Can Homemade Liquor Jumpstart A Local Economy?

Feb 4, 2014
Originally published on February 4, 2014 5:00 pm

Back in 2004, the tiny towns across the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico had a problem. Everyone was leaving. There were no jobs, and people were flocking to California looking for work.

No one knew how to stop the mass exodus but some thought a local liquor, mezcal, might prove to be the answer. Mezcal is made from a plant called maguey, a type of Agave. Much like Champagne, there is only one place in the world that you can make mezical: the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico and the surrounding area. Most of it is produced in the valley and sold cheap to big liquor companies.

But high in the Sierra Norte, the grand plan was to mount an international business exporting a little-known alcohol from a tiny town in the mountains. It seemed nearly impossible.

One decade later, two cousins named Edgar and Elisandro are making that dream come true.

It all started with the movie "A Walk in the Clouds," in which, Keanu Reeves follows a love interest to her father's winery. Though he knows it sounds corny, Edgar, the older cousin, said the depiction of life on the vineyard inspired him.

"I thought, I want to do that. I want to live like that." Edgar knew he couldn't grow grapes, but what about agave? He decided he would make mezcal.

Edgar, too, hoped to bring jobs to his region. But in order to get started he did exactly the thing his scheme aimed to prevent. He migrated to California, where he could make enough money to start growing agave back home.

Edgar tried to get his brothers and sisters to join his project, but to them, it sounded crazy. Only Elisandro, his 19-year old cousin, saw its merit.

"Living in Silicon Valley where companies are popping out back and forth and left and right. It's an inspiration to me," he said, "To start something that's against everything."

Year after year, the two cousins defied everyone, sending money home for seeds and land. They faced many hurdles. Not least of which was that neither had ever started a business and neither had ever made mezcal. When the plants began to ripen, the two divvied up responsibilities. Edgar would go back to Oaxaca and learn to make mezcal while Elisandro would go to college and learn how to launch a business.

They bought equipment, filed for permits, and had babies.

It hasn't been easy. Edgar, for instance, has to walk an hour to his workshop every day. He and his wife and children still live at his parents' little house. Elisandro moved back to the US so he could keep financing the project with his salary as a bartender.

After more than ten years with basically nothing to show for all their effort, they finally have a product.

A few months ago they hired three single moms to work the production line and finally bottled their first batch of Mezcal Tosba for export. Of the 2000 bottles they sent across the border, Elisandro has already sold three quarters of them to fancy bars and restaurants in San Francisco, LA and Seattle.

They're not making millions (yet). But they are providing jobs.They're even collaborating with mezcal producers from other villages in their region, in hopes they can grow the business across the region. First priority, though, a car for Edgar. And maybe a house.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Now the story of a poor mountainous region of Mexico and its audacious plan to revive the local economy. How? With homemade liquor. And the plan might even work, thanks to two determined cousins and a little inspiration from an unlikely source - a Keanu Reeves movie.

Marianne McCune of our Planet Money team has the story.

MARIANNE MCCUNE, BYLINE: I first visited this region 10 years ago. I was in a tiny village in the mountains of Oaxaca. And to give you a sense of how poor and remote it was, no one had a home phone. The only phone lines in the whole village were in a central office and if you got a call, someone announced it over a loudspeaker.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: Many of the villages here were half-empty. Everyone was going to California to find work. The people left behind were trying desperately to find a way to stop the exodus. And one plan was to start exporting the local liquor. It's called mezcal and it's made from agave. A retired teacher named Francisco Siguenza was hopeful.

FRANCISCO SIGUENZA: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: The idea, he explained, is to try to open some fountain of work for people so that they don't have to leave.

Mount an international business exporting a little-known alcohol from a half-empty village with no phones. It did seem like a long-shot. Then, a decade later, a guy from those same mountains tracked me down in New York to tell me, we are doing it. We are about to sell our mezcal in the United States. It's called Mezcal Tosba. And he invited me to a slew of San Francisco bars and liquor stores to watch as he presented his brand, New Mezcal.

ETHAN TERRY: It's delicious.


TERRY: You talk about certain spirits being perfumey? This is almost like cologne-y. You know? It's like...

MCCUNE: Ethan Terry was impressed. Bar managers all over the city put in orders. What started as an unlikely plan to save a poor region of Mexico is now for sale in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle, right there on the shelves next to the artisanal bourbon and local gin.

This is the story of what exactly it took for two determined cousins to beat the odds, to put global trade to work for their small village. Their names are Edgar and Elisandro Gonzalez. They were raised in those Oaxacan mountains by teachers, with this strong message: You must build something here, give people a reason to stay. But what?


