Since the sunrise of the mezcal industry producers have experienced both a well deserved recognition of the value they had made with their culinary customs, but also great loss in the way they experience their own culture in everyday life.
Back in the early days of the boom of craft mezcal there was a movement created between peasants, social and natural science researchers that worked hand on hand with producers on really important factors for agroecology and sustainability as land and water conservation, cultivating in policrops and the classification of natural and cultural resources associated with mezcal. These actions meant that the work developed in each region should be done differently because neither culture is experienced in the same way nor the ecological resources are the same.
One of the early examples of sustainable work of this movement was Mezcal Sanzekan Tinemi or "still together" in nahuatl, a Social Society of Solidarity (that is called by themselves "the coop") in the state of Guerrero. A company that on one hand preserve the knowledge and forms of organization of rural villages to develop and agroforestal production of the agave papalote, hence keeping a sustainable management of the wild plant, soils and groundwater layers (Illsley, 2008).
One of the evangelists of the movement was Cornelio Pérez Ricardez still one of the most renowned promoters of mezcal. Among his many contributions to mezcal he coined the term traditional mezcales and also put together a sensorial evaluation of these.
So what is a traditional mezcal?
This is what Cornelio has said about the characteristics of traditional mezcal:
Made exclusively with mature agave, cultivated or wild
Made without using additives that accelerate its process, particularly during fermentation
Its process sticks with the cultural and technological practices of the region in which it is produced
It uses discontinuous distillation methods that may be fabricated with clay, copper, wood, sticks and stones
It is produced and consumed with an alcoholic richness above 45% (90 proof)
And all of these can be tasted by the experts. Every single traditional mezcal has a social quality control of its production process since the local population specifically old people evaluate mezcal quality through the historic taste that has been shaped throughout social practices and appreciation of local and seasonal ingredients. Whoever do not comply cannot sell in its own village.
So big players as Pernod Ricard, DIAGEO, and Bacardi with the merge and acquisition of brands as Mezcal Unión, Pierde Almas, Del Maguey, and the entrance of George Clooney, among other big brands that blend mezcal of different regions selling them like single origin are disrupting this quality control constructed throughout history. The principles of craft mezcal and why it got its flare are gonna disappear soon. Large industry is going to standardized it —rather destroy it—.
Some of the issues brought with large scale industrialization are not just loss of organoleptic quality of mezcal, but the fracture of social relations in some villages. Just like the results of mining operations, people gets divided between the ones who want “progress” (progress of making more money at the expense of working underpaid for a big company) or keeping active the local market economy and culture.
Towns from Matatlán and Mitla to El Camarón in the state of Oaxaca are undergoing a process of land grabbing for space availability for the cultivation of agave espadin, the most profitable agave. 400 thousand hectares of dry forest are exposed to the intensification of mezcal agave, instead of the traditional survival crop land as Garnica Sanchez of the Ministry of National Forests (Comisión Nacional Forestal in spanish) (Garnica, 2016) states. Hence a process of loss of biodiversity has been taking place in the so called “mezcal region” of the state of Oaxaca.. Just as it happened once in the Tequila region described by Ana Valenzuela in her books about the Tequila natural history and denomination of origin.
Custom is important because is diverse. Mexico is still a country very misunderstood, even by mexicans because cultural diversity is unknown for it has been long marginalized. Customs have a purpose and a foundation tied to a specific territory. In most rural villages concepts like locality and seasonality are still true and natural, unlike every large city where everything is available all the time. So mezcal is just a natural way of making sense out of biodiversity: the liquor made in the central valleys from Oaxaca varies totally from the one produced in the same state but in the highlands of the mixteca region. With the term traditional mezcal we acknowledge more than just the plant from which it is produced, we can acknowledge that each mezcal has a face and a very specific process, essential elements that construct the quality of each mezcal.
Standardizing this rural beverage into a single mezcal concept or industry is destroying it. I started saying that rural communities are experiencing loss of culture because of the pushing it into markets that would do anything for the sake of profit, even to exploit production to the point of extinction of biodiversity, as the case of Tequila. I understand culture is dynamic and it changes through time, but this does not mean that it should be overtaken for efficiencies and so called progress. As a matter of fact rural producers have kept the balance of reforestation and use of plants in healthy environmental levels until this dawn of the mezcal industry. Let it not be the dusk of it. We can still support farmers, families and the wide arrange of biocultural diversity that the mezcal world has to offer.
Steps to recognize traditional mezcales
According to Mezcaloteca (pupils of the Cornelio school) these are the steps to identify traditional mezcales:
- It must be a liquor made according with the historic taste of each community. (Advice: get to know the producers.)
- Look for an indication of "100% agave" or "100% maguey".
- Alcohol content should be at least 45% or 90 proof.
- If you shake the bottle there should be consistent bubbles in it, they should last for some seconds.
- Mezcal is colorless. So no reposados or añejos (both mezcal and tequila).
- Rub on your hands a few drops of mezcal. When your hands are dry they should smell like roasted caramel.
- You can better taste the flavor in a "jícara" or wide mouth glass.
- Pour the liquor from one glass to another to look again at the bubbles.
- Smell mezcal before tasting it. It should smell like the roasted caramel you smelled at your hands.
- Take a sip. Keep it. Wash your mouth. When you swallow focus on the intense flavors.
- Keep on sipping and focus on the aftertaste.
Illsley Granich, Catarina. (2008) "Mezcales Campesinos: la opción Sanzekan Tinemi" La Jornada. 14 Aug 2008
Garnica Sáncez, Zenaido (2016) "Las plantaciones de maguey espadín y su impacto en las selvas bajas caducifolias". CONAFOR: Oaxaca
Bautista, J.A.; Mascha A. Smit (2012) "Sustainability and agriculture in the "mezcal region" of Oaxaca". Revista Mexicana de Ciencias Agrícolas
Pérez Ricardez, Cornelio (2007) "Sustainability and agriculture in the "mezcal region" of Oaxaca" Ciencias. UNAM: México