« Back to News & Features Top

Spirits Feature

Mezcal’s Golden Age

by Jordan Mackay  jorgrama  jograma • posted on May 19, 2017

The question is not whether mezcal is hot. It’s fair to ask, has any spirit ever been hotter? The business has doubled in the last five years, and mezcal is the rage of the bar world. However, the mezcal industry is trying to deal with the ascension of mezcal from folk spirit to hipster tipple in Brooklyn speakeasies. Rapid growth in any industry creates strain, but especially in one whose cachet is based on the product being made by hand from wild plants using ancient techniques. An agave shortage looms, complicated by the plant’s slow growth cycle. The major variety, espadín, takes seven to eight years to mature. Meanwhile, the local forests are disappearing, making the wood traditionally used to roast the agave and heat the stills harder to come by.

Tending a still at Mezcal Vago. Tending a still at Mezcal Vago.
Some mezcal producers are taking steps to counter these trends. Recently, Sombra, a mezcal launched by Master Sommelier Richard Betts and now owned by Davos Brands, debuted a cutting-edge palenque (mezcal distillery). While they still roast the agave over wood, since it gives a smoky flavor that’s integral to mezcal, they’ve switched to a propane-driven flame to fire the still, which is not affected by smoke. In addition, the palenque employs solar power and recycles rainwater—and they are exploring options to deal with disposal of the oxygen-deprived, high-acid waste from the mezcal-making process, which often makes its ways into Oaxacan rivers.

Like 90 percent of all mezcal, Sombra is made from espadín agave. The other ten percent is made from other varieties, including more than 20 species of wild agave. These make for some of the most interesting and unusual mezcals, but they take longer to mature: Cuishe agave takes eight to ten years, tepextate and tobala require 12 to 15, and arroqueño takes a 20 to 25 years. These wild agave plants have a certain amount of natural protection, as harvesting them requires daring and skill. “Some of them come from super-steep slopes, and you can’t cut anything without having a plan, because it could tumble down and get caught up in some tubular cactus that you can’t get it out of,” says William Scanlan, who imports several mezcals via his company, Heavy Mètl (the Aztec word for agave). Yet, while no formal statistics exist on wild agave populations, anecdotal evidence suggests that they are becoming depleted. “I’ve heard from producers that the wild agave that used to grow just outside their villages is long gone,” says Judah Kuper, who imports Mezcal Vago. “In many places, finding them now requires much deeper treks into the hills. And these agaves are heavy, so getting them back through the mountains by burro is no easy job.” In light of its rarity, Vago bottles only a little mezcal from wild agave each year.

Preparing to roast agave for mezcal Preparing to roast agave for mezcal
The Sanchez family, which makes a number of mezcals from wild agave at Rey Campero, is leaving nothing to chance. In 2013, they planted a nursery of around 8,000 plants of Mexicano agave, a variety at risk of extinction. When the rains come this year, they intend to plant 5,000 tepextate and 20,000 cuishe from seed. In addition, they’re seeking out arroqueño seeds.

“These wild varieties will no longer be wild,” Scanlan argues. “We’ll see how that affects flavor, but at least the varieties will be preserved.” Meanwhile, it’s still a golden age for all mezcal in the United States—not just for the collector’s items made from rare, wild, mountain agaves. In the past year or so, several new artisanal mezcals have come on the market at $40 or less. La Niña del Mezcal has introduced Primario, an espadín mezcal bottled at 40 percent alcohol by volume (in contrast to the more typical 42 to 50 percent).

“I’ve heard from producers that the wild agave that used to grow just outside their villages is long gone.” —Judah Kuper
With its lighter alcohol, its apple- and citrus-inflected flavors and a sharp, peppery edge, it’s balanced for mixed drinks. Mezcal Amaras, which Anchor Spirits in San Francisco started importing last year, is a traditionally made espadín, offering clean and bright pear notes with mezcal’s signature smokiness. Yuu Baal (Zapotec for “earth fire”), blended from espadín from several villages, is another great buy, packed with notes of peppery spice and roasted earth, with a savory smokiness.

If conservation efforts like those being mounted by Sombra and Rey Campero are adopted industry-wide, if wild agaves resources are well managed, and lower-cost espadín mezcals continue to show great quality, mezcal’s golden age should continue for quite some time.

Mezcal Vago Espadín, imported by Montanero Mezcal, Ophir, CO, 51% abv, $50;  La Niña del Mezcal Primario Espadín, imported by the Wine Care Group, Huntington Beach, CA, 40% abv, $40; Mezcal Amaras Espadín, imported by Anchor Spirits, San Francisco, CA, 41% abv, $46; Rey Campero Espadín, imported by Heavy Mètl, Austin, TX, 48% abv, $60; Sombra Mezcal Joven, imported by Davos Brands, NY, 45% abv, $40; Yuu Baal Mezcal Espadín, imported by Pacific Edge, Agoura Hills, CA, 48.3% abv, $35 Mezcal Vago Espadín, imported by Montanero Mezcal, Ophir, CO, 51% abv, $50;  La Niña del Mezcal Primario Espadín, imported by the Wine Care Group, Huntington Beach, CA, 40% abv, $40; Mezcal Amaras Espadín, imported by Anchor Spirits, San Francisco, CA, 41% abv, $46; Rey Campero Espadín, imported by Heavy Mètl, Austin, TX, 48% abv, $60; Sombra Mezcal Joven, imported by Davos Brands, NY, 45% abv, $40; Yuu Baal Mezcal Espadín, imported by Pacific Edge, Agoura Hills, CA, 48.3% abv, $35

This story was featured in W&S June 2017.
photography by Joanna Pinneo; bottle photo of La Niña del Mezcal Primario by Eugene Shoots

Related Stories & Reviews


Recipe

Mezcal Vago

review by Lou Bustamante

Recipe

Mezcal Vago Elote

review by Lou Bustamante