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Mezcal is ultra trendy and ultra old-school, with an ancient history, a vibrant present, and a bright future. This is the story of how one Oaxacan mezcal company is on a mission to support and unite small-scale agave farmers and traditional mezcal distillers, while bringing the fruits of their labors to the wider world.
On the sierras of Oaxaca, the spiky agave plants dot the landscape like so many tidy rows of asterisks, which would seem to punctuate an important point: “This isn’t anything like you think it is.” Mezcal, tequila’s smokier cousin, and lately the darling spirit of every avant garde bartender the world over, couldn’t be humbler in its roots, nor more challenging in its cultivation. The great distance between Oaxaca and Williamsburg is metaphorical as well as actual.
Even the bustling town of Oaxaca City, with its fashionable brunch cafés, art galleries, and shopping promenades seems a world away from the agave farms and palenques—that is, distilleries—that share a postal code.
Enter Mezcal Unión: a collective born of a mission to support and unite the tiny, multi-generation farms and producers who are the heart of Oaxaca’s mezcal operation, with a business that could get the fruits of these labors into the urban bars and clubs that prize it, not only in the larger cities of Mexico, but far beyond. The result of this union, according to Alejandro Champion, one of the brand’s co-founders is, “an artisanal product with a good price and a good story.”
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The Cultivation of a Brand
“Brands are built when the founder gets a backpack and goes door to door,” says Champion, whose moniker befits his purpose, a lesson he learned from being a Vitamin Water representative in his native Mexico. But there were many increasingly larger backpacks to bear and doors to approach between being Vitamin Water’s employee of the month to the de facto CEO of an international spirit brand.
“(It) doesn’t require more than having a great product and feet on the ground,” continues Champion, but certainly it doesn’t hurt if you have a vision about the product that starts with an ideal, not only about the product itself, but about the people and processes that create it. They needed a story to tell, so they went looking for one.
Mezcal Unión was born in 2009 with Champion and a group of young entrepreneurs from Mexico City who wanted to know more about those people and processes that made the increasingly popular spirit. In a tale that reads like a parable and was born to be a mission statement, it was an old man on a hillside on a visit to the agave farms of Oaxaca, sharing his homemade mezcal with the group, who told them that “the future of mezcal would be based on a union.”
The old man perhaps meant a union between all of the small farmers and producers who make mezcal, but Champion et al saw an additional link: creating a union between those who make it, along with those equipped to market it, and also with those around the world who would drink it, providing long-term sustainability for Oaxaca’s indigenous families in artisanal mezcal production for generations to come.
The Cultivation of Agave
To understand the scope of what Champion and company wanted to accomplish, it’s important to understand the built-in challenges in Oaxaca’s mezcal production, beginning with its source, agave. “Agave” is a Latin word, one given by Linneus himself to a plant he deemed “noble” in stature.
This noble plant, to put it mildly, doesn’t exactly look like it wants to be cultivated and consumed, with its armor of protective fronds and bulbous piñas that seem more like something you’d launch at an opponent in the Super Mario universe. Naturally a tale of gods and lightning is involved, where a struck piña revealed an intoxicating honeyed nectar, leaving the native people to figure that intentionally roasting this thing might just be a very good idea.
Furthermore, even the most robust agave plants take upwards of seven years to mature, 15 for certain prized varieties, a slow gamble for those who would farm it. And finally, many agave farms within Oaxaca, and specifically in the region of San Juan del Rio, are built on a system of communal property. While a particular family might have been farming the land for generations, there’s no guarantee that they will be there to reap what they sow.
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The Cultivation of Mezcal
Take any notion you think you have of “distillery” and chuck it. I’d been on enough tours for any given spirit to have a pretty fixed paradigm for sparse warehouses with giant stainless steel tanks. The palenques of Oaxaca paint a very different picture: little more than a concrete floor built into a rocky hillside with a giant fire pit for piña roasting. The process that takes agave to mezcal, for the independent operators, relies entirely on a system of human, equine, and fire power. There’s not a single volt of electricity nor a single bar of cellular service within reach.
It is admittedly difficult to see the union between this rustic operation—a dusty herd of goats literally made its way over the hill near sunset—and the urban bars a world away that employ the spirit in bespoke cocktails with pithy names, where a very different herd awaits. But this is precisely the union that Champion hoped to create; not only a union of those who would produce mezcal, but a union between the producers and the bars and nightclubs that are the disciples of the product. “Restaurants and bars are the gasoline,” says Champion. When the link between consumers and producers is made, it provides a financial stimulus and security for people like Pedro Hernández who operates such a palenque.
There’s a parallel between Champion and Hernández in the salesmen nature of what they wanted to accomplish. Hernández, speaking through a translator, described his own door-to-door approach before he was a producer for Mezcal Unión, trying to sell his small-batch spirit to local taverns and bars like his father and grandfather before him. For Champion, the sales pitch was about the vision of a collective, delivered to people like Hernández whose small, artisanal mezcal operations he wanted to recruit for Mezcal Unión.
The Cultivation of Partnerships
The establishment of trust with the indigenous people was the most important piece, before Champion could continue door-to-door to bars and distributors in Mexico City and beyond with a finished product. “What we know how to do is market,” says Champion. “What they know how to do is farm.” Mezcal Unión doesn’t own any farms or distilleries, only invests in them, and then buys the end product. This results in money up front and at the end of the process for farmers and distillers. Through their mission of “empowering one family at a time through investment,” Mezcal Unión now has 55 families producing mezcal for the brand.
Beyond their commitment to Mezcal Unión, the distillers and farmers can still make their own mezcal and bottle it themselves, or sell it to other producers, even Mezcal Unión’s competitors. “Who are we to limit their opportunities?” says Champion. Of the 55 different families involved in the brand, there are those who farm and produce only for Mezcal Unión, those who work for Mezcal Unión and also have their own brand, and those who produce for Mezcal Unión as well as other commercial brands. Exclusivity with Mezcal Unión is never asked of anyone, a critical detail in preserving the artisanal, and nearly sacred element of mezcal production for these families.
The Cultivation of Spirit
What happens in the bottle then, is not only representative of a union, but a communion, where the sum of the parts make for a greater whole.
Mezcal Unión has two bottlings of mezcal, Uno, and Viejo. Consistency for each of the products is maintained through ratios; mezcal is collected from 55 families utilizing three different types of agave—espadín, cirial, and tobalá—and then each product is assembled with specific ratios of each of the types. Because of the artisanal process, and the assemblage nature of the product, elements of seasonality and of terroir do express themselves in ways uncommon for distilled spirits, and slight variations exist from bottle to bottle.
But those variations help to tell the story, and for Champion and Mezcal Unión, the story is everything: “The story needs to be true, and it needs to be the purpose of our business.”
Header image courtesy of Omar Torres/Getty Images.