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The Mezcal Problem


This is something I’ve talked about before, but here’s a good article on the overproduction of mezcal for the American market. The fact is that mezcal is not like, say, bourbon, where there’s really no reason you can’t produce as much quality bourbon you want if you aren’t trying to keep the price up. Agave does not grow everywhere. Moreover, part of the mezcal mania has been the discovery of the wild mezcals. You can’t farm those types of agaves. So they all just get dug up and nothing replaces them. This is a real problem.

In the curve of Mexico’s tail lies the state of Oaxaca. The region is known for its dazzling cultural, linguistic, and biological diversity. Over the last decade, it’s also increasingly become known as the epicenter of mezcal production. 

Since the early 2010s, mezcal has grown from a little-known ancestral drink to the spirit sitting next to tequila on bar shelves across the world. The U.S. makes up the lion’s share of exports with an even larger market than Mexico. Mezcal is quickly becoming the drink of choice for Americans, surpassing whiskey and vodka in sales. But even as mezcal gains visibility on this side of the border, the spirit’s environmental toll back in Mexico remains hidden from most consumers. 

The soaring demand for mezcal has changed Oaxaca, where 90% of mezcal is produced. Once forested, the mountains that surround Oaxaca City are now a wash of blue-green agave. In the face of mezcal’s explosive popularity, many producers have struggled to increase production while maintaining environmentally responsible practices. 

Mezcal takes a heavy ecological toll, from generating literal tons of waste to relying on firewood from cut trees to roast the agave. Such intense deforestation can lead to soil erosion and affect regional rainfall patterns. One of the most urgent problems is the disappearance of agave species in the wild. While some producers are over-harvesting wild agave, others are turning to the monoculture of fast-growing varieties, both of which threaten the plant’s genetic diversity, as well as local biodiversity. 

Cousins Edgar González Ramírez and Elisandro González Molina have observed these changes firsthand. After working as migrants in Silicon Valley, the two co-founded the small mezcal company Mezcal Tosba back in their home village of San Cristóbal Lachirioag in Oaxaca. Tosba is the Zapotec word for “only one,” a playful nod to the impossibility of sharing just one copita with friends. The landscape of mezcal production has changed dramatically since Tosba distilled its first bottle a decade ago. 

“The growing of agave was not as visible as it is right now,” González Molina said. “For the last five years, it has grown exponentially.” The cousins understood the seriousness of the problem when they tried to source a wild agave species from a nearby community. “They told us, There is no more, they took everything—no hay más. That just proved that people are going further and further into the wild to get agave.”

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