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Small producers showcase at Mexico in a Bottle


I am often asked – where is the best place to try mezcal in the Bay Area? And my usual reply is, well, my house. Logistics make it hard to actually have everyone over – kid with homework and a bedtime, people probably having to drive to my house, etc etc. I say my house because over the years I have amassed a collection of some pretty awesome mezcals that are not available in the US, and most likely never will be. So short of going to Mexico yourself, or having an inside connection, this has been the stop gap solution.

This year we have solved that problem by creating small producers room at the Grand Tasting at Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle on November 15th. The idea is to bring out all those unique bottles that you’d only find on my bar and some things that I’ve never been able to find. This offering is part of the Mezcal Lover’s package, and in addition to fine mezcals, it will also be a chance to talk to a few of the people who make or find them.

In the line-up we have mezcals that I encountered on some recent mezcal adventures in Mexico. They have a way of finding you and I am so happy they are able to participate.

  • Aguas del Corazon was founded by Andrea Sánchez López, who I had the pleasure of meeting at my very first Vela Istmeña as part of the Guelaguetza celebration in Oaxaca. She was dressed in a gorgeous, traditional Istmeña dress, and poured us some of the mezcal, a full bodied arroqueño that blew my socks off. Aguas works with several small producers around the state of Oaxaca – small as in less than 40 bottles in some production runs. Andrea has a culinary background and has curated a delicious collection of tobala, espadin, sierra negra, coyote, and barril.
  • El Solteco is the new mezcal brand from Maestro Luis Mendez, who I recently wrote about as part of the sustainability series. Sr. Mendez has been cultivating wild agaves and these mezcals are the fruit of those labors.
  • El Tigre Mezcal is a cooperative project from the state of Guerrero.  They are producing mezcals from wild papalote and zcamexcal grown in the low mountains of Guerrero. These mezcals vary from 50-52% alcohol, and have a very different and earthy flavor.    
  • Mezcal Neta is a project from Max Rosenstock, who has been traveling the Oaxacan roads for the past several years to find mezcals for his burgeoning brand. We’ll have mezcals from San Luis Amatlan, a region known for its madrecuishe, verde, and increasingly, espadin.
  • Mezcal Cuish has probably done than any other mezcal when it comes to capturing the attention of a younger generation and getting them to care about mezcal. Started by a couple of art students in Oaxaca who had family connections to mezcal, they created a mezcaleria and a huge following of other art students, inspiring Oaxacan pride around the spirit.
  • Alma Mezcalera doesn’t need much of an introduction. A project by Erick Rodriguez, a tireless and intrepid promoter of mezcal as we’ve written about before here and most recently here, Erick will have his very special mezcals that he has sourced from all over Mexico.
  • Mezcal Chaneque will also be on hand. I had a chance to taste this mezcal in June  and loved its rounded flavors and depth. This is a mezcal that will soon be available in the US, but here is your chance to get an early jump on tasting it.
  • Aguas Mansas is a mezcal that was shared with me by Leon Vazquez, a bartender at Lolo Restaurant. It’s an espadin from Matatlan and tastes so different from what I usually expect from mezcals from that region. This is a mezcal that may hit our shores in 2016.
  • We also have some very rare mezcals from Maestros del Mezcal, a cooperative based in Oaxaca comprised of dozens of small producers. Max profiled their organization in June and I had a chance to go to their event in Oaxaca in July and tasted some very interesting mezcals, including some wild espadins that blew my mind.

And of course there will be some surprises as well, perhaps even a few from my private collection especially a madrecuishe made by Reyna Sanchez who was just profiled in this piece by Grace Rubenstein on NPR about female mezcal makers.

Be sure to check out the event website that has all of the details for not only for the Grand Tasting on November 15th but also for the other activities happening that week. But get your Mezcal Lover’s ticket today because they’re limited, we will sell out, and once they’re gone, they are literally gone. 


Is there an “ancient” mezcal category?


Erick Rodriguez, second from right, with the mezcaleros.

Erick Rodriguez is many things. He guides tours, advocates for mezcal, sources mezcal, has his own label, and travels tirelessly to see what’s out there in the vastness of Mexico’s agave growing and distilling regions. He truly is one of the most dynamic characters in the business. That’s why one of his latest ventures is just as crazy as you’d expect. He has been working with a mezcalero to make mezcal from a 55-year-old agave. He claims, and anyone I’ve asked agrees, that this is the oldest known agave to make it into a mezcal.

Like anything this rare there’s a great origin story. A guy approached Erick at a mezcalero meeting in Mexico City saying that he had some agave that he wanted to make into mezcal. They got to talking and a strange story emerged. This guy had some agave that he claimed was 40-45 years old, a claim based on his dad’s death. See, his dad was murdered but had planted the agave before his death. They did the math and that was 55 years ago. In the interim no one seems to have paid any attention to the agaves. In true noir fashion, the secret almost died with this poor guy’s dad. It’s Erick’s own little agave murder mystery in a bottle.

