In 2017, if you were to peruse the cocktail list at any of the city’s new or upscale establishments, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single one that doesn’t feature mezcal. While a minority of people stateside have been taking the spirit seriously since the early 2000s, the past several years have been host to an enormous proliferation both here and abroad. Well deserved attention from savvy bartenders, spirits connoisseurs and the ever-curious horde of cocktail enthusiasts has led to a drastic increase in domestic consumption. With more people drinking mezcal each day, leaders in the industry are taking steps to ensure that everyone from Oaxaca to Denver receives their dues. Fortunately for us, big moves are being made right here at home.
Hipócrates Nolasco, president of the Consejo Regulador de Mezcal (CRM) — the Mexican regulatory board overseeing mezcal production — said, “I can proudly say that we started 2018 with more than 1,000 mezcal businesses associates to CRM, almost 80 percent of them joined us in the last 5 years.”
While the import volume is still roughly 1/100 of tequila’s — just shy of three-million liters per year — the ethical growth of the industry has become an important concern for some of Colorado’s most significant agave aficionados.
While tequila is made from blue agave and has been subjected to enormous industrialized farming and manufacturing techniques, mezcal is produced from a wide variety of wild agaves with drastically different sizes, growth times and ease of access. There are over 150 types in Oaxaca alone. The rich historical tradition that informs production methods, local styles and the deeply entrenched customs dates back between 500 and 600 years. Mezcal is the oldest known spirit in the Americas — the depth and nuance of history are vibrantly evident in each sip. The beverage’s popularity has surged not only for its inherent quality but for the attached cultural integrity. Emerging brands’ transparent business practices have become a major selling point for a new generation of consumers that revere authenticity and credibility as much as they do quality product. The question is: Can all the existing romance remain as the beverage’s popularity continues to expand?
Fostering deeply personal relationships with local producers, ensuring fair pay for the many hands along the line and becoming personally invested in the communities from which importers gather their mezcal has become something of a norm for an impressive number of significant brands.
Read Spear — a Longmont resident who will debut his line of six mezcals Cuentacuentos this spring — has taken particular care to address these concerns. While Spear may be particularly devoted to a principled approach, his style is fortunately emblematic of a larger trend in the business’ narrative.
“I can’t go down and buy mezcal and pop back up,” mused Spear regarding the familial associations he’s formed with the many Oaxacans with whom he does his dealings. “I have to spend a month, I have to attend a christening.”
Dylan Sloan, co-founder of Mezcal Vago, stresses that their product’s quality and credibility is necessarily tied to sustainable practice.
“For Mezcal Vago, we celebrate the diversity of agave types, people, terroir, and flavors found in artisanal mezcal,” Sloan explained. “By highlighting the inconsistencies — single batches, different producers — of our products rather than striving to create a consistent flavor profile, we are promoting biodiversity and small-scale production which inherently safeguard against many of the problems associated with industrial production.”
Brian Rossi — Denver restaurateur and the city’s unofficial authority on all things mezcal — is as committed to bringing the city a top-notch variety of agave as he is to teaching customers about the value and importance of the society that made it all possible. His South Broadway watering hole Palenque is a lively tasting room featuring 30 brands and more than 140 expressions of mezcal, and a valuable educational resource. Any one of his well-informed bartenders will happily talk your ear off regarding the ins and outs of each bottle’s production method, terroir, flavor profile and history. Like Spear, Rossi has built his business through a longstanding commitment to developing personal connections.
“I have been lucky enough to have a relationship and bond with not only the producers, and brand owners throughout Mexico, but with people all over the world,” Rossi said. “We call one another agave family, it feels good to be a part of something that has been in Mexico’s history for at least 300 years.”
Both Spear and Rossi agree that in order to keep mezcal from falling victim to the same crass corporatization as tequila, consumers need to be mindful of the brands they choose to support. The hefty price tag on many of the bottles can be daunting, but it is an unfortunate reality of a commitment to fair trade. Luckily for those interested in exploring the beautifully diverse flavors that the Oaxacan drink has to offer, every Monday Palenque does half-priced pours of anything under $20.
“Everybody’s interest is in the same direction,” Spear said confidently. Consumers’ current enthusiasm with narrative and open-practice seems to be in line with the vested interests of the many people involved with the production and culture. With any luck, he will continue to be right.