Here’s why mezcal is so expensive:
Mezcal Agave Can Take Half a Lifetime to Grow
Mezcal, and the agave used to produce it, can take a lot of time to go from the ground to the glass. Even espadín agaves, the most common varietal and the easiest to grow, take anywhere from 7 to 14 years to reach peak maturity. A single tobala agave plant takes an average of 17 years to mature. Tepeztate agaves take a quarter of a century to grow.
Another challenging aspect of the agave world is that many varieties currently only grow in the wild. All that makes mezcal agave a less reliable ingredient than practically anything else in the spirit world. It also means that any individual plant is essentially irreplaceable. As Briggs points out, “Everything else that we make booze from [comes from something] that will produce another crop the next year.” Corn, barley, even tequila’s Blue Weber agave, are almost entirely farmed, and they’re all far more predictable crops.
To complicate the matter even further, when they are finally ready to be turned into mezcal, different agave plants yield wildly variable amounts of alcohol. While one espadín piña can yield approximately seven liters of mezcal, whereas a similarly sized tobala piña will make only a half a liter of mezcal.
Producing Mezcal Is Almost as Hard as Producing Agave
Mezcal is one of—if not the—most difficult alcoholic products to make in the world. “There are so many uncontrollable variables that affect the outcome of the spirit,” says Briggs. “From the weather conditions, to the [wild] yeast used to ferment it, to the wood that you use to cook [the agave], to how long you cook it—even the bacterial build up on the tahona [used to crush it]—can change it.”
If you don’t know how mezcal is made, it is a sweaty, backbreaking process. The heart of the agave plant (its piña) must be unearthed, the plant’s sword-like leaves removed by hand, and then the core of the plant roasted to caramelize the sugars and proteins to make them into a fermentable product. To roast the agave, mezcaleros dig pits deep into the ground and line them with rocks. They light fires in the pits and don’t begin cooking the agave until the fire has burned down to embers. They bury and cook the agave—which can take more than four days—before unearthing it again and pulverize it to make a fiber-rich mash. This mash is then rested in open air fermentation tanks and allowed to ferment naturally with whatever yeast is in the air and the plant itself. After fermentation, the pulpy liquid is distilled in rudimentary stills often made by hand by the mezcalero.
Compare that to something like vodka. It’s easy to acquire sterile, easy to work with ingredients to make the neutral spirit—milled grains, lab-grown yeast—and most of the people making vodka professionally utilize technologically advanced distilling systems to produce it. In fact, says Briggs, despite mezcal’s high price tag, hardworking mezcaleros may actually be some of the most underpaid in the spirits world. “There are a lot of American master distillers that are working with much less difficult ingredients [to grow or procure], often in a much less laborious way that are getting paid way more and asking way more for their products than mezcal producers are. If anything mezcal should cost more than it does.”
Mezcal Is Still Hard to Get to the United States
The Tio Pedro palenque of master mezcalero Pedro Vasquez is located in the village of Lachiguí in the district of Miahuatlan, Oaxaca. Vasquez is a third generation distiller who produces several mezcals for the El Jolgorio label. When traveling to the distillery, there’s a point when you have to park your car and hike the rest of the way in. “Even your truck won’t get there,” says Briggs. “You have to think about this mezcalero distilling literally in the middle of nowhere. The terrain is so uneven that they don’t even have a tahona. Vasquez and his sons have to break down the agave by hand—with a machete. Then they have to ferment it and distill it, which are all heavy duty processes. Then they bottle it by hand and bring it to Oaxaca City. After that it has to travel to the border safely. Then it has to safely get across the border—just to reach a liquor store shelf.”
Most of the Mexican states where mezcals are produced are some of the most remote in the country. It can be incredibly difficult to extract the spirit from these distilleries—and it can be expensive to boot. Unlike tequila, mezcal production is not a uniform, industrialized process. Nor is it like any American distilled spirit which has a more direct trade route from the distiller to the bar or the liquor store that sells it. Some producers only make a couple hundred bottles, or fewer, at a time. “To get [mezcal] across the border at a price point that isn’t insane is very difficult,” says Briggs. “Until a mezcalero can start to produce larger scales of mezcal you have to pack a container with multiple brands of different mezcals to get them across the border.” That, he says, also drives up the cost.
Mezcal is a beautiful spirit, it is a unique spirit and yes, it is an expensive one. But mezcaleros, distributors and even mother nature go to unparalleled lengths in order to get it into your glass. Now, the next time you see a bottle with a price tag in the triple digits, you’ll know why.