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Edgar Gonzalez tries to fix bugs in the bottling machine before a state inspector comes to oversee their first batch of mezcal for export. (NPR)

Can Homemade Liquor Jumpstart A Local Economy?

by Marianne McCune
Feb 4, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Agave, or "maguey," planted a decade ago on Edgar's father's land. The 'palenque,' the workshop where they make mezcal, is at the bottom of the slopes the agave plants grow on. A bottle of Mezcal Tosba.

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Marianne McCune

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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