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
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
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:
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka Mezcal
661 Divisadero St
San Francisco, CA 94117
Tuesday, October 20
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka Mezcal
Oakland, CA 94612
Tuesday, October 20
Pairing/Dinner with Wahaka Mezcal & Ulises Torrentera “Meet and Greet”
Oakland, CA 94612
Wednesday, October 21
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka
Mezcal (Industry only)
2934 Adams Ave
San Diego, CA 92116
Wednesday, October 21
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka Mezcal (Public)
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
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)
1615 SE 12th Ave
Portland, OR 97214
Sunday, October 25th
“Meet and Greet” Welcome Party
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)
2123 Queen Anne Ave N
Tuesday October 27th
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka Mezcal
913 M.L.K. Jr Way
Tacoma, WA 98405
So it says when you do a basic search on dictionary.com. 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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
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
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
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
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.
Don’t look now but Wahaka has added even more bottles to its line up. While the core of the portfolio is still solid they are building out limited edition bottles that expand on last year’s genius marketing idea of their “Vegan Pechugas,” the Espadín Manzanita and Espadín Botaniko which were fantastic and disappeared from shelves quickly. And by genius marketing idea we don’t mean to slight the contents of the bottles because people have been making vegan pechugas for quite a while. It’s just that someone in the C-Suite of Wahaka Enterprises was canny enough to make something of that label.
Now Wahaka is building on those releases with a new set of mezcals allocated to the six states of California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Illinois, and New York which, I bet, represents a simple map of the most mezcal sold by volume in the United States. The labels are in the same style of last year’s vegan pechugas, black and white with sharp graphic definition. The NOM remains the same as the rest of their production – NOM O148X – and all were made by their master mezcalero Alberto ‘Berto’ Morales.
The bottles are:
Jabali – From cultivated agave.
Tepeztate – From wild agave.
Nanche: The latest in the vegan pechuga series made from espadin and nanche, a small yellow fruit grown throughout southern Mexico and Central America.
Guajolote con Fruta: This is their maestro mezcalero Berto’s first commercial pechuga made from meat along with “a ton of fruit…tangerines, bananas, cantaloupe.” Guajolote is Nahuatl for turkey so it harks back to deep cultural roots.
It’s been months since the CRM or Consejo Regulador Mezcal, the new name for COMERCAM, dropped their annual report Informe 2015, a 72 page powerpoint presentation on the state of the industry. It’s fascinating stuff and less daunting than its page count threatens because most of the slides are exactly that, bullet points or graphs synopsizing the industry. In many ways it’s a rallying point for everyone invested and interested in the fate of the agave spirits industry because, while it doesn’t cover tequila directly, it does speak to the larger questions on everyone’s mind starting with identity because this is first, and foremost, a positive pitch for Plan Mezcal from Hipócrates Nolasco Cancinco, the president of the CRM. While not written with much voice it very clearly comes from his desk and retains a degree of personality usually washed out of C Suite presentations. Among the many things mezcal needs right now, it’s that sort of cheerleader-in-chief just to keep getting the branding message across while keeping everyone positive about the future.
And Hipócrates clearly sees himself in that role. He casts the CRM, the agency that certifies anything that legally calls itself a mezcal, as the “punta de lanza de la industria,” which is quite forceful language for what has been something of a whipping boy for smaller producers. It’s high time that mezcal’s representative organization stood up and stood for something positive. This presentation is the clearest indication of that ambition to date. And Hipócrates isn’t making this a, pardon the pun, purely militaristic charge. Right there on the same page he says:
Algo inedito sucedió hace tres años, arstesanos y empresarios se unieron en una sola voz y se llamaron a sí mismos “hermano maguey” para convertir al CRM en su aliado y conductor de la industria, como resultado del hartazgo de la visión corta y poco efectiva de la autoridades.
