WORDS BY ANNELISE JOLLEY
The Frontline talks to communities in Oaxaca, Mexico, striving to produce mezcal sustainably—but soaring demand from across the border makes it tough.
In the curve of Mexico’s tail lies the state of Oaxaca. The region is known for its dazzling cultural, linguistic, and biological diversity. Over the last decade, it’s also increasingly become known as the epicenter of mezcal production.
Since the early 2010s, mezcal has grown from a little-known ancestral drink to the spirit sitting next to tequila on bar shelves across the world. The U.S. makes up the lion’s share of exports with an even larger market than Mexico. Mezcal is quickly becoming the drink of choice for Americans, surpassing whiskey and vodka in sales. But even as mezcal gains visibility on this side of the border, the spirit’s environmental toll back in Mexico remains hidden from most consumers.
The soaring demand for mezcal has changed Oaxaca, where 90% of mezcal is produced. Once forested, the mountains that surround Oaxaca City are now a wash of blue-green agave. In the face of mezcal’s explosive popularity, many producers have struggled to increase production while maintaining environmentally responsible practices.
Mezcal takes a heavy ecological toll, from generating literal tons of waste to relying on firewood from cut trees to roast the agave. Such intense deforestation can lead to soil erosion and affect regional rainfall patterns. One of the most urgent problems is the disappearance of agave species in the wild. While some producers are over-harvesting wild agave, others are turning to the monoculture of fast-growing varieties, both of which threaten the plant’s genetic diversity, as well as local biodiversity.
Cousins Edgar González Ramírez and Elisandro González Molina have observed these changes firsthand. After working as migrants in Silicon Valley, the two co-founded the small mezcal company Mezcal Tosba back in their home village of San Cristóbal Lachirioag in Oaxaca. Tosba is the Zapotec word for “only one,” a playful nod to the impossibility of sharing just one copita with friends. The landscape of mezcal production has changed dramatically since Tosba distilled its first bottle a decade ago.
“The growing of agave was not as visible as it is right now,” González Molina said. “For the last five years, it has grown exponentially.” The cousins understood the seriousness of the problem when they tried to source a wild agave species from a nearby community. “They told us, There is no more, they took everything—no hay más. That just proved that people are going further and further into the wild to get agave.”
What Is Mezcal?
Officially, mezcal is any spirit distilled from the heart of the agave plant. Once an agave plant is ready for harvest, mezcaleros remove the leaves and let the agave sit for a few days. They harvest the heart, called the piña, and roast it. The roasted piña is crushed and its fibers are fermented using ambient yeast. Finally, the fermented juice from the fibers is distilled.
Nearly all Mexican states produce some version of agave-derived alcohol—tequila, made from blue agave, is actually a subset of mezcal—but only nine states produce mezcal.
Historically, mezcal was made in small batches in geographically isolated villages. Their unique ecosystems yielded distinct agave species, so every batch of mezcal varied in flavor and terroir. Farmers cultivated agave as one of many rotating crops: a complement to corn, coffee, mangoes. The drink was produced seasonally, according to the maturity of the plants, and set aside for celebrations.
“Mezcal, in its origins, is a spirit made only for special occasions for the community,” said Joahna Hernandez of Mezcalistas, an educational organization focused on mezcal. “It has nothing to do with the requirements of the markets the way we see it today. In that sense, it’s always been a sustainable spirit. The problem now is the boom in mezcal.”
Mezcal wasn’t always in high demand. Much like Indigenous Mexicans, the spirit historically faced discrimination. “There was even a saying: What, drink mezcal? I’m not a construction worker,” said González Molina, who is Zapotec. But gradually, bartenders—first in Mexican cities and, then, across the border—took notice of its nuance and diverse iterations.
“It’s always been a sustainable spirit. The problem now is the boom in mezcal.”
González Molina compares the spirit to wine: just as grapes have many varieties, so does agave: “Each agave will give you a different flavor. At a higher altitude, it will taste different than if you grew it in a very mineral area, similar to what happens with wine.” But unlike wine grapes—or, in the case of other drinks, grain, corn, and barley—you can’t sow a crop of agave one year and harvest it the following year. Agave plants can take anywhere from six to 35 years to reach maturity, depending on the species. The agave’s lengthy life cycle is part of mezcal’s value. It’s also part of the problem.
Mezcal can be made with over 40 species—from tobalá (10 to 15 years to maturity) to tepeztate (up to 25 years). One of the quickest-growing agave species is espadín. With six to eight years to maturity, it accounts for about 80% of mezcal consumed worldwide. This means if growers want to make a faster profit in Oaxaca, they’ll turn to monoculture and plant homogenous rows of espadín.
