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Posts tagged ‘judah kuper’

Is mezcal sustainable?

Left to right, Susan Coss, Raza Zaidi, Judah Kuper, and Ivan Saldaña.

Left to right, Susan Coss, Raza Zaidi, Judah Kuper, and Ivan Saldaña.

The evening before this year’s Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle San Francisco we hosted a panel titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Sustainability” to dig into the raft of questions about sustainability in the mezcal industry. Aside from our debt to Raymond Carver the panel was inspired by the consistent questions from drinkers and bartenders throughout the world about how mezcal can be made in a way that ensures environmental, cultural, and economic sustainability.

The topic comes up in almost every conversation and since we had a team of brand heavyweights in town the moment was ideal for the discussion. Susan Coss moderated the discussion between Judah Kuper from Vago, Raza Zaidi from Wahaka, and Ivan Saldaña from Montelobos. We were also privileged to host many other brand representatives in the audience including Fidencio’s Arik Torren, Erick Rodriguez, William Scanlan, and more. Read more

Retasting Vago

Judah Kuper displays the Vago line at St. Frank.

Judah Kuper displays the Vago line at St. Frank.

Damn, it’s been almost a month since a really nice Vago tasting at St. Frank in San Francisco. I blame the delay on the twinned Komil and mezcal in media outbursts which consumed almost all of our attention recently. Oh and all those tastings we’re organizing in SF, NY, and Chicago

But enough with delays. A group of us was fortunate to taste through Vago’s line with brand co-founder Judah Kuper Thursday, March 24th. Special thanks to Joel from Worthy Bar for organizing the event. Special thanks as well to Kevin & Lauren Bohlin for hosting at St. Frank. For those who haven’t been, St. Frank is an absolutely beautiful cafe in San Francisco. It’s all blond wood and white tile but steps beyond most espresso bars in that it puts a huge emphasis on reducing the obstacles between barista and customer interaction. The espresso machines are under the counter, and everything else is kept out of the way so that it’s easy to see and interact without a big hunk of metal between you. They are also just about to expand with new cafes named Saint Claire in partnership with Not for Sale. Read more

Quick look – Mezcal Vago tasting in Oaxaca

Had the chance to meet up with Judah Kupor yesterday and taste though the whole Vago line at his tasting room/office/bottling facility in San Felipe del Agua. Pretty amazing stuff, especially when you are able to do it side by side and really get a sense of the flavors that are being pulled out by the mezcaleros. Stretched out several hours (important when you are looking at 12-15 mezcals), the conversation rambled over tons of topics including the controversial ones of adding water (distilling to ABV vs playing with colas, puntas and yes, water), sustainability around the agaves, wood, just how many mezcaleros to work with under a brand, fair pay, challenging the mezcaleros to move beyond their flavor comfort  zone and tradition, and well, you get the picture of a wonderful long afternoon. At some point I’ll be able to go through the notes and put those ramblings to paper.

But the mezcal – if you haven’t already had the chance to give it a try, they produce some pretty incredible stuff and are playing around with some new ones as well. Tasting some Espadins side by side – from their very first batch on, it is quite the trajectory of flavor. For anyone who ever says, oh, that is just an Espadin, well shame, because the variety and complexity of this maguey is pretty extreme.

Three Tobalas

Three Tobalas

Also tasting side by side three Tobalas was also pretty interesting and again pointed to how much is determined by terrior, water, and distillation and storing – clay/copper/glass.

It is impossible to name stand outs – Madrecuixe, Tepestate, Mexicano, Sierra Negra (with 10% Espadin) – all compete equally and really just depend on the personal palette of the drinker. Me, I still want to go for the Elote every time because nothing quite puts the flavor memory of Mexico into a bottle quite like that one, and presents equally the vital role both maiz and maguey play in life down here.

I am looking forward to a trek out to Candelaria Yegole next week to see the full operation and of course what further hours of conversation will unveil.

Bien picado

Bien picado is a term you don’t come across that often in the mezcal world but it’s rich in associations. Literally it means  “well eaten” or “nibbled.” It refers to agave plants which, after their quiote is cut off, are attacked by the adult versions of our otherwise tasty gusanos.

This came up recently when I tasted Vago’s Bien Picado with Judah Kuper because the term also refers to a type of mezcal. The Vago post on their very limited run Bien Picado (which is only available in Texas) is well worth reading — it delves into the term and production process in a level of detail that will fascinate any aficionado. The mezcal itself is a unique flavor and a great opportunity to support small production runs like this one. We’d love to see more limited bottles like this and Wahaka’s recent vegan pechugas.

