Table of Contents
When I first discovered mezcal (at a whisky festival, no less!), I was surprised at how much I liked it. I abhor tequila, so was immediately intrigued as to how this similar seeming liquor could taste so much better. Technically, tequila is a type of mezcal, with both made using agave, but mezcal has a much richer, smokier flavor thanks to the greater diversity of agave plants used in its production.
In part because tequila is made from just one kind of agave, tequila production is now horribly unsustainable. Other factors include a huge surge in demand for tequila, fueling runaway harvesting and cutthroat production that disregards the health of people and planet.
With mezcal’s popularity also surging, many connoisseurs are worried about a similar fate for this traditional liquor. Thankfully, many brands have sustainability built into their business, with generations of mezcal maestros operating palenques (mezcal distilleries) in an eco-friendly, people-friendly, truly sustainable way. After all, the very existence of these long-standing brands depends on a healthy, stable crop of agave plants.
The sustainability of mezcal and tequila
Tequila has a sustainability problem, caused in large part by a volatile market with boom and bust cycles of demand. This has led to overharvesting, aggressive pricing, and a focus on short-term gains rather than a healthy long-term industry. Significant damage has been done to wild blue agave and unsustainable processes have led to environmental damage in pursuit of a quick buck. In response, many mezcal makers have spoken out about the need to maintain and enhance sustainable practices in their own industry.
It’s not something you want to think about when enjoying the smoky taste of quality mezcal, but just one liter bottle of the alcohol can create 10-15 liters of acidic liquid waste (called vinasa, or vinaza) and 15-20 g of spent agave fibers (called bagazo or bagasse). These waste products of fermentation and distillation are also depleted of oxygen and are commonly disposed of in ways that cause serious negative effects on the environment.
Vinasa is typically stored in small, unlined retention ponds, and bagazo is piled up nearby. As these waste products leak into ground water and streams, they absorb oxygen in the water and significantly lower the water pH. This can kill fish and other aquatic life and make the water unsuitable for drinking. The uncontrolled breakdown of these waste products also creates methane and other greenhouse gases.
Because mezcal is mostly made in an arid region of Oaxaca, Mexico, the sustainability problems are compounded by a patchwork of local laws covering pollution, many of which are rarely enforced.
The good news is that there are solutions to these problems with mezcal, and many brands are already embracing a zero waste, eco-friendly approach to mezcal production. At Noble Coyote, for example, the waste vinasa and bagazo is combined with earth to create upcycled adobe bricks that can be used for construction.
Mezcal production also requires significant inputs in the form of firewood and wood to build distilleries. This poses a threat of deforestation, which is already a problem in arid areas of Oaxaca where trees are scarce. Increased demand for wood to heat stills leads to increases in habitat loss, carbon dioxide emissions, and erosion. But burning all that wood isn’t essential for mezcal production and contributes nothing to the end flavor. As such, some brands (such as Noble Coyote) now use locally made biofuel to heat the stills. Some brands use recycled and reclaimed wood, look for greater efficiencies in production to minimize their overall use of wood, and engage in reforestation efforts.
The sustainability of agave
The mezcal industry also faces a problem with the sustainability of agave itself. This is because germination rates are traditionally low for agave seeds, meaning farmers gravitate towards quick and cheap agave cultivation from clones (hijuela and bulbilos). This is part of the issue with tequila, where blue Weber agave (agave tequilana) has been intensively farmed from clones, creating a crop that lacks genetic diversity. This crop is lower in sugar and is highly vulnerable to insect infestations and disease. And, as these things go, farmers have come to rely on the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides to manage this greater susceptibility.
The devastating loss of whole crops also contributes to the boom and bust cycle of the tequila industry, and creates unstable, unsustainable economic and living conditions for workers and their families. There have also been several reports of significant shortages of blue agave plants, with one report in Reuters noting that 17.7 million blue agaves were planted in 2011 for the 2018 fall harvest – a staggering 24 million short of the crop needed to fulfil tequila makers’ needs at that time. The fallout was that farmers resorted to harvesting immature blue agaves, further decreasing the sustainability of the industry.
Mezcal is made from a much wider variety of agave plants, making it inherently more sustainable in some ways but also more problematic in others. Most mezcal is made from Espadin (agave angustifolia Haw), but the unique flavors of mezcal come from the 30 or so different types of wild and farm-grown agave used to make the liquor. These agave plants take 7-30 years on average to mature fully, meaning that the serious increase in mezcal demand is also pushing some manufacturers to harvest immature wild agave, depleting the genetic pool for the future.
Some mezcal makers favor quitting wild agave altogether, with cultivated agave seen as key to the sustainability and survival of the plants and the industry. Farming enables a degree of assurance that each agave is sustainably grown, helps manufacturers better plan future harvests, and reduces the impacts associated with removing agaves from an interconnected ecosystem.
