Reflections on Spirited Conversations.
This week Chicago welcomed agave enthusiasts from across the United States and Mexico with events and programs that gave people the opportunity to taste rare spirits, learn their origin stories, and engage in meaningful conversation about the state of mezcal. The mezcal community — some of the most passionate people I’ve ever met — asked the question Does big mezcal equal bad?
For a spirit that has now been “discovered” by the world’s thirstiest market, U.S. consumer demand is driving trends in what Nielsen refers to as a “subcategory of tequila.” In 2018, mezcal posted the highest growth rate of all spirits. Oftentimes, consumers learn about mezcal by way of the cocktail. The demand has led those pouring and making drinks to require consistent, “smokey,” and inexpensive mezcal to serve up in libations — new and reimagined — delighting consumers to explore mezcal in their favorite drinks and then served neat in a copita, a culture all its own. The debates around volume production, promoting cocktail mezcal, and the implications on production, sustainability, and development in the communities that make this spirit are significant and complex. The industrialization of tequila has fairly informed many opinions. (For a good read on this and so much more, check out Sarah Bowen’s Divided Spirits.) Not only can we point to lessons learned from the industrialization of tequila, we find this metaphor of big as bad across industries: banking, food systems, telecommunications, etc..
The question Does big ________ equal bad? is familiar but, across contexts, the answer is not straight forward. Amazon anyone? This multinational mega-tech company is proof that many of us can simultaneously love and hate the same thing with equal force.
It’s easy to adopt the big as bad lens when trying to untangle something as complex as mezcal — a spirit that is culturally, economically, and socially relevant in the communities that make it. The merits of big as bad are everywhere. We are now a decade beyond a global financial crisis, attempting to understand what too big to fail really means; the fragility of our financial system is terrifying; food insecurity continues to climb in national discourse; telecommunications providers literally do not have to speak to existing customers, many of us hanging up after dozens of attempts with automated systems. These (negative) experiences translate to how we view other non-related industries or systems and inform individual behaviors, policy, and participation.
Adopting images of services, products, and organizations leads us to think in very partial, nuanced ways. We exploit our automatic systems of thinking and develop even stronger biases because that is how humans are wired. It is no surprise that mezcal enthusiasts cringe in horror when thinking about the impact of industrialization on mezcal, a spirit that has protected its traditional processes for centuries. In this context, we risk losing the wisdom traditions and artisanal features of the spirit to efficiency and volume. Of course, it more complex than that.
I learned to adjust this lens as an applied researcher in the big health care equals bad context. A special needs housing facility catering to families of children living with developmental disabilities was deemed too large based on a new regulatory framework. The changes created an existential threat to the organization. They operated in a single facility that allowed for specialized care, lots of support, and frequent group interaction — a model that provided quality services for decades. Suddenly, they were required to disrupt their operational and structural model, forced to relocate to several satellite homes and staff accordingly. A complete reorganization — and all the pain that goes with it — ensued because a regulation adopted the lens of big care equals bad / smaller must be better. The regulations did not consider the landscape or circumstances of this organization or the population it served. In effect, the context was ignored.
Before heading to the Mezcal Collaborative’s panel discussion, my hope was that our panelists would not ignore the various contexts in which mezcal exists. To name a few:
- the economic impact of jobs in the communities that make it
- the benefits of technology for the environment and worker safety
- the diversity of choice ranging from cocktail drinkers to master sommeliers
The panelists — leaders and authors in the industry — did not disappoint and addressed various contexts with critical analyses. They also qualified themselves in a way that we don’t often see when a group of “experts” publicly chats, by acknowledging that no one on the stage that day was a mezcal producer or lived in the communities that are most deeply impacted by the issues being discussed. I believe this approach goes a long way when tackling such complicated, messy themes. There was no definitive answer to the question Does big mezcal equal bad? To that, I say Salud! because after all, drinking mezcal doesn’t happen in a vacuum — it happens with a copita and if you are lucky, really good food and friends.