ONE’S EYES are drawn to the agave plant towering over the man who grew it, Juan Pacheco, but the secret to its flavour is in the ground. For eight years the plant has absorbed minerals from the soil of Oaxaca, a mountainous state in southern Mexico. Mr Pacheco alternates agaves with maize to enhance the taste that the soil imparts to them. His father taught him how to make mezcal, the smoky spirit made from agaves, a type of succulent. Mr Pacheco’s grandfather and great-grandfather were mezcaleros, too. But his children are thousands of miles away, studying medicine in the United States. Mezcal’s growing global popularity helps him pay for that.
Such prosperity is new for practitioners of a painstaking craft. Mezcaleros toss mature agave hearts weighing 50kg (110 pounds) apiece into pits of fire, where they burn for days. A donkey then walks around in a circle, pulling a large stone wheel that crushes the burnt plant, readying it for fermentation, which takes ten days.
These artisanal techniques have brought glamour to a drink once sold in plastic bottles, sometimes containing a worm-like moth larva. Now bartenders from Los Angeles to Berlin expound on the terroir of the nine mezcal-producing states in Mexico and the subtleties of flavour that come from various types of agave. In 2017 some 5m litres of mezcal were sold in Mexico and abroad, a fivefold rise from 2011.
With popularity comes anxiety. In August the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property, a government body, expanded mezcal’s “denomination of origin”, the area in which makers of a product are allowed to give it a certain name, which was already the world’s largest. It now includes three more states: Morelos, Aguascalientes and the State of Mexico. Alejandro Murat, the governor of Oaxaca, where 87% of mezcal is made, joined protests by mezcaleros in Mexico City. His government says that “poor-quality” mezcal from “distant places, devoid of tradition” could sully the drink’s handcrafted image.
Connoisseurs fret about the “tequilisation” of mezcal. Mexico produces 50 times more tequila, a type of mezcal made only from blue agaves, than it does mezcal, which can use any kind of agave. In Jalisco, the source of 90% of tequila, making the spirit is an industrial process. Drones hover above agave fields, checking which plants are ripe. Agave hearts roll on conveyor belts into electric ovens. Chemicals speed up fermentation.
The origins of this factory approach are in the mid-19th century, when a few rich families acquired vast estates in Jalisco, on which they grew agave. In Oaxaca, by contrast, land ownership is mainly communal and individuals work small plots. Today there are thought to be 57 makers of mezcal for every tequila distillery.
The mezcal boom is already changing the production process. A third of the mezcal sold in Mexico is no longer deemed “artisanal” by the Mezcal Regulatory Council. The price of espadín agave, the most common source of mezcal, has quadrupled because of rising demand. Some makers have resorted to plucking wild agaves, which are not then replaced, from Oaxaca’s yellow hills. The growth of supply is slowing, even as demand for mezcal continues to increase. The squeeze will last for a while. Agaves planted today will ripen by the end of 2026. That may protect mezcal’s mystique for a little while longer.