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Mexico's wild agave plants are disappearing — will mezcal follow?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Cocktail drinkers in the U.S. have fallen more and more in love with a smoky spirit from Mexico called mezcal. From the mezcal margarita to the mezcal mule, it's a favorite in American bars. And according to Mexico's Mezcal Regulatory Commission, demand for the spirit shot up 700% between 2015 and 2022. Now, unlike whiskey or vodka, which are produced from farm crops, the most top shelf mezcal is made from wild agave. And wild agave is becoming harder to find, in large part because of how long it takes to grow and mature. Eight of the wild species that make mezcal are disappearing.

Washington Post international investigative correspondent Kevin Sieff recently traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, to report on the shortage and what it means for Mexican distillers and American producers. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KEVIN SIEFF: Good to be here.

DETROW: I want to start with the thing that blew me away in this story, and that's just how long agave plants take to grow and mature. You're talking about upwards of, you know, 20 or 30 years before they're ready to be harvested and turned into mezcal. I mean, if one of these plants started to grow at the very beginning of this global mezcal boom, it would be nowhere near ready to harvest and turn into mezcal at this point.

SIEFF: Yeah, that's right. And I think that that sort of gets at just how unprepared the mezcal industry as such was for this boom. You know, these are plants that take, as you say, decades to flower, decades to mature. And decades ago, mezcal wasn't a drink that anyone really was consuming in the U.S. or in Europe. And so the people who both grow the agaves that make mezcal and the people who distill mezcal are sort of trying to catch up.

DETROW: Let's take a step back. For people who have not tried it before, why is the spirit so popular, and why at this particular moment?

SIEFF: Right. Well, it's hard to describe the way that something tastes. And certainly, mezcal, I guess like anything, is sort of in the eye of the drinker or the palate of the drinker. But I think people who love mezcal will tell you that it tastes sort of unlike anything else. Tequila, even though it comes also from agave, it's not quite as smoky. It doesn't quite have the same intensity, especially of mezcal made from a wild agave. And so there really is something distinct about the taste of mezcal that I think a lot of people, particularly in the U.S., weren't exposed to until, you know, a year or two ago, especially during the pandemic when all of a sudden, you could go to your local bar or your local liquor store and find a bottle of the stuff.

DETROW: So for people in Oaxaca, people who cultivate these wild agave plants, at first, this was almost certainly a good thing, right? More demand is a good thing. Is it, at this point, a negative or is it just a mixed situation with concern about the future?

SIEFF: Yeah, I mean, it's hard to say it's purely a good or a bad thing. I think on one hand, you know, Oaxaca is a state in southern Mexico, and historically it's been one of the poorest parts of Mexico. So the idea now that you have a revenue stream and a really significant one is valuable, right? It's valuable to the people of Oaxaca. That, I think, is a good thing. The trouble is that the surge in the demand happened really abruptly and that some of the demand, at least, is for these plants that are, I mean, in some cases, on the verge of extinction. And so that's where you run into these really serious problems of biodiversity, where the exact thing that is so desirable is the thing that there's almost nothing left of.

DETROW: So how are people in Oaxaca trying to fix this?

SIEFF: To be honest, there are some places in Oaxaca where this is sort of seen as a gold rush, and people want to make as much money as they can before it's gone, before there are no wild agaves left. And that, in some ways, we could say is sort of irresponsible. In other ways, it's understandable. But you do see pockets of Oaxaca, pockets of sort of the mezcal industry in Mexico that is trying to find a way to make mezcal in a more sustainable way.

So the way that looks is that you've got people who are developing banks of seeds of agave plants that will produce mezcal, and these are plants that basically, at this point, don't exist in the wild. And so people are saying, let's keep as many of these seeds as we can in a place where we can sort of grow them in the future. We can grow them in a way that maybe is not completely wild but is semi wild. And at least that way, these plants will exist. These subspecies will exist in the future.

In other cases, you've got sort of kind of reserve land in Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico where people are being very diligent about how much agave they cut down. They're sort of being more careful about, you know, let's make sure we leave enough, especially enough plants that will flower in the future, because, as you said, these are plants that, in some cases, take as long as 25 years to flower.

DETROW: But does that mean no matter what, there's going to be just a big decline in the agave that's ready to harvest in the coming years?

SIEFF: Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, I think that there's one in particular called espadin, which is - it can produce an enormous amount of mezcal to feed this growing demand. I think what people will probably consume less of going forward is the kind of agave that people have to hike up mountains to find that, in part because of the story behind it, has become incredibly desirable. That's the stuff that I think we should expect to consume less and less of, and potentially, you know, in 10 years, we maybe aren't consuming any of it.

DETROW: Your reporting team followed one person named Santiago (ph) around, who's been doing this since he was 7. He's in his 50s now. How much has his life changed since this rush has begun?

SIEFF: Going back, you know, 40 or 50 years ago, this was stuff that was made to be consumed at, like, local birthday parties by mostly rural poor people in Oaxaca. It was the opposite of cool, you know? I mean, this was really local, really traditional. And so someone like Santiago grew up thinking of mezcal in that way, that this would never be a thing that would bring his family money.

DETROW: That's Kevin Sieff from The Washington Post. Thanks so much, and cheers, I guess.

SIEFF: Thank you.

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