Lots of good information in this article about the plight of the maguey. While that does a good job of framing the issue which we’ve written about as well, you also have an opportunity to support the recovery of wild maguey (also known as agave) species in a more consumerist fashion. The Fundación Agaves Silvestres is working to replant wild maguey populations. It’s a tough effort but it’s one of the more interesting out there. You can support it directly and reward your taste buds by purchasing their Vino de Mezcal series. And wouldn’t you know that it’s your lucky day because Erick Almamezcalera who is intimately involved in that project is on a swing up the West Coast offering tastings of the series. We’ll have more from him later this week but here are his tour dates:
Serious about your mezcal? Well, there’s finally a mezcal of the month club, actually two mezcals quarterly, to feed your obsession. They come direct from Mexico so you should see stuff that would only make its way across the border in our luggage. The whole deal was put together by Tory Smith operating out of Mexico City. He and his girlfriend run a mezcaleria there called Mercado de Mezcal but have taken their time setting this up. Given the amount of work it takes to import alcohol it took a rather herculean effort to start the business. Susan and I know how difficult it can be from talking to many producers so we definitely sympathize, and are quite excited and interested to see how this develops.
Tory promises that everything in the club won’t be available in the U.S. sourced through his rather extensive mail order catalog at mezcals.com.mx. Take a look at the first shipment here. Prices start at $295 US per shipment, though you’ll need to talk to him about the exact pricing for each shipment and check to ensure that he can ship to your state since those pesky state-by-state liquor laws always get in the way.
And, perhaps the best news, this isn’t the only mezcal club out there. Little birdies have been chirping at us about another that should start soon. We’ll alert you as soon as that’s a reality.
- Forever Oax Espadin
- Forever Oax Espadin con Gusano
- Forever Oax Reposado: Espadin, Cirial, Barril agaves.
- Leyenda de Guerrero con Gusano: Espadin abocado con gusano.
- Felino Reposado: Made from blue agave in Zacatecas. Aged six months in white American oak.
You can find many of them at San Francisco’s La Urbana and Francisco is hitting the distribution pavement so potentially other locations soon. We’ll be sure to clue you into a new line he’s bringing into the country just as soon as it’s street legal. The party was great, lots of interest in mezcal and a fairly informed audience. Oh and the staff was top notch and entertainment in the form of Hanna Rifkin and the Handsomes kept all of us bouncing. With crowds like that you might be able to start believing the hype that mezcal is the next big thing.
Just had a great dinner at Pim Techamuanvivit‘s new Thai restaurant Kin Khao in San Francisco. It’s a fantastic place that creates a vivacious atmosphere in the corner of a bland hotel, has a great wine list matched to the food and the pocket book, and cracker jack service.
They also have a bunch of great cocktails but the Kafe Mao really makes me worry about the state of mezcal. It’s composed of Pierde Almas, cream, coffee, and Combier Cassis which is a fantastic concept, a Mexican Mudslide, and a fantastic drink. It’s just that you can’t taste a bit of the mezcal so why use it? Especially something as distinct as Pierde Almas?
We spent a very nice afternoon yesterday at the Ruta de Mezcal tasting in Tres’ back room along with a lot of people we know in and around the industry as well as plenty of new faces. There were fantastic new haircuts, smashing facial hair stylings, new mezcals, cocktails galore, a spit roasted pig, and plenty of other hijinks.
- El Jolgorio’s SF coming out party: While they’ve been busy making the scene in NY and many other ports of call in North America this was the first time most San Franciscans had a chance to try their line up. Like Vago, El Jolgorio has a wide launch, 10 bottles, and most of them come from silvestres. Their distinctive illustrated labels are quite something.
- Mezcal Vago is really hitting the scene for the first time. They’ve been on the market for a few months now but it’s the first tasting where we were able to drink their mezcal side by side with everything else. Quite a nice contrast.
- Tosba had the unreleased Tobala out on their table. Once it’s released definitely track it down. Plus they’re all legit and shit now with Elisandro Gonzalez and David Gallardo of Lolo decked out in monogrammed shirts. Don’t worry, it hasn’t gone to their heads.
- Wahaka showed off their tiny bottles which are an ideal commercial format for mezcal. A 750ml bottle can be intimidating but the trio of 200 ml bottles in a box replete with two vaso veladora make for a perfect gift or self contained party. You can find them at K&L.
- Cocktails were big: Nearly every brand presented something special along side their straight tasting which tells you tons about how a lot of mezcal is being served. We also heard plenty of bar managers and caterers at the tasting talking about cocktails so that side of the business seems to be on the move.
