Corte Vetusto: Big business interest in mezcal ‘of real concern’

by Annie Hayes

The growing presence of international drinks groups in the mezcal category could have a "major impact on future generations of agave plants", the co-founder of new artisanal brand Corte Vetusto has said.

Hand-crafted by fourth generation master mezcalero, Juan Carlos Gonzalez Diaz, at a Palenque in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, Corte Vetusto is seeking to challenge the UK perception of agave spirits and position the category as "a genuine sipping alternative to single malt whisky". David Shepherd, co-founder and director at Black Sheep Spirits, said that "the growth opportunity is there", since the category claims "less than 2%" of Tequila volumes, and its Denomination of Origin has a larger geographical territory than that of Tequila. "The question is how that growth is achieved," said Shepherd, adding that the arrival of big spirits corporations is "of real concern". "They don't understand mezcal and the artisanal process is at odds with their pursuit of volume," he explained. "They can't afford to make the product properly, so they will inevitably look for cost savings and shorten the production process. This will be obvious in the end product and our hope is that the trade and discerning consumers will shun it. "Current mass-produced mezcal has failed to even remotely capture the essence of artisanal mezcal. The question is, how much damage will they do in the short-term? Their demands for volume, in addition to other opportunists, will put more pressure on the price of agave and I think we will see them using immature agave too. "All you have to do is look at the Tequila industry. Big business have destroyed that industry. It could put us smaller brands out of the market, but worse, it could have a major impact on future generations of agave plants, especially the wild varietals. A Tepeztate can take 35 years to mature. There is no way, even with re-planting initiatives, that there is enough to sustain current demand, let alone future demand." Corte Vetusto, which translates as 'ancient cut', is available in three varietals: a cultivated Espadin, a wild Tobala and a batched limited-edition Ensamble, or blend, of three wild agave. After they are harvested, the agave are roasted for between three and five days beneath the earth in a traditional pit oven, using a mix of woods, including mesquite for flavour. The agave is then slowly crushed by a volcanic stone tahona - milling stone – pulled by a horse. The juice and bagaso, or agave fibres, are transferred to open-top wooden vats and left to ferment for between one and two weeks to create tepache, or mash, ready for distilling. Introductory mezcal, Espadin, is made from cultivated agave and double-distilled in copper pot stills, while the premium Tobala and Ensamble liquids are made using wild agave and are distilled in both a copper still and a clay pot still – a process that marries "crisp, bright notes" from the former and "more complex, earthy notes" from the latter. The three single-origin mezcals are "purposefully agave forward" to "showcase the variety of flavour within the plants and the impact of terroir", and are presented as joven, or un-aged. "Whilst appreciation and awareness of mezcal is on the up, we are keen to challenge people's perceptions," added Shepherd. "It is not just a smoky Tequila as many people still think. We prefer to compare artisanal mezcal to wine and single-malt whisky. "Just as wine is made from different grapes, mezcal can be made from 25-30 agave species, each of them with distinct flavour profiles. Additionally, the impact of terroir on a plant that takes between seven and 35 years to reach maturity is significant. "We are advocating the use of Ensambles to showcase the diversity of wild agave. It was how mezcal was originally made – a mix of different agave that were mature at the time of making. "In short, we have just scratched the surface with mezcal. It is so complex and nuanced – that is where we need to focus our communication. We are launching with three distinct varietals, and believe they are exceptional un-aged spirits that can go toe-to-toe with the finest aged spirits and deserve to be sipped neat or the lead role in spirit-forward cocktails." Corte Vetusto will be made available exclusively through importer New Generation McKinley in August. The range will be available to taste on the New Generation McKinley stand (SS7) at Imbibe Live on 3-4 July.