Erick being Erick this was his type of project, he jumped in and wanted to distill it. If this story isn’t strange enough already he says it took a turn for the worse when he started talking about it with friends in the industry. He’s been documenting the entire process on his Facebook page so you can see a lot of it there. Plenty of incredulous comments matched with plenty that are enthusiastic. But he wasn’t really prepared for the discomfort that he felt from other people in the mezcal industry who didn’t exactly believe his claim. “People told me ‘that’s nothing new, you’re lying to people.'” Even close friends in the business “got really uncomfortable.”

That discomfort and slagging only lit a fire. Erick and his contact started looking at maps of the area and tried to figure out other ways of verifying the agave’s age. According to Erick “I brought in an archeologist, engineer, and agronomist-engineer Ramiro Angelina-Baños because we don’t want to get the facts wrong and I don’t want people saying ‘you know you’re killing the last of agaves” because it’s already mature, it’s going to die anyway.” They made sure that they had pups from the plant they were going to harvest so that it could reproduce and they could try and grow it themselves. They were able to get ihuelos from each plant and have replanted them.

One of the ancient agave plants.

One of the ancient agave plants.

As for horticultural question of how an agave can live that long before it reproduces, that’s beyond me. I’ll need to follow up with a botanist. I know it’s a cliche but one of the colloquial names for agaves is “Century Plant.”

Erick and his contact also looked around to see if they could find more and identify it but even he’s not sure what it is. “It’s not Barril because that’s short and fat. This one is long, cut leaves, two meters and seven centimeters high, three meters and thirty centimeters across with the leaves. You have to really dig it out of the ground and they weigh 150 kilos for each piña.”


He’s calling this one El Cuarantero or El Gordo for obvious reasons but the price supports the name as well, he’s charging between $700-$1,000 per liter depending on who’s buying. Frequent buyers and those who account for a lot of volume get a discount. That’s pretty hefty, definitely way above my pay grade. At least it’s not the most expensive bottle of mezcal ever which clocked in at a purported $74,000.

I’ll let Erick describe the process and argue for that price point. He says that they did everything by hand, harvested the agave in steep mountain terrain but then had to reinvent the manual process of actually making the mezcal because the mezcalero and his crew had fallen away from tradition. “I paid them to go back to tradition, they already have a tahona but doing it by hand is better so I paid them, the assistants didn’t know how to use a canoe so I paid them to make one, showed them how to use it, and paid them for the extra time and effort it took to pound out the roasted agave.”


Hand crushing the agave.

Befitting the special nature of this batch Erick wanted a unique bottle so he went to a local ceramics expert who took impressions from the agave leaves to make ceramic bottles. Erick, “wants to immortalize the agave on the bottle” and even this part of the process is connected to a deeper cultural root because his ceramicist is using rare production techniques that, he claims, he rescued from obscurity.  He’s got his finger print on every bottle so he stands behind his work.

The hand crafted ceramic bottles.

The hand crafted ceramic bottles.

It sort of feels like a stunt but he’s pouring his heart and energy into it and swears up and down about how great it is so I believe him. I’m now morbidly curious to taste it. If you want a bottle contact him through his Facebook page. He will be at Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle in November and may be able to bring some bottles.

All photos courtesy of Erick Rodriguez. Here’s a full gallery that documents the process:

How do you define a mezcal lover?

Technically we should know since we named our VIP level ticket that for this year’s Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle but we’ll cop to it being great marketing language and leave any discussion on the larger topic for those who want to split hairs. Because, mezcal is really generous. If you like it, it likes you. Hell, we probably like you.

But enough of this babble, we want to unveil those awesome copitas custom crafted for this tasting.

Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle 2015 copita


These were designed and hand made by LA based artist Emelda Gutierrez. Each is distinct, and comes with that special “Mezcal Lovers” package. We’ll have a few extra on hand to sell to everyone else so if all the lovers get their tickets before you.

Mezcal boot camp

In Situ's Ulises Torrentera and Wahaka's Raza Zaidi discuss the finer points of mezcal.

In Situ’s Ulises Torrentera and Wahaka’s Raza Zaidi discuss the finer points of mezcal.

Yesterday was a good day. I had a nice lunch at Calavera with Susan and then spent a little over two hours in Ulises Torrentera’s “Arte del Mezcal West Coast Tour” sponsored by Wahaka and organized by the same brand’s Raza Zaidi. Suffice to say that it was a cozy and mind expanding gathering on Calavera’s deck what with that late fall sunshine providing the perfect mood lighting as Ulises guided us through his thoughts on mezcal while Raza translated.

Today the tour heads to San Diego and Thursday Los Angeles before it heads to the North West. Full dates are on the Facebook page here. If you have a chance, go. It’s a casual and really fun encounter for anyone whether they’re a hard core aficionado or a complete newbie.

Kudos to Ulises and Sandra for making the voyage, we can’t say enough about Raza and Wahaka for setting this up. The altruistic spirit that animates events like this is what Susan and I are all about. But enough about us, here’s a quick clip of Ulises discussing the origin and importance of ensembles, apologies for the breaks which were for translation. He went on to talk about how they may just model the future of sustainable mezcal. For more on that and other topics you’ll need to attend one of his talks.

