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The Cultura mezcal cabinet is a treasure trove, including some so rare they won't be for sale.

There are people who still quiver and turn a bit pale at the mention of mezcal.

Sarah Kabat-Marcy hears it a lot, the dismissive “I had mezcal in college” excuse, often followed by a reference to the bloated worm cadaver bobbing listlessly near the bottom of the bottle. So the managing partner of Cultura in Carmel spends a lot of time counseling those with post-traumatic stress caused by a bout with cut-rate liquor.

Well, she refers to it as “education.” You see, Cultura stocks 20 or 30—we’re not mathematicians here—mezcals, each selected for the mezcallaros’ respect for traditional methods, as well as the nuances of terroir and varietal, the influences of clay or copper vessels and the amount of exposure to smoke. Even the material used to line the fire pits offers something to the finished product.

So Kabat-Marcy seemed like the obvious reference point for this week’s Burning Question, “Why isn’t mezcal as popular as tequila?” A few minutes with her and we’d have the matter settled. It’s the association with the worm, right?

“That was a very poor representation,” Kabat-Marcy agrees. But…

Yes, there was a caveat coming. “I can’t say there’s one particular thing,” she continues. “It’s rather a socio-political, multi-dimensional response.”

Oh, great. So much for spending the rest of the day sampling.

Mezcal is gaining in stature. The Distilled Spirits Council—oh, to be invited to one of their meetings—reports that U.S. sales of the centuries-old, smoky spirit increased from around 50,000 cases in 2009 to a promising 360,000 cases a year ago. Some in the industry expect that number to double over the next five years as consumers continue to seek out connections to tradition and terroir, thanks largely to the openness of millennials to cultures and authentic flavors.

“It’s a pure spirit,” says Arnoldo Garcia, general manager of the Lopez stores, including Lopez Liquors & Fine Wines. “It’s very popular in Carmel because of Cultura. We’re seeing more and more people experience it.”

As a result of this surge in popularity, bottles now emphasize region and production method. There are even “single village” offerings. And prices have climbed, accordingly. According to Phillip Stevens at Bottles N’ Bins on Lighthouse in Monterey, bottles range up to $200, with $60 to $70 more common.

“We don’t have any right now,” he adds. “They come in and they go.”

All good, right? Not so fast. According to data from Nielsen, the annual bar and restaurant tab for tequila amounts to $5.1 billion. By comparison, mezcal orders rack up a measly $41.7 million.

The curious thing is this: All spirits distilled from the agave plant are considered mezcal. Tequila, therefore, is technically a mezcal. It differs only in the type of agave, with tequila production limited to the blue agave. Mezcals can be distilled from any of the plant’s 40-some varieties, though a dozen account for about 90 percent of mezcal production.

Oh, and there’s the matter of appellation. Thanks to Denominación de Origen laws, to use the coveted tequila name, the spirit must be distilled in Jalisco (home of the city of Tequila) or a few neighboring regions. Mezcal is more diverse, with agave farmed in at least nine distinct regions—although Oaxaca is the most prominent.

Ah—there is one other thing. While both start with the core—the piña—of an agave plant, tequila producers generate juice through large ovens and a lot of steam. Mescalleros, on the other hand, dig pits, line them with stone or other heat-capturing materials, toss on some dry wood, start a fire, cover the whole and allow the piñas to cure in smoke.

The result is an expression of terroir laced rustic notions of saltgrass and sweet earth and cool, acrid smoke. Even the type of still—clay or copper—imparts something that pricks the senses.

“Clay adds more salinity,” Kabat-Marcy explains. “The copper lends to the natural minerality.”

Those who have taken to mezcal over tequila prefer the joven or blanco—the clear stuff. It’s another difference between the two similar spirits. Where aging tequila in barrels soothes its bite, contributing hints of vanilla, butterscotch and split wood, time in oak taunts the more sensitive mezcal.

“In its silver form it has more distinct flavors,” Garcia points out. “Barrel aging masks some of that.”

“If we cover it with wood, what poetry can it tell you,” Kabat-Marcy says, adding that barrel aging is more recent and European influence.

OK, so mezcal is a beautiful, poetic, smoky-eyed spirit. Why isn’t it as popular as tequila—it’s the worm, right?

“People have to get away from that thing with the worm,” Garcia observes. Besides, no decent mezcal carries a worm.

Well, then what? I’m struggling to find an answer and with happy hour approaching—it starts early here—patience is beginning to wear.

“Maybe it’s because it is not promoted,” offers Antonio Rodriquez, a bartender at Haute Enchilada in Moss Landing.

Or maybe there was something in Kabat-Marcy’s enigmatic mention of a socio-political response. You see, the market for tequila began to take off during this country’s post-World War II economic boom. The large producers in Jalisco took advantage of the export market. They began to ramp up the scale of production and define the brand, pushing through the laws of appellation that now apply.

“The social prestige of tequila—because of its early acceptance—put a cloud over mezcal,” Kabat-Marcy says. “It came to be considered something only peasants would consume.”

Meanwhile, large tequila producers began turning their backs on traditional methods, on the culture that had produced the spirit for centuries on farms and in villages, relying on local agave and customs. Mezcalleros were forced to cling to the slow old ways—fortunately.

There’s more to the story, of course. One could write a dissertation on the social, cultural, religious, economic and legal aspects that kicked mezcal into a dark corner.

In fact, someone did.

I blame professor Sarah Bowen’s Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production for the rambling nature of this week’s Burning Question. We’re barely through the preface.

Quite simply, mezcal was the victim of socio-economic forces. It seems the worm was just a failed marketing ploy as some desperate mezcal producers struggled for attention. Now, the worm has turned.

So how about this: Why is mezcal finally gaining in popularity?

“I could get really geeky,” Kabat-Marcy says. “There are so many elements that compare to wine. It’s like the new frontier, only it’s America’s oldest spirit.”

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