The Tricky Business of Ethical Mezcal

Niki Nakazawa and Max Rosenstock, the partners behind Neta, have created a new model for bringing the exploited Mexican spirit to market.

The moon was full and the bar was empty and the dancing had entered its sixth hour, kicking up dust that settled on toppled plastic bottles, emptied of mezcal. The whole village of Logoche—a community of three extended families nestled in the agave-studded hills three hours south of Oaxaca City—had turned up on a cool January evening to celebrate the baptism of a grandson of one of the village’s 12 maestro mezcaleros. Just about everyone had come with a bottle, as an offering for the new generation and a tribute to the previous one.

Circling the tentpole, with tiny shot glasses (and at one point a live turkey) lifted above their heads, were Max Rosenstock, 33, and Niki Nakazawa, 35, co-founders of the boutique mezcal label Neta, which bottles and exports the spirits made in Logoche. Arriving at the baptism hours earlier, Rosenstock and Nakazawa had been greeted with warm hugs and eager nips of the newest lots produced from the surrounding agave fields, planted with rows of sabre-like espadín and spiked with the tall, narrow trunks of madrecuixe, bicuixe and tobaziche, common names for the Agave karwinskii varieties that have made the surrounding region of Miahuatlán famous.

As Nakazawa approached the bar shortly after her arrival, Wili García smiled and poured a plastic thimble full of his most recent experiment with jabalí, a notoriously difficult variety to distill, and cucharilla, the agave-adjacent plant used to make sotol in Mexico’s arid north. One of Logoche’s younger mezcaleros, 29-year-old García wouldn’t be distilling cucharilla at all had Rosenstock not suggested it in 2016; the varieties native to this part of Mexico grow too slowly to be commercially viable (for years, in fact, the maestros here used the plant for decoration, certain that it couldn’t produce enough sugars to distill). But the experiment had yielded exciting results: a distillate, as Nakazawa put it, that smelled “like damp leaves … or like an orchard.” García made only 51 liters of this particular blend: a pure expression of the local soil and shared curiosity.

That curiosity has been the central principle for the Oaxaca-based Neta, one among a small but growing crop of commercializers working with mezcal producers to develop links to larger markets, which can pay fair prices without fundamentally changing the nature or scale of production. By exposing metropolitan centers and the export market to mezcals from small villages, companies like Neta have helped to make traditional mezcal profitable enough so producers don’t need to shift methods to meet industrial demand, or replace slow-growing crops with more lucrative ones. Respected among producers in the countryside, Neta (as well as a handful of other small commercializers like Cuish, 5 Sentidos, Mezcaloteca and In Situ) works as a more rooted, responsible counterweight to the brands that seem to pop up in Oaxaca overnight, pet projects funded by wealth from Mexico’s capital or celebrities from the United States.

“There are young people getting college educations and growing up with the idea that maybe there’s money in mezcal.”

Given mezcal’s current ubiquity in bars and cocktails from Los Angeles to London, it can be difficult to imagine that, until a little over a decade ago, few people outside Mexico’s mezcal-producing communities drank the distillate with any frequency. As recently as 2010, a liter of espadín from Logoche would sell for as little as 25 pesos (at the time equivalent to about $2), says García; even rarer mezcals made from wild tepextates and tobalas—intoxicatingly fragrant and remarkably difficult to harvest from their perches on rocky cliffs—would sell for just a few cents more. Though Logoche was known locally for excellent mezcal, earning a living from distilled agave was all but impossible. Today, García sells his product for 10 times more, thanks in large part, he says, to his partnership with Neta.

It took nearly a decade after Rosenstock and Nakazawa first visited Mexico before Neta became a commercial possibility. When Rosenstock, a New Mexico native, arrived in Oaxaca to learn Spanish in 2006, he spent much of his time in the city’s central square observing the plantón, a vast protest against police violence, that occupied the city’s central plaza for seven months. There, he befriended the son of a maestro mezcalero who hosted him in their village, San Sebastián de las Grutas, where he tasted a traditionally made, small-batch mezcal for the first time. In 2012, following rumors of a prizeworthy madrecuixe made by a local maestro named Hermógenes García Vásquez, Rosenstock landed in Logoche, and was blown away by karwinskiis that tasted like soil after a long summer rain and by tepextate as aromatic as Chanel No. 5, as Nakazawa has described it.

Nakazawa, who grew up with two sisters, an Uruguayan mother and a Japanese American father in Massachusetts, studied abroad in Oaxaca in 2005 and moved to Mexico City in 2007, experiencing her first “proper taste” of mezcal on a trip back to Oaxaca that same year. She first learned of Logoche in 2012 when Rosenstock, a friend of her then-boyfriend, gifted them with bottles he’d picked up whenever he traveled through the capital. At the time, Nakazawa ran a program of pop-ups in Mexico City through her company Pichón and worked closely with Yolcan, which had just begun developing its organic farm on one of Mexico City’s chinampas, pre-Hispanic agricultural systems that survive at the city’s edges.