The sustainability series: cultivating wild maguey

Several years ago, when doing some background on Mezcal Vago, I heard about a grand, wild agave cultivation project happening somewhere in Sola de Vega, a region known for its tobala. I knew there had been success with cultivating tobala, and that there were projects underway to try and cultivate madrecuishe and a few others. What I didn’t know was that the guy doing this grand project in Sola de Vega was pretty much THE guy for agave cultivation projects – Luis Mendez. I decided that at the next opportunity, I would visit him and learn more.

Luis Mendez looks nothing like I had pictured. His reputation as maestro mezcal turned wild maguey savior had me imagining age which is the complete opposite of the vibrant and handsome man en vivo. I love these pleasant surprises.

His house sits just beyond and above the town of Sola de Vega, off the highway to Puerto Escondido. The yard is filled with wild agave starts in various stages of growth. According to Mendez, there are about 20 different wild maguey varieties native to the Sola de Vega region and he is experimenting with all of them.
IMG_3159 IMG_3165

Upon arrival, he walked us through the garden, pointing out the sierra negras, coyotes, tepestates, mexicanos, arroqueños, and barrils, to name just a few. While he continued to talk about all the varieties and time necessary to grow them his voice passed into background noise because I couldn’t stop staring at a giant quiote whose weight was so great it had fallen over and was being held up by a ladder, the blue sky and clouds above and the mountains in the distant. It is so breathtaking.




“If only more people would let just one plant bloom, we would go a long way toward solving the crisis,” I hear Mendez say.


As Max has written previously, there are three ways for maguey to reproduce– hijuelos, seed and bulbils. Seeds provide the greatest genetic diversity, but are the most difficult, inconsistent, and time consuming way to grow maguey. The quiote I have been staring at with its beautiful branches of flor de agave waving against the sky, has enough seeds to produce up to 1,000 agaves. This is what Mendez is talking about.


Demand for silvestre mezcal has put a lot of pressure on natural resources; without strict rules and regulations for harvesting these wild magueys, it is a free for all. Add to that the continued monoculturing of espadin, and you have ripe conditions for a maguey crisis. In the rush to “supply the beast,” and to supply the tequila industry which uses green Oaxacan maguey as accelerants in tequila production, demand could soon outstrip the supply of available and mature maguey for mezcal production. But this is anecdotal at this point because no one is really tracking the total number of maguey currently being grown; yet another area where some form of regulation might help.

After walking through the garden, we headed to the covered terrace to escape the heat and talk some more about Mendez’s work. Originally from the Sierra Norte, Mendez settled in Sola de Vega after working on public works projects focused on water  into  the area. He fell in love with both mezcal and a woman and eventually switched over to the mezcal industry. His title as a Maestro Mezcalero (a term that was developed more for marketing purposes as the industry began to grow) is a bit misleading as Mendez himself does not make the mezcal, he oversees the process. He has worked with several brands over the years including Alto Cielo, Piquetezina, La Piquería, and the most well known, Siete Misterios. All along his true love has been cultivating maguey, especially the so-called wild varieties. He first began experimenting with tobala in 1996. The complexity and diversity of the maguey amazed him, soon thereafter one thing led to another and he began experimenting with other varieties. His project may be the largest in Oaxaca. He is planting about 3,000 maguey each year.

So what does he do with all this maguey? He sells starts to other farmer/producers, supplies mezcaleros with the magueys that mature on his property, and is working with government agencies to plant his starts along the highways. Not only do maguey make for good windbreaks, they also control erosion, are beautiful to look at, and maintain true biodiversity through wild pollinated quiotes.

And of course he is using the maguey to produce his own label La Solteca (a nickname for people from Sola de Vega). We try a couple of different types as we enjoy a leisurely lunch getting to know one another. The great question people have is whether this sort of cultivation of wild maguey will change the flavor. This remains to be seen as more mezcals are made from cultivated varieties. But it seems clear that these types of projects are necessary to preserve maguey. And frankly, his mezcal is delicious.

“You have so much government money going toward the end process. There are these mezcal “kits” that people can get that include fermentation tanks and stills, underwritten by the government. You have support for bottling and rudimentary marketing support to help attract buyers and distributors,” Mendez says. “But what you don’t have is money going into the actual production of maguey, most particularly of wild maguey. Where will the industry be without maguey?”

Other cultivation projects exist, but communication and sharing of information is difficult, particularly in rural Oaxaca. And with no central, organizing body, there is reinvention of the wheel.

Mendez eventually pulls out a logbook of visitors over the past few years. There are names I recognize, a who’s who of other brand owners, mixologists, and some brand ambassadors. In addition to all of his other traits, Mendez is a great storyteller with a marvelous sense of humor. He has one of those voices that simultaneously draws you in and completely relaxes your guard. He soon has us in stitches with completely inappropriate tales of too much mezcal, nudity, and the always present next day. He shows us how to properly smell a mezcal – dab a bit on that space between your thumb and forefinger, wave your hand over it to help dry it a bit and then smell. This leads to another story of Ulises Torrentera identifying specific mezcals and regions using this method, with a punchline that gives whole new meaning to the phrase “scent of a woman.” I will not repeat these stories because I hope one day he publishes them; plus, I cannot do them justice.

