Sombra’s new palenque

Just when we start really digging into the different ways to unpack the new NOM-70,  Sombra Mezcal founder Richard Betts published this incredible piece. It’s a scoping piece of honesty and transparency from a mezcal brand. More than anything it’s incredibly refreshing – if we all could engage on this level all of the time the world would be a much better place.

He candidly assesses the mezcal landscape along with what he and Sombra have learned along the way. But most of all he charts a path forward. And because it comes in the midst of NOM-70 becoming law, it returns us to that conversation about the unintended consequences of the new NOM and the issue of sustainability.

“We’ve evaluated ‘tradition’ for its environmental impact, its sustainability, and its ethical considerations. In doing so, we have arrived at a vision for a brand new, 21st century palenque (distillery). We believe it is the future of thoughtful, environmentally friendly production (that also happens to makes great mezcal).”

So let’s review – NOM 70 lays out three categories of mezcal: Ancestral, Artesanal, and Mezcal. There are clear guidelines for what makes each category. But, here’s where it gets sticky – what if you are a brand that is producing for a large audience AND interested in being as environmentally friendly as possible? What if you recognize that the use of wood can be problematic – not only regarding the deforestation issue, but also the impact all of that smoke has on the air? As Betts discusses, keeping the wood in the roast is integral to maintaining the flavor, the uniqueness of what makes mezcal, mezcal. So they use certified sustainable wood. Mechanizing the crush processes, not by incorporating a chipper, but by mechanizing the tahona is a great solution – it reduces the chances of animal abuse and is incredibly efficient, while remaining completely traditional. Also traditional, the continued use of wild yeasts, rather than using packaged yeasts or accelerants to speed up the fermentation process. Thus far, Sombra’s production process remains both traditional and within the definition of Artesanal.

But here is where everything changes:

“Traditionally the stills are fired with wood. It’s certainly a remarkable thing to watch someone hone a wood fire just so and to coerce mezcal out of the still. But it’s important to really evaluate what’s happening in this process. Considering that the still is a closed system (meaning that no flavor is imparted by the wood fire), the wood is merely a heat source. So if the source of the heat doesn’t matter, why not choose a cleaner source?”

The clear choice is not use wood to fire the stills, but rather a clean delivery gas system. And for all the right environmental and sustainable reasons.

“We’re saving trees, distilling with better precision, making something more delicious and more consistent, and all with less waste, which is so important. Add to this the enormous benefit of cleaner air so our mezcaleros are not breathing smoke all day, which we all know is detrimental to one’s health. (If you’d like to read more about the impact of word burning you can do so here.)

By using gas to fire their stills Sombra is vaulted out of the Artesanal category and into that linguistically anodyne space of Mezcal. Suddenly Sombra is placed in the same category as Zignum and Beneva. This despite Sombra being infinitely more transparent than most of its company in that Mezcal category and being as environmentally friendly as possible while remaining traditional.

This sort of issue is exactly the sort of thing that came out of our November panel on sustainability. At the time we didn’t know whether gas fired stills would even be allowed in any of the recognized categories so we wrote:

Wood is so central to how mezcal has been traditionally made that you are required to use it while roasting the agave and firing your still in order to qualify as either “ancestral” or “artisanal” in the new Denominación definition. That means that the DO is writing pollution into the law. Raza pointed to a quick sustainability win  “it’s a no brainer, switch to gas fired stills but not the agave roasting.” At a stroke you’ll remove one huge polluter and make a huge contribution to a more sustainable industry. But since burning wood is written into the DO and the market incentives to get yourself labeled an “ancestral” or “artisanal” mezcal are huge – I mean, wouldn’t you really rather call yourself the ‘Artisanal Mezcal’ instead of just “Mezcal”? So, everyone is going to have to keep polluting just to comply with the law and sell their product at the premium it deserves.

At that time gas fired stills hadn’t been included in the new NOM so it seemed very likely that this amazing bonus to sustainability in the mezcal world would be cast by the wayside. We’re incredibly happy to see it included, even if it is just within the Mezcal category.  Now we move onto the next issue — how the NOM will be adapted and rolled out.

In the interim Sombra and others with similar campaigns are leading the charge in market differentiation and earnest fealty to sustainability and tradition. This is a fantastic example for any other brands who need to differentiate themselves within their new categories, we just have to keep making sure that green washing doesn’t come to define the NOM because it definitely already exists in some marketing campaigns. Here’s hoping that this kind of transparency pushes the industry towards more clarity, more creativity applied to making the process as sustainable as possible, so that consumers have more information to make their buying decisions.