On a sunny Friday afternoon at Leo Hernández’s mountaintop distillery in San Baltazar Guelavila in Oaxaca, the 37-year-old mezcalero breaks a sweat as he loads the molino, or stone mill, with cooked piñas. His son Juanito, a serious fellow sporting a pair of tired Nikes and a cobalt blue Superman T-shirt, watches with eyes wide. When he comes of age, Juanito will represent the sixth generation of mezcaleros in the Hernández family; the thought prompts a soft grin to spread across Leo’s face. “‘Proud’ is the word; I feel very proud,” he says. The rites and rituals of mezcal production aren’t taught to kids in Mexico the way one might learn how to become a dentist or a lawyer; the ins and outs of the process are instead passed down through the generations as living history.
Yet as the international thirst for mezcal grows, Hernández and other legacy mezcaleros face pressure to change their heritage practices. A cadre of actors—from the Mexican government and official regulatory bodies to international brand owners, importers and distributors—are often, knowingly and unknowingly, prioritizing standardization and profit over diversity and ancient customs. And at the same time, a quagmire of economic inequalities, environmental concerns and power dynamics also adds influence to the way traditional mezcal gets made.
In the middle of this crossroads stands you, the drinker. How does a conscious consumer make choices about what brands to buy, if the goal is to honor the roots of this historic spirit and keep authority with the producers? Of course, Americans can’t “save” or “protect” mezcal—that mentality would skew a little too close to a shade of white saviorism everyone would be smart to avoid—but as individuals, we do have an opportunity to make calculated decisions about what we buy. And, like throwing a stone in a pond, the ripple effect of our dollars and demands has the potential to travel back to the producers in impactful ways.
Below, we offer an essential guide to how, and what, to buy. Use it as a jumping-off point to deepen your understanding of the category.
The first step to mindful mezcal consumption is learning to identify traditional vs. industrial spirits.
Before formal commercialization of agave spirits began with tequila in the 1970s, all production was what we’ve come to describe as traditional—i.e., crafted in small batches and with respect to local customs. It was consumed socially, medicinally and ritually. And because each region has different varieties of native agave, different materials to craft tools from and different techniques for crushing, fermenting and distilling, the character of every producer’s mezcal differs (sometimes wildly) from the next. This incredible diversity still exists, but just as the spirit’s place in Mexican culture has evolved over time and space, not all mezcal is made in a way that speaks to tradition today.
Three official categories differentiate styles of mezcal under the denomination of origin: ancestral, artisanal and “mezcal,” the latter of which is usually an indication of industrial processes. Ancestral mezcal features the most ancient methodologies, with the agaves cooked in earthen pit ovens; broken down by tahona (a massive stone wheel), mill or mallet; fermented in wood, clay, stone, tree trunks or animal skins; and distilled via direct fire in clay pots with agave fibers. Artisanal production allows for a few modern updates, like the use of above-ground masonry ovens, mechanical shredders to break down cooked agaves, and stainless steel or copper stills. These legal definitions were a good starting place when introduced by the government in 2017, but ongoing debate within the industry reveals how the rules also overlook a lot of nuance. For instance, not every region has a history of using clay pots to distill, and many argue that a floor of 35 percent ABV was a decision made only for export markets, because historically mezcaleros distill to 45 percent ABV or higher.
A pile of raw agaves gets chopped into quarters and halves before going into the roasting pit at the Montelobos palenque in Santiago Matatlán.
These are only a few (of the many) reasons why the definition of “tradition” is more of a moving target than it might seem. There is also the matter of draconian regulation at play. Certification with COMERCAM (CRM) or other regulatory bodies demands a significant amount of money, time, logistics and paperwork. Many view this overwrought (and at times politically charged and corrupt) system as financially exclusionary and a threat to traditional practices. Because of this, a small handful of brands—including Pal’alma, Cinco Sentidos, NETA, Mezcalosfera and Gusto Histórico—send their spirits to America uncertified, under the umbrella of “destilados de agave” instead of “mezcal,” in a direct rebuke of the process. Are these uncertified agave distillates more traditional than certified mezcal? As many dodge certification with the explicit goal of preserving the wishes of mezcaleros instead of upholding seemingly arbitrary industry standards, in many cases, the signs point to yes.