I of course have to ask Mendez what his dream is for his maguey project. He is a big thinker and a visionary.

“The maguey is so incredibly beautiful and symbolic of who we are as a culture. We can’t let it die. It is life and we have to save it and revive it and use to paint our landscapes and exploit its properties for pharmaceutical and food and nutritional purposes. And we have to drink it.”

You wanted mezcal – We’re bringing you mezcal


As anyone who attended last year’s Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle knows this event is not to be missed. It’s an opportunity to taste an incredible variety of mezcals and meet their makers while also sampling snacks from some of the best local restaurants and mezcal cocktails from all those creative bartenders who are getting written up in flashy magazines.

But this year we just had to go and make it bigger, badder, and better. First, why mess with success, the Grand Tasting is on November 15th at Public Works and will be very similar to last year’s event except that we’ll be adding mezcals and we’re going to have some very special tastings led by some of the most interesting people in the business. But keep in mind, only Mezcal Lovers tickets get access to those special tastings so choose wisely.

The preceding week will see a variety of special mezcal themed events throughout the San Francisco Bay Area including a US Bartender Guild juried competition for the best mezcal cocktail at Devil’s Acre on November 9th, special cocktail parties, dinners, a meeting with key figures in the industry, and more. As we say, check the schedule and get your tickets today.

But why stop there? November 8 – 15 is now officially Mezcal Week with special mezcal cocktails, flights, and snacks available at finer dining establishments and bars across the region. All participants are donating a portion of their proceeds to this year’s non-profit partner, the Mexican Museum. This is your opportunity to taste just how incredible and varied this transformative spirit is. If you can’t find something great on our list of participating venues then you don’t have a pulse.

So, join us and get your tickets today. Last year we sold out, don’t be left out in the cold!

A guide through the Odyssey of mezcal

Ulisses' West Coast tour postcard

Ulisses’ West Coast tour postcard

His name is legend in the mezcal world, strangely appropriate given for the role he plays. Co-owner with Sandra Ortiz Brenna of the equally legendary In Situ mezcaleria in Oaxaca City. Ulisses, Sandra, and In Situ are famous because they’ve been bringing incredible small batch mezcals to the attention of the world with incredible attention to the pedigree of each bottle and deep knowledge about all the processes, people, and myths that define the world of mezcal.

The Catedral reflected at In Situ

The Catedral reflected at In Situ

That’s all great and good but should you live somewhere on the west coast consider yourself truly blessed because Wahaka Mezcal is bringing Ulisses through California, Oregon, and Washington later this month for a grand tour of mezcal establishments along the PCH. Tickets are now available to each of his tour stops from San Diego to Seattle. The Arte del Mezcal class is a full presentation on the history and development of mezcal while the “Meet and Greet” events are what they say, social mixers where you can chat about all the mezcal and non-mezcal topics that you can get into the conversation. Just note that you’ll see two preview events, Ulisses’ actual tour doesn’t start until 10/19 in San Francisco.

A glance at In Situ's selection

A glance at In Situ’s selection

Dive in, I know that you’ll regret not going. I’ve been counseled that there’s a slight chance that dates are subject to change but I’m sure you won’t lose your money because the reputable people at Wahaka are behind this tour. Here’s the full tour list:


Monday, October 19

“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka Mezcal
La Urbana
661 Divisadero St
San Francisco, CA 94117

Tuesday, October 20
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka Mezcal
2337 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94612

Tuesday, October 20
Pairing/Dinner with Wahaka Mezcal & Ulises Torrentera “Meet and Greet”
2337 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94612

Wednesday, October 21
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka
Mezcal (Industry only)
Cantina Mayahuel
2934 Adams Ave
San Diego, CA 92116

Wednesday, October 21
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka Mezcal (Public)
Cantina Mayahuel
2934 Adams Ave
San Diego, CA 92116

Thursday, October 22
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka Mezcal (public)
3014 W Olympic Blvd,
Los Angeles, CA 90006

Friday, October 23
“Meet and Greet” Welcome Party
Teote Restaurant
1615 SE 12th Ave
Portland, OR 97214

Saturday, October 24
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka
Mezcal (due to demand, pre-qualified Industry people only)
Teote Restaurant
1615 SE 12th Ave
Portland, OR 97214

Sunday, October 25th
“Meet and Greet” Welcome Party
Liberty Bar
517 15th Ave E
Seattle, WA 98112

Monday, October 26th
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka
Mezcal (due to demand, pre-qualified Industry people only)
Mezcalería Oaxaca
2123 Queen Anne Ave N
Seattle, WA

Tuesday October 27th
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka Mezcal
Hilltop Kitchen
913 M.L.K. Jr Way
Tacoma, WA 98405


Ulisses surveys the scene

Ulisses surveys the scene

On sustainability

Sustainable: adjective

1.capable of being supported or upheld, as by having its weight borne from below.

