Chasing Mezcal in One of Mexico’s Most Dangerous Regions

Michoacán has produced agave spirits for centuries, but only last year were its distillers allowed to call their craft by its true name—mezcal. Bobby Heugel visits to understand the political and geographical challenges to mezcal's certified newcomer.

cupreata agave michoacán

As I sat in the back seat of a car next to a sleeping Phil Ward, owner of New York City’s celebrated agave bar, Mayahuel, I pondered the question any rational gringo headed towards one of Mexico’s most hostile states might: In the event that Phil and I are kidnapped, which one of us is most likely to die first?

With David Suro of Siembra Azul Tequila at the wheel, we approached Michoacán’s capital city, Morelia. Phil grumpily mumbled about Mexico’s notorious speed bumps and reminded me that he may be the only bartender who’s a bigger asshole than I am. Suddenly, I felt better about the possibility of being the last gringo standing.

This past spring, when lime prices increased by nearly 1000%, Michoacán—a relatively obscure Mexican state to most Americans—became the concern of every bartender from San Francisco to New Orleans. The cause of this crisis was the ongoing extortion of farmers by the local Knights Templar Cartel forces in Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente region. Suddenly, Michoacán mattered. But Mexico’s epicenter of lime production may soon mean even more to bartenders. Despite its ongoing instability, Michoacán’s position within the mezcal universe has just been elevated to receive greater foreign attention.

Last year, the region’s 700 traditional mezcal producers won a significant victory when Mexican law was amended to formally recognize Michoacán as the eighth state in Mexico’s Denominación de Origen (Appellation of Origin), which previously only recognized the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosí and Durango. Unbeknownst to many, mezcal is actually produced in 20, not just eight, Mexican states from over 40 varietals of agave plants—a humble reminder of just how little we really know about this spirit. The issue of why these states aren’t recognized is a confluence of many factors, including a notoriously corrupt and negligent political process, as well as cost.

To be recognized as a “mezcal producer” within the Appellation of Origin, distilleries must acquire certification, which costs around $40,000 in pesos, or $3,000 U.S. dollars—a huge undertaking for Michoacán’s poorer agave farmers. Moreover, there is only one official inspector for Michoacán, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosí and Durango combined. There are seven inspectors for Oaxaca alone and three for Guerrero. An inspector must certify every batch of mezcal produced at each distillery. As such, scheduling can be challenging.

The Mexican government’s neglect and extensive abuse of mezcaleros in Michoacán—many of them not of Spanish decent, but Purepechan, one of Mexico’s only native tribes never conquered by the colonialists—only four decades ago still haunts many families in the area. Countless rural vinatas (distilleries) were destroyed by government raids in the 1960s as part of a campaign to limit illegal alcohol production, consequently eliminating centuries of tradition.

But producers included in the Appellation of Origin have the option to produce, certify and export their mezcal, while those outside of these borders are permitted to sell only an “agave distillate,” not “mezcal,” locally. For families whose livelihood depends on the sale of their distillates, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Not only do producers have to endure the intimidation of the cartels, but in order to overcome the legal obstacles for inclusion in the Appellation, they must confront a lengthy political process that is more concerned with producers inside of the Appellation than those outside of it.

Currently, almost all of the mezcal sold outside of Mexico is from Oaxaca. However, Michoacán may be the most interesting alternative state for sourcing memorable mezcal. Unlike Oaxacan varietals commonly seen in U.S. bars, such as Espadín and Tobalá, Michoacán mezcal is primarily distilled from five varietals: Cupreata, Inaequidens, Cenizo, Tequilana and Americano. These varietals are less hardy than those from Oaxaca. Inaequidens, for example, won’t grow outside of the shade of Michoacán’s pine forests. The mezcals—the result of everything from the varieties of agave used in distillation to the copper stills and local wood used in production—result in products that are incredibly distinct from what you might find in Oaxaca or elsewhere.

On our trip to the region we visited Emilio Vieyra, a fifth-generation distiller who has been at the center of the informal network of mezcaleros who campaigned for their newly acquired status. Along with his father, he produces Don Mateo Mezcal, named for his great-grandfather, who moved the family to Michoacán from Guanajuato in 1840.

Like any traditional mezcalero, Emilio produces his mezcals from local agave harvested on his family’s land in Michoacán.  He primarily cultivates Cupreata—a short, squatty plant predominantly from Michoacán and Guerrero with broad leaves— and harvests them in the surrounding hillsides.

As we explored agave fields and distilleries near Morelia, it became clear that nearly everything about mezcal production in Michoacán is challenging. Standing on an isolated Cupreata field on a hilltop that took three hours along treacherous roadways to climb, Emilio explained that even the impassable terrain contributes to the area’s unusual mezcals. Because roads are still uncommon in many areas, the mezcals are generally hyper-localized, unlike in other regions where buying agave plants from neighbors and trading species is far easier and common.

Later in the day while walking through a Cupreata nursery, where smaller plants emerge from seeds before being replanted elsewhere, the field’s caretaker cautioned us about Michoacán’s aggressive scorpions. Her brother and many others who tend to agaves have died from their stings. Yet, scorpions and steep cliffs seem to be only a small part of the difficult history for Emilio’s family.

The Mexican government’s neglect and extensive abuse of mezcaleros in Michoacán—many of them not of Spanish decent, but Purepechan, one of Mexico’s only native tribes never conquered by the colonialists—only four decades ago still haunts many families in the area. Countless rural vinatas (distilleries) were destroyed by government raids in the 1960s as part of a campaign to limit illegal alcohol production, consequently eliminating centuries of tradition.

Today, Michoacán mezcaleros—especially those in the volatile region of Tierra Caliente—face even graver threats, and the violence is beginning to spill into other areas. A few months before our visit, Emilio’s father was kidnapped by cartel members on the very roads we traveled to visit the Cupreata fields. And while he is safe now, the dangers persist. We quickly adopted these concerns ourselves, and as we approached a stalled truck on the back roads during our visit, I couldn’t help but immediately think of how I was going to outpace Phil in a footrace to escape. Only the craziest of mezcal freaks would find themselves pondering these scenarios on the back roads of Michoacán.

In addition to our love for mezcal, Emilio and I have one attribute in common: we were both born in Houston, Texas. Emilio, unlike so many of today’s fading generation of mezcaleros, chose to continue the traditions of his family, rather than pursue a more lucrative life in the United States. Though the challenges are still tangible, Emilio’s ongoing leadership is certain to continue pushing the region forward. Despite past offenses by government officials, federal and state grants are now available for local mezcaleros to pursue certification and build vinatas—a clear recognition that Michoacán’s unique mezcals have provided a bright light amongst so much negativity. These efforts on both sides of the political mezcal fence may suggest the potential for more inspectors and foreign interest in the export of Michoacán’s mezcals. Greater stability may be closer than anyone could have imagined just a few years ago.

Phil, David and I all made it safely back to Guadalajara a few days later, victims of only the most generous people I’ve ever encountered in my life. Their unwavering dedication to the lessons passed down by their ancestors is about so much more than producing exceptional mezcal. It is about preserving their very identity—an aspect that cannot be crafted in a marketing meeting or explained in a branding presentation. As the global bar community becomes more fascinated with mezcal and its truly authentic sense of place, the sensationalism that often accompanies new products on the shelf seems an inappropriate reception to people who continue to fight for their place on it.