Latin Libations

A look at the region's spirited narratives.

Latin American spirits are as diverse and vibrant as the culture they emerge from.

They are a testament to the region's rich history, traditional craftsmanship and passionate community spirit.

There are so many talking points when one looks at the region as a whole. Understandably so – it’s massive and encompasses so much. Not just geographically either, it’s easy to see the parallels with other sectors of life playing out in liquid form.

Here, Olivier Ward dives into some of the hot topics swirling around these intriguing spirits and gives an overview of the big stories that are influencing the region's producers.

Is modernisation putting Mezcal under threat?

A sip of Mezcal is akin to tasting the very soul of Mexico. This spirit, with its distinct smoky undertones, is the outcome of a labour-intensive process rooted in traditional techniques that date back centuries. 

At the heart of Mezcal production are the palenques, rustic, often family-run distilleries that dot the Mexican landscape. Many are the definition of rural enterprise.

The journey of Mezcal begins in the agave fields, valleys and basins where skilled field workers hand-harvest the plants. After harvesting, the piñas are roasted in earthen pits, milled, fermented, and distilled. This process, painstakingly performed by hand and with ancestral techniques, lends Mezcal its signature depth and complexity. It’s mesmerising. 

But in the rush to either look at the details of production or the flavours being produced, what’s often forgotten is that the production of Mezcal is a truly communal affair. There are so many people involved in one way or another and its production fosters local economies.

For many small-scale producers, making Mezcal is more than just a livelihood—it's an art and a part of rural heritage. That reality is changing fast however. The surging global demand for Mezcal has put the age old way of life of small-scale producers under threat. 

Commercialisation and industrialisation are tempting many to “evolve”. Growing consumer interest has also attracted several large-scale producers, celebrities and multinational companies to the subcategory. 

These companies often use more industrial production methods that are faster and cheaper than traditional techniques. While this meets the growing demand and more profitable margins, it also threatens to dilute the authenticity and quality of Mezcal, overshadowing the products of smaller, traditional producers and the heritage they bring to bear each day.

Alone, it’s not much to worry about. There's room for both, and it’s also worth pointing out that many big companies have deliberately look to invest in upholding ancestral production. The issue is not as simple as big vs small, modern vs ancient. It’s about the need for more. 

The slow-growing nature of the agave plant (some varieties can take up to 30 years to mature), is why the rise in popularity becomes a real cause for concern. 

The increasing demand for Mezcal is leading many to fear the inevitable over-harvesting that will occur, threatening the long-term sustainability of agave plants. 

While no-one enters a market to destroy the future source of their spirit, small acts accumulate into crises. When they do the burden isn’t fair across the board. The larger players may be fine (especially if they continue to act responsibly and plant far more than they take), but even then it has significant implications for smaller producers who rely on a sustainable supply of agave, and often cannot compete with large companies for resources.

Another factor changing the Mezcal landscape are the cultural and generational shifts underway.

Making Mezcal the traditional way is a labour-intensive process, requiring knowledge and skills passed down through generations. It’s back breaking stuff and while bottles are expensive outside of Mexico’s borders, the wage paid to produce the raw spirit isn’t reflective of the effort made, nor how often production involves a far greater community indirectly – many of whom often remain unacknowledged

It’s understandable that younger Mexican generations are drawn alternative livelihoods, but in doing so, there is a risk of these ancient techniques being lost.

Both challenges, sustainable agave sources and a dwindling generation of Mezcaleros, underline the importance of supporting small-scale producers who uphold traditional Mezcal-making practices. There’s no silver bullet to do it. Initiatives like fair-trade certification, sustainable farming practices and consumer education can play a crucial role in preserving the heritage and sustaining the future of artisanal Mezcal production. But will it be enough?

How mezcal adapts to the new interest and new aspirations of a generation (both as makers and drinkers), is one of the big talking points producers are grappling with now

Cachaça and the Quest for Sustainability

While Mezcal echoes Mexico's rugged spirit, Brazil finds its rural voice in Cachaça. A sugarcane spirit boasting a lively profile, Cachaça is the lifeblood of Brazil's national cocktail, the Caipirinha. 