2.pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse: sustainable agriculture. Aquaculture is a sustainable alternative tooverfishing. to be maintained or kept going, as an action or process: a sustainable negotiation between the two countries. to be confirmed or upheld: a sustainable decision. to be supported as with the basic necessities or sufficient funds: a sustainable life.


defendable, defensible, justifiable, maintainable, supportable, tenable


So it says when you do a basic search on Merriam-Webster breaks it down even more simply:

: able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed

: involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources

: able to last or continue for a long time

I looked this up the other day because given how much the word sustainable is being thrown about, I needed to double check what it actually means. Having worked in the world of sustainable agriculture and food since 2007, this is a word that is near and dear to my heart. To see it becoming as meaningless as natural or artisanal, makes me want to scream until every window is shattered within a two mile radius.  

Of course it’s not surprising  given the reality of the market we live in where nearly everything is commodified and relabeled as artisanal (Round Table Pizza?) because that’s the only way to distinguish it from other commodities. In the spirits world what distinguishes one whiskey from another? We love to champion individuality and distinctiveness in all things, especially food, wine, beer, and spirits. It’s practically cultish. But really, most of those things aren’t very individual, few represent or maintain an actual tie to the tradition that they lay claim to, even fewer are actually produced in a traditional manner. That costs too much, it’s difficult to export, it even tastes different. Because here is the dirty little secret that we rarely want to talk about – true craft or artisanal production really really really doesn’t scale – that’s the whole point.

While in Oaxaca in July, I traveled with reporter Grace Rubenstein, researching the subject of women in mezcal and sustainable maguey production. She has a great profile piece here in Craftsmanship Magazine on the subject which I highly recommend. When talking to people about the industry, we asked them to identify the top three things most important in the mezcal world: The common themes were – production (both the growing of maguey and the process of making mezcal), management of silvestres, and how palenqueros are paid. But to really understand what’s happening, a conversation I had with Ulises Torrentera goes to the heart of what is happening.

In a nutshell, this is the situation that Ulises and I discussed.

What you have enveloping the industry now are entities with money who live outside of the areas where mezcal is produced, contracting with people to find mezcal to buy, to bottle and brand and sell outside the area where it is produced. Often the owner of the brand has never met their producer, or actually researched how the mezcaleros are making mezcal, let alone where the maguey is coming from nor how it is being grown. The mezcal is a commodity which puts the  consumer so far from the process and origin of what’s in a bottle that it is possible to say anything while marketing the final product.

There is no transparency no matter how clear the substance of the bottle. And this is where Ulises became truly passionate – the system that produces that bottle has so many different levels of people and processes involved from growing the maguey, to the production, to the shipping, and finally to the market that by the time you get that bottle into your hands no one knows anything about it. We’ve seen what this has meant for our food supply: It was industrialized to the point of anonymity which inspired the backlash and the success of the Eat Local and Know your Food, Know Your Farmer  campaigns.

This is exactly why people love farmers’ markets and why wine tasting is such a big thing in the US and, increasingly, the rest of the industrialized world. It’s the reassertion of a connection with the concept of authenticity. But every time it’s used, it gets co-opted by marketing machines and the very process of production is industrialized to internalize whatever facets are important to that particular authenticity.

There has been more focus on this concept of sustainability in the mezcal industry – something we have written about for a while, most recently in Max’s piece on the CRM, and in other pieces like this, this and this. But so much of the discussion is focused on the production side, especially on cultivating maguey, but that’s just one part of being a sustainable operation. We need to start applying this term to the whole of the industry and factor in the pay, economics, impact on communities, ultimately applying true meaning and meat to the word, otherwise we’ll end up right where we are with everything else. So in the absence of standards or verbiage when it comes to sustainability in mezcal, I propose the following four “pillars” (to borrow from the sustainable food movement)  that must be addressed and answered for any brand or organization that uses the word:

1. Is it environmentally sound? Growing and production practices must be such that maguey is being replanted and it needs be diversified between seed and hijuelos. Silvestres cannot be over harvested, the wood fuel supply must not strip the land, water must be used responsibly, waste must be managed appropriately, and environmental impact must be minimalized.

2. Is it economically viable? The financial structure must include fair pair for all including a truly sustainable wage for each laborer involved in the production all the way up to the mezcalero. The business must be able to sustain itself through market gyrations and maintain a commitment to the community in which it operates.

3. Is it socially just? The business must demonstrate an awareness of its impact and relationship with the local community and proactively work to give back and renew resources from the its place of origin. There must be a conscientious decision to adhere to a triple bottom line of people, planet, profit.

4. Is it humane? This specifically refers to the treatment of animals in agriculture, but really should be a cornerstone of any business. Humanity can’t be left at the sideline as profit is pursued.

This may sound stark but this is pretty basic stuff. Consumers repeatedly say this is exactly what they want of their foodstuffs and we stand at a great point in mezcal’s development to ensure that it takes a different path from most other artisanal products. I am laying down the gauntlet and challenging every mezcal brand out there who refers to themselves as sustainable to clearly and transparently state their practices per the above pillars so that we can have some industry lead standards until anything official is adopted.

I encourage anyone who has ideas on these fronts to speak up. Post your comments, send us your questions, and tell us about the sustainability project you’re seeing. If you have a bigger thought send it to us – we might publish it in order to deepen and enliven the conversation. And – stay tuned – we’ll be doing a whole series dedicated to this issue of sustainability and the different projects out there.