Some mezcal producers are also investing in seed-saving and making sure to plant a wide variety of agaves. This encourages cross pollination and helps to maintain the genetic diversity and resiliency of agave for years to come.
The best sustainable mezcals: our top picks
Below, you’ll find my recommendations for the best sustainable mezcal brands.
Highlights: Super sustainable mezcal makers helping to ensure the future of agave – even the bottle labels are made with agave leaf remnants!
Noble Coyote offers a variety of premium single-origin mezcals made from four types of agave – Espadín, Tobalá, Jabalí and Coyote. These are all made in the village of San Luis Amatlán in Oaxaca, Mexico, using carefully selected wild and semi-wild agaves. Every bottle carries the name of the Maestro Mezcalero who made the mezcal, the village in which it was made, the type of agave used, and the lot and bottle number.
One of those maestros is Eleazar Brena, a graduate of agronomy and a professor at the University of Mihuatlan in Oaxaca, where he teaches agave reforestation and ecology. Breana learned his art from his father and is the sixth generation of mezcal maestros in his family. Thanks in large part to Brena, Noble Coyote has a robust approach to sustainability. The company has created a seed bank for wild agave and cultivates wild agave, helping to reforest the land, to protect the mezcal industry’s future.
Noble Coyote also practice a form of traditional crop rotation, planting agave, corn, and beans in a three-year succession to ensure that the soil isn’t depleted. After a year in the nursery, the agaves are transplanted outside to encourage biodiversity and reduce the need for watering. The company aims to plant 20 one-year agave plants for every one they harvest, which is vastly more than the number that would naturally grow to maturity in the wild.
Brena works alongside Bernardo Sada, the founder of the Noble Coyote sustainability endeavor. Sada is an evolutionary biologist who began working with agave and mezcal in 2012. Coyote was founded in 2013 and has always had sustainability at its heart.
Other maestros at Noble Coyote include Maestro José Santiago, who is already training his son as the family’s fourth generation of maestro mezcaleros. Santiago has been instrumental in using vinasa (waste liquid from fermentation) and bagazo (spent agave fibers) to create adobe bricks now used to upgrade the palenque (distillery) in Santiago Matatlán. These bricks are made using hydraulic compression, so that the materials are stronger than traditional bricks and nearly impermeable to water (meaning no leaching into the groundwater nearby).
Other sustainability efforts at Noble Coyote, again led by Santiago, include converting bagazo into biofuel that is then used instead of wood to power the stills used to make mezcal. This reduces the environmental impact of mezcal production and offers a solution to the waste problems associated with bagazo. Adding to that zero waste effort, the distillery is using agave leaves (henequen) along with some bagazo to make paper that then gets used to label the bottles of mezcal. Talk about a closed loop system!
Mezcal production is also a thirsty business, using water for the agave itself and to cool the tanks and so forth. To cut down on water use, Noble Coyote use drip irrigation and rainwater in the cooling tanks (this doesn’t mix with the mezcal), and allow the water to cool for reuse, meaning virtually no water is added to distill the mezcal. Other potential plans at the company include adding a cooling tower and setting up a wind turbine and solar panels to provide for electricity needs.
If you’re looking for a delicious, sustainable mezcal, Noble Coyote is an excellent choice and our top pick.
Highlights: Organic mezcal made by a company with a plant to be net zero in 2021 and carbon negative by 2024. The range includes a solar-powered mezcal!
Mezcales de Leyenda is one of the few mezcal brands offering the liquor in a sustainably sourced bottle made with recycled glass, natural corks, and with labels made using recycled paper. It was also the first brand to achieve organic status through California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and the company has a roadmap to go net zero/fully carbon neutral across all its operations by the end of 2021. Beyond that, the company aims to achieve carbon negative status by 2024.
Part of the roadmap involves capturing carbon through reforestation and carbon sequestering technologies. For aspects of production and distribution not under the company’s direct control, it aims to work with partners that have achieved carbon neutrality and, as needed, to offset through carbon credits.
Mezcales de Leyenda is also fair trade, with IMOgroup AG “fair for life” status as the company pays workers fairly, and ensures time off and social security, and has a policy of giving back 5% of earnings to support local communities.
The mezcal brand is now known for special edition releases that support specific environmental and social endeavors. These mezcals are made using rare wild agave varieties specially cultivated to protect the plants’ future. One recent project, Solar, is a mezcal made entirely using solar power, with the company planning to share its insights, including schematics, to help other distilleries go solar too.
Highlights: Mezcal made with organic agave using solar power and offered in recycled glass bottles by a 1% for the Planet partner.
Sombra has been around since 2006 and produces mezcal in recycled glass bottles made using organically farmed Espadin agave. The company, founded by master sommelier Richard Betts, launched a new palenque in 2017 based on years of work to improve the distillery’s sustainability. This new distillery uses solar power to mash roasted agave, rather than donkey power or fossil fuels. It also uses wood from certified forests in its earthen ovens.
