Mezcal in Oaxaca
JUSTIN SHAPIRO TAKES US TO OAXACA, MEXICO TO TELL US HIS STORY ABOUT MEZCAL
Ron Cooper, Founder of Del Maguey, said it best, ‘you don’t find mezcal, mezcal finds you. And once it does, you’ll never be the same”. If I had only known how right he was…
In 2008 another man’s vision became my life...and even more importantly, my love. It was then that my business partner and I chose to invest in a bartender, Philip Ward, and in a project that would grow to become our world-renowned bar, Mayahuel. In fact, the story actually began way before that in 1995, thanks to a different man, Ron Cooper. Though the origin and date of mezcal’s birth can be debated; who is to thank for introducing it commercially to the States can not. The birth of Del Maguey, Ron Cooper’s passion project, signaled one of the most important moments in my life, and I didn’t even know it.
Mayahuel opened her doors on April 15, 2009 and by 2010, our love for all things agave, but especially mescal, was beginning to make waves. Looking at my new business partner one day, I politely asked him to make me a good drink… Ward’s response, “develop good taste, then I’ll make you a good drink”. See up to this point, I had yet to become a fan of agave distillates and my palate had not yet found the right introduction to mezcal. After what seemed like an eternity, one day Ward presented me with a beautiful purple concotion, informing me it would be known as the Black Friar Cobbler (mezcal, muddled blackberries, sloe gin, lemon juice & a touch of cane sugar). My palate sat upright, my brain and taste buds where overwhelmed with delight and I thought I had just found heaven…I wasn’t even close.
The Black Friar took me by the hand and introduced me to a most wonderfully colorful and complex world; one rooted in family and tradition, generational knowledge, culture and purity…mezcal. The more mezcal I tasted, the more enamored I became. What was this amazing spirit that had helped transform my life? I had to know more, I yearned to bathe in its history, I needed to immerse myself in its birthplace, and with an invitation from Ward himself, I was off to my first trip to Oaxaca, Mexico…the home of mezcal.
Though I had traveled to tourist destinations in Mexico several times, I had yet to experience traditional Mexico and all her offerings. Flying into Mexico City, I couldn’t even imagine the journey that awaited me and could never have envisioned the lasting change it would impart upon me.
Arriving in Oaxaca is like being transported back in time. The colors, the sounds, the culture, all wash over you and seem to cleanse you of every day worry. The local market, the Zapotec women weaving away, the embrace of local tradition all combine to inform your soul you have arrived in a special place. “So this is the birth place of mezcal” I thought to myself, and in actuality, I felt it before I ever had the chance to see it.
Thanks to Ward and our work at Mayahuel, we were blessed to be able visit several palenques, or small-batch mezcal production house, working with both Del Maguey (founded by Ron Cooper) and Mezcal Vago (founded by Judah Kuper)…
two of the most incredible mezcal brands, begun by men who have been instrumental in bringing traditional mezcal to America, and who comtinue to lead the fight to keep mezcal traditional and from becoming over commercialized and mass produced.
Over the next several weeks, my travels would take me to Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan, Santa Maria Zoquitlan, Villa Sola de Vega, Santa Catarina Minas and San Baltazar Chichicapam; as well as other small villages in and around Oaxaca.
I had never experienced such openness and honesty from a village, a people, a culture, as I did visiting these local producers. On our trips to palenques far off the beaten path, Judah would often pull over at some random hut informing us we would be tasting mezcal that had not yet been approved for import to America, it was like we were tasting the forbidden fruit. When visiting a Del Maguey bottling plant in Santa Maria del Tule to learn that every single bottle is prepared and packaged by hand, it hit me, this is truly the labor of love.
With each taste of a new varietal of mezcal, with each story drenched in family tradition, with each bead of sweat I saw drip from a mezcalero while harvesting agave in a field that over 120 degrees (F), my heart beat louder and louder for those I was visiting and the passion with which they were sharing their family’s life work.
My palate blossomed as it experienced flavors and flavor profiles it had yet to be introduced to. The way the floral components intimitly danced with the smokiness, the way the river rocks from the spring water used in distillation could be tasted after every sip by smaking my lips together, the smell of the cooked agave experienced by dipping a finger into the mezcal and rubbing a small dab onto my palms then inhaling deeply, it all helped transform my understanding of what was actually available to me in life…and all I had to do was be open to finding it.
To try and describe my first trip to Oaxaca in such brevity is impossible. Truth be told, it would take a novel to begin to detail the love in my heart I have for the birthplace of mezcal.