Loading...

Mezcal is booming, in part because it has roots. In the US, mezcal's top market, where the old is routinely torn down to build new, roots resonate with a certain type of consumer. Enough of us are not as enamored with the new, as its promoters would care to acknowledge. Take houses, for example. 100-year-old houses take work to restore and work is expensive. Old houses require problem-solving and work-arounds. They require a level of patience and willingness to tolerate quirks that most people don't want to be bothered by. They require respect, in other words. New houses are easy. Follow the plans, everything snaps together like Legos, and someone is always waiting to buy stainless steel appliances in a trendy new neighborhood with live-work space, and a yoga studio. Don't look at the 2" baseboards, ignore that the cabinets are made of MDF, and pretend you can tolerate the tap-tap-tap of the floating laminate flooring. The surfaces look fantastic and that's what matters. The satisfaction of the new tableau in which one will Instagram their new life for the approval and admiration of their friends is but a few signatures away. It's the monthly payment, stupid, not the interest. The builder doesn't need the house to last another 100 years when five will suffice to get it sold and survive the warranty period. To hell restoring old houses! We can deal with the upside-down mortgage later.

Or, you care. You care about what lies beneath the surfaces. You care that another person, now long dead and buried, built a house using materials and techniques that ensured the house would stand for hundreds of years. That person had the wherewithal to give a shit about people he would never meet, but who would be heirs to his efforts nonetheless. That person set out an invisible legacy that he knew would never give him the satisfaction of admiration. But satisfaction of that nature is transient. The truth is that he never gave it a thought. There is satisfaction in doing something right for its own sake--because that's the way you do it. You put time and effort into your work not because you will be praised for doing it that way (although you might), but because you want to be satisfied knowing you did it to your standard, the right standard. You know that others who come after you deserve to inherit quality. They deserve to have houses and buildings and institutions that made good use of materials and that honor human capital, rather than as little use of materials and human energy as was needed to get on to the next project, heirs be damned. 

I think that the mezcal industry is dominated by the second group of people. I think it is threatened by the first. You can see this tension played out in Oaxaca itself. Walk down the main tourist street, the Alcalá, and touts will ply you with dyed-yellow industrial-production "mezcal" that tastes like shit and has been watered down to an ABV in the 30s. Why? Ask yourself: Why is there an attractive, smiling young woman handing it to you? These are products designed to perform one function: to be sold one time. If you look more closely, you can also find the family members of traditional mezcaleros out selling their mezcal. They use plastic bottles without attractive lables. These mezcals can be hit-or-miss by mezcalophile standards, but they are always a level above the yellow tourist-trap junk. You can find outstanding expressions in among the former. You will never find it among the latter.

Or, consider the gentrification of the city's architecture. All around town, outsiders are buying real estate and renovating old buildings. When it is done, the results are often beautiful. (Oaxaca is a city that cares deeply about its aesthetic resources.) They are also priced out of range for the majority of the locals. This is a political consideration that will not be resolved in one essay, in one city, or maybe ever. It is not always a problem. Many wealthy people care. Mexican society has a wide distribution of income, the same as we do in the US. There is no need to fall into the fruitless and unsatisfying trap of class hatred. That leads to resentment, which is a distraction that pays no dividends. People will spend their money how they wish and there is not much to be done about it. The question I wish to draw your attention to is this: Are these renovations serving future generations or are they serving an appearance? Does the building serve a timeless need, or does it serve someone's ego? To whom, in other words, does the interest accrue? Look behind the appearance and you find your answer. This information is not always obvious, but it is available.

What can be done about bad actors abusing tradition in order to profit from mezcal? As long as people are uneducated about mezcal, there is not much. But for you, reader, who knows, there is this: Spend your money on people who build for the future, not for Instagram. This will inform who accumulates money, and, in turn, who gets to spend it. When you buy mezcal, are you buying a product from people the benefits of whose work accrue to future generations, or are you buying a product that lasts as long as the next social media post? 

Until next time... Salud!

-R