- Associated Press - Monday, December 14, 2015

DALLAS (AP) - He found what he was looking for in a sip of mezcal. Shad Kvetko had been exploring the growing range of quality tequilas when he found his image of Mexico’s other agave-based spirit suddenly upended.

Until then, his idea of mezcal was the gimmicky bottle with a worm in it. “I tried that years ago, and it was just terrible,” he told The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/1Nli8KK). “But for a time, that’s all you could get.”

Then, several years ago, the Dallas antiques collector and dealer visited Austin’s Bar Ilegal, at the time a tiny hole-in-the wall featuring the mezcal brand of the same name. “That flavor in my mouth - I was like, that’s what I want,” Kvetko recalled. “It’s just a more interesting experience.”

Around Texas and across the country, craft-cocktail enthusiasts and liquor aficionados are enjoying the growing number of Mexican spirits appearing on the shelves of U.S. bars and spirits retailers. While still small in terms of market share, mezcal is quickly climbing, a $126 million industry compared with $10 million a decade ago.

Meanwhile, tequila’s popularity has boomed as the spirit sheds its reputation as college-party shot; the U.S. now drinks twice as much tequila as Mexico, with Texas its second largest market.



Restaurants including Dallas’ Madrina, Plano’s Mexican Sugar and even TBD Kitchen in suburban Castle Hills, along with early adopters like Austin’s Bar Ilegal, The Pastry War in Houston and San Antonio’s Esquire Tavern, stock broad selections of agave spirits to be sipped straight or used in cocktails. On Dec. 10, Dallas’ Urban Taco will host an agave spirit-paired dinner showcasing the range of spirits Mexico has to offer.

Like Kvetko and others, consumers are learning that range means more than tequila or even mezcal; there’s raicilla and bacanora, both also made from agave, and sotol, a milder spirit produced from the desert spoon plant in northern Mexico.

Their availability is a result of the craft-cocktail renaissance that has swept the country in the last 15-plus years, creating a subculture of bartenders, industry professionals and consumers that, like the “foodie” culture with which it overlaps, favors freshness, quality, vintage recipes and exclusive or exotic ingredients.

New spirits, liqueurs and other mixers have risen to meet the demand. Others have found audiences as imbibers seek authenticity and new flavor experiences - like the agave-based spirits Kvetko covets, many made by artisan producers using generations-old methods.

“It makes sense, because never have we cared more about what we put into our bodies than we do now,” said Judah Kuper, owner of Oaxaca-based Vago Mezcal. “Wanting to know who made it, who’s the farmer, were there chemicals used in the process, where did it come from … People are looking for truth in anything these days. And mezcal doesn’t have to put on a different hat to be that - it is that, it is artisanal. It’s just agave and water, nothing else.”

The trend is in turn affecting Mexico as cocktail culture blossoms abroad, with tequila and mezcal earning newfound respect in trendy Mexico City and Guadalajara bars.

But the booming demand has come with a price: Agave - a hearty plant whose varieties require five to 35 years to reach maturity - is a limited resource, and advocates warn that overharvesting and large-scale production not only threaten agave supplies but also small producers and the traditional methods on which they’ve built livelihoods.

In response, Texas bartenders are among members of a group promoting sustainable agave production and the preservation of artisan culture.

It’s those small-batch origins that have made Kvetko, a husky and affable Oak Cliff resident, passionate about his agave spirits. He’s been to Oaxaca and brought back bottles of mezcal cushioned in diapers purchased for the task. Occasionally, as on one recent evening, he and friends meet to sample some of the category’s growing range.

The spirits are served alongside orange wedges and sal de gusano, or “worm salt,” a mix of sea salt, chile and the ground remains of roasted moth larvae that feed on the agave plant. The wedges, dipped and coated with the salt, are a traditional accompaniment to mezcal in Oaxaca.