Yet, beneath its carefree facade, Cachaça tells a story of resilience, renewal and a reflection of much deeper cultural divides.

In recent years, there's been a significant shift in the Cachaça industry towards sustainability. Brands like Novo Fogo are names proactively seeking this green revolution, championing organic farming, fair-trade practices, and more eco-friendly distilling methods. 

This commitment to sustainability not only yields a superior spirit, but it also reflects Brazil's predicament when it comes to preserving its lush landscapes and fostering ethical production. Many want to, but the short term, short-sighted commercial opportunity has meant that others still have spectacularly conflicting views. 

Hectares of former rainforest turned into mono-crops of sugar cane with comparatively little biodiversity is one example of how the approach is different, but you can also see this narrative play out when looking at the use of native Brazilian wood casks in the ageing process.

Historically, Cachaça has been aged in barrels made from a variety of native timber like Amburana, Jequitibá, Bálsamo and more, each lending its unique flavour to the spirit. The subtle notes of spice from Amburana, the soft, clean profile from Jequitibá, or the herbal touch from Bálsamo—these flavours create a tasting journey across Brazil's diverse rainforest. Using native timber is in the category’s heritage, but it’s not sustainable if done at scale.

Here lies the double-edged sword. On one hand, using such wood underlines the uniqueness of Cachaça and can be used to create awareness about Brazil's biodiversity. On the other hand, it raises concerns about even further deforestation. 

This conundrum underscores the need for responsible practices such as using wood from certified sustainable sources, reforesting initiatives etc.

It also involves a lot of consumer education too as addressing the issue of sustainability in the use of native timber is not just about protecting the environment. It's also about preserving the cultural and sensory diversity of Cachaça that many didn't even know existed in the first place. It's a delicate balance between heritage and progress, flavour and conservation. 

Overall, producers are engaging with the topic but if the 2022 Bolsonaro vs Lula election showed anything, it’s that the cultural fault line runs deep when it comes to how to value the resources available.

Pisco Wars: Peru vs. Chile

Venture west from Brazil and you'll find yourself amidst a spirited debate that has spanned centuries -Pisco. This grape brandy is the subject of a longstanding rivalry between Peru and Chile, both claiming to be the birthplace of Pisco.

The Pisco war is more than just a contest of origin; it's a reflection of national identities and historic complexities. Despite the differences and disputes though, what's undeniable is that both countries produce Piscos that offer great drinks steeped in tradition.

The issue not often discussed so openly is that the Pisco debate may well be a red herring when it comes to the real battle producers face internationally – relevancy. 

As both Chilean and Peruvian bottlings strive to make their mark on the global spirits scene, a significant challenge appears to be stopping the spirit’s progress - the lack of a compelling international brand.

In today's competitive spirits market, a compelling brand isn't just about the spirit in the bottle; it's about the story, the aesthetic and the appeal. It's about having a brand that can charm bartenders in bustling London gastro-pubs, entice curious drinkers in New York speakeasies, and pique the interest of spirit connoisseurs in Tokyo's sophisticated cocktail bars. 

Both Peru and Chile have an abundance of artisanal Pisco producers, each with their unique story, craftsmanship, and quality. However, there hasn't been a breakout brand that has successfully captured the international imagination. A brand with the swagger to strut onto the world stage, a transfixing aesthetic that resonates with global consumers, and a novel appeal that sets it apart from the crowd.

Moreover, none have the financial muscle to support global marketing initiatives nor invest in the marketing campaigns necessary to elevate Pisco's international stature.

So, as Peru and Chile continue their spirited Pisco debate, it's clear that the quest for global recognition will require more than just passionate arguments and historical claims. It seems that once all is said and done – the big story from the category is not about where Pisco comes from; it's about who is going to take it somewhere new.

The Unsung Spirits of Latin America

While spirits like Mezcal, Cachaça and Pisco capture column inches once journalists look beyond Tequila, the Latin American spirit scene is home to a host of lesser known but equally captivating distillates.