In plain language, ‘I’m a uniter, not a divider.’ Hipócrates wants the CRM to lead and he follows up with much more in that vein through his introductory slides culminating in this statement:
El Mezcal continúa su ascenso en las cumbres internacionales, sus estadísticas son muy prometedoras, en los próximos años se decide si cosolidamos una tendencia o solo somos una moda, para hacerlo bien debemos prepararnos en todos los ámbitos y estar a la altura de lo que el consumidor nacional e interncional exige: autenticidad, identidad, cultura, sustentabilidad, calidad, etc. (emphasis added)
There you have it: ‘I’m growing brand mezcal and we’re at a transformational point, either we continue with mezcal as a hobby or we make it into a globalized industry based on a brand identity built on the ideas of authenticity and Mexican culture.’ That’s the most succinct and clear description of a brand for mezcal I’ve ever seen and the only one to really rise above the daily chisme. So, pay attention, the man has ambition, whether he can pull it all off is a question that the rest of the report really struggles with.
A quick note about numbers, unless otherwise noted I’m citing certified production numbers which obviously don’t include anyone who hasn’t received certification. No one has a good estimate for how much that undercounts mezcal production in Mexico but it’s significant.
Growth is the Story
If there’s one master narrative in this report it’s that mezcal is growing. More is being made, more types, more states, more exported. As always it’s the details that matter and they tell a more complex story that bears out much of what we’ve been hearing and reporting.
The report shows point after point of growth starting with a huge jump in asociados, an additional 46 from 2013 to 2014 for a total of 526 which is an even more impressive total when measured against the base of 303 in the rather ambiguously defined baseline of 2003-2011. That’s all good stuff, presumably asociados means brands registered with the CRM which means that the market is vivacious, possibly even crowding up. Of course that probably doesn’t measure the sum total of mezcal producers in Mexico which would add hundreds, if not thousands, to this total. That points up the larger problem in certification, lots of mezcaleros haven’t managed to certify their mezcals because of the expense and complexity. We have heard rather constant laments from a variety of mezcal makers who are desperately trying to get certified, for some any process is too much, for most it sounds like the CRM doesn’t have enough resources go make the process run smoothly for everyone, everywhere.
While Oaxaca still accounts for over 90% of mezcal, the one state that is suddenly growing is Michoacán which was only added to the Denominación de Origen in 2012 but is rapidly becoming a top tier mezcal producer. That only confirms what we’ve seen and heard, many of those laments about difficulty getting certified come straight from that state. Still, it only accounts for 0.5% of all mezcal making it third in total production behind Guerrero which was add to the DOM way back in 1994. That should tell you plenty about the untapped production in Michoacan even while some locals worry about the opposite.
Certified mezcal production is surging, in 2011 more than 980,000 liters were made. In 2014 that total eclipsed 1,450,000 liters. But growth hasn’t been linear, in 2013 production suddenly spiked at 2.5 million liters before dropping by more than a million liters in 2014. The report attributes this to an agave surplus which hints at a lot going on out there in the Mexican landscape. Who is growing all that agave? What compelled them to start in the early 2,000’s?
Even though mezcal is growing it still barely registers for Mexican drinkers. In Mexico it still only counts for 0.2% of spirit consumption just behind cognac’s 0.3% but far behind tequila’s 16.3% and aguardiente’s 15.3%. The presentation highlights that mezcal consumption has grown 36% year over year which is important, especially since drinks like cognac are decreasing but it’s still a bit of a downer when you consider how important mezcal is to all of us. Of course mezcal is worth far more than its competitors, more than double the value of tequila by bottle, the report gets back to that point later, so will we.
Where’s it All Going?
Mezcal is increasingly going abroad – just under 650,000 liters were exported in 2011. By 2014 that number had popped above 1,150,000 liters. That’s a leap of 79%. And while the major export market has been consistently the United States there’s a strange story to be told about other export markets because Chile has been consistently second or third changing places with Australia until 2014 when Spain muscled into the third spot. Other markets have opened over the past three years including potential powerhouses like China but also lesser known markets like the Emirates.
How Many Agaves in Your Bottle?
No doubt you’ve seen many different species of agave popping up on bottles lately and the CRM’s figures bear that out. In 2014 only 77% were angustifolia, aka espadin, and 23% from other species. That’s a huge drop from espadin’s absolutely dominating 95% in 2013 and the trend line in previous years. While somewhat difficult to believe exactly because the reported change was so sudden and dramatic, it is potentially great news for the people who have figured out how to cultivate other species. It’s equally potentially troubling news for the sustainability of the industry because plenty of agaves are still being harvested from the wild and they’re probably not going to exist in the wild much longer. Definitely cherish those silvestres bottles on shelves today, maybe even store them for the future, because once those truly wild agaves are harvested they’re probably not coming back.
