Mez­cal in Oax­aca

JUSTIN SHAPIRO TAKES US TO OAX­ACA, MEX­ICO TO TELL US HIS STORY ABOUT MEZ­CAL

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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.

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