Rocío Guenther / Rivard Report
Furthering the education of mezcal drinkers and spirits producers is one reason Mexican mezcal legend Pedro Jiménez Gurría is excited to attend the sixth annual San Antonio Cocktail Conference. Mezcal, the smoky and rustic cousin of tequila, is in danger of overproduction, which would threaten the very characteristics that have made it so trendy.
"There has been a great group of bars and bartenders that have become worried about mezcal's current standing and are making an effort to spread [sustainable] culture," Jiménez told the Rivard Report as he poured bubbly mezcal into a jícara at Mezonte, his information center and tasting room in Guadalajara, Mexico.
"I've seen it grow as an educational component," said Jiménez, who also owns the hip mezcal bar Pare de Sufrir. "There are those out there who are approaching mezcal in a more respectful way, which I think is interesting and important."
Jiménez will be at the Geekdom Event Centre at 131 Soledad St. on Saturday for a panel called, "How Not to Create your Next Mezcal Brand: The Story of Sustainable Brand Development." From 3-4:15 p.m. he will join panelists Ricardo Pico, Graciela Angeles Carreño, and Erick Rodriguez, all experts in the Mexican spirits industry, to talk about the complex history and politics of mezcal, agave scarcity, and the relationship between producers and brand owners. Participants will also share thoughts on creating environmentally responsible spirits brands.
"There's an opportunity to talk about current legislation regarding agave distillates, how to zero in on sustainable production, and spread the word about supporting certain projects that work to maintain quality and tradition," Jiménez said. "It all comes down to us as consumers educating ourselves more about the issue in order to make informed decisions. Our best weapon and the most powerful tool is information."
In an effort to seek out more information about mezcal, I contacted Jiménez from San Antonio to get his take on strong mezcalitos and the future of the industry. Since I was already going to Guadalajara for the holidays, we decided to talk in person. I wasn't traveling somewhere new; I was returning home. I grew up in the state of Jalisco, which some would call the land of tequila, and I always tell my friends in San Antonio that I have agave running through my veins. However, I'm no connoisseur of distilled agave spirits. This is where Jiménez, the bearded mezcal aficionado who has spent years researching, documenting, and serving such spirits, comes in.
Driving up to the Colonia Americana neighborhood in search of Mezonte, I noticed jacaranda trees covered with purple blossoms in between restored colonial houses, cleaner streets, trendy coffee houses, residents riding bikes, and – to my surprise – signs on the street marking a preference for bike lanes.
Guadalajara has changed a lot since I left five years ago.
But it's not just the modernist architecture, galleries, and the forward-thinking cuisine that has artists and tourists flocking to Mexico's second largest city, it's also the spirits scene. And mezcal, the traditional agave spirit that has served as medicine and social glue for centuries, is having a moment – in Mexico and abroad.
“I think this sudden popularity has to do with this tendency of consumers wanting to know where their food, drinks, and clothes come from and if it’s eco-friendly or not,” Jiménez said in Spanish, as he gave me a tour of Mezonte. Hundreds of mezcal bottles from different parts of Mexico adorn the dimly lit tasting room, along with pictures of Jiménez's travels and a map delineating types of agaves in different regions.
“The fact that it’s in fashion in cities is another thing," he said. "I think that between the year 2000 and 2005 curiosity for mezcal grew. Avid tequila drinkers wanted to explore something more. But this isn’t coming from nowhere; mezcal has always been present in our communities and has been a continuous cultural element for centuries.”
Mezcal and tequila are both distilled from the agave plant, but tequila can only be made from blue agave and production techniques have become much more industrialized to meet demand and increase production. Mezcal, famously classified as tequila’s "more humble and smoky cousin,” can be made from more than 50 species of agave and is distilled in smaller batches through rustic, artisanal methods.
In many parts of Mexico, such as Oaxaca, where agave plants, cattle, and goats dot the hills, mezcaleros still adhere to methods passed down by their great-grandfathers. The smell of cooked agave fills the air as men continue to fill up pickup trucks with piñas, the heart of the agave, and pile them in pits with burning coals, dirt, and banana leaves for a couple of days. This is what gives mezcal its smoky flavor. After the piñas are done roasting, a donkey usually pulls a heavy stone wheel which crushes the agave before it is filled into fermentation barrels. After about four weeks in the open air, the liquid is distilled in wood-fired clay or copper stills and then bottled.
“Tequila was originally a kind of mezcal, but 99% of tequilas today are not made in earth-covered oven pits, they are made in autoclaves or ovens outside of the earth,” Jiménez explained. “It’s very industrialized and the process has changed a lot.”
Agronomists have found at least 52 agave species that can be used to produce mezcal. Each species has multiple varieties, Jiménez said, and climate, altitude, terroir, processing technologies, and the hands of the maestro mezcalero all play a part, so it becomes an endless universe of tasting possibilities.
Jiménez, 41, first encountered mezcal when he was 15 years old. Even as he started trying other drinks and distillates, his palate was always most intrigued by mezcal and the subtle taste differences he encountered over time. Eleven years ago, after studying communication and film in his native Mexico City, Jiménez moved to Guadalajara.