At a table topped with bottles, the group began with a sip of buttery smooth Gracias A Dios mezcal made from the agave variety tobala. “That’s not evil at all,” said Bishop Arts shop owner Erin Hossley. “It doesn’t kick you in the back of the throat.”

Such experiences have made Joe Ramirez a fan as well. “I wasn’t a mezcal drinker before this,” said Ramirez, who like Kvetko collects and deals in antiques. “Now I’m always looking for it when I go out. I’m consuming it, and it’s consuming me.”

The forces that have brought premium tequilas, small-batch mezcals and other spirits across the border are driven by a craft-cocktail movement that has reshaped the restaurant industry.

“If you want to open a restaurant and you don’t have a good cocktail program, you’re not going to succeed,” said Bill Norris, beverage director for Alamo Drafthouse and other Austin-area bars. “People have come to expect a full bar, and you have to care about it. And I think that’s great.”

In recent years, chains like P.F. Chang’s and, locally, Pappas Bros. have added mezcal and tequilas to their shelves. “They don’t have to sell anything but Patron,” said John Garrett of Irving-based distributor Victory Wine Group. “That’s really the point of all this: People are drinking better. People want quality.”

The rising profile of agave spirits also marks an image makeover for tequila and mezcal - as spirits to be sipped and savored, not slammed.

“The first 30 years of my life, I thought the way to drink tequila was with lime, salt and a shot glass,” said Bonnie Wilson, director of independent bar programs for Addison-based FrontBurner Restaurants, which owns agave spirits-focused Mexican Sugar in Plano. “Now you sip and enjoy it like whiskey.”

That shows in some prices, too, with certain bottles retailing for $200 or far more and celebrities climbing aboard: George Clooney, Sean Combs and Carlos Santana are among those who now own pieces of tequila brands.

At Mexican Sugar, Milagro’s barrel-select tequila, with an agave plant sculpted into the bottle itself, goes for $18 a shot, while a similar pour of Clase Azul’s ultra añejo - extra-aged, poured from a hand-painted vessel - goes for $200. “We’re on our third bottle in six months,” Wilson said.

Mezcal’s image, too, has changed - not only north of the border but in Mexico, where it was once considered the drink of peasants and made mostly by small farmers for local communities in impoverished Oaxaca state.

“Ten years ago, mezcal still had a bad reputation,” said Jesica Galvan of Mexican liquor distributor InterAmericana. “It was associated with poor people. Now it’s one of the most important products to have in a bar.”

As recently as the 1990s, even tequila fought for respect in Mexico, lagging behind whiskey, brandy and rum. But with its surge in U.S. popularity, that’s changed, and imbibers are seeking out versions made from 100 percent agave rather than the 51 percent minimum required by law.

“Americans gave important social status to these spirits,” said David Suro, president of the Tequila Interchange Project, which advocates for sustainable agave production and better conditions for spirits makers. “Now it’s, like - it went back to Mexico.”

The U.S. is mezcal’s largest consumer, Galvan said, and while the spirit still trails tequila in Mexico overall, it now reigns in Mexico City, mezcal’s largest Mexican market outside Oaxaca.

“The influence of foreigners, particularly Americans, is very important, because they are the major consumers,” said Pedro Jimenez of Mezonte, a Jalisco-based group supporting traditional production methods. “When you have mezcal growth in New York, or Texas, the impact is felt very directly here.”

In Mexico City, hipsters frequent spots like Bar Felina, Maison Artemisía and the celebrated Limantour, the city’s first craft-cocktail bar when it opened in 2012. The rising scene inspired organizers of Tales of the Cocktail, the spirits industry’s annual festival in New Orleans, to hold a conference there earlier this year.

One night during that run, guest bartender Sebastian Gans of Candelaria, an agave spirits-focused bar in Paris, whipped up a drink at Limantour using sotol, lime, avocado puree and the Scandinavian spirit aquavit, coating the rim with sal de chapulín, a sal de gusano variation made with roasted grasshoppers.