When it comes to defining “tradition” for yourself, there are many paths one can follow. But almost universally acknowledged within both producer and aficionado circles is a single point: Make sure the liquid you’re purchasing isn’t industrial. The easiest way to identify industrial mezcal is to look at the label. If the words “artisanal” or “ancestral” are absent, there’s a good chance it’s industrial. Does the bottle have the name of the mezcalero, of the production process, of the place where the distillates are made? If not, that’s a potential red flag. If you have only your senses to work with, rub the distillate in your hands and smell it. If the aromas scream of vanilla, cotton candy, artificial fruit or burnt rubber instead of agave—that is, herbaceous, peppery, earthy, vegetal—that’s an indication that industrial processes are at play.
With environmental concerns proliferating, patronize companies that lean green.
Eco-friendly sustainability starts with the maguey plant. Unlike other annual crops used to make distilled spirits, agaves take five to more than 30 years to come to maturity before they can be harvested to make mezcal, which poses a unique challenge in meeting current demand. It also takes an enormous amount of agave to make mezcal, in some cases 9 to 15 tons per batch (about one to two large male African elephants, for scale). Before commercialization, mezcal was made seasonally with wild agaves, and while there are still many wild agaves across Mexico that are harvested to make mezcal, it is no longer a viable source to meet the scale of an industry that operates year-round and produces almost 8 million liters of certified mezcal a year.
For a while, many industry types suggested adopting a liquid diet that centers mostly around cultivated espadín to help take the pressure off the wild agave supply. But as the industry grows exponentially, high demand for espadín has prompted farmers and mezcaleros to clear enormous amounts of land for more espadín, which isn’t great for biodiversity, soil health, deforestation or other environmental issues. It also sets an expectation for all mezcal to be lower in cost, because the espadín variety takes less time to come to maturity (about five to seven years at minimum) and costs less to produce. Instead, as a drinker you can adopt a diverse mezcal diet to help prevent dangerous monocultures. Brands like El Jolgorio and Mezcal Amarás have started cultivating and semi-cultivating a large number of varieties they didn’t think would flourish in this manner before, like tepeztate, sierra negra, mexicano and cupreata. The flavor of the final distillate is not impacted by cultivation, so it’s good for the agave supply, at no cost to the drinker.
Another way to prevent the over-farming and -harvesting of a single agave variety: Turn toward ensamble mezcals, or field blends. Before the single-varietal mezcal craze emerged in the United States, mezcaleros would historically make mezcal del campo, using varieties that came to maturity on their land around the same time. This style tastes wildly complex while also helping to lessen the pressure on every agave variety involved in the making of the bottle. Ensambles like those under the labels Mal Bien, Koch, Mezcalero and Rey Campero are often made in small batches, and feature two to four different varieties so that no single one bears the full burden.
These days, most mezcal brands will tell you they replant a certain number of agaves for every one harvested, a solid (if not minimal) baseline for ensuring good agave supply for the future. But as “sustainability” has cemented as a buzzword in the industry over the years, almost every brand will make vague claims about planting agaves. Seek out companies that give tangible proof—facts and figures, records or visual evidence—of creating robust nursery programs.
Salomón Rey Rodriguez makes mezcal for Vago in Oaxaca’s Sola de Vega region. Vago is one of several producers that participates in reforestation efforts to offset carbon footprints.
When seeking out this information, keep in mind that the way in which cultivation happens also matters. High demand for fast and cheap mezcal discourages producers from letting plants flower and go to seed in favor of using hijuelos, or genetically identical clones that grow from the base of a plant, to maximize the number of agaves in a crop. However, the hijuelo method makes for a less-diverse crop that is more susceptible to disease. In contrast, when agave plants flower and bats or hummingbirds carry the pollen and seeds to new territories, good genetic diversity is maintained and future crops will prove more resilient. Look to support producers who bear a “bat-friendly” label or are explicit in their work generating agaves from seed, like Lalocura and Real Minero, as well as those making mezcal at Rancho El Limón for Don Mateo and Siembra Metl.
Environmental sustainability also extends beyond agaves, treading into issues of pollution, deforestation and water conservation. Making mezcal demands an enormous amount of wood—the aforementioned palenque, or distillery, that used 15 tons of agave per batch also used 15 tons of wood, for example—and not only does that put a strain on supply, it also releases carbon into the environment. Brands like Los Javis and Don Amado have switched to gas-fired distillation to conserve wood; the latter also uses certified wood sourced from sustainable farms for the cooking process. Others, including Vago and Los Danzantes, plant trees or participate in reforestation efforts with certified organizations to offset carbon footprints and ensure healthy supply for the future.
