In the footsteps of tequila, mezcal fears the bitter fruits of success

"The bottle (of mezcal) is a summary of everything we've been doing for years," Sosima says as she paces her plantation of thick, giant, climbing, spiky green leaves - not to be confused with cacti - through the hills of Sola de Vega, in southwestern Mexico.

In the footsteps of tequila, mezcal fears the bitter fruits of success

"The bottle (of mezcal) is a summary of everything we've been doing for years," Sosima says as she paces her plantation of thick, giant, climbing, spiky green leaves - not to be confused with cacti - through the hills of Sola de Vega, in southwestern Mexico.

Sosima, 50, leads a collective of "mezcaleros" in the state of Oaxaca, a shortcut in Mexico between the Pacific coast and the southern end of the Sierra Madre, with traditions authentically maintained by the Zapotec and Mixtec communities.

Oaxaca is the birthplace of mezcal, which is gaining popularity in cocktail bars in the United States, Canada, Spain, France and Germany.

Exports rose from $19.7 million in 2015 to $62.9 million in 2020, according to official data.

The brands often refer to the euphoria provided by an alcohol that heats the bowels to 40 or 50 degrees: "Viejo indecente" (indecent old man), "Pierde almas" (lost souls), "Mil diablos" (a thousand demons).

"Mezcalerias" have sniffed out bargains around Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca City, the stronghold of great 20th-century Mexican artists (Francisco Toledo and Rufino Tamayo) stormed by tourists.

These drinking establishments serve mezcal in thimbles despite the local saying that it is better not to be taken literally, indeed: "For every evil, a mezcal. For every happiness too. She if he there is no solution, a liter and a half".

- Without agave, no mezcal-

Mezcal derives from agave - also called maguey, plants of the Asparagaceae family -, just like tequila, the only daughter of blue agave in the state of Jalisco, further north.

More refined in taste, mezcal uses different types of plants and its artisanal production takes longer to elaborate.

Some plants require 13 and 15 years to mature, and even up to 17 years in the case of "tepeztate".

Far from rejoicing in the worldwide notoriety of mezcal, Sosima worries about the consequences of the boom in commercial demand.

"If there is a need for more plants, there is more exploitation of the land, the landscapes, the biodiversity, the wood", she analyzes, facing her clay jars in which she distils a brandy of his own brand, "Fane Kantsini" (Three hummingbirds in chontal, his native language).

“Very little effort is made to conserve agave species,” laments another producer, Graciela Angeles, 43. "Without maguey, there is no mezcal", she asserts, a saying as true as the one in vogue in the "mezcaleria" of Oaxaca-capital.

Graciela cultivates multiple varieties of grains and seeds in a huge greenhouse.

It details the complex process of making the liqueur, the success of which largely depends on the flair and talent of the master "mezcalero".

Another danger: some artisanal "palenque" (distillation workshop) are in fact only subcontractors for major brands, with the arrival of large capitals in the lucrative spirits trade. A brand like "400 conejos" (400 rabbits) is well established in airport duty-free shops.

On average, a 750ml bottle costs $40 in Oaxaca.

In contrast to this wheeler-dealer model, the mezcal of Sosima and Angeles is the result of a slow process. "Small producers like us will always exist in the villages", hopes Sosima. Producers who follow sustainable agriculture, sowing little but well, she explains in substance.

The two female mezcal producers hold tasting sessions to educate consumers.

"What's behind mezcal, I learned after falling in love with the flavor," said Christopher Govers, a tourist at a mezcal party that drew several hundred people to Oaxaca-capital. Behind him, at the height of the party, two men stagger past.

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