“It’s a fun moment to be excited about food and drink in Mexico,” said Max St. Romain, a local food writer who uses the alias Gastronauta. “I see the mixologist’s palate being as valuable as that of high-end chefs.”

In the last decade, mezcalerias have opened in trendy Mexico City and Guadalajara neighborhoods, while restaurants like Sobrinos, a bistro in Mexico City’s Roma district, have expanded their mezcal selections. Bartender Luís Cervantes Garcia said people increasingly want to make meals an experience, and mezcal’s heady quality fulfills that, especially as an after-dinner sipper.

“Probably 80 or 90 percent of people who drink mezcal drink it straight,” said Mexico City bartender Moy Sierra. “The other percent don’t really like mezcal, so they have it in a cocktail, because drinking mezcal is cool.

“It’s like the Mexican bourbon,” he said. “We have a saying: ‘If you don’t have friends, you’re not drinking mezcal.’”

Mexican Sugar’s vast agave spirits menu is built like a wine list, with younger to aged tequilas categorized by taste profile and mezcals noted by the agave variety they were made from or the manner in which they were produced.

The list includes mezcals made with modern, more mechanized methods and a category known as vino de mezcal, meaning agave spirits produced similarly to mezcal but outside its eight officially designated Mexican regions.

More than 80 percent of mezcal comes from the southern state of Oaxaca. In all, nearly 900 of Mexico’s 2,500 municipalities are involved in mezcal production, said Hipócrates Nolasco, president of Mexico’s Mezcal Regulatory Council.

Exports grew 79 percent from 2011 to 2014, according to the council, with most going to the U.S., Chile, Australia and Spain. Sales are expected to grow 12 percent annually in the coming decade, with sales expected to top $320 million by 2025.

Texas is mezcal’s third-largest U.S. market, behind California and New York.

Though some brands produce mezcal on a large scale, at heart it’s a spirit crafted in small batches with recipes and methods passed down through generations, much of it in remote and poorer regions.

Vicente Reyes, founder of El Senorio mezcal, estimates there are more than 4,000 mezcal producers, or mezcaleros - most of them indigenous and in their 50s or older, with barely an elementary school education.

“What’s so great about tequila and mezcal is these guys have been making it for hundreds of years,” said FrontBurner’s Wilson. “They’re not chemical engineers. They don’t know about enzymatic properties. They just taste it. They do it because that’s what their dad did. It’s this beautiful nuance of tradition, a connection between land and people.”

Some 70,000 families depend on tequila for their livelihood, as author Chantal Martineau noted in her 2015 book, How The Gringos Stole Tequila: The Modern Age of Mexico’s Most Traditional Spirit.

In the most customary methods, agave hearts are crushed with mallets or in a tahona, a concrete wheel powered by horse or mule. For mezcal, rather than being cooked in large ovensas with tequila, the hearts are roasted in covered underground pits and included in the distillation process, giving the spirit its distinctively smoky flavor.

Brands like Del Maguey, Vago and Mezcaloteca sift out small mezcal producers and celebrate traditional methods, labeling bottles with the maker’s name, village, age and type of agave and stills used. Such factors, combined with the terrain on which the agave is grown, give mezcals a broad range of flavors that some compare to Scotch or even wine.

“When you drink mezcal, you’re tasting the soil, the land, the environment,” said Noe Fernando Pacheco Villalpando of Michoacán’s Don Mateo mezcal.

Generations-old recipes long confined to their locales are being pulled into the spotlight. “They were never brought down out of the mountains until 15 years ago,” said Jonathan Barbieri of Oaxaca’s Pierde Almas mezcal. “For 400 years, they were locked inside the time capsules of these villages.”

Kuper, Vago’s Colorado-born owner, was a high school dropout turned surf bum who developed an ear infection while surfing off the Oaxaca coast. At the local hospital, he fell in love with his nurse, wooed her away from her fiance and discovered mezcal through her father, Aquilino Garcia Lopez, who ran a six-generations-old mezcal operation.

