Over the past decade, mezcal has undergone a total transformation. Once mistakenly viewed as a lowbrow cousin to tequila, mezcal is now one of the most desirable spirits on the planet, the darling of upscale restaurants and hipster bars from Seattle to Singapore.
You’d think that would be unequivocal good news for the families who make mezcal. Unfortunately, the financial rewards of the mezcal boom haven’t always trickled down to the producers. That’s because most brands are owned by outside entrepreneurs, not the folks who actually make the stuff. But this month, a lucky group of Taster’s Club members are getting the chance to enjoy a rare mezcal from a brand that’s partially owned by the family who produces it: Wahaka Mezcal.
Getting to Know Wahaka
The Wahaka Mezcal brand started in 2010, but master mezcalero Alberto “Berto” Morales has been distilling mezcal for far longer than that. Berto is a fifth-generation distiller in San Dionisio Ocotepec, a small village to the southeast of Oaxaca city, He first learned to make mezcal as a young man, instructed by his father, just as his father had been taught by his grandfather before him.
In this part of the world, making mezcal is a way of life, and the spirit has a much greater cultural significance than a simple cocktail base. Mezcal is shared with friends and family to strengthen social bonds, used to commemorate important occasions and holidays, treated as a medicine, and regarded as a living link between the past and today (a perspective that can be taken quite literally, as some varieties of agave used for mezcal production can take a generation to grow).
Yet making mezcal hasn’t always been particularly lucrative, and that was certainly the case for Berto and his family. So, in addition to distilling, Berto also drove a taxi in Oaxaca City. There, he fortuitously met a group of friends from Mexico City who were looking to start a mezcal brand. Committed to doing things the right way, they made Berto an equal partner in the venture and launched Wahaka Mezcal for the first time.
One of the things that makes Wahaka so special is just how traditional it is. The original palenque is attached to Berto’s house, and he and his family live onsite, including his grandmother and his father. (As Wahaka Mezcal has grown, they’ve built another palenque to keep up with demand, using the same kinds of equipment as the first.)
Berto is dedicated to preserving the traditional methods and techniques his family taught him. That means thoughtful agricultural practices, pit roasting the agave with local fuels, crushing the roasted piñas with a stone tahona, and fermenting the juice in open-topped wooden vats using only indigenous yeast. Gentle pot still distillation coaxes the best flavors from the fermented juice, producing an amazingly nuanced and beautiful spirit that expresses the distinctive terroir of the Oaxaca Valley.
These techniques are much less efficient and much more labor-intensive than more modern strategies, but for Berto and his family, retaining close ties to culture and tradition is more important than ramping up production. Like many residents of Oaxaca, the Morales trace their lineage back to the ancient pre-Colombian Zapotec culture, and they speak Zapotec as well as Spanish. Keeping that rich indigenous culture alive through traditional products like mezcal is a big part of what motivates Berto and other mezcal producers to hold on to the old ways.
Of course, there’s also the flavor to consider, and that’s another place that Wahaka shines. All of those traditional production techniques are known for their ability to build big, full-bodied flavor, and Wahaka Mezcal’s products are a perfect example of why that’s important. This month, we shared a bottle of Wahaka Espadín Mezcal with some of our agave club members. Made from the Espadín agave, the most important agave for mezcal production, it’s an amazing combination of sweet, earthy agave and pungent smoke, with a beautiful dose of herbal character thrown in for good measure.
Why Local Ownership Matters
Much like Tequila, the people who actually produce mezcal don’t own most of the brands on shelves in the United States. Instead, international entrepreneurs create those brands. They buy the finished spirit from the producers and sell it under their own label. Under that system, it’s the brand owner, not the producer, who reaps most of the profit, even though Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico and mezcal is one of today’s trendiest spirits.
“When Wahaka made Berto an owner, that changed the whole dynamic,” said Robert Horton of JVS Imports, Wahaka’s California distributor. “It brought a lot of money to the village, which means Wahaka gets to do a ton for the community.” Those community initiatives vary widely, from a nonprofit dedicated to helping replant wild agave after it was harvested to make mezcal, to sponsoring local kids’ sports teams, to bringing free clinics to town to help low-income people get the health care they need.
The drive to give back and support the community is a key part of the Oaxaqeños’ famously tight-knit village culture. “When I go visit, it’s actually hard to drive around because it’s a village policy that if you see somebody on the side of the road you have to give them a ride,” says Robert. “Sometimes it can take hours to get out of the village. That’s where their values come from.”
According to Robert, it’s still rare for mezcal producers to own even a portion of the brand their products are sold under, although JVS Imports is among the wave of progressive distributors that are seeking out “grower mezcal” brands. “Mezcal is not just something you pour shots of and get drunk,” says Robert. “It’s a very serious art. It’s part of history. It’s part of who people are. It’s an experience of friendship and family. If you’re going to export mezcal to America, the family needs to have at least some ownership stake in the brand in my opinion. Because it’s art. And if it’s art, I don’t want my name on it or your name on it if we didn’t paint it.”
Wahaka Mezcal. www.wahakamezcal.com.