Take, for example, Clairin from Haiti, an artisanal rum made from native sugarcane varieties, wild fermented and pot-distilled, offering a raw and authentic taste of its island roots. Then there's Singani from Bolivia, distilled from Muscat of Alexandria grapes grown at high altitudes, resulting in a floral, aromatic spirit.

These spirits, often crafted in tiny distilleries and small farms, offer a glimpse into the heart of Latin America's distilling traditions—a testament to the region's wide-ranging biodiversity, local craftsmanship and enduring passion for distilling.

Yet, the narrative doesn't end here. As the spirit industry evolves, new chapters are being added even in the well-established spirit producing countries, introducing fascinating characters like heirloom grains and indigenous flora. 

For example, Mexican producers are turning to native corn varieties to distil whisky, embracing their agricultural heritage in a uniquely novel way. 

This is not just about diversifying the local spirit scene either; it's about the pursuit of something more authentic than merely trying to replicate American Bourbon or Rye. As these whiskies start to mature and hit the market, they promise to offer a taste profile that reflects their terroir, marking an interesting chapter for new world whisky. 

And then there's gin—a global spirit that has found a unique expression in Latin America. Latin American gin, especially from regions rich in biodiversity like Colombia, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, has the potential to highlight their country's flora in ways agave, barley or sugarcane spirits could never. 

Infused with a range of local botanicals — fruits, flowers, spices — these gins offer a tasting journey through the region's landscapes and tell a story that to date has been grossly overlooked on the international stage.

Latin Spirits and Gastronomy: A Flavourful Affair

Latin American spirits are an integral part of the region's gastronomic narrative. The flavours of these spirits often influence and enhance the culinary experiences of their respective regions. 

That intersection is constantly evolving and it’s becoming more important than ever.

Exploring the relationship between spirits and the local cuisine reveals another dimension to understanding Latin American culture, a reminder that food and drink are intrinsically linked to a region's history and way of life. 

While bartenders have played a significant role in introducing Latin spirits to drinkers, one cannot overlook the powerful influence of Latin American food has in reshaping the global perception around its spirits to a broader less directing audience too. 

Indeed, it is within the layers of Latin flavours that these spirits may find a more robust platform for international acceptance and popularity.

Latin American cuisine is experiencing a continued global renaissance, with chefs from Mexico to Argentina garnering accolades and attention. As these culinary ambassadors introduce the world to the creative flavours of Latin cooking, they carry with them an opportunity to showcase the region's spirits in a new context. To all. Not just us spirits enthusasts.

Imagine sipping a smoky Mezcal alongside a plate of Mexican mole poblano, or tasting the fruity notes of Cachaça as you indulge in a hearty Brazilian feijoada. Consider the sophisticated pairing of a crisp Pisco with Peruvian ceviche, or the intriguing contrast of a Haitian Clairin with a spicy Creole dish. The gastronomic possibilities are as diverse and exciting as Latin America itself, especially when one factors in that the spirit is just the base and that a cocktail can take its flavours so much further.

Cuisine supplies a tangible, relatable narrative that can help everyday drinkers appreciate the complexity and context behind Latin spirits. 

As culinary tourism grows, the intersection of food and drink becomes even more critical, offering a comprehensive cultural experience that extends beyond the dining table and into the agave fields of Jalisco, the sugarcane plantations of Minas Gerais, and the vineyards of the Elqui and Limarí Valleys.

In this light, the success of Latin spirits on the global stage may very well hinge on the continued recognition of Latin American fare. 

As always, nothing is clear cut but in all the category specific stories to emerge (as illustrated above), the one factor that is true to all - be it Venezuelan rum, Argentine gin, Mexican whisky, cachaca or pisco - is that further linking spirits’ relationship with food is the unifying opportunity of the region. 

No wonder then, that it's the talking point so many conversations and why so many look to centre marketing campaigns around it currently. 

By Olivier Ward

2 June 2023