Making the case for quality
The presentation repeatedly mentions the growth of premium market categories and how well mezcal fits into that trend. Page 49 makes this case most clearly by noting that the value category has dropped 1.3% by volume while premium rose +3.1%, high end +5.8%, and super premium +5.1%. Those categories are notoriously squishily defined but it’s the thought that counts and it gets all the elaboration you need on the following page when the growth of higher quality spirits is paired with the higher value placed on artisanal products and the growth of emerging markets, especially in Asia which put a high value on premium products. If that’s not an argument for a different industrial path from tequila, I don’t know what is.
Do you see where this is going? This is a clear argument for mezcal as a special brand and for the CRM itself. Now that we’ve checked that box, the next step is defining the importance of the Denominanción de Origen del Mezcal and the CRM’s role in regulating it. The presentation digs into this argument and talks of defending and defining mezcal globaly as a signal goal while enumerating all the progress points the organization has made in recent years. Just to remind you how much ground the CRM has covered recently, the enumeration consumes six pages. Sure, much of this is of critical importance but you wouldn’t be the only one wondering whether there’s a bit of old fashioned resume padding because the whole report concludes with another list, “Plan de Trabajo 2015-2018.” For its next act the CRM will do important things like finally elaborate and pass NOM 70 and build out mezcal.com. That domain was originally registered by the smart people at Del Maguey and recently handed over to the CRM. Kudos to Del Maguey for taking one for team mezcal. Now the ball is in the CRM’s court to hire a decent design firm and really make their digital presence sing the song of maguey.
A Mystifying Absence
There’s a torrent of information here and Hipócrates is clearly trying to rally the troops while consolidating the CRM’s grip on everything. It must feel like herding cats with issues like sustainability exploding while small producers continue to complain about not being heard. In the interim the market isn’t getting any smaller and bigger companies are suddenly appearing on the scene. If that wasn’t tough enough, what about all the producers who are doing an end run around the CRM altogether and just creating destilados de agave? So many questions but this is a great foundational document.
And yet, for all the structure and good intentions, there is still one major mystifying absence, what is NOM 70? It’s been hanging in the air for quite some time so the gossip has gone through quite a few cycles. Everyone is anxious to hear the final proposal and rumors are that NOM 70 should be released this week. Perhaps we’ll know soon enough but, man, it’s been a long quiet period and this company isn’t even going public.
August 13th and 14th, the Mexican government’s export promotion arm, ProMexico, brought 12 mezcal brands into San Francisco. They were all in LA earlier in the week as well. The initiative is to open up import and distribution avenues for brands ready for the international market and most of these brands are hunting for the right partner. If you are interested in a connection, email me.
More generally I suspect that many of these mezcal brands are hungry to hear feedback from North American businesses and consumers so that they can find their way into this market fully informed so it was great to field their questions and ask a bunch of my own. The event was split into a mid-day private tasting at the Mexican embassy and a public one in the evening at La Urbana. All the brands got ample exposure to people like me and the people who are going to be buying their products.
I shouldn’t be surprised by the number of mezcal brands ready to enter the North American market but events like this serve to prove that point, and how! Most of the brands are either already established in Mexico or designed for export so they’re ready to go, just looking for a partner. The fact that they are just the first among many waves, that all save for one are from Oaxaca, and that the rather staggering production levels all point the way to a huge change in the market. It feels like shake up time is coming.
How exactly that shakes out is a real question. Everyone loves to use the tequila business as a model because, well, it’s Mexican! That would have mezcal racing to high production levels and outrageous brand campaigns to get drinkers requesting a particular mezcal for their margarita at the local bar. I’m sure that’s one avenue, it’s already happened with mezcal which has gone through the craft cocktail craze and is busily building a reputation as the new favorite of bartenders everywhere. But there’s more to it than that. Here’s wave three, or is it four, of mezcal about to hit our shores.