Before long, Nakazawa started hosting mezcal events and private tastings at her apartment. “Mezcal became this passport: You show your mezcal membership card,” she says, “and get access to all these beautiful, interesting places.” By 2016, Nakazawa had landed a gig as the “beverage Sherpa” for Noma’s six-week pop-up in Tulum, taking the restaurant’s drinks director, Mads Kleppe, around Mexico City, Hidalgo, Oaxaca and Merida. Shortly after, she became a fixer for the Mexico locations on chef David Chang’s series Ugly Delicious. 

“It’s more than just mezcal: Niki’s a person with access to good things from the campo,” Rosenstock says on a recent January morning at Neta’s modest sun-drenched office on a minuscule plaza at the edge of Oaxaca’s historic center. “And those special things only come from good relationships.”

Rosenstock spent years building those relationships in Logoche before Neta—a Mexican slang word that can mean “Really?” or “Really!” or, paired with the definite article la, “the good stuff”—was founded in 2015, three years after his first visit to the village. Though he’d begun casually discussing a commercial endeavor with Hermógenes García not long after they met in 2012, it took nearly two years for García to tell him about the village’s 12-person cooperative, founded in 2009 in response to a regionwide co-op scheme that had cheated hundreds of producers starting in the early ’90s. In the decades prior, most producers around Miahuatlan, starved for economic opportunity, supplemented their incomes by illegally growing cannabis or working as small-time traffickers in the drug trade. “There were zero other options,” Rosenstock says. “It was either migrate or grow pot.”

The upside of this sudden market growth is that a generations-old craft has begun the long process of professionalization.

Even more so than the quality of the mezcal, Rosenstock was astonished by the community itself. In villages lacking Logoche’s unity or savvy, schisms have opened as new brands have forged lucrative relationships with select families, leaving others behind with simmering resentment. Closer to the state capital, industrial producers pay growers handsome sums to harvest their agave in bulk, distilling and homogenizing mixed batches, many of which they sell on to new brands that capitalize on the romantic imagery of artisanal mezcal to peddle a fundamentally industrial product. The result is not just the elimination of traditional recipes, but also large-scale deforestation.

If Logoche avoids these fates, Rosenstock says, it will have less to do with Neta’s presence than it does a shared vision. “There’s definitely an understanding that together there’s much more potential than if every individual family tries to fight this battle on their own,” says Rosenstock. “There’s sharing of knowledge and information,” adds Nakazawa. “People really communicate.” Working entirely through the co-op, Neta has become a participant in that collective conversation, encouraging producers to continue experimenting with ancestral methods and offering an economic incentive for them to do so, but functioning, ultimately, as just another stakeholder, another member of the extended family, subject to the same rules, contributing to the same shared ends.

Like the producers they work with, small commercializers have faced their own set of problems stemming from the recent mezcal boom. Companies that have spent years generating relationships with producers have lost them to newer entrants, who forgo the complex research required to understand the ecological and cultural context of individual communities, and immediately demand quantities that outstrip what ancestral methods can produce.

Nakazawa notes emphatically that this isn’t a one-way street. “This is not people from the outside poaching producers: It’s also a business decision that a producer is making.” But, says Rosenstock, “there are thousands of producers all over the country, people who make marvelous mezcals and who would love commercial relationships. I think if you actually care, you could put the effort into some kind of exploration of your own.” For the consumer with buying power, they recommend drinking widely from small brands across Mexico as a way to support what Nakazawa calls “an ecology of companies” as diverse as the ecology of agave itself.

Ultimately, the upside of this sudden market growth is that a generations-old craft has begun the long process of professionalization. “There are young people getting college educations and growing up with the idea that maybe there’s money in mezcal,” says Nakazawa. In the coming years, the co-op in Logoche hopes to launch its own mezcal brand for the local market, which will allow them to sell their own product directly and ensure that some of it will remain affordable for locals. Rosenstock and Nakazawa have worked closely with the co-op to help them navigate a bureaucracy designed to confound the efforts of anyone without connections. Opaque even to people proximate to urban seats of power—it took Nakazawa and Rosenstock two frustrating years to get all their paperwork in order—those systems are all but impenetrable for those who live and work in the countryside.

“For them to get their full end of the deal, they need to be able to take advantage of whatever connections we do have,” Nakazawa says. “It’s an important obligation,” Rosenstock agrees. “Because that lack of infrastructure and isolation is what created the necessity for people from the outside in the first place.”

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