- Hidden attractions: While there were few truly new mezcals out on the tables we tasted four (two arroqueños, a lovely herb and spice (yum cardamom), and a new Alipus which are soon to be released and just missed out on another. Suffice to say: If we could speed up the permitting process in Mexico everyone would be in mezcal heaven right now. We’re all just going to have to be patient but that taste of heaven is just around the corner, stay tuned.
We had a chance to check out the soft opening of Lolo’s new location on Valencia Street in San Francisco Monday evening. We wouldn’t have thought it possible but the decor is even more lively and funky than their dear, departed, 22nd St. location.
With an open kitchen about 4 times the size of the previous one, it is great to see the guys in action. Even proprietor Jorge Martinez joined the line now that he doesn’t have to duck his head all the time! The space is centered on a larger bar, with more seating. And the line-up of mezcals is mighty impressive. The nice surprise is an extra bar, completely dedicated to all things bottled maguey. If you miss all the other cues that mezcal is the focus the image of Benito Juarez, Oaxaca’s favorite son and the first President of Mexico, are repeated across the wall. We can only hope for a special invite to pour mezcal back there and talk all things agave.
A side note – the specials on the menu are always divine, but the fried avocado tacos, never a favorite of mine, were quite spectacular. Lightly dusted, quickly fried and accompanied with a lovely creamy sauce. The nine year old at the table, a very vocal avocado hater, devoured my share, saying “Sue, taste buds evolve,” when I called him out. Solution – we just ordered more.
Per Dana Goodyear‘s new book “Anything That Moves” a New york bartender “uses a rapid-infusion technique to make a smoky marijuana-mescal, double charging a canister of mescal and marijuana with nitrous. The first charge dissolves the gas into the mescal; the second forces the mescal to permeate the bud. When the canister is opened, releasing the pressure, the enhanced alcohol seeps back out of the plant.”
Recently Mezcal PhD sounded off about the Bacardi/Zignum tie up. Susan and I share the same opinion about the entire deal: it’s a mass produced drink made for a massive liquor distribution pipeline. It’ll be primarily used for cocktails or shots and that’s the best use for it because it’s not worth sipping. Such is the nature of globalized capitalism, companies focus on expanding market share, they’ll do that simply by branding or when they actually have to make something they’ll look for a product already in the market that they can inject into their distribution pipeline.
The latter just occurred with Zignum. This is what happens when global commodity capitalism encounters a traditional product: Scale it up to an industrial scale, pump it into massive distribution pipelines, and sell as much as possible. This isn’t necessarily a negative interaction, it can introduce new flavors and ideas to the wider world, provide critical income to the people who actually make the products, and maintain the very tradition at its base. Take a look at many successful European products like prosciutto and parmeggiano. They’re mass marketed but the critical differences are that the producers are compensated fairly, the natural resources are managed, not exploited, and the production cycle is vastly different. But the process does have to be managed so that global capital doesn’t annihilate the local system. Simply put the problem is sustainability; economic, cultural, and environmental.
One of the huge issues in Oaxaca and among mezcal producers across Mexico is that small and medium sized businesses aren’t set up to take over the industry. Europe had a fantastic confluence of trade groups, labor, capital, and political interests which helped define and sustain a culture of small businesses that built and still provide an incredible level of employment, maintenance of artisanal traditions, and the national culture. There are problems, but by and large the entire approach has been incredibly successful.
Not so in Mexico where products like tequila have been industrialized at the expense of the original artisanal product, the environment, and the web of labor and capital around it. Meanwhile incipient industries like mezcal seem like they’re going to get the same treatment. Local mezcal producers known as palenqueros are largely shut out of the critical product certification processes while international investors have stepped in to pay their way through the legal hoops. Local entrepreneurs are in the same position, capital is hard to come by locally, the regulatory environment is titled greatly in favor of larger enterprises, and then they have to figure out how to export. Is it any wonder that many mezcal producers remain in the grey market?
To turn this around, look at the resource potential in Oaxaca and elsewhere, they have an entire spirits industry ready to do double duty as international export and anchor for gastrotourism. Already tons of bartenders, chefs, and culinary types make the trip down to Oaxaca to visit palenques and see the whole process. It’s magic in a bottle and they want to be associated with that. I haven’t seen a good value figure for this but we know so many people already making a go of it that it seems fairly self evident that fostering small and medium sized businesses would spread the benefits around and contribute to stable economic development that would deliver consistent benefits for generations. It could be another critical chapter in the Mexican export and tourism brand.