3 Pueblos & Kilometro 70
3 Pueblos and Kilometro 70
Agave: Blue agave
Denominacion de Origen: Trinidad Garcia de la Cadena, Zacatecas
Hailing from Zacatecas and the only mezcal brands from that state that Susan and I have seen in the U.S., this is something of a massive mezcal collective which represents the combined output of 30% of the mezcal from Zacatecas or 1.5 million liters per year. Yes, 1.5 million liters per year. I had a great chat with Gabriel López Nava who represents the umbrella organization for the collective called Distribuidora de Mezcales about what they’re doing, it’s quite a massive operation.
They share a NOM because their distilleries share infrastructure. Per Gabriel 3 Pueblos is an industrial operation while Kilometro 70 has its own artisanal distillery. Both come in two varieties, a joven and a reposado. The blue agave is hard to detect, Gabriel was super excited that I couldn’t figure out what it is and that experience got me thinking about how their blue agave is grown and how much terroir it represents. This shouldn’t be that surprising, Trinidad Garcia de la Cadena is just over the border from Jalisco and has a lot of that highland type landscape familiar to tequila lovers but I’m very curious to visit and see the operation in person.
File this one under a snapshot of what’s possible in the rest of Mexico in terms of raw production. This has obvious implications for the market in cocktail mezcals because 3 Pueblos is clearly designed as a mass market cocktail mezcal but Kilometro 70 has higher aspirations and can easily be more than an entry level quality mezcal. There’s something interesting going on in Zacatecas…
Both brands are currently available only in New York and Florida through Dibela Importers.
NOM – O212X
Denominacion de Origen: Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca
This brand is built around the story that: “A lightning bolt struck the heart of an agave, resulting in the first quema, or roasting, that produced this magical drink. That’s why mezcal is considered ‘the drink that came from heaven … a blessing (bendición) from the gods.'”
They are marketing an espadin from Santiago Matatlán which, at 38%, was the lowest ABV of anything we tried at this tasting. They appear primed for major production with a boasted production capacity of between 6,000 and 8,000 liters a month distributed across four palenques and are looking partners in North America and Europe. They also appear to have quite a handle on their marketing strategy replete with Instagram and Twittter feeds as well as a video of their process
I finally got to taste Clase Azul’s mezcal. You know the company through their iconic tequila bottles. Now you know them by their iconic mezcal bottle, same shape painted matte black with Huichol beaded top. The presentation is striking enough to merit a taste based on appearance alone.
First, it’s from cenizo agave grown in Durango and Jalisco but the still is located in Durango so that NOM does not lie! Their maestro mezcalero Arturo Lomeli produces just 25 liters a day which makes for a tiny production run. Their first shipment of 3,000 bottles to California, Texas, and New York is already sold out. It tastes fairly light with nuanced agave fruit. I want to taste it again next to food to see if that alters the flavor. Down the road Clase Azul may expand into different mezcals, perhaps a Bacanora or Sotol. Only time will tell.
To taste it seek out mezcal oriented restaurants and bars because they’ve been the main buyers. You can buy it retail predominantly in California at stores like K&L and Old Town – NY at the Chelsea Wine Vault – New Jersey at the Monmouth Bottle Shop. This one falls into the super-premium category based on an estimated retail price of $230 per bottle.
Denominacion de Origen: San Baltazar Guelavila, Tlacolula, Oaxaca
Maestros mezcaleros: Hernández Martínez
Convite looks like another part of the mezcal wave. It has 10 different types of mezcal distilled by a family of four brothers from the Hernández Martínez family. It has a thoroughly developed brand identity. It’s already distributed in Mexico, Spain, and the UK. And they even have a tasting room in Oaxaca. They are definitely ready for the North American market, they’re just on the look out for an importer and distributor.
Fortunately for our palates, unfortunately for posterity, we only tasted four of their bottles which were marked by similar spice and mineral characteristics. The Ensemble Silvestre is a particularly strong example of this with prominent cinnamon notes while the tobala had flavors of sweet agave and cinnamon without much viscosity.
This was another new introduction. They currently sell three bottles; a joven, reposado, and an añejo. They only use espadin today but plan to release silvestres soon. Our tasting of the joven had both of us writing down “herbal” in our notes. Smoke was hard to detect and, while the ABV is a relatively low 40%, you don’t taste the absence of alcohol.