Other initiatives are also at play. Several brands have taken steps to certify production as organic (such as Del Maguey, Wahaka, Montelobos) to communicate their avoidance of herbicides and pesticides. Outfits such as Sombra have developed systems to repurpose liquid and solid waste generated during the distillation process, and brands like The Lost Explorer are working on rainwater harvesting initiatives to bring safe water to underserved communities. Generally speaking, most brands that are implementing or participating in programs that benefit the environment will give clear and explicit information about their efforts on websites and social media platforms, so look beyond vague statements like “sustainability” in favor of detailed data.
Seeking out producer-owned brands will keep agency with the craftspeople.
Over the last nine years, mezcal exports have grown by 360 percent to over 700 brands. One common misconception within this sphere is that every commercial brand features mezcal made by a single producer. In reality, only a very small number are run by mezcaleros. The rest are owned and operated by business people (from Mexico and abroad) that source and bottle liquid from one or more producers.
Some brand structures benefit the producer economically and culturally, but far more do not. Many brand owners will negotiate below-market prices for high-quality distillates, or offer exclusive contracts at low rates for high volume. Other times, they will suggest alterations to methodologies to acquire a style of distillate more “suitable” for international markets, whether that is for the purpose of certification or to meet an imagined vision of what American drinkers want (for example, about 80 proof and exceptionally smoky). This intervention is why, if you line up bottles from different brands made by the same mezcalero, sometimes you’ll find differences in proof, aroma and flavor.
These are all reasons why a movement to support producer-owned brands—such as Dixeebe, Grulani, Macurichos and Tosba—is gaining steam. Tess Rose Lampert, a mezcal educator, sums it up perfectly: “In addition to maximum profits going back into the hands of those who understand mezcal production and advocate for a safe future for their land and communities, it also reduces the risk of altering traditional production practices at the request of a brand owner.”
12-year-old Juanito Hernandez ushers Valentin the horse around the stone mill where agaves are crushed at the Grulani palenque in San Baltazar Guelavila, Oaxaca.
Tosba co-owner and first-generation mezcalero Elisandro Gonzalez puts a broader perspective on the issue, relating it to other agricultural commodities like coffee, rice and tea, where the farmers and producers at the beginning of the supply chain often start at an economic disadvantage. “The conditions in rural Mexico have never been fair for mezcaleros. The education, infrastructure and computer access needed to get to market… The less people in the middle would be ideal, because then once and for all the makers will become more empowered and have resources to do what they want to do,” Gonzalez says.
Buying mezcal from producer-owned brands is not a perfect model, but it is a step toward keeping money—and power—with mezcaleros, so they can create a viable infrastructure for production. It also encourages them to continue carrying on their heritage processes without interference, setting a stronger foundation for future preservation of tradition, no matter how you choose to define the term. With so many brands flooding the market, it can be tricky to sift through the marketing jargon to identify producer-owned brands, which is why resources like the database compiled by Mezcalistas and the mezcaleropedia by Mezcal Melate are invaluable.
Ethical brands do exist; look for tangible proof of where funds are distributed to find them.
The logistics of getting mezcal from small rural villages to the international market can prove almost impossible for many mezcaleros when one considers the costs, paperwork, export logistics and language barriers at play. An intermediary is often necessary, but these arrangements are complex and varied in praxis. Without a formal Fair Trade system in place, many rural mezcaleros don’t know the value—within an international context—of the spirits they produce, and brand owners tend to keep a tight lid on financial information. The key is to look for the brands that provide transparency about business practices and implement initiatives that benefit producers in other ways.
To make the market more accessible for small producers, some mezcaleros have joined forces with farmers, harvesters, bottlers and small distilleries to form cooperatives. While actual payment structures and systems vary, at its very base level this model does often create jobs and help spread funds throughout small rural economies. For example, the Unión de Productores Agropecuarios del Distrito de Ejutla de Crespo, in Oaxaca, works with a broad swath of farmers and distillers and sells mezcal, including Banhez, via several labels in Mexico and abroad. As founder Francisco Perez explains, “What makes our model different is that it is not benefiting only one person, it is for the community. By creating jobs and making sure everybody gets paid fairly, our whole economy grows.”