Mezcal Heavy Métl

William Scanlan highlighting his wares

William Scanlan highlighting his wares

William Scanlan has been a man on a mission for quite some time. You may have seen him toting bottles of Real Minero, Rey Campero, and Mezcaloteca to tastings across the United States. Now you will see those bottles independent of the bespectacled man at bars, restaurants, and on the shelves of better liquor stores across the country because William’s quest to bring them to North America is finally certified and legal.

His story has many of the elements common to mezcal and opera: He met mezcal, fell into a torrid romance, and spent the rest of the dramatic acts resolving all the problems. In his case it was the work of importing and distribution which, as many others similary bewitched by mezcal can attest, is more than a simple chore. But the time and effort involved probably made him better prepared for the road ahead. It’s not easy out there for a mezcal importer.

A few of the Heavy Métl portfolio

A few of the Heavy Métl portfolio

First, the mezcal

Before we do anything else let’s get to the serious stuff. The mezcals. Here’s what’s being imported to Texas by Virtuoso Selections, Washington by Agave Oaxaca, and fresh this week, California courtesy of JVS Imports. As William’s import company, the aptly named Heavy Métl, gets its tentacled arms across the country he will open more states with strategic partner Skurnik Wines starting with New York in October.

Real Minero

DOM Santa Catarina Minas


Maestro Mezcalero: Don Lorenzo Angeles

– Barril (Agave Karwinskii)

– Largo (Agave Karwinskii)

– Field Blend of 4 agaves (barril, largo, and tripon from the Karwinskii team and espadin, Agave Angustifolia haw.) This is the sort of blend that probably comes closest to recreating the original mezcals. Traditionally mezcals were made from whichever mezcals were ripe at the time of distillation and less emphasis was placed on type. 

– Pechuga: Triple distilled espadin (Agave Angustifolia haw.) with the addition of creole/wild apples, pineapples. platano de castilla, orange, almonds, white rice, the skinless breast of a free range chicken that hasn’t laid eggs, and more. 

– Arroqueno: (Agave Americana var. Oaxacensis) Though this was an extraordinarily limited production run of 65 liters for Real Minero’s launch in the United States. It’s heavily allocated so don’t be disappointed if you can’t find any.

Rey Campero

DOM – Candelaria Yegole

NOM – O185X

Maestro Mezcalero: – Romulo Sanchez Parada

– Espadin (Agave Angustifolia haw.)

– Cuishe (Agave Karwinskii)

– Madreuishe (Agave Karwinskii)

– Tobala: (Agave Potatorum) This is the only Rey Campero mezcal made from wild agave harvested from a different village, San Pedro Martir at about 6000 feet above sea level. The high altitude and cooler climate favors tobala from San Pedro Martir but only during the dry seasons because these plants are especially sensitive to rain. 

– Mexicano (Agave Rhodacantha)

– Jabali (Agave Convallis) 

– Tepextate: (Agave Marmorata) This just arrived in the United States and is now available in California but it will take a little longer to get distributed everywhere else.

– Later this year William plans to import Rey Campero’s Arroqueno (Agave Americana var. Oaxacensis) and Sierra Negra (Agave Americana), ideally as something special for the holidays so start saving now!

Mezcalosfera by Mezcaloteca

William is working away on bringing Mezcaloteca’s various bottlings into the United States. The name is different because it reflects Marco Ochoa and Silvia Philion’s idea to distinguish between certified and non certified mezcals. William will only be importing certified mezcals. At least for now! With luck we’ll start seeing these bottles later in October just in time to snap them up for holiday gifts!

Who is William Scanlan?

Like many of us William fell in love with mezcal and immediately set to work figuring out how to make it part of his life. A native Texan and fluent Spanish speaker, he’s lived on both sides of the border for his work. He first encountered mezcal 12 or 13 years ago at his local Mexican restaurant in Austin where he’d hang out and sample the latest tequilas with the staff. One day the manager told him “‘come in tomorrow night for a mezcal tasting, you have to taste it, it’ll change your perspective and you’ll never like tequila again.’ I thought that was a bold statement so I showed up and the man leading the tasting happened to be Ron Cooper. Back then he was still driving mezcal up from Oaxaca himself. I hung out and talked to him for a while and that’s really when I first became enamored with mezcal. I had never tasted that level of quality before.” For anyone that doesn’t know, Ron Cooper is the founder of Del Maguey, the original artisanal mezcal in North America. 

The mezcal obsession really got going in 2006 when he moved to Oaxaca and later Mexico City. He’d been mulling the idea of his own mezcal brand and traveling to all the mezcal meetings at Agave Fest, Expo Mezcal, Dardo, and anywhere else that would help him learn about the spirit and the industry. Then two years ago his good friend and mentor, Erick Rodriguez of Alma Mezcalera, grabbed him at Agave Fest and told him that he really needed to taste this new mezcal called Rey Campero. “I went over and tasted them and it was right then and there that I broke the idea of doing my own brand. I decided that being an importer was what I wanted to do because it was much more than about the brand, it was about the culture, regions, biodiversity, and traditions of the families that produced these mezcals.”

