Mezcal has seemingly graduated from spirits trend into full-fledged category. It now claims a place on the backbars and cocktail menus of most chic bars and restaurants, while modern consumers with their ever-adventurous palates have embraced the spirit en masse.
As mezcal makes the jump from trend to broader appeal, we wondered what that might mean, long-term, for the notoriously slow-aging agave crops, which take many years to reach proper maturity. And for that matter, how close is mezcal, really, to reaching mainstream? Do consumers understand its nuances? Or is mezcal still that smoky spirit that may or may not be related to tequila?
For answers we recently spoke with John Sean Fagan. The expat is distiller and director general of Sombra Mezcal. After the success of its joven expression, this brand recently released a premium blend called Ensamble.
Beverage Dynamics: Why is sustainability so important to the mezcal industry?
John Sean Fagan: Sustainability is critical for the mezcal industry for several reasons. First, its uses agave plants that take many years to mature. Over-harvesting these agaves is a constant threat. Second, wood is typically burned to heat the stills, so deforestation is also a threat and its smoke is harmful to mezcal workers. Third, the byproducts of mezcal production are harmful to the environment and have to be neutralized. With mezcal now entering the U.S. consumer mainstream, there is a danger of a ‘gold rush’ mentality, where corners are cut that could potentially threaten the delicate environmental balance that has sustained mezcal for centuries.
BD: What levels of education are still necessary with consumers? Are they still far off from knowing the different styles of mezcal, for instance?
JSF: We are indebted to the U.S. craft bartending community for embracing mezcal and sharing their cocktails and enthusiasm with consumers. This has unquestionably spurred consumer interest and curiosity. That being said, consumer education is still in its infancy. Many consumers are eager to learn more about the category, and the various kinds of agave that are used in its production.
BD: What’s the story behind the launch of Ensamble?
JSF: Sombra Ensamble came about as an outgrowth of a special distillation of wild tepeztate agaves that I had created for friends and colleagues. With the marriage of distillates of tobalá agaves, it emerged as Sombra’s first-ever blend and a super-premium limited-edition (of 2,000 bottles).
BD: What’s the story behind the creation of your distillery?
JSF: Sombra Mezcal’s distillery was built in 2017 as a way to ensure that sustainable and eco-friendly practices are implemented every step of the way, from the fields to the bottle. In this way, the land, the animals and the people of Oaxaca are honored, safeguarded and sustained.
Sombra was meticulous in harvesting mature agaves, leaving many untouched to flower and propagate. In addition, the company planted 20,000 tobalá agaves from seed, and will replant them in the wild after two years of maturation to more than offset the 673 that were harvested for Sombra Ensamble.
The process begins in the fields with organic agaves. Once harvested, agaves are roasted in an underground stone pit (horno) heated by a fire of sustainably harvested Encino wood. The intense heat caramelizes the agaves’ starches into fermentable sugars. The roasted agaves are then crushed by a traditional limestone millstone (tahona). Instead of being pulled by a donkey, Sombra reinvented the wheel to be electric and solar-powered. The crushed agave juice and fibers are then transferred to wooden fermentation vats (tinas) where ambient yeast do their work. The mash is then distilled twice in copper pot stills that are heated by clean-burning natural gas, rather than wood-fired, which produces harmful smoke.
The spent agave fibers and the liquid remaining from the distillation are normally disposed of in nearby rivers, ruining drinking water and killing marine life. At Sombra Mezcal’s distillery, the byproducts are mixed with earth and lime and made into sturdy adobe bricks. These bricks are donated to local earthquake-stricken villages in Oaxaca where they are used to rebuild houses. Volunteers from all over the world have joined Sombra in making these bricks. To date, 12 homes have been constructed from Sombra adobe bricks.
BD: Who is the target demo for mezcal?
JSF: The target demographic for mezcal is aficionados of fine artisanal spirits. Given its agave base and flavor kinship, mezcal appeals to tequila drinkers. Because of mezcal’s production methods, it also appeals to lovers of smoke, for example, fans of peated Scotch whisky. For Sombra Mezcal, the demographic also includes consumers who care about sustainable, eco-friendly production.
BD: What’s your favorite mezcal cocktail?
JSF: Mezcal Margarita.
BD: What’s next for your distillery?
JSF: Sombra is committed to maintaining its position as the leader in sustainable mezcal. We continue to plant Espadín agaves each year to meet future production. This year, I am planting 40,000 agaves in the mountains of Oaxaca.
The company welcomes other spirits producers to visit our distillery (palenque) and learn about our eco-friendly practices. We actively encourage all producers to engage in a wider conversation and exchange ideas about ensuring a sustainable future for mezcal.
Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz or Instagram @cheers_magazine. Read his recent piece 7 Trends Behind the Irish Whiskey Boom.