Mezcal is more popular than ever – why it’s bad news for bats
The oldest distilled spirit in the Americas is making a comeback. In 2019, US mezcal imports soar by more than 50%, even surpassing Mexico in consumption for the first time. It is too early to know the impact of 2020 on sales, but the industry should continue to grow.
As demand for craft cocktails increases, so does the pressure on agave, the source of mezcal, in Mexico. This has led to the agaves being overexploited before they produce nectar, which in turn endangers the plant’s main pollinator, the long-nosed bat.
Tiny but mighty, these one-ounce mammals roam over 750 miles each year – from their winter roosts in central Mexico to calving caves along the US-Mexico border – in search of flowering cacti. and agaves, a large desert plant with thorny leaves. Bats depend on agave nectar to fuel their return journey, and agaves depend on bats for cross-pollinating their flowers so that they can produce seeds. (Agaves have evolved to provide most of their nectar after dark to attract nocturnal travelers.)
Little-nosed bats were already in trouble due to habitat loss, but thanks to determined conservation efforts they were removed from the U.S. endangered species list in 2018, the first species bat to do it. Up to about a thousand animals in the 1980s, the species had rebounded to around 200,000 throughout Mexico and the southwestern United States.
Yet the continued boom in mezcal, associated with climate change—which causes agaves to flower earlier, before bats arrive on their migration– could cancel these gains, warn the defenders of the environment. A A 2020 study reported that the species, Which one is considered near threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, is down again.
But some experts see a solution: sustainable agave harvesting, which encourages farmers to selectively harvest agave plants, leaving some to reproduce. Plants die when harvesters remove their pina– the heart of the agave and the source of their coveted sugar, which is distilled into alcohol. Some organizations, like the Mexico-based organization base unit Colectivo Sonora Silvestre, are working with alcohol companies to encourage a sustainable harvest by letting certain plants bloom, just for bats.
This is crucial not only for the bats themselves, but also to preserve their bond to keep the ecosystem healthy as pollinators, says Jeremiah H. Leibowitz, executive director of Cuenca Los Ojos, a conservation organization in the border regions between the United States and Mexico. (See photos of farmers harvesting mezcal in Oaxaca.)
“It’s an extremely diverse region of the globe, but it’s also a very fragile region of the globe,” says Leibowitz. “Everything has to be balanced for it to work. “
One hundred years of abuse
Mezcal has different names, derived from the Mexican region in which it is produced. For example, when liquor is made in the state of Jalisco, it is called tequila, while mezcal made in Sonora is called bacanora. Tequila has been popular for decades, but Americans’ new interest in mezcal in small amounts suddenly put bacanora in the limelight. (Check out our 9,000-year-old obsession with alcohol.)
“This whole cocktail culture started to experience a renaissance, and there was an interest in craft drinks, craft cocktails, craft beer and craft spirits,” says Cecilia Rios Murrieta, mezcal expert, who founded the American alcohol companies La Niña del Mezcal and ME Spirits. “I feel like mezcal really fits the definition of an artisan spirit.”
When bacanora growers started ramping up their beverage production, they discovered the industry was unsustainable, largely because of a century-old law.
In Sonora in 1915, an overzealous governor – perhaps inspired by the American prohibition movement – banned the production of bacanora. Industry was forced to move underground, and producers, unable to grow the plants in their own fields, harvested agaves from the wild. Bacanora became legal again in 1992, but the habit of using wild plants continued.
But agaves flower and scatter seeds only once during their 7- to 15-year lifespan, spending a decade or more producing enough sugar to grow a single flowering stalk before dying. (See more photos of desert flora.)
Because mezcal gets its flavor from this sugar, the best time to harvest agave is right before the stem sprouts.
A hundred years of such an unregulated harvest has caused a severe decline in the Sonoran agave population, and urban and agricultural development has wiped out nearly 50 percent of the native agave habitat over the past year. half a century on top of that.
Making bacanora in a way that benefits people, bats and agave is a goal of Colectivo Sonora Silvestre, which friends Lea Ibarra and Valeria Cañedo founded in 2018 as biology students.
“We thought it was a really cool thing to connect these bacanora growers with pollinators and bats,” says Ibarra. Elle and Cañedo are partnering with U.S. nonprofits, such as the Border restoration network and Bat Conservation International Agave Restoration Initiative, to improve harvesting practices. The organization, which is now part of a larger network of nonprofit organizations called Cenko– is also working with the Sonoran State Government to create a sustainability certification program called Bacanora for Bats.
Kristen Lear, National Geographic explorer, of Bat Conservation International, also works to save bats and promote a sustainable harvest of agaves.
His organization’s agave initiative “focuses on restoring critical foraging habitat for endangered pollinating bats, and sustainable certification of bacanora is a big step toward achieving that goal.” Lear said via email. “We are delighted to be working with Colectivo Sonora Silvestre as they achieve this certification.”
Although still in its infancy, certification will have multiple requirements for bacanora growers, such as limiting the amounts and types of pesticides used on agaves; growing plants from seeds rather than clones to promote genetic diversity; and leave a certain percentage of flowering agaves in the fields for each liter of bacanora produced. This ensures that the bats have enough to eat and that the plants can reproduce.
These responsibilities come with benefits for producers, who will receive training, mentorship and the opportunity to sell their product at a higher price. The plan is to tie the certification to the designation of origin process, so if Sonora brands want to call their product bacanora, they must also be sustainable.
Carlos G. Maier, spokesperson for the bacanora company Saint-Cuviso, told National Geographic that supporting the Bacanora for Bats project was part of their business plan. The company has already started saving unharvested agaves for bats at its 17,300-acre ranch, he says.
A future full of hope
Similar initiatives, such as Tequila exchange project and the Bat-friendly tequila and mezcal project, encourage tequila growers to let 5% of their agave fields bloom in exchange for a bat-friendly label on their bottles. Over 300,000 bat-friendly bottles have been made through the voluntary program. National Geographic Explorer Rodrigo Medellin, nicknamed the Batman of Mexico, worked with the Tequila Interchange Project, calling it “a dream come true” in a previous interview.
Even so, the tequila industry is “so much older and ingrained” that many brands have opposed the adoption of new practices, notes Francesca Claverie, head of the native plants program of the Borderlands Restoration Network, which funds the Colectivo Sonora Silvestre. (Get the facts on popular bat myths.)
She is optimistic about the success of the Bacanora for Bats certification, in part because the commercial bacanora industry is younger and open to change, and because the certificate would come from the Sonoran government, not from one organization to another. non-profit.
“It’s really about the survival of the [bacanora] industry as a cultural and economic phenomenon of the state, ”explains Claverie. “And luckily for the bat, it’s related to it as the primary pollinator.”