In time, Kuper would marry his love, buy out the palenque and market small-batch mezcals. He called the brand Vago, after his vagabond lifestyle.

“Yo soy el vago,” he says. I am the bum. “I’ve been a ski bum and a surf bum, and now I’m a mezcal bum.”

Vago hit the U.S. in 2013. Its first-ever account was at Houston’s Anvil Bar and Refuge.

It was a symbolic moment for Kuper’s father-in-law, who as a younger man had tried several times to cross the border illegally. He failed. He later tried working as a coyote, a smuggler; that didn’t go well either. Suddenly he was in Austin, Houston and San Antonio, talking up his mezcal.

“Irony of irony,” Kuper said. “The spirit of Oaxaca is invading the state of Texas, but it’s a spirit that goes both ways. We feed off one another.”

Garcia, he said, embodies the spirit’s humble origins. “I’m pretty sure I could give Aquilino $9,000 and he would still never tile the bathroom,” Kuper said. “It’s basically grandpa in the still and grandma in the kitchen making tamales, and to get that in a bottle is pretty special.”

But as more and more brands look to do just that, some fear that a gold-rush mentality and an unchecked thirst for agave-based spirits could deplete agave supplies, destroy agave ecosystems and sacrifice quality for quantity and speed. Even big brands like Patron now offer tequila produced the traditional tahona way.

The Tequila Interchange Project, a coalition of bartenders, academics and hospitality industry professionals, formed about five years ago in response to those concerns. TIP views its role as agave industry watchdog, and members gathered in the hills of Oaxaca earlier this year for an update on mezcal’s situation.

“We want to keep these spirits what they are,” said TIP president Suro, who owns Los Catrines, a Mexican restaurant in Philadelphia, and a line of small-batch tequila called Siembra Azul. “They’re like no other.”

The group’s biggest coup so far was the 2012 defeat of legislation that Suro said would have benefited large producers and devastated small producers and agave ecosystems. Within two weeks, TIP - whose 80-plus members include San Antonio bartender Houston Eaves and Houston’s Bobby Heugel - helped gather thousands of signatures in opposition to the move.

TIP is now working to limit pesticides and promote practices aiding agave pollination, a process conducted by bats since the plants’ flowers open only by night.

“I don’t think mezcal is prepared to go through a shortage of agave like the tequila industry did,” Suro said. “Popularity has been growing at a faster pace than the raw material is capable of keeping up with.”

Because agave plants take years or even decades to mature, planning is paramount. “It’s not like corn, or wheat, or grapes, where you have crops every year,” he said. “It’s very challenging for agave producers to predict what the demand is going to be that far ahead.”

In addition to TIP, mezcaleros themselves in 2013 formed Encuentro Agave, a group dedicated to sharing best practices to promote sustainability, biodiversity and socially conscious consumption. Led by co-founder Sten Maldonado, the group presented at July’s Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, describing plans for agave nurseries and genetic banks to promote long-term propagation.

“We don’t pressure mezcaleros to produce more than they can,” said CEO Santiago Suarez of Mezcal Amaras, which donates a percentage of profits to promote reforestation and better conditions for producers. “We ask them to keep their traditions and practices.”

New regulations under consideration would define some mezcals as artisanal or even ancestral, reflecting how closely their production methods adhere to traditional ways.

Consumers can play a role, Suro said, by being more aware of the circumstances behind the bottles they choose. Kuper agreed.

“The Texas market is so important because of the industry leaders there,” he said, citing bartenders Heugel and Eaves, as well as, in Dallas, Madrina’s Michael Martensen and Urban Taco’s Markus Pineyro as active supporters of sustainable and traditional agave spirit production.

“People from all over the country are looking to Texas for how they should approach mezcal,” Kuper said. “Those guys are doing it in such an ethical, transparent manner. It’s really important, what’s happening there, for the rest of the world.”

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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

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