Mezcal is no longer a niche regional spirit.
Walk into any hip cocktail spot stateside and the smoky, agave-based spirit will likely star in at least one cocktail on the menu, while a few bottles will grace the back bar. In some instances, there are dedicated bars devoted almost exclusively to agave spirits. Such popularity has fueled a notable uptick in sales. From 2011 to 2021, mezcal experienced a compound annual growth rate of 30 percent in the United States, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. The category is also expected to grow another 18 percent between 2022 and 2026. That’s a major boost for a spirit that, until recently, seldom left the areas where it was produced.
Most mezcal that’s exported internationally is still made using extremely labor-intensive methods. Impressively, producers have kept up with the increasing demand without compromising on these practices. But access to new markets and exploding interest is changing how brands make, market, and sell the spirit. Industrially produced mezcal, celebrity-owned brands, and even barrel-aged mezcal have flourished amid this newfound foreign infatuation. Of these changes, the most controversial might be that of barrel aging mezcal.
Travesty or Tradition?
By and large, mezcal is still made much the same way today as it was hundreds of years ago. In fact, many traditional practices are legally protected under Mexican law. Artesanal and ancestral mezcals are defined by their adherence to certain production techniques, like roasting agave in underground pits, open-air fermentation, and crushing the agave with either a stone wheel pulled by livestock or by hand. Historically, producers harvested the naturally growing, wild agave they had access to when it was ready, regardless of the species. Some of these wild species used, like the Tobalá agave, can take up to 25 years to fully mature. This is a stark contrast to the eight-year maturation of the more easily cultivated Blue Weber agave, which is used to make tequila, mezcal’s more ubiquitous sibling.
Tequila caught on outside of Mexico much earlier than other agave spirits. Over time, many of the rudimentary production methods were replaced by industrial machinery. Tequila itself changed, too. Most notably, producers began to age their spirits in wooden barrels. The aging process softens some of the more challenging vegetal notes, and contact between the spirit and wood also adds a golden or amber color along with added flavor. These barrel-aged expressions (known as reposado and añejo) gained widespread popularity for their smooth profile, and caramel and vanilla flavors. Eventually, they became a widely accepted — and expected — part of the category.
Discussions around barrel aging mezcal remain quite contentious, however. Mezcal aficionados tend to feel strongly about the spirit, celebrating its deep ties to the land and culture of Mexico. Many who operate in the mezcal space see barrel aging as inauthentic and an affront to the spirit’s centuries-old heritage.
“It doesn’t really reflect what a traditional mezcal is,” says Pedro Jimenéz, director of nonprofit mezcal bottler and exporter Mezonte. Jimenéz works closely with producers, supporting farmers and distillers who are dedicated to maintaining the practices taught to them by past generations of mezcaleros.
Jimenéz and other industry professionals believe that every bottle of mezcal tells a story. To them, the unique flavor of each mezcal offers a pathway to better understand a community, region of origin, and the practices used there to produce the spirit. Call it “terroir,” if you will.
“This is completely lost when adding the flavor of wood,” Jimenéz says.
Great mezcal is made from from the best agave — the depth and complexity of the final spirit come from the maturation of the plant in its natural habitat. “You’re cultivating a plant that takes eight to 25 years to grow and a lot of agaves are wild,” says Maxwell Reis. “The focus is on the terroir of the agave, which is why they’re cultivating it for so long. The act of covering it up with a barrel just seems kind of silly.”
Mezcal experts like Reis, who is the beverage director at Los Angeles agave bar Mírate, see barrel-aged mezcal as a marketing decision employed to entice uneducated American drinkers. “[These brands] think they’re doing something fun and exciting, but in reality, they’re creating a market for something that didn’t previously exist,” Reis says.
Reis sees this as a side effect of Western consumerism, and the common phenomenon of latching onto a specific aspect of another culture, and then expecting producers to cater to their limited perception or interpretation of that product. “[Barrel-aged mezcal] is the same to me as Americanized Chinese food,” Reis says.
