The international view of mezcal has changed drastically over the last 10 years. What was once known only as tequila’s crazy, worm-infused uncle, has quickly become a world-renowned spirit. Mezcal ranks on the same level as any of the best wine, cognac, or scotch. Mezcal now brings smiles to faces worldwide, and it supports local economies in Oaxaca and other mezcal-producing states. This growth is a boon for farmers, mezcaleros, and others involved in mezcal production, but the surge in demand has created some unclear conditions for mezcal’s future.
The Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM), which is essentially Mexico’s national regulatory commission for mezcal, reports that 85% of mezcal made in 2015 was made with agave Espadin. The remaining 15% of mezcal produced is made with other types of agave, which were primarily harvested from the wild.
Agave Espadin is by far the most sustainable agave used in mezcal. It’s the only agave that is widely cultivated and farmed (with exception of the Blue agave used in tequila, which is also farmed, but almost never used for mezcal). There are some smaller operations that are trying to farm other types of agave. These projects, however, are mostly in their infancy or have shown only mixed results. Because agave Espadin can be farmed, its supply can be somewhat controlled. Keep in mind that the typical agave Espadin takes between 8-10 years to mature before it can be harvested. Long maturation times make forecasting future demand difficult now that mezcal has made it into the international spotlight.
The potential for disease and other environmental factors also put the Agave supply at risk. The agave plant has co-evolved with nectar-feeding bats, and they now share a symbiotic relationship. In many cases bats play a pivotal role in the natural pollination of the agave plant. Agave farmers, however, have found a way around this. Rather than waiting for bats to pollinate the agave, there’s a growing practice of taking clonal shoots (cuttings) from an existing agave, and planting them numerous times. The agave shoots then grow into big agave plants that can be used for mezcal.
The concern is that this practice creates hundreds (and thousands) of genetically identical agave plants over several generations. Cloning like this makes entire fields more susceptible to disease and other growth issues. The great agave shortage in the early 90’s tequila market was caused by similar conditions. Issues with this type of cloning is not unique to agave. The Cavendish Banana, for example, that is currently sold in every supermarket in America is at risk of suffering the same fate.
The good news is that many farmers and producers are aware of this and they’re taking actions to mitigate risk. The Tequila Interchange Project, for example, is working on a Bat Certification program for tequilas and mezcals. Those spirits produced using a certain percentage of agave that was created through natural bat pollination, rather than cloning, would receive a special certification. This program creates some nice incentives that could lead to greater genetic diversity in agave. This diversity would increase the agave populations’ general defense against disease.
With some increased genetic diversity, agave Espadin may be OK for the future. The fate of wild agave, however, is a very different story. Most wild agave is harvested directly from the countryside, making supply more difficult to control. People drink mezcal made from these different types of agave for myriad reasons. The most common reason is that they taste wildly different from agave Espadin. For example, an agave Arroqueno is completely different from a Tobala, which is completely different from a Cupreata, etc… This is really where the unique expanse of the mezcal world really opens up.
Weather conditions can slow growth of this agave, and over-harvesting can lead to agave deserts (places with no agave, similar to food deserts). Growth and maturity rates vary greatly in these wild agave as well. Some can take 30+ years before they are ready to be harvested, making the sustainable harvest of them extremely important. If they’re over-harvested now, it’ll take another 30 years or more for the supply to replenish.
Fortunately, there are several mezcal brands that produce only small batches of this wild agave mezcal to ensure sustainable cultivation for years to come. Rey Campero, Real Minero, and Wahaka all have really cool sustainability programs. There are other companies that do great work with this as well, but those three are the top that come to mind. If you know of others, please post in the comments below.
Another really cool project is S.A.C.R.E.D., which is an acronym for Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education, and Development. Not only are they helping to replant agave in areas that have been over-harvested, they’re also doing cool things like building libraries and other social-impact projects. We follow the progress of their projects on Instagram. You should too.
We at Mezcal Reviews will put any bottle on our site. That does not mean that we endorse the brand or the practice behind its production. If you find a bottle of Wild Shot or Cat Mezcal on our site, please write an honest review so others will know what they’re purchasing (but keep it clean, we are a family mezcal website). We promote mezcal in general, and we hope that you vote with your pesos, dollars, and euros for the brands that are doing good for the future of the mezcal industry.