Looking slightly out-of-place in the sun-scorched fields of rural Oaxaca, Jorge Rodriguez-Cano, a fair-skinned and fashionably dressed 25-year-old urbanite from Mexico City, carefully navigates the sea of pointy plants that fill the agave fields of his boutique mezcal business. A row of 10-year-old plants tower above his head, their tough, purplish-green leaves spiked in the air like a medieval castle-defense system.
“These are ready to be harvested,” he says, admiring his crop.
Rodriguez-Cano’s award-winning brand of liquor, Mezcal Amores, has successfully tapped Oaxaca’s recent Mezcal boom; the brand’s Reposado label won the Gold Medal for quality at the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Jorge Rodriguez-Cano and Carmen Casanovas look out over the field where they grow their agave.
Once considered the poorman’s tequila, mezcal has enjoyed a recent surge in popularity, thanks in good measure to hipster bartenders from Mexico City to Manhattan.
It’s no longer just a cheap way to get borrachisimo (super drunk); a bottle of premium mezcal now sells for upwards of $200 at its highest price-point. The trendy spirit has been embraced by a younger generation of upwardly mobile Mexicans; well-heeled professionals who sip it neat as a bohemian nod to their country’s rural roots.
“Mezcal is artisanal; it’s better than tequila,” says Hugo Hernández, the 31-year-old manager at Galia Gourmet, a specialty foods store in Mexico City’s fashionable Roma neighborhood. “People are interested in natural, organic products — especially in this neighborhood.” He points to a $77 bottle of mezcal made from wild-harvested koch agave. “Prices have shot up.”
But back in Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest and least-developed states, not all mezcaleros (as the local producers are known) are toasting the liquor’s recent market success. Smaller producers say the benefits of the mezcal boom have not reached the bulk of farmers who produce the agave from which the drink is made. Family-operated distilleries are still struggling to take advantage of the new premium market. Many small operations sell their bottles to passing tourists, but haven’t figured out how to get their mezcal to market in Mexico City.
The hills in Oaxaca are dotted with small palenques like this one where mezcal producers use a horse-pulled stone wheel to grind roasted agave plants into pulp.
The Mexican government has launched several initiatives to promote mezcal producers abroad. The Ministry of Economy has helped producers register brand names for their spirits, and export-promotion agency ProMexico is helping a handful of established companies to get their bottles into New York bars. There are currently some 25 brands of mezcal available in New York alone, but it’s a small fraction of the total number of family-run distilleries bottling the liquor in Oaxaca.
“Most (mezcaleros) are small, craft producers. These businesses are very small, very focused on the local market,” says ProMexico’s Gerardo Patino. Where some see underdevelopment, Patino sees opportunity. “The mezcaleros have the product—they just need the capital and know-how to get it to the international market.”
For now, however, a wide chasm of cultural differences continues to separate the rural producers who bottle mezcal and the young urban professionals who drink it.
“There are families whose whole lives are spent in the hills; there are no roads for cars, and people have no connections to the government or the business community,” says Alejandro Champion, co-owner of Mezcal Union brand. “It’s a classic case of market failure— cultural differences and a geographic divide impede the formation of connections between urban consumers and rural producers.”
A small-batch mezcal producer stands next to the firewood he used to roast his agave and heat his still.
Another indication of market failure is found on sticker prices of bottles sold in the city versus those in the countryside. While premium brands sell for $25-80 at boutique stores in Mexico City, small producers sell unlabeled bottles at hillside stills for $3 each. The real profits, as is often the case with other agricultural sectors, go to those further up the production chain.
“The people who brand and bottle the mezcal end up taking most of the profits; so the answer is for agave producers to move up the production ladder, add value, and start bottling their own mezcal,” says Antonio Lopez, the head of Mexico’s Agriculture Ministry’s office in Oaxaca.
It’s a challenge for many agave farmers to start their own brands. But those who’ve made the leap have benefited.
“The families that own distilleries, even artisanal ones, have a substantially higher standard of living than average,” says Fabien Santana, of ProMexico’s New York office. “You’d be hard-pressed to think of them as affluent, but they certainly do better than most.”
Cheers to that.