While some might say there is no such thing as too much mezcal, the reality is the popularity of this alcoholic beverage is creating a problem of a different kind. The plants used to make this mainstay of Mexico are being threatened.

Tequila and mezcal come from the same plant—sort of. Both are products of agave, though tequila can only be made with the Blue Weber Agave.

Agave plants growing in the Tequila area of Mexico. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

So, that would make one believe there is no shortage of future bottles of mezcal because there are more sources. That assumption would be wrong.

“The populations (of plants) are disappearing little by little since they cannot regenerate adequately,” Daniel Quezada Daniel, executive director of Mexico’s National Commission for Biodiversity, told the Washington Post. “Their scarcity leads to increased prices, and perversely leads to even further exploitation.”

Autonomous University of Mexico in December 2022 released a paper stating there has been a reduction in eight wild agave plant varietals used for mezcal.

The problem is once the heart of the plant, or piña, is harvested, the plant dies.

“To make mezcal you need ripe agaves just before flowering. This implies the cancellation of the main form of reproduction: seeds. A single agave can produce hundreds of thousands of seeds, which are lost when harvested,” the paper states. “Not having a management plan that integrates reproduction in this way through germination in the nursery to promote reforestation that gives greater stability to wild populations, can have very serious implications for the maguey in the mountains.”

Agave is a slow grower—taking an average seven to 14 years for the piña to ripen. Some, though, can take as long as 40 years.           

While there are more than 200 types of agave, mezcal can be made from about 30 of them. Within the liquor producing varietals, some are better than others.

It’s similar to wine grapes. Not all are created equally.

According to Rosaluna, a producer of mezcal, “Of the agaves that are eligible for mezcal, there are really only five you need to know: espadín, tobalá, tepeztate, tobaziche, and arroqueño.”

Note: A version of this story first appeared in the Gringo Gazette.

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