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