The only mezcal claiming kosher certification at this tasting and of any in my memory Mezcal IBA featured two bottles, the 40 and the 55, as in ABV percent. The 55 runs right up against what the CRM legally allows in an ABV so, should they find an importer, it would attain the distinction of one of if not the mezcal with highest ABV in the United States.
As with many high alcohol mezcals you don’t feel the alcohol of the 55 so much as taste more. It has a huge mouth feel without viscosity and it’s very flavorful. The 40 is much lighter and reveals carmelized notes. This is one case where we fear that tasting the 55 first may have washed out our palates so we intend on retasting the 40 first at the next opportunity that presents itself.
Los Javis has a completely throw back label that wouldn’t be out of place on a rot gut tequila or mezcal but that’s just because it comes from the same design era. The actual contents of the bottles are quite remarkable with their standard espadin representing the blade-leafed agave quite competently and a line of silvestres that demand a close look and multiple tastings. There is some serious mezcal in those bottles, we’re really looking forward to seeing them on the market.
The same mezcalero has been developing the Derrumbes brand with a much more contemporary label featuring abstract designs based on traditional pre-Columbian patterns. Derumbes will almost definitely come to the United States soon, we’re just not sure exactly when. Both brands are represented by Epic Wines.
Koch is the lone member of this group which will definitely be on shelves soon. The family scion Carlos Moreno is working with Fidencio’s Arik Torren to bring the line to the U.S. Arik has a eye for mezcal starting with Fidencio and last year’s collaboration with Esteban Morales to bring Raicilla Venenosa to the United States so look out for this one. This is a huge line with 12 bottles spanning the complete gamut of silvestres, an espadin, and a methodological variation in the Olla de Barro. The comparisons to Real Minero aren’t too far off. The Moreno family has invested heavily in sustainable replanting, high quality production, and maintaining their traditional methods. And it shows.
Marcavidas has easily the strangest mezcals of this bunch. One, in a red bottle, is the Afrodisíaco which is twice distilled espadin and then damiana, a traditional culinary and medicinal herb in Mexico, is added in the third distillation. Damiana is occasionally referred to as “marijuana’s legal cousin” but it is used widely in medicinal tinctures and there’s some claim that a damiana distillate or infusion took the place of Triple Sec in the original margarita so there’s some history of a relationship with mezcal. Marcavidas’ use of damiana in Aphrodisiac makes for a very herbal flavor.
But if you’re into herbal flavors then definitely try Marcavidas’ espadin which is the most herbal pure mezcal we’ve ever tasted. At first sip I thought it was surely infused with hierba santa if not other local Oaxacan herbs. Both Susan and I had to ask a few times to make sure that it wasn’t infused. We’re still scratching our heads over how you could get that much herbaceousness into a bottle of mezcal without additives. It’s sort of like an over-hopped IPA.
Geometric designs on bottles are in, both Tribal and Derrumbes sport eerily similar motifs inspired by Mesoamerican work but Tribal has a distinctive coin shaped bottle and a different approach. As their brand representative told me, the goal is to create “modern art in a bottle” but it reflects local traditions. The black glass is inspired by the black ceramics of Coatepec, Oaxaca and the colored patterns by alebrijes from San Antonio Arrazola, San Martin Tiljajete, and other local towns. They are looking for an importer / distributor to introduce them to the North American market.
As for what’s in the bottles: They have an espadin joven at 40% and an espadin reposado at 37%. They come across as very light and smooth which may have nothing to do with the ABV, they just seem like they were distilled to that flavor set. The reposado seems inspired by lighter tequila style repos with the emphasis on touches of carmelization rather than scotch like smoke.
Indecente wins the design and complete brand identity award of this group, and their mezcals are more than worth trying so they have at least two things going for them. You have to admire the look of the bottle, at tastings they come in custom brief cases, they also come with a complete story which I’ll cite here because it’s a rather inspired bit of marketing:
MOST OF THE TIME, WE HIDE BEHIND A CLOSED DOOR AND ONLY PEEK TROUGH THE KEYHOLE ONCE IN A WHILE. THE ONE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE KEYHOLE IS YOU.
MEZCAL VIEJO INDECENTE GIVES YOU THE KEY TO OPEN THE DOOR AND BE YOUR OTHER SELF…
AT LEAST FOR A LITTLE WHILE.