But proponents of barrel aging claim that there actually is historical precedent, and in a sense, they’re correct. Although formal documentation is scarce, it’s believed that producers have stored and aged mezcal in barrels for generations — but adding flavor was never the goal. “Barrels were the means of transport,” says Gilbert Marquez, brand ambassador for Ilegal Mezcal. “If you went from city to city showing your mezcal, you stored it and served it out of a barrel.”
Agave spirit content creator Lucas Assis represents the hardcore contingent of mezcal afficionados — the type of drinker who cares deeply about the provenance and authenticity of agave distillates. Perhaps surprisingly, he doesn’t necessarily take issue with barrel aging. “If mezcaleros have been doing it for generations, who are we to say ‘you shouldn’t do that?’” he says.
Oak and Agave
Barrel aging any spirit is a delicate act. Too much time spent in contact with oak can overpower the natural flavors of the spirit, and some feel that perfect balance between agave and barrel is unachievable. “The taste of the mezcal is completely killed by aging it for just a few months,” Jimenéz says. “What’s the purpose of putting something so complex into a barrel and losing all of that complexity?”
“Aged mezcal is great if we can balance the flavor of the agave and not forget that it’s a mezcal as well,” Marquez says. “When I taste [Ilegal’s] añejo, it’s still unmistakably a mezcal.”
Ilegal is one of the most visible brands producing aged mezcals, echoing tequila with reposado and añejo expressions. Ilegal’s line recently expanded to include a premium extra añejo expression. The spirit spends seven years aging in French oak — a long time for any agave distillate, but a relative lifetime for mezcal. When tasting the expression, the familiar salinity and slight smokiness of mezcal are there, but muted. Meanwhile, caramel, vanilla, and chocolate notes that come from the aging process are much more prominent.
While not “traditional” per se, the familiar caramel and vanilla flavors imparted by barrel aging bring other benefits — namely, broadening the spirit’s appeal to bourbon and Cognac drinkers. “It’s a great avenue to pique the interest of someone who might otherwise have kept walking down the aisle when they’re at the liquor store,” says Marquez.
That may well be true, but whether those drinkers will seek other (traditional) mezcal expressions remains another question entirely.
As with any growing industry, changes to production are inevitable over time — and not inherently a bad thing. But these changes don’t have to result in a scenario where mezcal’s reputation is irreparably damaged and traditional production practices are lost.
Agave spirits are now one of most valuable categories in the U.S., thanks to tequila’s undeniable success. But that success didn’t come without its costs. Tequila’s initial rise was partially driven by America’s post-Prohibition preference for barrel-aged spirits. But as popularity increased, producers began to take serious shortcuts to meet demand. In order to lower production costs, producers began replacing some of the agave used in distillation with sugar, creating what’s now known as mixto tequila. Caramel coloring and vanilla flavoring also became commonplace — all meant to emulate the effects of barrel aging.
Mezcal aficionados see the category at a similar crossroads. Tequila’s move toward industrialized production caused a drop in quality in many cases, but led to economic success and ultimately bolstered its perception as a premium spirit. Mezcal has undoubtedly benefited from this — the demand for high-quality, unadulterated agave spirits has never been higher. Among insiders and drinkers, there is still a fear that mezcal producers may similarly decide to move on from the ancestral practices that make the spirit unique in the pursuit of greater profits and sacrifice quality in the process.
But is the existence of barrel-aged mezcal actually a threat to mezcal production? It’s possible that its presence is having the opposite effect. “I think It would depend on what the producer’s perception is,” says Marquez. “If they had a negative view of barrel aging, that should motivate them to produce more mezcal that they think is the right representation of mezcal. Which is a good thing.”
Some believe that the only way mezcaleros can compete in a growing market is if consumers are well informed about the cultural importance of historic techniques. “We have to be careful about what we’re supporting,” says Jimenéz. “To preserve the mezcals we fell in love with, we should buy what they are already producing and pay a good price.”
Ultimately, the primary concern among serious mezcal drinkers is the preservation and perpetuation of the rich culture that surrounds the spirit. And while some may see change as a threat to tradition, there is hope that both barrel-aged and unaged mezcal can coexist.
“We’re not saying our way is the best and only way to make mezcal, but it’s the way we decided to do it,” Marquez says. “Traditions change slightly with the times. It’s up to us to decide whether we want to support it or not.”