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A Personal Perspective on Branding Mezcal from Oaxaca
by Alvin Gary Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Over the past dozen years I have played a part in the development of a number of brands of mezcal distilled in Oaxaca; for the domestic Mexican market, but mainly for export to the US, South Africa, Germany, the UK and Italy, with projects currently underway for additional US trademarks as well as for Canada and Australia. Some are a source of pride, while others of discomfiture, the latter not necessarily based on quality of product since some are pretty good. However I suggest that since traditionally made mezcal (both ancestral and artisanal) inevitably varies from batch to batch, simple tasting notes in any event are not always very helpful in assisting consumers on a buying quest. And conversely, the brands which have provided me with the greatest gratification do not always produce mezcal to my personal liking. It is for additional reasons that these particular mezcals and agave distillates are worth of being honored. They include Nacional, Atenco, Corte Vetusto, 5 Sentidos, Dangerous Don and Cuentacuentos. There are others, but not all clients keep me updated after the principal job I have been retained to do has been completed.
My involvement has run the gamut and includes:
- aiding prospective brand owners by making introductions to palenqueros deserving of a break;
- teaching about the history, culture and ins and outs of ancestral and artisanal agave distillation in southern Mexico including maguey husbandry;
- providing ongoing assistance and advice regarding matters such as exclusivity (including contractual matters and more generally liaising with lawyers and other professionals), flavor profile and ABV, as well as marketing strategy including pricepoint.
While important, the quality of the juice in the bottle should not be the only determinant in assessing the quality of the brand.
No, all is not rosy nor altruistic in the Oaxacan mezcal business. I am fortunate enough to be in a position to pick and choose with whom I want to work, and which brands and their reps to expose (though never in writing) for what they are and represent based on my intimate knowledge of and relationships with their owners. Not to overly dwell on the negative, it is important that the buying public at least be aware of some of the issues and undersides out there which I have personally encountered:
- There are those who profess to want to start a charitable foundation through donating a percentage of profits from their mezcal sales revenues, yet once they get a taste of the potential to line their pockets with agave gold, amnesia develops.
- There are those who mislead the public through their online presence, their talk, and their labels.
- There are those who appear to want to promote themselves as much as their mezcal and its hardworking makers.
- There are those who at every mezcal event in the US are lurking behind a competitor, ready to pounce upon any sales opportunity even if it means being unfairly critical of other brands and their reps.
- There are those who import their bottles and/or their labels and tops from the US, and in some cases even from overseas, despite Mexico having high quality glass and related paraphernalia industries, the former dating back literally hundreds of years; without considering that perhaps they should be supporting as much of Mexico as reasonably possible.
- There are those who pay as little as they possibly can for their bulk mezcal, continually squeezing their palenquero suppliers despite the meteoric rise in the price of agave piñas over the past few years.
Regarding the final point above, how much can that brand owner be paying his palenquero if his mezcal in an American marketplace costs $30 USD a bottle? Consider the costs associated with transportation, warehousing, taxation, agency representation, together with the profit the retailer must earn. Yet the entrepreneur is still making a sufficient enough profit so as to enable him to live a middle class lifestyle. Yes, everyone is entitled. But no, we don't have to support it.
That's more than enough of the negative. And yes we live in a capitalist society. But in the agave spirits industry the concept of fair trade, if it exists at all, is in its infancy. However there are brand owners who indeed practice it without fanfare.
Only time will tell if the trademarks named above will meet with significant success the likes of Vago, Del Maguey, Alipus, and the rest. But I'm extremely pleased with what they have done, and the route they have followed. I have been honored to have worked with them, and some continuing to date, each for different reasons which include:
- the brilliance of being able to scoop the name Nacional, with its impressive label, telling a story;
- Atenco breaking into the German market with products unique for their use of spring water piped to the palenque from high above San Juan del Río, and its true pechuga, in its purest sense, with turkey breast and no more;
- the hint of Oaxacan coffee breaking through in Dangerous Don, initially only available in the UK and now in Mexico and Italy, with other global locations on the horizon;
- Cuentacuentos taking complete and forthright labelling disclosure to a new level of transparency;
- 5 Sentidos, immediately upon sampling the mezcal of a palenquero friend of mine, realizing not only that the product was something special, but that my distiller buddy was worthy of helping along both with his sales and making his ancestral distillery more comfortable for his family and visiting aficionados, and;
- Corte Vestuto pushing the envelope by distilling one of its products in both clay and copper, still maintaining traditional means of productions and tools of the trade.
Each has other significantly positive attributes, including the actual agave spirit's character, with differing broad taste profile, nose, and finish. The product is one thing, but the comprehensive corporate philosophy is another, for me perhaps more important than price and the contents of the bottle. To my knowledge none of the brands enumerated falls prey to the six negatives noted above. Each is worthy of becoming even more efficacious than is currently the case.
How do you evaluate success in the business of branding and marketing agave spirits produced in Oaxaca? For me it's quite different than perhaps for the brand owners. For me it's:
- the new and continuing growing global appreciation for Mexican agave spirits in general;
- the public's desire to learn more about the industry;
- the motivation to visit Oaxaca to be taught about the diversity of nuances in mezcal, why no two batches of handcrafted product are the same, and recognizing the hard work of palenqueros and their families;
- the wide-ranging buzz around certain Oaxacan-produced goods such as foodstuffs, non-distilled beverages, and even crafts and fine art, spurred on by that initial interest in mezcal.
Finally, it's the yearning of many to revisit Oaxaca. In turn, those who make a return pilgrimage will inspire others. Whether or not any of those six brand owners realize it, what they are doing for the industry and Oaxaca is significant, far beyond and much more important than any degree of financial success which comes their way.
True, the brands owned by financially triumphant industry scallywags inevitably at least to a limited extent aid Oaxacan communities and the broader economy. That's the positive. I still have a scintilla of faith in humanity, at least to the extent that eventually the chickens come home to roost, and thus in due course the good in the business will thrive, and those not deserving will falter. If only the world really worked like that. I'm embarrassed to have aided some brands which I shall not name, the owners of which now enjoy significant success in small part through my tutelage; and I am similarly embarrassed that other mezcal brands have floundered; I can lead their owners to water, but can do no more. Thankfully this club of six appears on its way to continued accomplishment, both in terms of maintaining viable businesses, aiding the industry and Oaxaca through spreading the good word about mezcal, and enticing those who appreciate quality spirits.
Mr. Starkman owns Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
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