What’s the Rey Campero story?

Rey Campero is the perfect example: The brand is really a family of brothers, cousins, and nephews – Romulo is their maestro mezcalero in the community of Candeleria Yegole about two hours south-west of Oaxaca City. The village may be familiar to you because Mezcal Vago hails from the same area as do many smaller producers. Romulo learned how to make mezcal from his dad and worked in the palenque until he was 20 but, like many people in his village and the whole country, when the economy went bad and mezcal wasn’t a viable business he emigrated north and worked in North Carolina.

When Romulo returned to Mexico in 2003 he moved to the City of Oaxaca and thought about returning to the mezcal business but it wasn’t until 2012 that he made the leap, moved back to Candeleria Yegole and got the business started. He pulled his brothers and nephews into the project and they have been working away at it ever since. The fact that they’ve really only been a formal company since 2012 tells you everything you need to know about the evolution of mezcal; it’s young and growing fast.

Romulo and his family still do everything on the production side even if many of them live in the city of Oaxaca. As William told me, “they prepare the ovens, roast and plant the agave. They may be in charge of sales and administration but they’re actively involved in the grunt work.” And that tradition shows through in the mezcals: Almost all of them are truly the fruit of wild agaves with their espadin being the only cultivated one of the bunch. 

As for the name, Rey Campero means “King of the Countryside” and was chosen to reflects the landscape, hard work, wild agaves, and “superior mezcals” that the brand produces. William told me that the connection to the countryside is critical to all concerned because “it’s a reference to the difficulty of harvesting maguey from the steep slopes and canyons in the countryside where you can not use trucks to remove the maguey.” In other words, Rey Campero runs on the backs of its farmers and burros.

Special guest Graciela Angeles Carreño walks guests through the many variations of Real Minero, her family's mezcal which will soon be on sale in the United States. Photo by Michael Skrzypek

Graciela Angeles Carreño at Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle 2014. Photo by Michael Skrzypek


Becoming Real Minero’s conduit

Anyone who has tasted Real Minero knows how good they are. Graciela Angeles Carreño is the leader of the brand and an upholder of a family tradition. She fully understands the weight of that burden and has defined her family’s business and distilling tradition with a precision and discipline seldom seen in the mezcal business. William said that when he first visited her palenque, “it blew me away how clean and organized the palenque was. I told her ‘this is incredible, it’s the most organized and most clean palenque I’ve ever seen,’ and she told me “this is what happens when you have a woman in charge of running a business.””

Working with Real Minero took time and lots of intention exactly because it’s a family business with so much at stake. Like many of these things it’s all about the relationship. When William first met Graciela she was entertaining offers from a variety of importers. Whatever he offered her and represented must have resonated because he ended up with the contract. As he puts it “Ultimately, she decided to work with me, I’m very grateful for that.” Having met both William and Graciela my guess is that they have something like an extended familial relationship of fantastic respect and understanding which is the foundation of the business. 

Anyone who has met Graciela can testify to the precision and care she brings to the business. The same goes for her entire operation, Real Minero produces just 5,000 liters a year for the Mexican and European markets. The plan is to slowly ramp up with demand from the United States while maintaining high quality in their low production.

Mezcaloteca rising

If that wasn’t enough, Heavy Métl will soon bring select Mezcalosferea by Mezcaloteca bottles into the U.S. Mezcaloteca is the embodiment of cult status. Physically a tasting room in Oaxaca City just up the street from the botanical garden as well as a label which brings many small producers to the attention and delight of mezcal aficionados fortunate enough to make the trip. They represent much more, founding member Marco Ochoa is one of the intellectual guides for the mezcal world while his business partner Silvia Philion continues to run the show. Screaming Eagle eat your heart out because you can still go to Mezcaloteca and meet the people behind the brand with their products nightly. Bringing that vibe and product north is a trick – so much so that there won’t be many bottles and they will be few and far between; as in real collectors items. As William says, “The idea is to keep production low and maintain the true sense of Mezcaloteca, once it’s gone it’s gone.”

Mezcaloteca’s bottles are famous for their exact descriptions of who produced the contents and how. They adapted a traditional structure and have paved a path for the rest of the industry. Their focus has always been on the purely artisanal producers who, by necessity, only create small batches because other things like stable incomes derived from farming cash crops take priority. And, because they’re so small, most of Mezcaloteca’s producers aren’t certified by the CRM as makers of mezcals. William told me that only a single Mezcaloteca producer is currently certified so he’s working with Marco and Silvia to build a new collaborative palenque. “we’re creating opportunities for people in the community who would like to certify their production – like this 22 year old kid who is making amazing mezcales at his father’s palenque but since his dad is against certification he has no where else to go to certify his mezcal. So we want to give opportunities to people who want to be certified and are faced by certain obstacles.” Given that state it’s going to be a while before Mezcaloteca’s bottles start appearing in the United States; optimistically this fall, realistically the new year. Hope in the mezcal world springs eternal.

