The popularity of agave spirits has exploded in recent years with mezcal showing particularly impressive growth. Unlike most tequila, however, mezcal is more of an artisanal product, often made entirely by hand and with frequently far lower yields. It is not uncommon for a new mezcal producer to hit the market with only a few thousand or even a few hundred bottles to sell. With those sorts of production constraints, premiumization is paramount to ensuring viability and growth, but it’s also important to ensuring the category is properly valued.
Mezcal Amarás knows this all too well, recently expanding their lux Logia line with a very limited bottling made from the prized Horno varietal of agave. With Horno Logia, Mezcal Amarás’s founders hope to redefine the way super-premium mezcal is categorized and identified which, in an increasingly crowded marketplace, is no small endeavor. I was able to catch up virtually with co-founder Luis Niño de Rivera Mesta to talk about this latest expression, some trends and challenges that he’s observed in the industry, and where mezcal goes from here.
This interview has been edited for readability.
Drinkhacker: You co-founded Mezcal Amarás in 2010. What was your prior experience with mezcal, and what made you want to focus on the category?
Luis: I actually had no prior experience with mezcal, even though I worked for five years at Pernod Ricard Mexico from 2005 to the end of 2009. As the brand manager of whiskeys and white spirits, I had heard of mezcal only a few times during my tenure there. I had the good fortune of meeting Santiago Suarez, then an NGO leader, at a PR event, and we immediately bonded over our shared passions for supporting local communities and the spirits industry. Not long after that, he invited me to found a mezcal brand that not only celebrated the liquid but also made a positive impact on agave farming communities. This journey has challenged and rewarded us in ways we never could have imagined and is extremely fulfilling.
Drinkhacker: What trends have you observed in mezcal since you started your company?
Luis: Markets outside of Mexico are starting to understand that mezcal from Oaxaca is more than just espadin; they are beginning to look for other species of agave like tobala, tepeztate, etc. Markets outside of Mexico are also starting to appreciate neat mezcal and understand the versatility of different agaves and regions. This is still at a small scale but is on the rise. Another trend is that larger companies began entering the category in 2014, gaining strength in 2017, despite the category’s relatively small size. Celebrities are also launching mezcal brands, similar to what happened in the tequila industry. New mezcal brands continue to launch each year. When we launched, there were 60 brands in Mexico in 2011; now there are over 300. As for price trends, the price of agave espadin was continuously rising until 2023. Now, the downward trend has begun. The price of agaves other than espadin is finally above espadin since 2022.
Drinkhacker: What has surprised you about the industry?
Luis: Certain markets like Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico quickly embraced mezcal. The mezcal category hasn’t grown as quickly as the tequila category in the same amount of time, even though larger companies have entered the mezcal market. I’m also surprised there hasn’t yet been a single brand explosion in mezcal — like we’ve seen with celebrity tequila brands, for example.
Despite the challenges and small volumes in the mezcal category, we have still seen an increase in new brands entering the category. During COVID demand for agave spirits shot up, while supply remained limited, and it took until 2023 for the supply of espadin to catch up. And it surprised me that it took longer than expected for rare and unique agaves to gain the value they deserve compared to espadin, partly due to the previous point. Supply of espadin agave finally caught up to the demand for it, shifting the price down compared to other types of agave species. As the demand for more rare agave species increases, expect the price of those agaves to increase as well.
I’ve also been surprised by the reactions of our consumer. When consumers taste a flight of three or more different mezcals, their expressions and thoughts are incredible. It motivates me to spread the word about the diversity and richness of mezcal.
Drinkhacker: What obstacles stand in the way of growing the category?
Luis: There are four main challenges and three main obstacles. The challenges are first, to grow artisanal mezcal to high volumes without compromising mature agave and the traditional process. Next, we have to maintain quality and the traditional process through regulation and practice and preserve the importance and work of maestros mezcaleros (mezcal masters). We also need to break the cycle of agave and mezcal prices. This requires us to encourage agave suppliers and growers to plan for the growth of the industry proactively. Maintaining proper supply against growing demand requires years of planning and foresight to keep the delicate balance. That requires us to implement sustainable practices in planting agave and managing mezcal production waste.
Obstacles are the fact that there is not enough agave to grow beyond a certain level, like Tequila did decades ago. Tequila’s aggressive growth is also diverting attention from mezcal with premium blanco and cristalino Tequilas. And then global drinking trends are still recovering from post-Covid issues, economic struggles in main markets, and political and cultural conflicts.
Drinkhacker: What do you wish more consumers understood about mezcal?
Luis: I wish more consumers understood that mezcal is the most versatile and rich spirit in the world. It offers a lifetime of exploration and discovery within the realm of a real, authentic, artisanal, cultural, and enigmatic spirit.
Drinkhacker: You’ve said before that super-premium mezcal needs to be redefined and better categorized. Why? Could all mezcal benefit from better categorization?
Luis: The mezcal category needs to be valued appropriately. It should be recognized as on par with super-premium and ultra-premium whiskies and Cognacs, considering its richness and versatility in aromas and flavors as a white spirit, ensembles, production methods, and more.
Drinkhacker: How are mezcals categorized in the Amarás portfolio?
Luis: We produce three ranges of artisanal and ancestral mezcal. The Amarás Logia range represents the single malt, single estate, special, unique, and rare agaves and flavors, all produced in an artisanal and ancestral manner. The Amarás range comprises the core of smooth and balanced mezcals, from espadin to ensembles and cupreata, all artisanally produced. Finally, our Verde Amarás is the perfect mezcal for cocktails and an introduction to the world of mezcal, also artisanal in production.
Drinkhacker: What distinguishes an ordinary mezcal from a super-premium mezcal?
Luis: There are no “ordinary” mezcals. Instead, I would differentiate between mezcals produced industrially and those that are artisanal and ancestral. The former tends to be more neutral and straightforward, while the latter offers a world of possibilities and expressions.
Drinkhacker: What do you hope the new Logia Horno will achieve for the category? What can Amarás fans expect in future super-premium releases?
Luis: I hope the new Logia Horno will showcase that mezcal can compete in the ultra-premium and deluxe spirits category. There is much more value and richness in mezcal than people may realize. Amarás fans can expect continued innovation and a broader range of high-quality releases.
Drinkhacker: What does the future look like for the mezcal industry, and what do you hope to see?
Luis: I hope to see an organized, conscious, and artisanal/ancestral supply chain model where the main players work together to meet the demands of consumers and buyers who appreciate and understand the value and uniqueness of mezcal. I envision a thriving market of enthusiasts exploring the world of mezcal with passion.
Drinkhacker: What is your personal favorite Amarás expression?
Luis: Right now, my personal favorite is the Amarás Logia Ancestral Mexicano, but I’m excited about the new Ancestral expression for 2024.