RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It is all the rage in bars across the country, mezcal. It is this smoky, delicious liquor that kind of taste like tequila, mainly because it's made from the same key ingredients, the agave plant. So because mezcal is getting so popular in the U.S. now, investors and tourists are flocking to the Mexican state of Oaxaca, where it's made. And that is giving the local economy there a much-needed boost. Here's Rodrigo Cervantes from member station KJZZ.
RODRIGO CERVANTES, BYLINE: The heart of mezcal country is in Oaxaca's central valley. Small traditional producers in towns like Santa Catarina Minas distill the spirit alongside their crops and farm animals.
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CERVANTES: Mezcal is prepared in distilleries called palenques, barn-like structures where the agave plant's thick, tall leaves are shaved with machetes and then crushed. The sweet extract juices are then distilled into the smoky, clear alcohol. Demand for mezcal is growing. Last year, it was Mexico's third largest alcoholic export behind beer and tequila, earning more than $26 million. And not only are foreigners drinking up mezcal. They are flocking to Oaxaca to see the plant and its producers up close and personal. Canadian Alvin Starkman moved to Oaxaca more than a decade ago and launched his mezcal tours.
ALVIN STARKMAN: OK, come on. OK.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm coming.
STARKMAN: OK, come on over here.
CERVANTES: He shuttles his tour - on this day, all Americans - outside a producer's mezcal distillery and into a car.
STARKMAN: A lot of the tourism to mezcal are like pilgrims, people making a pilgrimage to come to Oaxaca to learn about their new favorite drink, even though the history of mezcal goes back 450 years, if not till pre-Hispanic times.
CERVANTES: Starkman says he's noticed a different kind of visitor on the tours lately.
STARKMAN: At least once a month, I'm taking out somebody who wants to export mezcal to the United States or England or Australia or Germany.
CERVANTES: Thomas Kalnik from Boston is enjoying the tour. He founded Penasco, an alcohol-importing company and likes what he sees.
THOMAS KALNIK: We're focused on importing artisanal mexcals for distribution in the - in the U.S. market.
CERVANTES: Especially the high prices some mezcal is fetching these days. Some bottles go for as much as $200 in higher-end stores and bars. With two-thirds of Mexico's mezcal exports going to the U.S., Mexican authorities and producers are regularly traveling north to hunt for capital.
HIPOCRATES NOLASCO: (Speaking Spanish).
CERVANTES: Hipocrates Nolasco, president of the National Council of Mezcal says, without the foreign investment, there would be no boom. And according to officials here, that new money is boosting local incomes and even attracting back to Oaxaca migrants who left to go work in the U.S.
RIGO CRUZ: One example, I'm here. That's the very example.
CERVANTES: That's Rigo Cruz. He just returned from living in Los Angeles for the past 12 years, where he worked in a bar.
CRUZ: I think it's better here.
CERVANTES: He's glad to be back home and working in his family's mezcal business. When he left Oaxaca all those years ago to find work in California, the business wasn't making enough money to support everyone. Now the family is distilling 2,400 bottles a month. Cruz says he hopes he can help his parents grow that number even higher.
CRUZ: We have to meet more people. I need to learn more about mezcal and do something big.
CERVANTES: Oaxacan officials are hoping for the same. They are hosting an international mezcal fair next month in the state capital and a business summit of distilleries from around the world in August. For NPR News, I am Rodrigo Cervantes in Oaxaca, Mexico.
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