The future

I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the name because it’s just so awesome. No, William isn’t a lover of Danzig, Metallica, or sundry other bands that could have inspired him naming his business “Heavy Métl” which, in this new variant of Nahuatlish or Englitl, is the perfect combination of North American pop sensibility and the Nahuatl word for agave. Nahuatl being the language common to the peoples of what is now central Mexico like the Aztecs, when the Spaniards arrived. The “Heavy” part harks back to the colloquial meaning in the seventies, as in “deep” or “profound.” It refers back to that idea of “that’s heavy man.”  refers back to that. band reference. I’m at a loss, why didn’t we or anyone else think of it. But William has it sewn up, he gets the cred for that and gifting himself with the title “Chief Mezcalhead.”

Heavy Métl has been nearly a decade in the making and just started importing this summer so I’d expect things to ramp up slowly but it sounds like William has been overwhelmed with orders and is sitting on top of a successful operation. As he told me last week “my projections were way too conservative which is really exciting for these families and me.” He’s been so busy supporting the few states where Heavy Métl already imports that he’s only been able to go to Mexico for a few days in recent months. Sounds like it’s high time for a new hire,  but he isn’t resting on his laurels just yet. He told me that Oaxaca is just the beginning. “I’m starting with mezcal from Oaxaca because that’s where everyone thinks where mezcal comes from so I decided to bring the best of the best. I’m building my name as an importer, but the only reason I’m trying to draw attention to myself is so that when I plop another amazing mezcal down in front of a consumer from Guerrero, San Luis de Potosi, Durango, or somewhere else, there will be some consumer awareness that ‘this is the guy who brought Mezcaloteca, Real Minero, or Rey Campero, I’m going to trust him.’ I need to develop that confidence and trust before I can expand.” 

And expansion is clearly on his mind because one of the last things he said was Part of this project is rooted in me getting tired of drinking the same mezcales every time I came to the United States. It’s rooted in my experience and education. Not that stuff here is bad, there are some great mezcales, but I feel that mezcalophiles want new stuff.” The rumors of what that ‘new stuff’ might be are incredibly enticing, more as we can confirm it…

El Barrio de Guerneville

El Barrio's bar

El Barrio’s bar

Recently word filtered into Mezcalistas HQ about a slip of a mezcal bar in Guerneville, CA – mostly known as a sun dappled escape from the San Francisco Bay Area. You may have caught the Russian River scene recently in HBO’s excellent Looking and, yes, it has been a very prominent gay party and vacation scene. But it always appeared stuck in time like a fly in amber, the same tourist stores, the same restaurants, and one of the worst Safeways in the universe.

Signs of the global hipster experience appeared and didn’t close up shop as quickly as past attempts. A cafe, a whole bank taken over by another cafe/ice cream/pie/boutique concept. Then like a bolt from the blue, a mezcal bar. It’s called El Barrio and it’s a real slice of paradise decorated brightly, covered with tile work,  and a bathroom that is more inviting than most rooms in your house. Oh and they really like mezcal.

El Barrio knows design

El Barrio knows design

On the day of my visit I got to know Crista Luedtke who opened El Barrio and owns Boon Eat + Drink as well as Big Bottom Market just a few steps away from Barrio. Brian L. Frank was pouring a selection of Barrio’s mezcals because he’s helped assemble their list. When he’s not pouring he is a photographer who has done some excellent work including a series on mezcal. His photos are up on the walls in all their glory, absent an in person visit you can take a look at them on his site.

Brian Frank behind the bar

Brian Frank behind the bar

Their baseline mezcal is Fidencio and they also stock some of the rarer Fidencio bottles like their Tepeztate and Tierra Blanca which seldom make many bar appearances. The bar is stocked with mezcals ranging from Mezcalero to Vago, Marca Negra to El Jolgorio so you can set up quite a tasting. And they have quite a cocktail list that embraces the standard margarita variations while expanding the whole concept of mezcal cocktails. Oh and they have a great sangrita.

Just one of the fantastic cocktails at El Barrio

Just one of the fantastic cocktails at El Barrio

Right now it’s really focused on the bar side of things with a tiny list of antojitos including chips and salsa, quesos, and pepinos. Never fear, they’ll soon be adding ceviches and braised pork tacos so that you can snack your way to a full meal while sampling their mezcal list. Bright and breezy design which testifies to the sensibility that defines the entire project. I have to admire someone who carries that right into the restroom which sports a fantastic toilet.

El Barrio's magnificent toilet

El Barrio’s magnificent toilet

Barrio’s staff joined in on our tasting and had some great observations about the mezcals, they all have great palates. You know that you’re in great hands with a staff that’s so professional and personable. Definitely ask them questions, they would love to get you the right glass of mezcal!

How can a mezcal bar exist, let alone thrive, in such a small town? It’s the tourists stupid; the same San Franciscans, Oaklandites, and their brethren who flock to Lolo and Tamarindo. If this effect can be replicated I’m pretty sure this “mezcal is a trend” story will disappear. I know that mezcal makers are especially anxious because that’s one avenue for sales volume. Time will tell but every time I wander by Barrio is full so let’s hope that it’s the canary in this coal mine.