Sombra also helps avoid the waste problem associated with mezcal production by upcycling bagazo and vinasa into adobe bricks. These bricks are being used to build houses in villages affected by recent earthquakes.
Like Noble Coyote, Sombra is also looking into converting the distillery waste as biofuel, and the system already includes rainwater harvesting for use in cooling during distillation. The new palenque also uses natural gas rather than wood to heat the stills, helping to decrease deforestation associated with mezcal production.
Demonstrating an enthusiasm for promoting sustainability throughout the industry, Sombra hosted a sustainable cocktail competition in 2018. It is also a member of 1% For The Planet and funds local education in languages and the arts with its “Opening Doors” after-school program.
Highlights: Mezcal made with sustainably cultivated agave by a company that is highly socially engaged.
Although partly owned by Bacardi since 2017, Ilegal remains one of the most sustainable and socially engaged mezcal brands around, having been founded in 2006 by John Rexer to supply his bar in Antigua, Guatemala. These mezcals are handcrafted in small batches by fourth-generation mezcaleros and include Joven, Reposado, and Añejo mezcals made with Espadín agave, double distilled in the Santiago Matatlan Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico.
The mezcal is 100% natural, involving no artificial colors, yeasts, flavors, or additives. Ilegal uses a combination of new and used American oak, medium char barrels, sourced from Kelvin Cooperage, a family-run business since 1963.
Ilegal is one of the few brands offering aged mezcals and is made exclusively with Espadin agave that is sustainably cultivated. All of the wood used by Ilegal in the production of mezcal comes from certified farmers, so as to reduce the impacts of deforestation.
Ilegal is also very socially engaged, with ongoing donations and support to organizations and communities grappling with issues including climate change, immigration, the refugee crisis, gender discrimination, racism and xenophobia.
Highlights: Mezcal made using organic agave by a company that is actively engaged in preserving and enhancing the genetic diversity of agave while looking after its workers, communities, and wolves!
Casa Montelobos was founded in 2011 by Doctor Iván Saldaña Oyarzábal and offers mezcal produced by a fifth-generation mezcalero, Don Abel Lopez. Saldaña is an agave expert and conservation advocate and sustainability is a key priority at the company. The company’s Espadin agave is organic certified, all the mezcals are Kosher certified, and Montelobos controls 100% of its sustainable agave supply.
To support sustainability further, Montelobos is creating its own seed banks. The company maintains dozens of varieties of agave, helping support cross-pollination for genetic diversity. Saldaña believes in restricting harvesting of wild agave to limit the impacts on the ecosystem and favors cultivated agave that can be grown and harvested sustainably.
In 2018, the company produced a unique mezcal made entirely from farmed Tobala agave. This variety of the plant was previously only found in the wild, but Casa Montelobos successfully cultivated, matured, and harvested farmed Tobala. The brand has also successfully established farmed Cupreata agave. This is another variety previously seen as very difficult if not impossible to farm.
The brand also supports reforestation efforts to mitigate the demand for wood associated with the mezcal industry, and the distillery composts waste vinasa and bagazo to reduce their environmental impact. To protect worker health, Montelobos has altered the design of stills to make them more ergonomic and has installed new pipes and chimneys at the distillery to capture smoke and support better ventilation.
In addition to caring about the environment, its workers, and its mezcal, Casa Montelobos has a soft spot for wolves. The company partners with a US non-profit, the Wolf Conservation Center to support the federal species survival and recovery programs for the critically endangered Mexican gray wolf and red wolf.
Highlights: One of the big brand names in mezcal and a leader in sustainability efforts including reforestation initiatives.
Del Maguey is probably a familiar brand to any US mezcal fans. This brand is also at the forefront of mezcal sustainability, with initiatives to sustainably cultivate semi-wild or wild agaves and take the pressure off natural ecosystems.
In two communities where Del Maguey sources agave, Santo Domingo Albarradas and Santa Maria Albarradas, the local municipality has a strict policy dictating that locally harvested agave must be transformed into mezcal in the village. This helps to keep wealth in the local area and ensures tight regulation of annual agave allotments, making it far simpler to successfully manage the sustainability of natural resources.
Del Maguey is also involved in reforestation efforts, apiculture for biodiversity, and eco-friendly waste management and has installed solar powered pumps to help water cultivated agave. The company also focuses on supporting local communities, including by providing scholarships, supporting local language initiatives, educational access to computers, and improving water supplies.
The demand for mezcal has increased significantly in recent years, with mezcal production doubling between 2011 and 2017. Production and demand continue to rise, meaning that some mezcal makers are struggling to keep up. To ensure the future sustainability of mezcal, it is vital that consumers know how to find and support those mezcal brands doing things right.
Happily, many brands have persevered with their already sustainable traditional practices and have embraced new ways to make mezcal more people- and planet-friendly. We can raise a glass to that!