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Denver, a test case for mezcal (and events within an event)

The first thing you notice about Denver, beyond the the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains on one side and the great eastern plain on the other is how much the town is booming. The amount of construction projects is not to be believed, which makes sense given the population there has grown 15.5% since 2010.

The second thing you notice is tacos. Denver loves its tacos. I mean, what city has not one but two taco festivals within days of one another? First up was Top Taco Denver, a walk around taco tasting and cocktail extravaganza complete with live music and lots of corn hole. Great food, but a study in what can go wrong when trying to fulfill liquor sponsor product placements – some products just should never be combined in a cocktail — grapefruit, aperol, bitters and tequila for one… Delicious tacos and great vibe more than made up for the lackluster cocktails we tried.

Next up was the Denver Taco Festival, where we would be presenting Mexico in a Bottle for the first time. A little bit of a back step here and how we got here. Denver was on our emerging markets radar of where might be a good place to do a Mexico in a Bottle. We were lucky enough to be introduced to Brian Rossi, owner of Adelitas and Palenque, and THE guy to know if you want to talk and drink mezcal in Denver. Next thing we knew, he introduced us to the Denver Taco Festival organizers to revamp their tequila expo pavilion into a Mexico in a Bottle experience. This was a daunting task, and really, an experiment for us to produce an event within an event in a totally new location.

As we have seen music and food festivals put a focus on quality rather than just volume with regards to food, beer and wine, it is reasonable, and long overdue to shift that to spirits as well, and in this case, specifically the world of agave. Our primary goal with Mexico in a Bottle is to educate people not only about mezcal, but to present it within a cultural context. The Taco Festival certainly had the elements we look for – art, food, music (so much cumbia and banda!), lucha libre and an incredible Chihuahua race. And because Denver is a drinking town, and it clearly loves its tequila and it’s learning to love mezcal as well, thanks to Brian and his team. For this event we put together a collection of quality tequila and mezcal, changed up the format of how the event was run in previous years, lowered the number of tickets available and then waited to see what would happen.

We (but really it was all Brian Rossi and his team) also put together a cocktail demo area, showcasing both tequila (thank you Suerte!) and mezcal (thank you Del Maguey!) in truly delicious forms, focusing on the flavor profiles and what each spirit brought to the cocktail.

It was a madhouse, especially on Saturday when tickets were accidentally oversold, and it became increasingly difficult to talk to people about what they were drinking. That’s not to say it wasn’t fun— just look at these pictures— it was just a huge departure from what we usually do. Thankfully Sunday was smaller and people had lots of questions and wanted to hear more about what they were drinking. I helped launch and then directed the Eat Real Festival that was all about educating people about food issues in a fun and delicious event that included hands on programming making butter and sauerkraut, theatrical demonstrations of teams of butchers breaking down half steers to show people where their cuts of meat come from, jam, cheese and pickling demos and more. Because of that experience I know changing the way people approach alcohol, and particularly craft alcohol, can be done – it just is challenging and this was a huge learning experience for us all and I am looking forward to figuring out how we can change these kinds of experiences to make it work for everyone involved.

What was truly interesting was to have this event in the midst of the big conversation happening in the mezcal industry about the demand for volume and what that impact means. We not only had to educate the festival organizers (who are great btw) about the issue of volume and pricing structure in the world of craft agave, how but we also had to educate attendees, a lot of whom just wanted some tequila shots and who weren’t quite sure what to make of the changes this year. It was a lot to take on and I cannot begin to thank all those brands that took a chance with us on this event.

Two things to close with. After we finished on Sunday, having had about 1200 people come through the gates over the two days, I decompressed with Issel Campos Arceo from Mezcales de Leyenda. We were sipping on some truly spectacular mezcal that Brian had brought back from his recent trip to Oaxaca, talking about whether or not we could make this festival model work for us. A young couple, who had been there, came over to thank Issel again for telling them so much about mezcal, a spirit that was new to them. They then went on about how much they learned and how cool it was that mezcal seemed to represent everything about Mexico. Issel and I almost cried hearing that the event had done that for them.

Then about 15 minutes later, as everyone had packed out and I was picking up the last of things, a little brown rabbit came hopping into the tent, clearly escaping the crazy sounds and crowd around us. It stopped under one of the tables in the middle of the tent and just sat there quietly, clearly relieved at having found refuge, ironically and most deliciously in the Mexico in a Bottle tent.

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