Diverse agave species help maintain ecosystem equilibrium by providing pollinators like bats with nectar, anchoring topsoil, and cycling nutrients. But wild agave plants are being harvested faster than they’re being planted or harvested before reaching full maturity, which means producers need more of them to distill the same volume of mezcal.
As Hernandez puts it, “There were no limits on the market to exploit the land, and now we’re seeing the consequences.”
How Are Locals Responding?
Mezcal Tosba’s methods of planting and harvesting agave have been passed down through generations of Indigenous Zapotec farmers. “Because we come from farmers, from campesinos, we are aware that we can grow certain things or aware of what we will start growing later,” González Molina said.
Inspired by traditional practices, the cousins spent years cultivating diverse agave species in San Cristóbal Lachirioag before bottling their first batch of mezcal in 2014. In response to the overharvesting of wild agave that plagues Oaxaca, Tosba hand-picks only select wild agaves for production while leaving neighboring plants behind to flower and go to seed. These seeds are then collected and planted in the Tosba nursery to preserve genetic diversity.
Deforestation is another side effect of the mezcal boom. Trees are cleared both to make space for fast-growing varieties of agave, as well as for firewood because agave is traditionally baked in wood-fired pits. To cut back on the use of firewood, Tosba collects driftwood from the local river to roast its agave hearts.
At the cooperatively owned mezcal brand Banhez, its members—some of whom come from generations of mezcaleros—grow and harvest their own wood to combat deforestation. Founder Francisco Javier Perez Cruz worries about how this issue affects Oaxaca.
“In 2023, each producer is required to plant at least 100 trees and care for them,” Perez Cruz said. “With over 40 families, we will plant a minimum of 4,000 trees each year.”
As a cooperatively owned company, Banhez incentivizes sustainable agave management by paying members to leave 15% of their fields unharvested, allowing the plants to flower and provide future seeds and nectar for local pollinators. Because the brand’s flagship mezcal is made from two species—espadín and barril—all Banhez growers plant both varieties, creating mixed fields and protecting biodiversity. They’re also encouraged to use the traditional milpa system, which involves co-planting agave alongside other native species and crops.
“There were no limits on the market to exploit the land, and now we’re seeing the consequences.”
Both Banhez and Tosba built sustainable practices into their business models, which may help mitigate some of mezcal’s environmental impact. And because both brands are producer-owned, they don’t face pressure to sell certain volumes to outside (often foreign-owned) brands.
But that doesn’t mean they’ve avoided the environmental pitfalls of mezcal production altogether. For example, making mezcal creates waste. A lot of it. Each bottle produced generates about 10 times that volume in viñaza, the acidic liquid waste that remains after distillation, and over 30 pounds of bagazo, a fibrous solid waste.
Waste management is a continuous conversation among Banhez’s members. Rather than simply dumping waste into a local water source—as small-scale mezcaleros traditionally did—the 120 Banhez palenques, or distillation sites, concentrate the viñaza in tanks before spreading it on agave fields where it acts as an organic fertilizer. Banhez also repurposes its solid waste into adobe bricks for construction. Because the members live where they work—growing agave in their own fields, distilling it next door—they’re motivated to manage waste in a way that ensures the health of their land for future generations.
Companies like Banhez and Tosba are grappling with the question of how to grow their production while protecting the land that sustains both the agave and their livelihoods. “How do you act more responsibly toward the environment, combining it with the need of being economically free? I don’t have the answer,” González Molina said.
How Can Consumers Help?
Since demand largely comes from the U.S. market, many mezcal educators and distributors believe responsibility lies there just as much as with Mexican producers. They see significant change stemming from the decisions bars make about which mezcal brands they stock and promote.
“It takes time to educate a consumer with so much misinformation out there, so the responsibility of how mezcal grows ultimately lies in the hands of restaurant, bar, and retailer owners,” said Steven Sadri, co-owner of Tahona Mercado, a mezcal bottle shop and specialty Mexican market in San Francisco. No model is perfect, he added, “but by supporting the folks [who] are being innovative in being more sustainable, we set a bottom price of doing business. If more restaurants and bars use ethically produced mezcal, its price alone will limit its growth.”
González Molina believes that consumers should support smaller producer-owned brands. “It’s more responsible so that resources go directly to the producer,” he said. When ownership lies with a venture capitalist or foreign brand, executives who make decisions don’t see firsthand the ecological impact of producing mezcal. A producer-owner who walks their fields every day is more likely to protect the ecosystem’s health and future.
As a bonus, González Molina added, smaller producer-owned distilleries usually make better mezcal.
Despite the complexity of navigating an exploding market and conservation of land and agave, he’s optimistic about mezcal’s future. “It’s a market that is going to keep growing because people are just learning about [mezcal] and how complicated it is. The challenge right now is how to balance all these aspects of environmental and social responsibility.”