It’s all too easy to critique from the outside but the simplest things imaginable like a trade group that acts in small and medium sized mezcal makers’ interests would be a start. To date COMERCAM, the Mexican regulatory group set up to certify mezcal, has been at best ineffective, at worst acting against small and medium enterprises. Meanwhile the clock is ticking at every point in the production process. Many palenqueros are aging and their knowledge may disappear with them since the economics of the business don’t currently encourage kids to join. Western consumers who look to definitional experiences to introduce them to new products have almost forgotten the previous negative reputation of mezcal as a spring break drink defined by a worm in the bottle and the mythos of hallucinatory effects. If they’re burned twice by low quality products they won’t return any time soon. Local Mexican industries can only gain so much from the complete commodification of a product, they need the higher end products to create a truly sustainable industry. And then there are the massive environmental issues, which may be the true existential time bomb.
For a while now in Oaxaca quality hardwood has been more expensive than agave because it’s in such short supply and consumed so quickly by palenqueros. That’s led to positive experiments that look to the future like Fidencio’s sin humo mezcal, and to the past with some palenqueros using more of the dried agave stalks and leaves to fire their pits. But rumors are also rampant that unscrupulous palenqueros are using railroad ties and tires to cook agaves. No one has proved it yet but the whispers have been around for years so at best it’s a very worrisome trend. This line of discussion doesn’t even include the so-called environmental externalities, the fact that burning all that wood to make mezcal contributes to global warming while degrading air quality and increasing local health problems.
Then there are the hidden costs of a lack of effective regulation: For some time we’ve been hearing about truckloads of agave hearts being sent north from Oaxaca to Jalisco to be blended into tequila or simply discarded. It’s a critical issue, if the local and national authorities can’t manage their extremely valuable natural resources then more unscrupulous actors will exploit it for them and potentially destroy most elements of value. If nothing is done rising local unemployment will only increase while the lack of local ownership will decrease along with the amount of money flowing through the local economy. Without those elements the economic poverty endemic to rural Mexico can only increase, and immigrants to major cities and abroad will continue both depriving the country of intellectual and economic benefits. Everyone loses. We’ve covered one of the bright points with Tosba’s crew of immigrants to the US investing in their pueblo’s mezcal production. It’s a fantastic example of what can be achieved but it’s one of few. The bigger picture isn’t as illuminating, it needs to be much more organic and self sustaining.
Then there’s the agave production issue, given the time to produce a distillable fruit and the fact that you get exactly one shot at using the fruit there are tremendous natural pressures that can’t be resolved through the normal response of scaling agriculture to industrial levels. The tequila industry has done this by focusing on monoculture but that frequently opens it up to periodic waves of disease and infestation. And then there’s not a ton of arable land for agave, it’s not clear that this is the best use of the land, and it could easily find mezcal in the same position of tequila, that is, a product tailored to a single agave which doesn’t express the wonders of the diversity in the world of mezcal. This is the critical issue that most consumers don’t understand and the industry doesn’t control for. Just to be clear, every other distillate in the world comes from a reproducible resource, grappa comes from grapes grown on vines that can produce for decades, whiskeys are made from corn and grains produced in annual crops while fruit brandies come from fruit trees that produce for at least decades, sometimes longer. Given that limitation agave distillates should probably be priced much higher. The fact that most tequilas cost less than $50 and most mezcals less than $100 is a testament to the price of labor in Mexico and the undervaluing of Mexican agave.
To top it all off there’s the issue of tradition or cultural sustainability. Mezcal is a critical element of Oaxacan traditions and occupies a similar role in many areas of Mexico. It’s an integral thread of the cultural fabric still produced for weddings and parties which are the core to local social life. Mexican distilling has been both solitary and communal, an expression and container of traditions going back hundreds of years. It sustains those traditions while also intersecting with greater market forces. At the very least it’s worth fighting for mezcal’s continued artisanal sustenance just to ensure that Mexican cultures continue to thrive. That’s vital for the maintenance of the local social structure and everything else that comes along with it, it’s why tourists visit, and it’s the narrative that is used to sell mezcal.
That’s a sketch of the real threats behind the industrialization of mezcal. The dangers are more than real, they have already been realized and it’s more a question of whether regulators can resist the siren call of fast money massive scale in favor of the more difficult path to an economically and culturally sustainable industry . None of this is to say that I, Susan or you should reject industrialized mezcal out of hand. I can easily imagine a scenario where better than decent mezcal is produced at scale, where agaves are cultivated without depleting wild stocks, where damage to the environment is minimized, and where the farmers and producers are an integral part of the process. I just don’t want to erase the place, the people, and the original idea of traditional mezcal. That has to be part of the bargain.
