Is mezcal the next tequila or the next pisco?
It took tequila a long, slow climb to become what it is today in American bars and restaurants: a spirit no bar can operate without, in wide distribution, with expressions representing the best and worst (cheaply made mixto brands meant only for frozen drinks), with volume growing robustly every year on a solid and substantial base.
Pisco, on the other hand, is at an early crossroads. Ten years or so after the latest concerted efforts to bring the unaged Peruvian and Chilean grape brandy into the consciousness of American drinkers, it still remains pretty much a novelty. Neither of the two largest brands (Capel and Portón) grew in 2015, and while many bartenders at cocktail-focused bars love working with the spirit, and more single-varietal expressions are arriving, there isn’t what one might call a groundswell of interest. It’s still early and it took tequila many years to get to where it is, though, so there’s still lots of opportunity.
Which brings us to mezcal. Through an explosion of brands, from a range of agave species and cultivars, with brand ambassadors working the industry and finding great interest among both bartenders and many tequila aficionados, mezcal seems well placed to reach the next level. But while mezcal seems to be everywhere on the ground, the 10,000 feet view is that volume is still too low to be meaningful or even to be able to count reliably; most consumers are still put off by the smoky rusticity characteristic of most brands; and generally very little brand awareness has penetrated.
Entrepreneurs, both Mexican and American, have worked at developing a super-premium reputation for the agave spirit, which may in some cases work against it: the less expensive expressions have little in common with the better quality mezcals, and without many well-made and well-priced variants, it’s hard to attract new customers through the “shoot and shiver” experience rougher mezcals offer.
That may all change now that Del Maguey, the brand with the best reputation in the US among bartenders, has been partially acquired by Pernod Ricard. Along with William Grant & Sons Montelobos, Diageo’s investment in Unión, and others being picked up by suppliers with national connections (Los Amantes, Sombra, Marca Negra, etc.), there are plenty of brands with support to change consumer perception around. Availability alone won’t do it, and creating points of differentiation in what is at its core an assertive, challenging and robust spirit, will be challenging.
But how large can what is essentially a mom-and-pop distiller industry grow before production pressures change things? Alarm bells are already being rung by devoted American fans, worried that the problems in Jalisco regarding tequila production could devastate Oaxaca, where most mezcal is produced. Limits on growth might actually mean that slow organic growth is better overall for tequila’s smoky cousin in the long run, making sure the boom and bust the tequila industry frequently undergoes is avoided, at least for now.