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A spirit of diversity

The artisan, ‘pre-industrial’ spirit that embodies its history, community and local environment
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Tequila from the Mezcal Appreciation Society

This article first appeared in our World Environment Day Day 2023 issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 05 June 2023. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

‘I called my boss from a hammock on Mazunte beach, on the coast of Oaxaca, and told him I wasn’t ready to make the move’, remembers Jon Darby. ‘I felt I was getting a lot more of what I needed at that time in my life than I’d get if I returned to the role waiting for me – at a new sales desk focused on the European oil and gas market.’

Jon was on a life-changing trip, unexpectedly extended from a 10-day break to visit a friend to a three-month journey exploring the far south of Mexico.

During that time he visited some remote distilleries and developed an appreciation for the ancient craft employed in making mezcal – an artisan spirit made, like tequila, from agave.

On returning to London, Jon visited every mezcal-selling bar in London only to find that, much like his career, a certain spark was missing.

‘They may have been great bars for other reasons’, Jon reasons, ‘but nobody was putting the focus on the things that had started to fascinate me about these spirits – namely that the traditional stuff is made in incredibly small batches, in a style that’s harmonious with the community it’s from.’

Community spirit

Mexico is one of the most culturally and environmentally diverse countries on the planet – the state of Oaxaca alone is home to more plant species than the whole of Europe – and all that diversity shines through in its local spirits.

Different species of the agave plant are endemic to different regions; each area also has its own tools and recipes, leading to unique flavours in the mezcal produced. Batches from the same place also vary due to the artisan nature of production.

Jon calls real artisan agave spirits ‘pre-industrial products’, as they’re made at a tiny scale, in
harmony with the natural environment and to a gusto histórico flavour profile – the developed preference of a local community.

‘Not only does the good stuff rarely reach the export markets’, Jon tells us, ‘but a lot of it doesn’t even leave the very community in which it’s made.’

Nevertheless, the agave spirits industry as a whole is booming. In the US tequila sales are set to outstrip bourbon this year, and in the UK mezcal is the fastest-growing spirits category.

Yet Jon warns that sales growth isn’t the only import thing to consider. ‘With increased demand for the product comes increased pressure on local resources’, he explains, ‘most notably, when it comes to mezcal production, on water and wood. The issue of monocropping and the attendant degradation of soil quality is also having a devastating impact on the biodiversity and landscape of some agave-growing communities.’

As is often the case, it’s the international conglomerates with celebrity-backed brands that are getting rich from this industrial growth; those harvesting the agave continue to earn Mexico’s minimum wage.

‘It’s a real dichotomy because the people and the communities making the most fascinating micro-batch agave spirits, in the most traditional way, are often also among the poorest financially’, Jon reveals. ‘They would benefit hugely from a healthy industrial boom in the market for the product they make. But evidence from the tequila industry suggests such a boom wouldn’t be healthy, and that they’d lose out environmentally.’

What’s in a name?

Part of the problem is the regulatory framework behind the denomination of origin (D.O.) for ‘mezcal’, which has been largely copied from the tequila industry.

While the tequila D.O. has been a huge success in commercial terms, Jon argues it has taken a previously artisan product and created a race to the bottom in terms of its finished quality.

‘The tequila industry is awash with substandard products adulterated with chemicals and additives, and mile after mile of monocropped blue agave as far as the eye can see’, Jon tells us. ‘I’ve been to places where trees have died in the middle of an agave field because the soil can’t support diverse life anymore, and the agave only grow with the support of chemical fertilisers.’

The D.O. system, based on Europe’s protected designation of origin (PDO) appellation system, is designed to protect a product from a specific geographic region – and actively excludes lots of small-scale mezcal producers due to their location or some aspect of their process.

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Another fundamental problem with applying the D.O. system to mezcal is that the region of production is simply too large. ‘It’s the biggest denomination, or origin, in the world’, Jon explains, ‘and the diversity within that geographic area is just too big for one set of rules – certainly one copied from the tequila industry, which only uses a single plant – blue agave – and operates in a much smaller geographic area.’

The vast majority of exported mezcal is certified under this system, which has effectively embraced the mid-profile of all possible flavours. ‘That’s why the vast majority of the stuff you can drink in the UK isn’t as interesting as the things you can find with a lot of effort and time on the road in Mexico’, Jon explains. ‘Worse, producers who have been making mezcal for generations can be encouraged to adulterate their process and heritage in order to gain access to the international mezcal market. This can lead to a preference for particular plants and processes, and a loss of diversity.’

A test for humanity

Many scientists already agree the planet is going through its sixth mass extinction event, which will accelerate as we lose biodiversity.

Jon’s hope is that the more commercial end of the mezcal market will be stopped from completely depleting the resources from the environments in which it operates.

‘I often look at the current market for agave spirits as a litmus test for the future of humanity’, he says; ‘if we can’t enjoy and protect this incredibly delicious thing without over-commercialising and homogenising it, I doubt we can save our species from extinction either.’

Experiencing diversity

Jon founded the Sin Gusano Project with a primary goal of showcasing and celebrating the diversity of mezcal, because that’s what he believes makes agave spirits so special.

‘Our first Sin Gusano Mezcaleria was a rustic mezcal-tasting room that operated as a café in the daytime, on a backstreet of Hackney’, he explains. ‘We sold mezcal in flights of three single measures so customers were forced to experience the diversity.’

In 2019 Jon launched the Mezcal Appreciation Society (MAS), a subscription club for agave fans. MAS members receive two 200ml bottles every two months, plus 25% off upgrades to 50cl bottles if they discover a mezcal they really enjoy.

‘To me this model felt like the most honest way to represent the diversity that I found so important’, Jon explains. ‘It’s a massive amount more work than I would have had if I’d chosen to work with one or maybe two producers, and churn out more and more of the same thing, but it’s what I would want as a consumer – and I think it’s the best way to showcase the diversity and hopefully help people see why it’s so important.’

This decision to prioritise and showcase diversity rather than trying to be commercial is why Sin Gusano products are labelled as agave spirits rather than mezcal. ‘People always tell me it would be easier to make money working with certified mezcal’, Jon says, ‘but I tell them that if I just wanted to make money I wouldn’t have left my career in the finance industry.’

Slowing down and giving back

The Sin Gusano Project was inspired by more traditional cultures that aren’t obsessed with accumulating wealth and having more of everything.

In showcasing the truly artisan products from those communities and telling their stories, Jon hopes to bring people a little closer to an alternative way of living.

If you’re running a really big and successful business that profits in what Jon describes as an ‘unfair capitalist system’, he would say it’s important to support the less fortunate around you in your local culture.

‘If you run a successful and expensive restaurant in London – a city that creates both huge wealth and homelessness – think about giving to the local food bank at the end of the service’, he says.

The Sin Gusano Project supports a number of independent family producers, and operates a profit-share programme that sees 10% of UK profits funnelled to development projects in communities that work with agave.

Jon is also generally at the edge of debates around how regulation should develop, and tries to fight in the corner of diversity and tradition rather than solely for commercial development.

‘I think our capitalist and consumerist western culture has gone too far’, Jon tells us. ‘Instead, you can slow down with a glass of these special spirits and be virtually transported to the communities via the web pages behind the QR codes on our bottles. You might decide it’s not worth spending another night doing overtime behind the desk to save up for stuff you don’t need. That’s the big picture of what we’re trying to give back, while supporting the sustainable development of rural agave communities in Mexico.’

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