I recently had the pleasure of tasting Mezcal Vago’s mezcals which are slowly rolling out across the United States. Vago has a very emotional back story detailed on the site, the precis being that the brand’s main marketer and product lead, Judah Kuper, fell in love with a Mexican woman while surfing his way through Mexico. That led to marriage, a life in Oaxaca, and a romance with her family’s mezcal which he has rechristened Vago or vagabond in English for the vagabond’s path that got him where he currently is.
The longer story about the bottles, what goes into them, and everything else is almost, if not more interesting. Take Judah, he’s a personable guy with deep knowledge about mezcal. He’s well versed in all the industry gossip and he works the production line with his father-in-law and another palenquero so he knows the spirit from the inside out. While tasting we chatted about the ongoing debate over whether mezcal was distilled before the Spaniards got to Mexico and sundry other topics. Once you pull a thread in this business you get much more than a sweater, you get an entire cultural identity.
While Judah is the North American face of the business, he has an office in Oaxaca and is intimately involved in the entire production process. He works closely with Vago’s two palenqueros, Judah’s father-in-law Aquilino García López, and the epically named Salomón Rey Rodriguez. Per Judah 90% of the agave is estate grown with the remainder sourced through neighboring plots so that they maintain the same terroir.
Vago blends more than usual to add structure to their silvestres and they have a really intriguing field blend which is highly traditional but rarely seen in the United States. Judah says that all their “mixed agave mezcals are put together raw, roasted mashed and fermented together.” Their line is broad, right now it includes:
- Espadin: 100% from Candelaria Yegolé.
- Elote: A 100% Espadin base that soaks for 4 days in a toasted maiz mash and then distilled a third time. From Candelaria Yegolé.
- Olla de Barro Ensemble: A field blend composed of Casera, Coyote, Espadin, Arroqueno, and Mexicano. From Sola de Vega.
- Cuixe 90%/Espadin 10%. The Espadin was added to bring out the Cuixe’s full flavor. From Candelaria Yegolé.
- Mexicano 93/Espadin 7. Another blend that uses Espadin to bring out the majority agave’s flavor. From Candelaria Yegolé.
- Olla de Barro Tobala: This one is made from 17-year-old agaves. The fruit’s age comes across as incredibly complex. From Sola de Vega.
The diverse types of Vago mezcals reflects a high level of attention to the production process with an emphasis on environmental and cultural sustainability. Vago’s labels are plain text on a rough shod paper because they’re following a long tradition most recently highlighted by Mezcaloteca in detailing the entire production biography of the mezcal. Judah says “Trying to give the consumer the information they need to make an informed choice about a mezcal. ”
The paper itself is the fruit of the agave mash used for Vago’s mezcals. Paper artist Eric Ramirez from San Augustín Etla boils the left over agave mash from the still, grinds it, and dries it into a sheets on a screen. They then screen print the labels by hand. Getting deeper into the production process Aquilino García López uses some wood but mostly dried cactus to fuel his still, something that palenqueros have done for time immemorial but it’s a technique that might provide some respite from the shortages and high prices for firewood in Oaxaca, not to mention the looming environmental questions.
But one of the most interesting elements of Vago’s story is that most of their agaves are cultivated. Despite using an incredible variety of agaves that most other brands harvest wild Vago has been working with farmers to cultivate almost all the agaves used in their mezcal. As of this latest bottling the Cuixe is the only true silvestre. Judah told me that they plan to start cultivating the Cuixe in 2014 but that they don’t expect their first crop until 2017 so they’ll continue to use Cuixe silvestres at least until then. Otherwise the rest of their agaves are cultivated. As Judah told me “we have learned from Jalisco.”
Needless to say, this could be a strong model that preserves genetic diversity by keeping agaves wild and providing something of a genetic reservoir while ensuring that cultivated agaves don’t fall prey to the lure of monoculture. Plus it provides a great agricultural income to surrounding farmers and opens the door to a wider consumption of diverse mezcals. Since every story has two sides this could also lead to production on a more massive industrial scale but we’ll leave that discussion for another day. To top it off Vago is doing its part to sustain more of the cultural vibe around mezcal by being the US importer for Gran Mitla Sal de Gusano which we profiled last month.
If you’re looking to taste Vago Judah’s business partner Dylan Sloan will be conducting a tasting at La Urbana’s Mezcal Collective in San Francisco on January 21st. You can buy tickets through EventBrite.
Where can you find it?
Currently Mezcal Vago is available in Colorado, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, and California. Vago expects to release in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oregon, and Idaho in the new year.
In Northern California look for Vago at
A quiote is the stalk that shoots up from an agave plant when it’s ready to reproduce. They can be dried and used as fuel, construction materials, food or even as a decorative item. They’re one of the most dramatic elements of the agave life cycle.