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Sombra Mezcal Founder Richard Betts on Balancing Tradition with Sustainability

Certified Master Sommelier Richard Betts is promoting more sustainable practices in traditional mezcal production through environmentally friendly distilling at Sombra Mezcal. Mezcal, an increasingly popular spirit distilled from agave, has been made in much the same way for hundreds of years, and it is now regulated by an accrediting body in designated regions of Mexico. After growing concerned about wasteful techniques he observed across the mezcal industry, Betts created Sombra, a distillery dedicated to solving mezcal’s modern environmental challenges.

Betts completed construction on Sombra’s new facility in early 2017 in the village of Santiago Matatlan, about an hour’s drive from the city of Oaxaca. There, the system of cleaner mezcal production begins with organic agave, which is smoked using sustainably sourced firewood and fermented with wild yeast in rainwater harvested from the distillery roof. Solar panels and clean-burning fuels power the facility, and the copper stills are insulated for greater energy efficiency during distillation.

Mezcal production yields two noxious substances that distillers must dispose of: liquid vinasa and solid bagazo, or spent agave fibers. Typically, distilleries dump these acidic and oxygen-starved waste products into local waterways, but Betts either composts them or turns them into adobe bricks, which he then donates to the local community or uses onsite.

This year, as part of its sustainability efforts, Sombra announced a partnership with the environmental organization 1% for the Planet, through which the distillery will donate one percent of its sales each year to environmental nonprofit organizations. About 1,200 businesses and thousands of nonprofits across the world are partnered with 1% for the Planet, and those members have donated more than US$150 million to various environmental causes since 2002.

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