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Mezcal’s day in the sun is about more than just mezcal

While anything as popular as mezcal is right now is ripe for criticism, one thing about the boom is undeniable: the economic benefits seen not only by producers, but also restaurateurs, artists, musicians, and other Oaxacans in related trades.

OAXACA, Mexico (CN) — As the world outside of Mexico grows more and more enamored of Oaxaca’s wildly popular agave distillate mezcal and the stories of authenticity behind it, other trades in the state are benefiting from the boom as well. 

“People come to learn about mezcal, and in complement bring revenue to other businesses here,” said Raymundo Chagoya Villanueva, co-founder of Expendio Tradición, a restaurant that has been pairing rich, full-flavored Oaxacan cuisine with its proprietary mezcal brands since 2014. 

Chagoya can trace his family’s involvement in Oaxaca’s mezcal industry back more than 120 years and five generations, each with its own attendant innovation that brought it a step closer to the hub of mezcal mixology that the restaurant is today. 

His father Porfirio has exported mezcal across the globe since the late 1980s, but back then he was sending cases to France, Taiwan, Italy, Chile and, to a much lesser extent, the United States. It wasn’t until well into the 21st century that American drinkers began to glimpse what they now see in mezcal. 

“Mezcal tells you a story of the place it was grown, where it spent eight years in the ground, the climate there, if there were droughts or rain,” said Chagoya. “Consumers now want to have more information about their products. Mezcal fits that perfectly, because it has much to offer in the way of an origin story.”

Chagoya and other industry insiders mark the beginning of this new trend in the demand for mezcal around the dawn of the 2010s. Over the last decade mezcal has gone from a spurned firewater mostly sold and drank by producers — known as palenqueros — and other locals too poor to buy beer or tequila to a spirit that has earned deep respect both at home and abroad. 

“Even as recently as 15 years ago, mezcal wasn’t highly valued around here. People drank it, but most preferred beer,” said Efraín Fuentes, a woodcarver from San Martín Tilcajete, a small artisan community about an hour south of Oaxaca City. “Mezcal was for bricklayers. It was cheap. You’d see the palenqueros come by selling it from handcarts. You don’t see that anymore. I guess they found a market for their product.”

But palenqueros aren’t the only ones who have found a viable market for their craft. And while there is much to be said about mezcal’s current day in the sun — from the fact that the “authentic” stories of “traditional” mezcal are part of a marketing tactic less than three decades old to the spirit’s recent subjection to the intractable debate over identity politics in mainstream U.S. culture — the effect this popularity has had on Oaxacans’ quality of life is undeniable. 

Not only did the boom create the perfect economic conditions for mezcalería/restaurant combos like Expendio Tradición to thrive, mezcal's current status as the “it” cocktail ingredient for social media posts has greatly benefited Fuentes and other artists whose work is not distillation. 

In the last few years, Fuentes began carving pieces of copal, cedar, and walnut with agaves, palenqueros, and other mezcal-related imagery. He features and sells these pieces on the website for Mezcal Educational Tours, and this source of income has played an important role in the survival of his business. He said that sales of these pieces to foreign mezcal aficionados helped him and his family weather the drop in tourism to San Martín Tilcajete during the coronavirus pandemic. They are confident enough in the market for their work that his children are also learning the trade and feel positive about their future in it. 

Woodcarver Emmanuel Fuentes carves the image of an agave plant into a block of wood. Such mezcal-related pieces helped his family get through the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Unable to host in-house diners due to Covid-19 lockdown measures, Expendio Tradición also got through the tough times with the help of mezcal. They were able to adapt the learning experience of a mezcal tasting from the table to customers’ front doorsteps. Chagoya said that these delivery sales allowed them to keep all of the restaurant’s 40-something employees on the payroll until they could open the doors again. 

Even street musicians have seen their business get a boost from the mezcal craze. Max Cruz is an accordionist who earns a living busking on the street. He has found a steady source of income with gigs at Expendio Tradición, where he is regularly hired to play the mournful waltzes that are his specialty. 

“I earn much more playing here in the restaurant than in the street,” said Cruz, who is blind. “It’s a question of security. In the street I run the risk of not making anything. Sometimes I might make more out there, but the thing about Expendio Tradición is that the payment is a sure thing.”

Oaxaca’s tourism ministry has recognized and taken advantage of the effect mezcal’s popularity can have on other trades. In recent years, the ministry made deliberate moves to link mezcal tourism with the state’s gastronomy and folk art traditions, and the action has paid off for providers. 

“More and more we’ve seen companies diversify into mezcal-related operations, and the economic benefits have spilled over into these other industries,” said Juan Carlos Méndez, head of the ministry’s “Caminos del Mezcal” tourism route. He said that the number of companies involved in mezcal tourism in Oaxaca has increased eight-fold since the creation of the Caminos del Mezcal route in 2016.

And the boom is far from over. Those who have witnessed the change in Oaxaca’s mezcal industry over the last few decades say that the spirit hasn’t even peaked in popularity. 

Alvin Starkman, founder of Mezcal Educational Tours, has played a significant role in the growth of mezcal’s renown outside of Mexico. His business involves educating people on mezcal production both for tourism and for those looking to bring a brand to market abroad. He has noticed that while more and more mezcal-related businesses are opening up, demand for his services has returned to pre-pandemic levels and continues to rise.

“Based on my own experience, mezcal has not peaked,” said Starkman, who features other artisans’ work on his company’s website, in addition to Fuentes', and has witnessed how their mezcal-related pieces have been a steady source of income for them. “All these different craftspeople are able to improve their businesses, and it's all because of the mezcal boom. It’s neat!”

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