Mezcal producers hope to toast brighter future

By Ann Deslandes
Business reporter, Mexico

Published
image copyrightPatricia Ruíz
image captionMs Ruíz says she has had to explore selling her mezcal online

Patricia Ruíz, a maker of the Mexican spirit mezcal, didn't have much to toast with the drink last year.

In normal times her business, Los Dioses de Agave, bottles 1,000-1,500 litres of its La Maliciosa brand every four weeks.

But for more than four months in 2020, production stopped completely at its distillery in the southern state of Oaxaca.

"Our most frequent clients are bars across the state," she says. But they were all closed by government decree when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionMezcal can be made from agave grown throughout Mexico, unlike tequila, which is limited to a specific area

Restaurants also had to shut their doors, and US tourists - who are important to the Oaxaca hospitality sector, and buy a lot of mezcal - disappeared.

"It was a major challenge for us to accept," says Ms Ruíz. "Cash flow dropped a lot, because we couldn't purchase the usual inputs, and then we also couldn't pay people, so everything slowed down like that.

"We had to stop production, and [just try to sell] the stock we already had."

Most other mezcal producers were similarity affected. Exporters saw a slump in sales as bars around the world were also closed. As the pandemic will hopefully come to an end in the near future, how quickly will the sector be able to recover?

But first - what exactly is mezcal? Like the far better known tequila, mezcal is made by fermenting and then distilling the cooked sap and pulp of the agave plant.

While tequila has to be made from a certain type of agave - blue agave - grown in a particular region of central Mexico, mezcal can use any variety of the plant. Mezcal can also be made across Mexico, although production is centred on Oaxaca in the south.

Tequila's global sales dwarf those of mezcal - 355 million litres in 2019 compared with just 7.14 million - but mezcal has been growing in popularity.

Gabriel Martínez has been producing mezcal in the southern state of Guerrero for the past seven years under the label Ay Dolor! His distillery is based in a small village that is home to indigenous Nahuas people. Transport in and out of the local area was restricted when the pandemic hit.

image copyrightGabriel Martínez
image captionGabriel Martínez (left) couldn't ship his mezcal

Ay Dolor! has just begun production again. And Mr Martínez recently met fellow producers in the state to compare notes on losses and plan for future recovery.

"The truth is that exports [from Guerrero] have dropped 50 or 60%."

Across Mexico as a whole, exports of mezcal last year fell by 21% to 4.54 million litres from 5.77 million in 2019, according to figures from the Ministry of Economy. Total production of the drink was 6.5 million litres in 2020, down from the 7.14 million in 2019.

These falls followed a boom in exports of more than a third annually since 2015, driven by high demand in the US.

Yet last year's production decline could actually be a good thing, environmentally. As international sales soared in 2019, many were concerned about impact of this demand on mezcal's agave plantations, such as soil exhaustion and water supply.

Miriam Luna, who sells mezcal from the states of Oaxaca and Durango under her label Limbo, has observed that the plantations are also affected by pests and the risk of extinction of some varieties.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionMezcal is made from the hearts of the agave plant, which are collected and then crushed

She also points out that, pandemic or no pandemic, the industry faces many challenges that have intersecting roots - not just environmental sustainability, but also poverty, and a lack of regulation.

"There are high costs for the producers, especially those who suffer from marginalisation and poverty," says Ms Luna.

When it comes to running her brand, last year she converted most of her sales to home deliveries in Mexico City.

Another mezcal producer, Leyla Daw, took to Zoom conference calls to drum up business last year.

"When the pandemic hit I was really scared for my business," says Ms Daw, whose label is called Eterna Libertad. "I was getting ready to put my mezcal in restaurants, in retail stores, and I had to put that all on hold."

"Nobody was buying", she says.

However, the entrepreneur says she now believes "this pandemic came into my life to show me something - that people want to know about mezcal".

She realised that in the pandemic "everyone is behind the screen". So she took her product to Zoom, hosting online tastings for anyone who wanted to join, and selling bottles via an online drinks store.

image copyrightLeyla Daw
image captionLeyla Daw has taken to Zoom to organise video tastings of her mezcal

Ms Daw says the tastings have been a hit: "I reach more people now - in 2020 and 2021 - than in the previous five years I have been producing mezcal.

"I had a mezcal tasting last year with 700 people connected! And then companies started contacting me saying they want this experience for their clients."

Ms Daw says she has found that "people really want to know how to drink mezcal". Unlike its close cousin tequila, one drinks mezcal slowly, not in quick shots.

Across in the country, Mexico's state and federal governments have committed resources to helping parts of the industry affected by the pandemic get back on their feet.

And producers such as Patricia Ruíz, Gabriel Martínez, Miriam Luna and Leyla Daw are not going anywhere.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThere are hundreds of mezcal producers

"We're planning to create a 'mezcal route' for tourists in Guerrero [state]" says Mr Martínez of his plans for the future with other local producers.

"We have had to rethink things," says Ms Ruíz. "We had to look for new clients, new markets, and learn about e-commerce."

"Of course the pandemic affected production," says Ms Luna. "It is a domino effect - if there are no sales there is no demand, and if there is no demand there is no production.

"But we have gone forward in 2021 with enthusiasm, and I hope that we continue like this."