Sarah Bowen, Associate Professor of Sociology, North Carolina State University
Demand for artisanal mezcals has skyrocketed in recent years, with mezcal exports to the United States increasing by 114% just between 2011 and 2014. In an article published in the New Yorker in 2016, they call mezcal the “ultimate artisanal distillate,” describing it as a “farm-to-table” drink. The diversity of mezcal is its defining characteristic. The type of agave, production practices, and equipment used to make mezcal vary between regions. Moreover, mezcal is unique in that it still has a deep connection to place. “This is terroir taken to the nth degree,” writes one journalist. However, the diversity of mezcal is threatened by two processes. First, the institutions that define and protect mezcal do nothing to differentiate between the practices and characteristics that have developed in specific places. In this context, a new generation of consumers in Mexico and the United States provides an alternative perspective. By choosing to appreciate the diversity of mezcal and the traditional methods used to produce it, they are rejecting the standardization, industrialization, and Americanization that have long characterized the Mexican spirits industry. However, even as savvy consumers and bartenders increasingly fetishize particular practices or types of agave, they know little about the people who make their mezcal or how they are being compensated. Moreover, the images that are used to market mezcal—as rare, pure, rustic, and authentic—both require and reproduce distances between consumers and mezcal producers, in terms of ethnicity, social class, and/or geographical location.
Although recent consumer-based movements offer hope for a new direction in the industry, I conclude that both the regulatory institutions that have historically stifled diversity and privileged multinational liquor companies, and the movements that have emerged to challenge them, are emblematic of the same process: neoliberalism. Discussions about how to define and protect the culture of Mexico’s agave spirits are still primarily conducted within the parameters of the global marketplace. There is a need to move beyond market-based models in order to create more democratic, participatory, and inclusive ways of protecting, valuing, and preserving local foods and drinks and the people and communities who make them.
Sarah Bowen is Associate Professor of Sociology at North Carolina State University and author of Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production (University of California Press, 2015). Her work focuses on food systems, local and global institutions, and inequality in the United States, Mexico, and France.
This talk is part of the Diversified Farming Systems Roundtable.