the effort will help foster new plantations without contributing to the current deforestation occurring throughout Mexico.

For the casual high-end cocktail consumer, turning away from the drink altogether isn’t the answer. Buying locally produced and owned mezcal by the shot or by the bottle supports growers and distillers in Mexico, something Saldaña believes benefits us all.

“This artisanal spirit has a rich history, as it has been made in much of the same manner now as it was for hundreds of years in Mexico. This history appeals to today’s consumers who are now, more than ever, engaging with spirits with authentic provenance,” says Saldaña.

But to aid in a growing need for sustainability, the key may be in sipping responsibly—imbibing in this rich drink just on special family occasions, like it was always meant to be.

Craig Donofrio and Angela Colley contributed to this article.