It’s mesmerizing to watch as the piña, or core, of an agave plant splits open with one fell swoop of an axe. At the upwards of 3,000 rural palenques (or mezcal distilleries) in Mexico’s colorful, but poor state of Oaxaca, that satisfying whir of the blade is an all-too-familiar sound. By harvest time, these majestic plants, or magueys, have been aged between eight to twelve years, and are now en route to be crushed, fermented, and distilled into mezcal—the clear liquid often referred to as tequila’s smokier cousin.
While tequila is technically a subcategory of mezcal made specifically from blue agave, the broader label applies to spirits made from any of the over 30 varieties of the plant, including wild-growing and farmed varieties. A rustic drink of campesinos, or farmers, mezcal has been thrust into the global spotlight by fervent interest from bartenders and consumers, and in turn international liquor companies like Bacardí and Pernod Ricard, both of whom forayed into the category for the first time in the last two years. Along with tequila, mezcal now faces its own growing pains that are compounded by the simple fact that agave—unlike grain or sugarcane used to make whiskey or rum, respectively—cannot be constantly harvested, instead requiring years to mature.
It was during his first visit to Oaxaca in 2005, that Richard Betts—the sommelier, winemaker, and New York Times-bestselling author—truly fell for mezcal and the people who produce it. “Agave spirits are unique because they’re uppers, not downers,” explains Betts about his initial fascination with the stuff. “The variety of different agave species along with the regional differences—terroir, really—that makes for so many possibilities.”
In 2006, Betts founded Sombra Mezcal to create a product that would be sustainable for both the land and the indigenous community, while appealing to consumers and bartenders. Sombra, an award-winning mezcal with subtle smoke and notes of citrus, now has the second highest sales of mezcal in the States. To make his vision a reality, the master sommelier leveraged his wine know-how to rethink agave farming in sustainable, terroir-driven terms. He also brought together a team of all-star locals helmed by director general and expat John Sean Fagan, Mexico City-born distiller José Pablo Raña Zorrilla, and civil engineer Martha Cardoso, a Oaxaca Mixe native who oversaw the construction of the distillery.
At that swanky new facility in the desert town of Matatlan, the entire process of making mezcal has been vertically integrated so that Sombra can have complete control. Distiller Raña Zorrilla, who joined the team just three years ago fresh out of college, taps into his food chemistry education to oversee quality, tasting new distillates as they come in to ensure that every bottle tastes like the next. While he brings a modern, controlled approach to mezcal, Raña Zorrilla hopes to honor the spirit’s integrity by letting its natural ingredient speak for itself. “I respect traditional palenques a lot—the quality is good, but the flavor changes in big batches,” he says, explaining that many palenques are unable to standardize the sourcing of their raw materials. “We care about the maturity of the agave and their terroir. Everything is done organically—we work directly with local campesinos to produce our maguey.”
Each step of production, from fermentation to distillation, has also been reimagined to reduce its environmental impact—right down to the donkey traditionally used to pull the tahona, or limestone wheel used to crush roasted agave. It starts with one-hundred-percent Espadín agave farmed in high altitudes with premium terroir. After harvest, the piñas are slow-roasted on dark encino wood sourced from a sustainably managed forest—here’s where mezcal gets its signature smoky taste. From there, they’re crushed by a solar-powered, rather than animal-powered, tahona, which Fagan says is “more efficient and less costly” due to adjustable levels of speed and pressure. (And Oaxaca does enjoy a solid 300 days of sunlight, after all). Finally, the agave syrup is fermented using native yeasts and distilled, with rainwater, in 650-liter stills powered by clean natural gas rather than wood, whose smoke is harmful to the mezcal artisans, or mezcaleros.
“Coming to mezcal as a winemaker brings different perspectives and sensitivities,” explains Betts. “You can literally put Manhattan garbage in a still and booze will come out the other end. Wine is really different; you have to take care at every step or you’ll make vinegar or worse. So, when approaching mezcal we try to do everything as gently, as kindly, and as cleanly as possible. This pertains to the ingredients, but it is perhaps even more important when it comes to the byproducts and waste.”
While several mezcal brands, such as Montelobos Mezcal and Mezcales de Leyenda, can claim comparable standards of sustainable production and agave-sourcing, Sombra has differentiated itself in the industry with its treatment and upcycling of materials left over from the process. “The noxious byproducts of mezcal production are traditionally dumped into rivers or open spaces,” explains Eleana Nuñez, who holds the enviable title of Agave Ambassador for Sombra. “These wastes deplete oxygen and can make the water undrinkable for villagers.”
Rather than dispose of waste in community water sources, Sombra has pioneered a solution for the spent agave fibers (bagozo) left over from the tahona pit, which the company’s engineers combine with dirt and liquid runoff from distillation (vinasa) to create bricks. This labor-intensive process recalls the time-honored methods of Oaxacan raw-earth construction, in which wet molds of compost are laid out in the sun to dry, yielding a stable, naturally-made building block. Each brick contains six to eight liters of vinaza and three to four kilograms of bagazo.
One of Mexico’s poorest states, Oaxaca is often plagued by natural disaster. In the fall of 2017, a 8.1 magnitude quake killed scores and shuttered schools. In February of this year, tragedy struck again in the form of a 7.2 earthquake that claimed over a dozen lives and shut off power for thousands. Partnering with architects at the Consultorio de Asesoría Arquitectónica, Sombra is donating their bricks back to the local community in Oaxaca’s Sierra Mixe district, home to the Mixe ethnic minority. This year, the team completed its first house in the earthquake-stricken town of Ayutla, through the help of a strictly volunteer workforce working alongside locals. The 36 square meter structure will serve as a model for the local community to use the bricks for their own housing, while Sombra takes on another community project renovating a wall for a nearby graveyard.
“I felt so fulfilled with the adobe house construction project in the Mixe region,” says Martha Cardoso, who now serves as the distillery’s general manager. “This is where I was born and raised before moving to Oaxaca City to pursue my education. Through this project, I’m able to give back to my hometown and see how happy and proud they are with the reconstruction of homes after the earthquakes.”
Oaxaca is notable for being a crossroads of Mexico’s indigenous ethnic minority groups including the Zapotec, Mixe, and Mazatecos—some of these groups are known as the “never conquered” peoples, having successfully defended themselves from both the Aztec empire and the Spanish conquistadores. Like many nearby palenques, Sombra employs a large number of these minorities—about 77 percent of its employees are indigenous. For the past three years, the company has hosted free, biweekly classes for children in Matatlan to learn Zapotec and English language, computer skills, and dance as a way to help engage and empower local communities.
Today, Sombra is sharing its gospel of sustainability with the bartending community, hosting a sustainable cocktail competition judged by anti-waste pioneers Kelsey Ramage and Iain Griffithsof the Trash Tiki pop-up. And back home in Oaxaca, the company is actively promoting its strategies and resources in an open-source format, inviting palenques near and far to come and learn about environmentally-friendly practices that be applied at each step of mezcal production. Fagan says that the Mexican government’s mezcal-regulating body has now expressed interest in this work for potential implementation across the sector—a major step towards fulfilling Betts’ founding vision.
“I want all producers to have the inclination and know-how to make great mezcal while also caring for the environment and community,” Betts says. “There’s no reason to think that the sustainability changes Sombra initiated couldn’t someday become the sanctioned production methods for all mezcal.”