Read more of our entries in the Mezcalistas Encyclopedia of Mezcal and email us questions or ideas for future entries.

Expansion news from Vago, at least a little bit

I noticed this little item about noted San Antonio bartender and mezcal aficionado Houston Eaves moving on from the bar scene to work with Vago outside of Oaxaca so I had to reach out to Vago’s Judah Kuper and get the full story. Is Vago really expanding? Judah told me “funny, we are expanding to 1 employee.”

Apparently Vago has been on the lookout for other mezcals and for someone to help his father-in-law Aquilino García López. It sounds like a nice match, friends and business partners. Some could even cast it as a working vacation: “My friend Houston who is a member of the Tequila Interchange Project and one of the great bartenders of Texas is coming to help for 6 months in Oaxaca. He used to run a hotel in Costa Rica and speaks fluent Spanish, also he has been a huge agave advocate. I’m a bit overwhelmed down here doing everything production wise, so his help is going to be great.” Judah also assured us that “Vago did have an unbelievable first year and we of course would like to keep up the growth as much as possible without compromising our quality. I really think our mezcals will just get better and better.”

Mezcal Vago hits the US

The Vago line up

The Vago line up

I recently had the pleasure of tasting Mezcal Vago’s mezcals which are slowly rolling out across the United States. Vago has a very emotional back story detailed on the site, the precis being that the brand’s main marketer and product lead, Judah Kuper, fell in love with a Mexican woman while surfing his way through Mexico. That led to marriage, a life in Oaxaca, and a romance with her family’s mezcal which he has rechristened Vago or vagabond in English for the vagabond’s path that got him where he currently is.

The longer story about the bottles, what goes into them, and everything else is almost, if not more interesting. Take Judah, he’s a personable guy with deep knowledge about mezcal. He’s well versed in all the industry gossip and he works the production line with his father-in-law and another palenquero so he knows the spirit from the inside out. While tasting we chatted about the ongoing debate over whether mezcal was distilled before the Spaniards got to Mexico and sundry other topics. Once you pull a thread in this business you get much more than a sweater, you get an entire cultural identity.

While Judah is the North American face of the business, he has an office in Oaxaca and is intimately involved in the entire production process. He works closely with Vago’s two palenqueros, Judah’s father-in-law Aquilino García López, and the epically named Salomón Rey Rodriguez. Per Judah 90% of the agave is estate grown with the remainder sourced through neighboring plots so that they maintain the same terroir.

Vago blends more than usual to add structure to their silvestres and they have a really intriguing field blend which is highly traditional but rarely seen in the United States. Judah says that all their “mixed agave mezcals are put together raw, roasted mashed and fermented together.”  Their line is broad, right now it includes:

  • Espadin: 100%  from Candelaria Yegolé.
  • Elote: A 100% Espadin base that soaks for 4 days in a toasted maiz mash and then distilled a third time. From Candelaria Yegolé.
  • Olla de Barro Ensemble: A field blend composed of Casera, Coyote, Espadin, Arroqueno, and Mexicano. From Sola de Vega.
  • Cuixe 90%/Espadin 10%. The Espadin was added to bring out the Cuixe’s full flavor. From Candelaria Yegolé.
  • Mexicano 93/Espadin 7. Another blend that uses Espadin to bring out the majority agave’s flavor. From Candelaria Yegolé.
  • Olla de Barro Tobala: This one is made from 17-year-old agaves. The fruit’s age comes across as incredibly complex. From Sola de Vega.

The diverse types of Vago mezcals reflects a high level of attention to the production process with an emphasis on environmental and cultural sustainability. Vago’s labels are plain text on a rough shod paper because they’re following a long tradition most recently highlighted by Mezcaloteca in detailing the entire production biography of the mezcal. Judah says “Trying to give the consumer the information they need to make an informed choice about a mezcal. ”

The paper itself is the fruit of the agave mash used for Vago’s mezcals. Paper artist Eric Ramirez from San Augustín Etla boils the left over agave mash from the still, grinds it, and dries it into a sheets on a screen. They then screen print the labels by hand. Getting deeper into the production process Aquilino García López uses some wood but mostly dried cactus to fuel his still, something that palenqueros have done for time immemorial but it’s a technique that might provide some respite from the shortages and high prices for firewood in Oaxaca, not to mention the looming environmental questions.