The eye peeking through the keyhole is reproduced on the bottle with the keyhole on the front of the bottle and eye on the back to neat effect.
As for the mezcal, currently they are shipping three varietals: An espadin at 45%, a madrecuische at 48.4% made from 15 year old agave, and an ensemble made from espadin and madrecuische at 48%. They are planning additional silvestres sometime soon. All the fruit is grown on the Lucas family estate which ranges across 136 acres and has been in the family for somewhere north of 100 years. The whole operation is trying to keep up with demand but, per Indecente’s Gabriel Pacheco, “it’s important to know that we will never be able to fulfill huge volumes, our philosophy is focused on quality and small batches.” To that end they’ve been planting about 10,000 ihuelos for the past two years running using a polyculture method where beans and corn are grown between rows of agave which are themselves composed of mixed species.
Park Street represents Indecente in their first three markets starting with the espadin in California and Florida today. It will be on the market in New York in mid-October. The ensemble should arrive by Christmas, the madrecuische soon thereafter. But, give their online store a shot and see if you can get it shipped to you directly. They also mentioned a very intriguing 25-year-old Mexicano and a 22-year-old Arroqueño which may be available later this year. Both will have higher price points reaching, perhaps, $200 per bottle.
The espadin has the barest hint of smoke and a flavor set focused on olla type minerality and elegant agave fruit. The ensemble has more of that olla type minerality but a really massive mouth feel bursting with ripe agave sugars. I wonder if that would be a better dessert or entree mezcal, I look forward to trying it out.
Here’s a quick update from Mezcalistas correspondents and fellow travelers Doug Wheeler and Peggy Stein from Michoacan. They traveled there this June and July sourcing crafts for Peggy’s business Mexico By Hand which guides tours through Michoacan and brings high quality artisanal crafts from the state into the United States. She regularly imports incredible finds which are sold at various museum stores and her web site. I cherish the pieces that I own, the only thing that’s keeping me from buying more is an aggressive budget.
This last trip Doug and Peggy visited the Don Mateo vinata in Rancho Pino Bonito, municipio de Morelia, estado de Michoacán, Mexico where they sampled a flor mezcal made from a cupreata agave fermented 4-5 days resulting in an ABV well into the 60 percent range. Per Doug “Oh and it tasted smooth. Very smooth.” Here’s Peggy taking a sip. Note the slamming t-shirt.
The family boasts four generations of mezcal makers who have survived through the thick but mostly thin of life in the Michoacan countryside.
Emilio, his father and uncle run the vinata. Emilio is in charge of production and other business decisions. Emilio is actually American because he was born in Houston but has since lived his entire life in Mexico which adds yet more wrinkles to our cross border lives. Among the many fascinating things about this vinata and the world of mezcal in Michoacan is the level of cross brand collaboration. Doug was introduced to Don Mateo by Juan Mendez from Uasïsï Mezcal which you may have been lucky enough to sample at last year’s Mexico: Mezcal in a Bottle and will almost definitely find on shelves later this or early next year. That level of collaboration is really nice to see among competitors, they clearly understand that they’re stronger together when working to export to the American market. We don’t know when Don Mateo will reach the United States, keep your eyes peeled!
Last night Susan and I were fortunate enough to attend the formal launch tasting for Amarás’ cupreata at the rapidly assembling Cala, Gabriela Cámara’s much anticipated stateside restaurant. The focus of the evening’s conversation and speeches was clearly sustainability. Gabriela addressed the topic directly as she spoke of her her history at Mexico City’s well lauded Contramar which she launched 17 years ago as a seafood restaurant in a city hours from the nearest coast and more than a mile above sea level. As she explained last night, Mexico’s rather unique economic and political centralization means that pretty much all seafood flows through the capital before it’s shipped anywhere else which meant that she got the pick of Mexico’s freshest seafood.