"For work I would go make documentaries, movies, or commercials in different parts of Mexico, and every time we went to a new place I would search for some kind of agave distillate," he said. "Sometimes I got to meet the producers and sometimes I didn't. When I got to Guadalajara I was already a súper mezcalero and would drink distillates from different regions, but I realized there wasn't access to good mezcales in the city."
Jiménez first began to offer mezcal at house parties, then he started hosting bigger tastings on the patio behind his house. Soon, his friends started inviting other friends, and suddenly "the snowball got bigger," Jiménez said.
"And then people would ask me, 'Why don't you open a mezcalería?'
"A few months later we were renting a place, which today is Pare de Sufrir," he explained.
That was in 2009, and Mezonte followed in 2012. That same year Jiménez directed Viva Mezcal, a documentary that explores the importance of mezcal, the stories of those who have distilled it for generations, and the growing challenges that the spirit currently faces.
Mezcal's popularity is somewhat controversial as its production is constantly being threatened by industry regulations. The intense competition from gigantic international companies releasing their own mezcal brands is creating a shortage of raw material and pushing mezcal to an unsustainable peak. Most agave plants resist domestication and take several years to mature before they can be used to produce mezcal – each piña makes only around 10 bottles of mezcal, and wild agaves are even rarer to find and preserve.
Through his documentary, which has been screened at festivals in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Denmark, Jiménez is trying to showcase the value of the finished product and its process which, at its core, is a cultural element and not just a commodity.
"It is necessary to have the appropriate understanding [of the spirit] in order to be able to enjoy it, respect it, and take care of it," Jiménez said. "It can be in danger of the same thing that happened to the tequila industry, or even a more serious situation, where you can lose agave species and varieties due to overproduction ... It is necessary to be informed about everything that goes into a glass of mezcal so we can appreciate it and it can be around for a long time."
In 1974, Tequila became the first product outside of Europe to be protected by a denomination of origin (D.O.). In 1994, the Mexican government created a D.O. for mezcal, once the "unofficial national drink." Jiménez sees this as a response from big companies who are threatened by the popularity of all things agave. At one point there was even talk of restricting the use of the word agave for distillates outside the D.O. and instead introducing the word komil, a Nahuatl word for alcoholic beverage.
"Mezcal was a generic name and it was literally kidnapped to make a D.O. in which they originally only included five states, yet 26 different states in Mexico produce mezcal," Jiménez said. "They left 21 states out of the D.O., and although over time they have expanded the denomination to other states, it confirms that it was poorly done from the beginning."
The rules of denomination force mezcaleros outside of the D.O. to label their product as "destilados mexicanos de agave" instead of "mezcal." Jiménez says the D.O. is politically and economically motivated, rather than placing an emphasis on cultural elements or the quality of the product.
"The decision makers are companies that do marketing studies, they aren't civil organizations, historians, biologists, or anthropologists," he explained. "And then, due to tax laws, if you produce a distillate you have to pay around 70% in taxes. They charge someone that produces 60 liters the same as they charge someone like Cuervo or Bacardi, who make millions of liters a year. There really isn't a balance for everyone to have the same possibilities."
In order to even out the playing field, Jiménez helps mezcal producers sell their products and protect their culture by offering their spirits at Mezonte and Pare de Sufrir.
“They would have to sell their bottle at a very high price for it to be viable, so as an organization, we support a lot of them and absorb that tax so that they can keep producing mezcal," he said. "In Mezonte we have a lot of different types of distillates so that people can try different processes, agaves, and regions. Basically it's so that they can discover what original mezcales are like and get to know the diversity."
About 90% of the popular mezcales that Jiménez offers are from humble communities that have produced mezcal for hundreds of years. These products are made true to tradition and have never gone through agrochemical processes.
"Their lands are more than organic – they're as organic as they can be," Jiménez said.
To differentiate between artisanal and commercial mezcal, you simply shake the bottle or pour the mezcal into a glass or jícara. If it's "real" mezcal, you'll see little bubbles, or as we call them in Spanish, perlas – pearls. This method showcases the alcohol percentage, which on average should be around 45-60% to create the best concentration of aromas and flavors, Jiménez explained.
"Small producers are looking to make the best product, their main focus isn't to produce a lot in order to sell all of it – these are produced with the idea in mind that they will be drinking it themselves, so they make the best batch they can possibly make."
Before I left Mezonte, I told Jiménez about the spirits scene I've observed in San Antonio, and the commitment that bar owners and bartenders like The Esquire's Houston Eaves, El Mirador's Jesse Torres, and Chad Carey, owner of Hot Joy and the recently opened Chisme, are upholding when it comes to the spirits they choose to include in their bar programs. It was Carey who told me about Pare de Sufrir and suggested I contact Jiménez.
"There are people out there, and especially bar owners who have entered the world of agave spirits with that – information, interest, and commitment – and people like that is what we need," Jiménez said.
For Jiménez, mezcal is just like música: an endless melody that can be reinterpreted in many different ways, an experience that awakens the palate as subtle nuances define a type of agave plant, a region, or the hand of the maestro mezcalero.