At the UPADEC communal palenque in San Miguel Ejutla in Oaxaca, mezcal is made under several labels including Banhez. This central palenque is available to all of the co-op members to use.
A handful of foreign-owned brands are also working to create more equity for the producers they source from. For instance, Mezcal Melate lists how much the company paid for each batch and whether or not that price was negotiable in monthly newsletters. Owner Dalton Kreiss has also launched GoFundMe campaigns to help producers finance various projects when he cannot provide capital himself, and started a digital “tip your mezcalero” program. With uncertified brand Rezpiral, owner Alex White implemented a 10 percent profit-share system, which he upped to 30 percent when the pandemic hit. The recipients determine where the funds will be used. After confirming the viability of the model, a collection of industry folks White works with in the States joined the program; so far, they have sent almost $4,500 back to producers, which will be combined with the almost $20,000 redistributed via Rezpiral’s standard 30 percent profit share program.
Information can also be gleaned by looking at the retail price of the bottle; high-quality traditional mezcal made ethically tends to land in the premium price range, more like a great bottle of Scotch than an entry-level bourbon. Mezonte and Siembra Spirits have worked to demystify the breakdown of costs to educate consumers. In the graphic, which was developed in 2018, Mezonte founder Pedro Jiménez explains that most commercial brands pay between $3 and $11 per liter for mezcal—a rate that forces producers to prioritize high volumes over quality, “and I don’t only mean quality in terms of the distillate but in their agricultural, social and environmental practices,” says Jiménez. Use the cost of a bottle in tandem with further research, as some brands simply bump up price points for things like fancy bottles and robust marketing campaigns.
Look for explicit and tangible examples of ways brands are working to support producers on their websites and in their messaging, and supplement with sites like Mezcalistas and Mezcal Reviews, which list out all the producer information and details about each company. The more informed you become, the easier it is to spot the wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Listen, learn, seek, taste and when all else fails: Ask your bartender or local shop owner for help.
The mezcal industry is still nascent; for the 8 million liters that went to market in 2020, almost 500 million liters of tequila were generated last year. That makes right now the perfect time for drinkers to drink with intention. Below, we’ve created a list of resources to turn to for consuming mezcal, buying it, and furthering your education. Use this guide as a trailhead.
Madre!, Los Angeles
Clavel Mezcaleria, Baltimore
Las Almas Rotas, Dallas
Prizefighter, Emeryville, California
Mama Rabbit Mezcal + Tequila Bar, Las Vegas
Las Perlas, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas
Espita, Washington, D.C.
The Esquire Tavern, San Antonio
Books and Websites
Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production
Sarah Bowen’s groundbreaking examination of the social, economic and political aspects of the agave spirits world is meticulously researched and deeply comprehensive.
Finding Mezcal: A Journey into the Liquid Soul of Mexico
Finding Mezcal is the story of Del Maguey founder Ron Cooper’s journeys through the mezcal world. Through his recollections, the reader is introduced to his on-the-ground perspective of the culture of mezcal in addition to its facts and figures.
Mezcal: The History, Craft & Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit
At the risk of shamelessly plugging my own work, my first book provides a broad, 101-style overview of the mezcal world, including a brief history of the spirit and details on how it is made today, plus cocktail recipes.
For breaking industry news, smart explorations of its most pressing issues, brand profiles and more, Mezcalistas is the most dialed-in resource for all things mezcal education. The organization also produces the traveling mezcal roadshow Mexico in a Bottle.
A robust and comprehensive database for agave spirits, Mezcal Reviews is a great place to get backstory on brands in addition to detailed production information and crowdsourced reviews.
Podcasts and Films
The Nectar Corridor
The new podcast from Whetstone Media features Niki Nakazawa, the co-founder of NETA mezcal, exploring the world of mezcal from the ground in Oaxaca. She speaks with farmers, producers, historians and more about the entire ecosystem of the spirit, presented in both English and Spanish.
¡Hey Hey! Agave
From the team behind TUYO, Sabrina Lessard and Gabriel Velazquez Zazueta, this podcast offers a series of conversations with luminaries in the agave spirits world.
Agave: The Spirit of a Nation
In this vivid documentary from directors Nicholas Kovacic and Matthew Riggieri, mezcal-making families share their stories about the history and future of the spirit.
Sons of Mezcal
With a focus on how mezcal traditions are passed down through the generations, this documentary from Stephan Werk features four families from Oaxaca.