The Cala margarita
Contramar is now a well established step on the international restaurant circuit and justifiably so. It’s tuna tostadas are reproduced by restaurants across the globe, it has a sister restaurant across town, and Mexican seafood is definitely of the moment. Cala is perched ready to ride that wave with a focus on seafood from Northern California but it was funny to hear Gabriela lament the limitations it poses. She wants her kitchen just to use local produce but keeps running up against how different it is from the ingredients in classic Mexican dishes. That’s the sense of place you get wherever you’re eating, fish in Veracruz, lobster in Maine, crab in San Francisco. Once you carry a national cuisine away from its native produce you get something different, if you embrace it you get a new hybrid like San Francisco’s Italian adapted to California = Zuni. Ditto for Berkeley’s California+France+Italy=Chez Panisse. From the tastes of octopus salad, halibut crudo, and a wild mezcal touched granita it’s clear that Cala is adapting nicely and will refresh the Northern Californian approach to seafood. While Mexican food is taking over the country this level of cultural and ingredient oriented adaptation is exactly what we need to inspire local home chefs as well as global restaurants.
The Cala halibut aguachiles and their unique martini.
But Cala’s opening is two, perhaps a few weeks away so we’ll all have time to truly appreciate it’s interpretation of Mexican in San Francisco. Last night was also dedicated to Amaras’ second bottle, a cupreata from Guerrero. Cala’s bar served up a trio of interpretations of classic cocktails which auger well for its future. Riffing off that whole conversation of cultural adaptation the margarita featured Amaras’ espadin along with citrus cane syrup, lime, and orange bitters for a refreshing version of the cocktail classic. From there it only got stranger because the martini zig-zagged across cultural boundaries combining Amaras espadin, Mandarin Napoleon, lime and fennel to arrive at a construction that is wholly of San Francisco’s current cocktail culture and no where else. Suffice to say that Cala’s idea of a Manhatten was equally adventurous. These cocktails will be part of Cala’s final cocktail menu and will be supplemented by many others inspired by the bounty of Northern California’s fruits and vegetables. We can’t wait to see what else they will present.
But wait: Weren’t we at Cala to taste mezcal? We tried it in cocktails but the best way to drink it is straight up which we certainly did in Amaras’ custom glazed copitas. I already have tasting notes for Amaras’ espadin which is widely available. The cupreata was released in time for this year’s Tales of the Cocktail and has been rolling out slowly across the country so you should be able to find it soon.
Maestro mezcalero: Don Faustino Robledo
Denominacion de Origen: Mazatlán, Guerrero
Agave: 13-year-old cupreata grown between 4,000-6,000 feet above sea level.
Fields of cupreata in Guerrero’s Sierra Madre del Sur.
Like most cupreatas, Amarás’ interpretation is wide and fruity in the mouth. Unlike many it’s not overly viscous so it doesn’t coat your mouth. The flavor starts with big agave fruit and then thins out to an interesting vegetal mix of fresh bell peppers. As one taster noted that means that you could drink it all night long. I’m not sure about that level of hyperbole but it’s definitely elegant enough to sip over a long evening, especially if paired with food, preferably a dish with a bit of acid or spice like the halibut crudo that was served last night.
The funny thing is that the Amarás cupreata origin story has everything to do with food. While the company founders were out searching for a good cupreata in Guerrero they stopped at a roadside barbacoa, tasted the mezcal with the meat, thought ‘this is good,’ and kept going. It was only after tasting other mezcals and returning for more of the barbacoa that they realized it was clearly their favorite of the bunch. That food driven identity is something I’d love to see more of in the mezcal world. There’s nothing like BBQ and mezcal, sushi and mezcal, you name it – there’s a mezcal tailored to a dish.
So, why did we sandwich tasting notes in the middle of an article about sustainability? Well, among other things Gabriela also noted that Amarás is devoted to sustainability which is important in its own right and for the mezcal world as a whole because – all together now – mezcal comes from agave and if we don’t ensure that agave is sustainably cultivated there won’t be any for future weddings, funerals, and casual week night tippling.
I know that sustainability is a buzz word and one that’s deployed as a marketing term of art exactly because we’re all so hypocritical in our consumption of bottles of mezcal shipped thousands of miles but the bet is that we can improve this situation environmentally and economically. Call it transformative capitalism or coin your own term. Amarás is doing its part to pull all these disparate strands together. As Anchor’s brand representative, the wonderful Georgiana Green, noted the brand was founded by a social worker and focuses on giving back by making their product and process as sustainable as possible. Just like Gabriela’s limitations, Amarás has to work within constraints: They focus on environmental initiatives that reforest ten agaves for every one that is harvested for their mezcal and paying premiums to their mezcaleros while also contributing to their local communities. All that doesn’t make the mezcal taste better, that’s a given baseline, but the focus on sustainability as an integral part of a product is a good and important thing.
