How the Mezcal Boom Is Threatening Wild Agave

Mezcal's growing popularity has led to a boom in demand for bottlings made with rare, wild agave varieties. But at what cost? Rachel Signer on the dangers of over-harvesting these plants, and the producers who are taking a stand against it.

In his weathered hands, Don Goyo, a mezcalero for El Jolgorio, holds a sample of mezcal distilled from the tepeztate, a large variety of agave with generous, broad rosettes, that grows wild in the craggy foothills of the Sierra Oaxacan mountains. It can require up to 35 years to mature. Here in San Baltazar, a small town an hour’s drive from the city of Oaxaca, tepeztate has long thrived. Now, however, there’s a genuine threat to its existence.

In just two decades, mezcal has gone from virtually unknown in the U.S. to a cult-coveted spirit. And while most of the mezcal we drink in the U.S. is made from the espadín—a variety of agave that takes roughly seven years to mature and is easily cultivated—limited-production bottlings of wild agave varieties have become increasingly desirable amongst a growing set of mezcal enthusiasts.

“A lot of consumers who I talk to have become ‘tobalà drinkers only’ or ‘tepeztate drinkers,’” says Fausto Zapata, a co-founder of the brand Mezcal El Silencio, which focuses primarily on espadín. The rush of the market toward mezcal has happened so quickly, and without enough regulation, that the illegal harvesting of these finite wild varieties has already put some of these species out of existence. “They don’t think about the fact that if enough people jump on that train, that [wild] agave will be completely depleted in a little over a decade.”

Wild, in this context, refers to uncultivated plants that grow haphazardly, usually in rocky hillsides, while “cultivated” agave is typically planted in rows on tilled soil. Mezcal producers also use the phrase semi-wild or semi-cultivated to talk about wild agave varieties that have been grown from seed and then planted in their native environment. While espadín is a cultivated agave, others like tobalà, madrecuixe and barril have traditionally grown wild, but can also be replanted.

“There’s already agave species disappearing from the hills,” says Kuper. “And those populations might never come back.”

“Some strains are trickier to replant, but there’s a misconception that only Espadín can be planted,” says Judah Kuper of Mezcal Vago, which produces various limited-production varietal mezcals. Kuper, along with a number of other producers, has sought to protect the biodiversity of agave by planting varieties that are currently being depleted.

This year, Asis Cortés, founder of El Jolgorio, will begin cultivating seeds of tepeztate, while other mezcaleros that work with El Jolgorio have planted tobalà, Mexicano, barril, madrecuixe, arroqueño and others. And both Fidencio and Koch el Mezcal are currently “taking seeds from the wild, bringing to the nursery and propagating them, increasing the germination rate by massive amounts,” explains Arik Torren, founder of Fidencio and importer of Koch el Mezcal and Derrumbes.

For his part, Kuper has pledged to a “three-to-one rule,” meaning that Mezcal Vago will plant three times as much as they use, something that Mezcal El Silencio practices as well. Vago’s network of mezcaleros has planted over 50,000 individual agave plants, half of which is Tobalà, with the remaining half made up of an assortment of lesser-known varieties—all in the hopes of weaning the company almost entirely off wild agave. “Yes, we bottle wild agave, but we try to do only one batch per year,” says Kuper.

Mezcal Vago is also working with other mezcal bottlers to support an initiative, through the regulatory organization COMERCAM, to codify mezcal production and limit the use of wild agave. But these efforts still do not solve the problem of unregulated harvesting on communal land, which is depleting wild agave faster than it can be replanted and reach maturity.

“There’s a boom happening, and Oaxaca is not well-organized enough to deal with it. There are people involved who are trying to keep an eye on it, but there’s also greed and money,” says Kuper. The situation is exacerbated, too, by currently high Espadín prices, a result of Oaxaca agave farmers selling off their product to tequila producers in Jalisco. “There’s already agave species disappearing from the hills,” says Kuper. “And those populations might never come back.”

While the trend of wild variety agave is growing, it’s still fairly niche, and somewhat restricted to spirits connoisseurs or industry professionals. Rare varietal mezcal is often prohibitively costly, retailing between $125-$200, and, to be sought out, requires a certain level of esoteric knowledge that most people don’t yet have. Omari Wheat, a sommelier at the Mexican restaurant Cosme in New York, says that espadín is still the go-to for most people, and he hopes it stays that way.

Misty Kalkofen, who manages the Vino de Mezcal series for Del Maguey, which features wild agave expressions, agrees.  “Wild varietals should be a supplement to your main diet of espadín, as opposed to vice-versa.”

Wild varietal mezcal is exciting, not only due to its unique flavor profile, but because it represents an inimitable expression of terroir. But it comes at a cost that is often too great. It remains to be seen whether replanting, protective regulation and increased consumer consciousness will come together to preserve the diversity of agave in Oaxaca.

“When ‘the boom’ began, people saw how good and rare mezcal was, and it opened a caja de Pandora [Pandora’s box],” says Ulises Torrentera, owner of Oaxaca’s mezcaleria In Situ and author of the 2000 book, Mezcalaria. “We weren’t prepared.”

Inside his pocket square of a bar, Torrentera sets up a tasting of three rare varietal mezcals and slides a sheet of notes on each across the bar. At the bottom of the page, in tiny type it reads: Para consumo sacro, todo exceso es profane. “For sacred consumption, all excess is profane.”

Rachel Signer is a Brooklyn based, freelance wine, food, and spirits journalist, with a background in cultural anthropology.