On the Trail in Oaxaca

Every year I listen to spirits industry experts and read the words of pundits who are certain that this is going to be the year of mezcal. Every year there's a TV show or magazine piece (this year it's Dana Goodyear's article in the New Yorker) that gets everyone all riled up, sends a slew of orders into our sales queue, and has my email box blowing up with questions about the Mexican elixir. "David, have you heard about this?" people ask me. You mean about mezcal? Yeah, I've heard about it. I've been traveling to Oaxaca for the last three years, learning about the region's incredibly diverse range of spirits, and doing my best to spread the gospel of mezcal here at K&L. However, the more I visit and the more I discover about the artisanal production methods and the vast array of different agave species being used, the more I'm certain that neither 2016, nor any other year will be the "year of mezcal" in terms of widespread popularity. Simply put: mass market appeal needs popular spirits to be categorized into neat and tidy little groups that are easy-to-understand, easy-to-market, and easy-to-sell. If there's one word I wouldn't use to describe mezcal, it's "easy." Mezcal is not easy-going, it's not easy-to-make, and it's definitely not easy-to-love. But that's part of what makes it so wonderful. The steep learning curve towards its appreciation only makes it that much more enjoyable once you've mastered the basics. 

"Mezcal is kind of like tequila, right?" people often ask me, and I often respond to that question in the affirmative. "Mezcal is smoky?" others inquire. Yes, that can be true. However, there's one very important thing you need to know about mezcal in contrast to tequila: tequila can only be made from one type of agave—agave azul or blue agave. One species, one flavor, one singular crop. Imagine if all the wine in the world was only made from cabernet sauvignon. That's pretty much what's happening in tequila. They're planting vineyards in Jalisco so to speak, vast campos of cultivated blue agave that are harvested roughly every seven years. Mezcal, on the other hand, is like the wild west in comparison. You've got cultivated crops like espadin agave that are often used to make entry level mezcales, but then you've got dozens of other species—many of which only grow in the wild—such as madrecuishe and tobalá, which must be found or discovered like truffles. The exotic and unique flavors derived from these rare agave types drives both producers to search for their whereabouts and the prices for the distilled results of those efforts. Then there are the blends, or the ensembles. Much like winemakers blend cabernet and merlot to make a claret, many producers in Oaxaca blend the distillates of numerous agave types together to make a harmonious blend. It's because of the possibilities for so many types of different products that I often use wine as a comparison for mezcal rather than tequila. They have a lot in common, actually.

So when you walk into a store like K&L and ask, "What's a good mezcal?" it's kind of like asking, "What's a good wine?" Do you want white or red? Full-bodied or light-bodied? Bold or mild? What are you in the mood for? When you walk into a mezcal bar in Oaxaca City it's no different. Do you want something spicy or smooth? Herbaceous or fruity? Inexpensive or rare? There are indeed that many types of mezcal and just like wine bottles the labels often include the name of the varietal. It's also possible that a mezcal will also taste differently each time you buy a bottle. Just like a bottle of 2009 Bordeaux tastes differently than the same brand from 2012, a bottle of mezcal is 100% dependent upon the quality of the harvest and the unique conditions of that particular batch. However (and this is where your head explodes), many mezcal producers are making dozens if not hundreds of batches per year—from different campos, under different weather conditions, and from various locations around Oaxaca. That means you can buy a bottle of mezcal one day and love it, then go back a few months later and purchase the exact same bottle of mezcal and it might taste differently. That type of inconsistency freaks most people out, but it's exactly that sense of authenticity that attracts a certain type of spirits adventurer; it's just that this particular type of drinker will never make up the majority of the marketplace. 

Besides the fact that production levels will never be able to respond to any type of explosion anyway, I'm not optimistic about mezcal's eventual mass-market appeal for one very important reason: the high-end options—the hundred dollar bottles that signify excellence in the category—are not obviously and understandably better than the standard forty dollar options. You take a bottle of Don Julio 1942—a hundred dollar bottle of tequila—and pour it for the average Joe and he'll likely say, "Wow, that's smooooooth!" But take a hundred dollar bottle of arroqueño mezcal and pour it for that same dude and I'm not sure he'll instantly recognize the qualitative leap. That's partially because expensive bottles of mezcal are generally priced by the rarity of the agave being used in the production, not necessarily by the richness or elegance of flavor. Every year I watch a new crop of customers get excited about mezcal. They ask us for the best, plop down a C-note for something strange and exotic, and then I watch the discontent spread across their face after they taste what they've purchased. "This is expensive mezcal?" they ask with a frown. Yes, my friend. That is exactly what expensive mezcal tastes like.

It's because of that steep learning curve that I don't believe mezcal will ever take the world by storm. Appreciating the nuance, the wildly-intricate flavors, and the incredibly specific agricultural aspects that make mezcal so wonderful isn't an easy task. Traveling to Oaxaca will definitely help you catch the bug faster, but how many people are going to trade their regularly-scheduled beach week in Hawaii for a jaunt down to the rugged mountains of Mexico? The numbers are slowly growing, and the message is permeating its way into the hearts of enthusiastic drinkers everywhere, but at nowhere near the speed some have anticipated. Personally, I take comfort in that. It's nice to know that there's a special place out there that hasn't been co-opted, commercialized, and turned into the latest flavor-of-the-week for the industry meat grinder. It's nice to know that once a year I can anticipate a new group of converts to the school of Oaxacan mezcal. 

And I can look forward to 2017 being the year of mezcal again.

-David Driscoll


David Driscoll