A lovely run-in with Sara Deseran at EatDrinkSF’s Taco Knockdown got my writing juices flowing. I was just going to the event, not intending to write about it, take pictures of it, just to enjoy it. A crazy conceit – line up some of SF’s best restaurants and have them make their interpretations of tacos. I am not a purist when it comes to tacos – as long as that balance of savory, acid and crunch exists, and the delivery device (whatever variation of a tortilla) holds up and is not drowned out by too much on top, I am down. I remember giving an ex-boyfriend a mix tape of blues music with the explanation of how every culture has blues music if you step away from the strict chord structure definition – what is fado or flamenco if not a serious case of the blues? Needless to say, the tape did not go over well. Words were exchanged for many many many weeks.
That memory came back strong when Sara and I talked about authenticity and she reminded me of the article she wrote about the subject (well worth the read if you haven’t seen it yet) and it opened a whole floodgate of feelings on the subject. I remembered the panel discussion that SoCal based writer Gustavo Arellano organized and moderated at Eat Real LA in 2011 all about the subject of authentic Mexican food in the United States and basically called bull on the very idea. Even in Mexico it is impossible to put that label on things, and really, why does it matter?
I can’t follow a recipe to save my life which is why I don’t bake. When I read a recipe I see a starting point and flavor guidelines. And then I have to change it up a bit. A cooking teacher in Oaxaca was horrified that I made my chicken broth with some epazote – traditionally, that is not to be added until you are making the soup. But I love to smell epazote and I love the smell of broth as it is cooking and so I put them together and created a great base for my Sopa Azteca, rendering it totally inauthentic. But it tasted damn good.
And that’s the crux of it, because really, when you have an Ichi Sushi or Chaya Brasserie or Dosa or Mekong Kitchen making tacos, you have to know there will be nothing “authentic” about them, and frankly I have no interest in creating a taco denomination. But they will be pretty damn good, and like Sara, I think that is what is most important when it comes to pursuing food.
But how does this relate to mezcal, or why should it? With more people traveling to Oaxaca because of mezcal, this inevitably will lead to lots of discussion about what palenque or mezcaleria or mezcal is authentic, and of course the one upsmanship over who has had the most authentic experience or what constitutes authenticity. Whether it be traveling via car, colectivo, foot or burro to visit a palenque – achieving your alcohol grade by distilling to it, mixing heads and tails, maybe adding just a little bit of water get that 1-2% difference – triple distilling – fermenting in wood or hide – making an ensemble – cultivating silvestres — what makes any of these more, or less, authentic?
Soon we’ll see the final rules and regulations from the Consejo (CRM, previously known as COMERCAM) that will define artesanal, traditional and industrial mezcal — but I doubt they will ever define authentic. This is good and important and gives us guidelines, but what truly matters at the end of the day is if a mezcal tastes good.
Oh, and the judges favorite taco of the night? The simple and traditional (and delicious) birria de chivo from Trick Dog. The crowd favorite? The duck curry from Dosa.
We are Susan Coss and Max Garrone. We like mezcal and think you should to. We are committed to telling the story of mezcal within the context of its history and cultural connection. We also think education should be fun and delicious. And we are deeply committed to supporting the craft of production and the people who work tirelessly to bring us mezcal.
We write this blog and conduct mezcal tastings from small monthly to events to our annual Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle event, which is the largest mezcal event in the United States.
Susan Coss is a long time marketing and communications strategist in the world of sustainable food and beverages. She was most recently the Director of Marketing and PR for CUESA, the organization that runs the world famous Ferry Plaza Farmers market in San Francisco. She is also a co-founder and former director of the Eat Real Festival, that drew more than 250,000 people in its first three years. She has spent time in Oaxaca since 2003 and has established food and beverage relationships all over California, Mexico and Washington, DC. She has a degree in Agricultural Economics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Max Garrone has been a journalist and editor who covered events as diverse as presidential elections and the meaning of David Lynch’s movies for publications like Salon.com and SFGate.com. He is currently a content strategist and digital media consultant.
To chat or find the answer to your niggling mezcal question just email us!