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If you sell ‘Oaxaca in a bottle’, what happens to Oaxaca?

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“I never expected this kind of Columbus crusade,” says Bricia Lopez, an Oaxaca native whose Los Angeles restaurant, Guelaguetza, stocks more than 100 mezcals.

Ms. Lopez huddles with hobbyists or investors who talk about “discovering” the mind. She said she liked the way El Silencio, owned by two Mexican citizens, grew: sustainably and in a way that focused on creating wealth for the region.

“Traditions can’t be bought, and that’s what people who are getting into the mezcal business these days are trying to do,” she said. “They’re trying to position themselves next to someone who looks like a native person, take a picture and say, ‘I’m authentic too.'”

Ms. Lopez added: “They start these brands and they think they’re coming up with a story that’s unique to them, but it’s the same crazy story: ‘I’m a white guy who went to Oaxaca and I fell in love with the people.’ ”

You can see why they would try, given the case of Mr. Clooney. In 2017, Casamigos, the tequila brand he co-founded, was acquired by the beverage company Diageo for an estimated $1 billion. Those sales “spurred this whole stream of people to get into the industry,” said Susan Cross, the co-founder of the website Mezcalistas. “Like, ‘Look, there’s so much money to be made.’ But it’s hard to build a mezcal brand.”

The most common agave species takes seven years to mature. Mezcal is traditionally produced in small batches, the smoked agave is mashed into a pulp by a donkey and distilled in copper stills. According to a report, tequila had global sales of $9.4 billion in 2020. Mezcal’s revenue: about 4 percent of that. While tequila is technically a type of mezcal, Jalisco, the state that produces the majority of the world’s tequila, has an infrastructure that Oaxaca can’t yet match.

“The biggest brand of mezcal hasn’t even fallen 100,000,” said Harry Kohlmann, the CEO of Park Street Companies, which helps young spirits brands grow. “But you have to think in ten years,” he said. “There will be several brands that have over 100,000 cases. One of them will be over a million cases.”

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