SAN LUIS DEL RIO, Mex. -- It’s after midnight at Bar Añejo in Manhattan. Añejo means ‘aged’. On this night--in this place--it means “the nectar of a Mexican plant that’s been lovingly grown, and you’re about to sip it.”
“We’re having a midnight mezcal de Oaxaca….”
Mezcal is tequila’s cousin. Both are products of both the agave plant and astonishing skill. But unlike tequila, mezcal isn’t mass produced -- each batch is unique -- and most of the people here have never tasted it.
“It’s wonderfully smooth, it has a very powerful, smoky taste.”
Mezcal bars are increasingly popular in the U.S. in cities like New York, Austin, Denver and Los Angeles. The Mexican agency that certifies mezcal says exports have gone from 100,000 gallons to 170,000 in the last 2.5 years.
But this isn’t a story about where mezcal ends up, or why it’s in fashion.
This is about where mezcal’s made, how it’s made, and how an unexpected thirst for mezcal in the United States is bringing some people home to Mexico.
The village of San Luis del Rio in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca is out there. They say God won’t find you if you slip off the twisting gravel roads that look like ribbon on the mountains, the Sierra Madre.
Getting there’s easy … if you have a sturdy 4-wheel drive. From the state capital, Oaxaca City, you snake through small towns and settlements. Then you climb along a steep dirt road, passing the odd iguana and carpets of cactus.
Two hours later you cross El Rio Hormiga Colorada, the Red Ant River, into a slender valley. Agave plants adorn the land and cornfields crown a rocky plateau. You’re in San Luis.
"We and our families depend on mezcal," Jorge Mendez said in Spanish. He is a mezcal producer, or mezcalero. His face is burnished by the sun; one hand grips a machete, the other adjusts a faded blue baseball cap.
In his family’s still where the mezcal is made, a horse pulls a stone wheel over chunks of roasted agave. The mash under the wheel is fermented and then double distilled over a smoky fire.
There used to be a thousand people in this village. Now, Mendez said, half of them live in the U.S.
With all those people gone, it’s hard to find skilled mezcal makers. He said almost everyone who left would be helping to produce mezcal were they home.
It’s really hard work for one person, he said.
"You have to harvest the plant, gather firewood, grind the plant and distill it," he said. But these days, Jorge Mendez has help.
Jorge’s brother Fabian says people will return. Fabian lived illegally in the U.S. for a time. Then one day, his family called and said ‘Come home. There’s work now.’
“The hope is that if mezcal’s popularity keeps rising, everyone will come home to work. After all your friends and family are here, this is your village, it’s your country. If you’re Mexican, you have to come back," Fabian Mendez said in Spanish.
Part of the reason Fabian could come back is because of a guy named Pedro Quintanilla. He buys marca negra mezcal from the Mendez family.
“At first it was our intent to be a business. But now it’s become much more than that.”
Unlike tequila -- which is mass marketed -- mezcal production is a mostly homegrown cottage industry. Individual buyers like Quintanilla buy directly from each family and sell directly to a distributor. The idea, he said, is that producers like the Mendez family pocket more of the proceeds.
“It has to make a profit all the way around. All of the profits come down all the way down to the producer, who are people who’ve been neglected and forgotten for ages, for centuries," Quintanilla said.
Mezcal, he said, is changing their lives.
“And economically it’s amazing. They’re generating jobs. People are coming back from the U.S. and everybody’s happy. They rejoin their families. And everybody wins," Quintanilla said.
These days more and more Mexicans are returning home. That’s not always because work is waiting, but because a sputtering U.S. economy doesn’t provide the opportunity it once did.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center says about the same number of Mexicans left the United States last year as arrived. That hasn’t happened in 40 years.
In San Luis, at least, there’s some work waiting.
Another buyer, Jorge Ramirez, said the market is growing. He’s so bullish about mezcal’s prospects that he started a co-op for producers. But something else may be in play as well.
Using an age-old rural expression, he said in Spanish that Mexicans would rather eat beans in their own house than live a precarious life elsewhere.