Gary Paul Nabhan and David Suro Piñera’s “Agave Spirits: The Past, Present, and Future of Mezcals” is both a paean to and lamentation for the unique intersection of nature and community that produces mezcal.
Mr. Nabhan, an ethnobotanist and naturalist, and Mr. Piñera, a restaurateur, serve as guides to the complex making of mezcal and lead readers through various steps in the mezcal-production process, from growing and harvesting to mashing, fermenting and distilling. But they also aim at a far-reaching overview of the precarious place in which mezcal now finds itself after an extended and harried history. While it was once believed that the science of distillation developed in Mexico only in the post-Columbian era, the authors cite research going back decades—as well as more recent studies of pre-Columbian artifacts—to show that distillation was known to indigenous peoples well before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas.
“Agave Spirts” toasts the tradition and skill of Mexican mezcal-makers, spending time not only on major breakthroughs such as distillation but also on the humble but important art of the jimadores, the harvesters of agave who the authors say are “as important to the taste of a mezcal as are the distillers, the maestros mezcaleros.” These men (though there are a few women among their ranks) must not only tend to the agave but also master a variety of techniques for cleaning the leaves of the massive plants, know the correct time to harvest them (an under-ripe agave can easily spoil a batch of distillate) and manage a team of workers under back-breaking conditions.
In the past, most jimadores came to their work because it was the family business, but in the 21st century, the younger generation’s lack of interest in taking on the career’s low pay and hard labor is just one of the problems Messrs. Nabhan and Piñera say makes mezcal’s future uncertain. (It’s even worse for those working under the jimadores; pay “for cutting agaves and wood may be in the range of $65 to $450 per year, less than the official minimum wage in Mexico.”)
Other crises facing the industry include disease that’s been spurred by the creation of a precarious monoculture due to overplanting of blue agave, the sole agave variety used in tequila. Different varieties are now overharvested, as thirst for mezcal continues to rise (the authors say that “global demand is set to increase threefold by 2027”). Meanwhile, a complicated certification process and onerous taxes work to shut out less connected producers and cripple distillers’ bottom lines.
It’s hard to overstate the import of these concerns, not just to the world of mezcal and agave but to the broader agricultural sphere that is struggling to adapt to climate and population changes. The commitment the authors display to this spirit and the culture and community that surround it shines through. Their epilogue lists the most urgent environmental and commercial problems facing those who love mezcal and those who make it, and proposes solutions to each. It provides a clear and welcome chaser to what came before.