Just 30 years ago in Mexico, rumor was that mezcal could make you go blind. During that time, tequila reigned supreme, and only a handful of mezcal companies producing low-quality, harsh liquor existed. Fast forward to today, and mezcal is found in every upscale restaurant in the country’s capital, Mexico City, and is easily found at most bars and clubs.
In the United States, mezcal is commonly referred to as the “smoky cousin of tequila,” and according to Bloomberg, the mezcal and tequila category will be the US’s most-purchased spirit by value, at around $13.3 billion in 2023. Although Mezcal still doesn’t have the global reach that tequila has, it grew 53% by value in 2021, which was nearly double the amount that tequila grew (27%). Last year, the top mezcal brands in the US included Pierde Almas, Bozal, and Ilegal.
With its spike in popularity in recent years, what does the future of the mezcal industry look like? I decided to speak to Karla Moles, one of the owners and founders of Mezcales Milagrito. She started out in the mezcal industry when it was in its infancy in the early 2000s, and her current mezcal brand is produced small scale using traditional production methods in Oaxaca.
According to Moles, industrialization has already infiltrated the mezcal industry. If we look at Oaxaca, the heart of mezcal production, it is not uncommon for mezcal producers to create products for multiple brands. Those that want to capitalize on the current mezcal trend and maximize profits have started adding sugars and artificial yeasts to accelerate the somewhat lengthy production process. Further, proof that industrialization has touched mezcal: celebrities such as Lykke Li, Toby Keith, and Aaron Paul have created their own mezcal brands.
A misconception that Moles dispelled for me was that mezcal only presents a smoky flavor. I had the opportunity to try a few of Mezcales Milagrito’s offerings at La Clandestina, a cozy mezcalería also owned by Moles, in Mexico City’s Condesa neighborhood. Here, I realized that my previous view of mezcal was very narrow.
Although I love the classic aggressive bonfire smoke-like flavor of many mezcals, I was shocked by the wide range of flavors found in Moles’ brand. One of the mezcals I tasted had a strong mineral flavor, reminding me of the ocean. Another, a blend of two agaves, was sweet and tasted lightly of vanilla and banana. I was also lucky to try two special offerings, mezcals distilled with coffee and cacao, which paired so nicely with the smoky flavor of the spirit.
Most know that mezcal is made from agave, but most do not know how many types of varieties of agave mezcal can be made from (I previously did not know myself!). There are over 200 types of agave, and 26 are used to make mezcal, while tequila can only be made from blue agave. The type of agave that mezcal is made from has a major influence on the final flavor. For example, Espadín agave is the variety most commonly used for mezcal, and it provides a bold and sweet flavor, while Tepeztate results in a more aromatic and herbal flavor.
According to Moles, mezcal started to rise in popularity around 2010 alongside the rise of social media and the introduction of George Clooney’s Casamigos tequila, which caused a new demographic of drinkers to pay attention to agave spirits. When asked about why mezcal has continued to become more popular both inside and outside of Mexico, Moles believes it is due to the younger generations and “hipsters.” These are the consumers who tend to care more about what they consume and how it is produced. These will be the ones who will ensure the future quality of mezcal by continuing to purchase mezcal made with integrity.
On a Friday afternoon, I wanted to pick up a bottle of mezcal, so I stopped at Mis Mezcales, a tiny specialty store well-stocked with small-batch mezcals located in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood. I spoke with the owner, Omar Trejo, who has been involved in the mezcal industry for about 12 years.
As the demand for mezcal continues to increase, Trejo sees the price of mezcal rising over the next few years. He explained to me that for alcohols like vodka and whiskey, the crops needed to make these products (potatoes and wheat) only take a few months to grow and harvest. On the other hand, agave is not ready to be harvested until it is between 6-7 years old.
Agave cannot mature faster, so two things will happen if the current demand continues to increase. To profit from the increasing demand, some producers will harvest agave too early before it matures and, as Karla Moles said, accelerate the production process using external inputs. This will result in a higher quantity of lower-quality mezcals being brought to the market.
Those who continue using traditional production methods will continue providing high-quality mezcals. However, as the demand rises and the supply cannot keep up, this will cause the price of the quality mezcals to rise and these options to be more difficult to come by.
Before more celebrities start creating mezcal brands, and before this liquor reaches the industrial level of tequila, now is the time to appreciate mezcal in its current state. Rather than buy into inevitable marketing gimmicks and unnecessary hype that has begun to invade the mezcal industry, we should remember what Karla Moles shared with me, ’“A good mezcal should touch your heart.”