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Deep in the southern reaches of Mexico, along the Pacific Coast as the country bends to the east, sits the state of Oaxaca. Nearly all of the world’s mezcal comes from this region, as well as the artisan mezcaleros who have been producing it here for centuries. They are an exclusive group, sprinkled across mountain towns and valley villages, whose lives and lineage are deeply entwined with the ancient spirit.
Oaxaca’s mezcaleros have been social distancing for centuries, having settled in the isolated habitats of the wild agaves used to make mezcal. But their secluded, self-sustaining lifestyle, which provides natural, built-in protection from outside threats, also poses certain problems. And in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mezcaleros’ literal survival will define the future of mezcal itself.
The owners of two Colorado-based mezcal brands, Dylan Sloan of Mezcal Vago and Read Spear of Cuentacuentos Mezcal, are intent on ensuring that survival and have found ways to support the mezcaleros in the fight against COVID-19 from their homes in Colorado.
Spear, who lives in Longmont, established Cuentacuentos in 2015 in partnership with seven family-run operations in Oaxaca, creating an array of small batch mezcals for the label. Spear and Sloan both typically spend a lot of time in Oaxaca, visiting palenques (mezcal distilleries), touring agave fields, tasting new batches, and catching up with the mezcaleros and their relatives. They have been welcomed there as family members rather than simply business associates, but as much as Sloan and Spear wish to be on the palenques right now, the safety of the mezcaelros is their guiding principle.
Since COVID-19 hit Oaxaca in late March, there have been signs that the state—one of Mexico’s poorest—was ill-prepared to protect against the pandemic’s advance. The federal government has not undertaken broad, nationwide testing and tracing efforts; regional health clinics in Oaxaca are under-equipped; and hospitals in the capital city of Oaxaca de Juárez can take hours to reach for some rural communities. On the palenques, multiple generations of a family often live and work together, making social distancing a challenge. “There is no medical infrastructure,” Spear says. “You can have death and destruction on your hands, and that’s not an overstatement.”
Across Oaxaca, municipalities have implemented their own safety measures. Angel Cruz Robles, a producer for Cuentacuentos, is a fifth-generation mezcalero from the village of El Lazo. He said locals there have run chains across the town’s main entrances, vetting people for symptoms and exposure risk as they reach those checkpoints.
Robles lives with relatives suffering from respiratory illnesses that compromise their ability to defend against the coronavirus. As such, he let go of several workers who commute to his palenque on regional bus lines—their exposure to the public made them too risky to have near his family.
“The advantage we have is that we are isolated,” Robles says, while acknowledging the nearest hospital is three hours away. “So, the situation for us has advantages and disadvantages.”
Manuel Garcia is a third-generation mezcalero from San Dionisio Ocotepec who, alongside his father, Maximiliano, also produces mezcal for Cuentacuentos. San Dionisio Ocotopec sits on a 19-mile byway that rolls through one the densest palenque-per-mile stretches of road in Oaxaca, but the thoroughfare has lain dormant for months in the shadow of COVID-19, experiencing a massive drop in tourism and commerce. Residents have been staffing community centers while volunteer police forces operate health checkpoints along the town’s perimeter.
“If the cycle continues for another three or four months, everything will change because the people need to sell their products,” Garcia says, distraught about how to provide for his extended family of eight with fewer mezcal buyers and visitors in the area.
Sloan and Spear are resolute to provide help from abroad. They have committed to buying every batch of mezcal their brands’ producers make in the coming months, despite the fact that the mezcal market has dropped significantly, thanks to slowed on-premise sales at restaurants and bars. Off-premise sales at liquor stores are keeping Cuentacuentos and Vago afloat though and allowing Sloan and Spear to provide the mezcaleros with the financial support they need.
Mezcal Vago was founded in 2012 by Sloan and friend Judah Kuper. Since then, Vago has been acclaimed for its traditional, handmade mezcals, crafted by four families located across Oaxaca. As part of an effort organized by mezcal industry advocate Alvin Starkman, Vago has also helped distribute protective masks to Oaxacan families. “Their safety means absolutely everything… and it’s absolutely paramount to the industry, to the category, to the culture, and to our brand,” Sloan says.
The global mezcal community spans from agave cocktails bars in Tokyo to cozy mezcalerias in Denver, but its anchor will always be Oaxaca, in its palenques, its dusty outskirts, and its serene mountain ranges. Defending the palenques is the mezcaleros’ oath, an unwavering, lifelong dedication which remains unchanged by crisis or commerce. “Mexico has a great sense of community and cooperation,” Spear says.
And so, the mezcaleros remain in familiar environs, insulated in the wildlands with their families, vigilant producers of a spirit that continues to spread in popularity around the world.