MCCUNE: Edgar was in college when he saw the admittedly cornball movie that crystallized his plan - "A Walk in the Clouds," in which Keanu Reeves leaves his wife and follows a sudden crush to her father's vineyard.


VICTORIA ARAGON: (as Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) My family has a vineyard in Napa.

MCCUNE: It was life on that vineyard that enthralled Edgar.

EDGAR GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: He said, I want to do that. I want to live like that. I can't grow grapes, he said to himself, but here we have agave. I'm going to make mezcal.

GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: Edgar is from the only region in the world where you can make mezcal - just like champagne has to come from France. But you can't start making it in a day. You have to plant agave seeds, wait 10 years while the plants mature, harvest, roast and ferment them and then distill the sugary liquid. You need permits.

It takes know-how and money, neither of which Edgar had. So, first, he did the exact thing this whole scheme was designed to prevent, he crossed the border into California to work. So did his younger cousin. It seemed like a bitter joke but Elisandro says it worked.

ELISANDRO GONZALEZ: The world just opened up for me.

MCCUNE: Sure, he says, they worked as busboys and waiters, roofers, cooks. But they also learned English, studied wine, traveled and, one fateful evening, they got to talking.

GONZALEZ: After work, I think, we're just having a glass of wine.


MCCUNE: Edgar laid out his master plan to make mezcal and sell it in the U.S. He asked his cousin, do you want in? And Elisandro said, emphatically, yes.

GONZALEZ: In the back of my head, I want to do something, I want to build something.

MCCUNE: But what did he say? I mean, was he like: I've never made mescal, you haven't either.


MCCUNE: Nobody is really surviving doing that in our villages, but let's do this project, it's a really good idea?

GONZALEZ: Living in Silicon Valley where companies are popping out back and forth and left and right, it's an inspiration, at least to me, to start something that's kind of against everything.

MCCUNE: Year after year, they defied everyone, sending money home for seeds and land and watching mezcal become more popular. But to launch a successful mezcal business, there were a couple things to learn, like how to do business, and how to make mezcal. So, Elisandro got a business degree. Edgar went back to his village, moved in with his parents and started toiling from sunrise to well past sunset in the mezcal workshop he built on his father's little piece of land.

When he first got back, he says, people would ask him why he had nothing to show for all his time in the U.S.

GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: He says they'd say, hey, where's your car? And he'd say, what car? Where's your house? What house? He says he told them, well, first I want to make something that will give me food. And after that, it will give me a house and then it will give me a car.

GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: It takes an hour to walk to his land and workshop and sometimes Edgar stays there for days. Once, while he was harvesting, a rock got caught in a machine and shot out into his face. He had to walk all the way back to the village, cupping his eye. Now he can't see out of it.

With a second baby on the way, his wife, Andrea, admits it's hard living with a man who pours everything into this mezcal dream.

ANDREA GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: There are moments in a family that are meant to share, she told me. Her son is always asking, when is papa coming?

GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: But they have hung on and there is finally something to show for it. A few months ago, I had the honor of visiting just before they bottled their first batch of mezcal for export, 2,000 bottles. They were using a bottling machine they bought with a grant two years earlier but never needed until now.

(Foreign language spoken) Today is the first time you're using it?


MCCUNE: It's very exciting.

GONZALEZ: It's very exciting for me. I've been waiting for this for like 10 years.

MCCUNE: Now if they can just figure out how the machine works. At first, it won't suck up the mezcal through the hose. Edgar and his wife scratch their heads and tinker together for more than an hour, until finally...


MCCUNE: Now the pressure is too much and the bottles overflow.


GONZALEZ: Tomorrow I have all day to do all these things.

MCCUNE: Over the days that followed, they got the machine working and hired three single moms to work on a production line. Of the 2,000 bottles they sent across the border, Elisandro has already sold three-quarters of them.

So how - where do things stand now? You're making millions of dollars a week?


GONZALEZ: Yeah, I think. I don't know what to do with the money.


MCCUNE: Yeah. No, he's still working as a bartender. No profit yet. But this year, he hopes they'll build Edgar a house and buy him a car. Edgar says he wants the story of Mezcal Tosba to inspire, to say in this age of free trade, the little guy can win. He says he hears small farmers with legitimate complaints that, with the technology and subsidies available to U.S. farmers, they can't compete. The trick, he says...

GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCUNE: You have to figure out how to make something that in other places they can't make. Si se puede, he insists: It is possible. But he doesn't say it was easy.

Marianne McCune, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.