But one of the most interesting elements of Vago’s story is that most of their agaves are cultivated. Despite using an incredible variety of agaves that most other brands harvest wild Vago has been working with farmers to cultivate almost all the agaves used in their mezcal. As of this latest bottling the Cuixe is the only true silvestre. Judah told me that they plan to start cultivating the Cuixe in 2014 but that they don’t expect their first crop until 2017 so they’ll continue to use Cuixe silvestres at least until then. Otherwise the rest of their agaves are cultivated. As Judah told me “we have learned from Jalisco.”

Needless to say, this could be a strong model that preserves genetic diversity by keeping agaves wild and providing something of a genetic reservoir while ensuring that cultivated agaves don’t fall prey to the lure of monoculture. Plus it provides a great agricultural income to surrounding farmers and opens the door to a wider consumption of diverse mezcals. Since every story has two sides this could also lead to production on a more massive industrial scale but we’ll leave that discussion for another day. To top it off Vago is doing its part to sustain more of the cultural vibe around mezcal by being the US importer for Gran Mitla Sal de Gusano which we profiled last month.

If you’re looking to taste Vago Judah’s business partner Dylan Sloan will be conducting a tasting at La Urbana’s Mezcal Collective in San Francisco on January 21st. You can buy tickets through EventBrite.

Where can you find it?

Currently Mezcal Vago is available in Colorado, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, and California. Vago expects to release in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oregon, and Idaho in the new year.

In Northern California look for Vago at

The Jug Shop
La Urbana 
Ledgers
Ludwig’s Fine Wine
Padrecito
Prizefighter
In LA
Gracias Madre
Las Perlas
Scopa Italian Roots
(Photo courtesy of Vago Mezcal.)

Gran Mitla brings artisanal sal de gusano to the market

LOGO MITLA

While tasting Mezcal Vago with Judah Kuper recently he mentioned that he’s importing Gran Mitla, a specialty sal de gusano from Mitla, southeast of Oaxaca. Mitla is most well known as an amazing Zapotec archeological site but it’s also smack dab in the middle of roads leading into the hills where some amazing mezcal is made.

Gran Mitla is impressive for so many reasons, first off it’s just great to find sal de gusano available in the US because it’s such an important component of drinking mezcal. In the past it’s been so elusive that our only source was toting bags back from Oaxaca or goading friends into doing it for us. But Gran Mitla offers much more because it’s a distinct interpretation of the traditional sal de gusano. Most interpretations in Oaxaca are red and finely ground while Gran Mitla’s version uses a very dark red/brown pepper mixed with large crystals of salt and gusano which crunch in your mouth while imparting a truly distinct flavor. Dare I say it but craft sal de gusano has made the scene.

Recently I chatted with Grant Mitla’s creator Ricardo Acosta over email about what goes into Gran Mitla. First, it really is what we in North America define as a craft or artisanal product, in Mexico it’s a traditional product. They only use three ingredients, all hand harvested: Organic sea salt from Colima, red agave worms, and the Costeño Pepper which is endemic to Oaxaca.

Ricardo was inspired by a long held family recipe that his grandmother kept alive and passed onto his generation. The production process is pretty impressive, per Ricardo, the “agave worm is hand selected by taking the agave plant out of the earth and cleaning its roots, which are full of these worms.” They harvest exclusively from Espadin and Ricardo wanted to be clear that the entire process is sustainable. “It is important that after cleaning the plant roots, the agave is taken back to its place without any harm, so it keeps growing normally.” They also only harvest fully adult worms which have to be at least one year old. The age matters in developing a full flavor.

Adult agave harvested for Gran Mitla sal de gusano. Courtesy of Gran Mitla

Adult agave harvested for Gran Mitla sal de gusano. Courtesy of Gran Mitla

Then they take the adult worms and leave them to die and dry in the sun, then they’re toasted, ground up with the dried peppers, and ultimately mixed with the salt. Per Ricardo “The result is the best agave worm salt in Mexico and the world.”

I’ve found it locally at La Urbana in San Francisco but you can order it in the United States through Mezcal Vago’s web site or in Mexico through Gran Mitla’s web site and the big Mexican liquor store La Europea. As Ricardo was quick to remind me Gran Mitla and sal de gusano in general has far more uses than as an accompaniment to mezcal. It’s a fantastic spice that works well with all sorts of foods so try dusting your next mixed seafood grill with some or use it on the table like salt to give your dishes a salty umami charge.

(Photo courtesy of Ricardo Acosta)