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Photo by Joanna B. Pinneo

Certain exquisite things only come from special places – you can only get Olathe sweet corn from Olathe, Colorado. True champagne only comes from grapes grown in the Champagne region in France. And the finest mezcal only comes from the maguey (agave) plants in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico.

It was in these mountains that Judah Kuper, a snowboarder from Telluride on a Mexican surf odyssey, discovered that making fine mezcal is as much about the artistry of the thousand-year-old traditional process as it is about the maguey plants. But to be indoctrinated into this process, you have to be a part of the family farms that distill these concoctions.

So how did this gringo enter into the family? Just as it is with the making of mezcal, with the harvesting of the plant, the roasting of the agave piña, the natural fermentation of the mash and the protracted distillation, it was a slow process. It all started when Kuper was running a bar in Mexico to finance his surf trip. There, he developed an affinity and a refined palate for mezcal. He also developed an ear infection from surfing, and the nurse who treated him was a beautiful woman named Valentina. To make a long story short, boy met girl, boy fell in love, and boy was forced to ask girl’s tough, gun-owning mezcalero father for her hand in marriage.

Luckily, he was offered a shot of mezcal when he first sat down, rather than the other kind of shot he half expected. He survived, and got the girl. Not only that, he discovered that this moonshine mezcal was as dazzling and unique as his romance, and as passionately contrived. Valentina’s family had been making mezcal for more generations than they could remember, with the same traditional methods. They pull down the ripe maguey plants from the hills by burro, cut and clean the piña (the “nut” at the center of the plant) by hand, roast it for days in an earthen, in-ground oven, mash the piña with a tahona (cement wheel) pulled by mule, ferment it in pine vats with the wild, naturally occurring spores on their land, and carefully distill it in copper pots. Valentina’s new gringo husband had fallen in love all over again.

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Photo by Joanna B. Pinneo

Kuper was determined to share his discovery with his friends in Colorado, so he began an obsessive quest to find the most exceptional batches to bottle and ship back home. The backwoods palenques needed to be certified, a “Mezcal Vago” brand developed, and all the exporting logistics worked out; a job that was suited to the new English-speaking member of the family. He wanted to let others in on the secret, artisanal way that high-end mezcal is created. “What makes well-made mezcal different is the touch of the maestro … how he cooks his agave – how hot, how many days, the type of wood – how much heat or flame he uses when distilling, when he makes his cuts in the distillation process, and how he achieves his final grade,” says Kuper.

Mezcaleros have perfected their trade over time, selecting and harvesting from the 230 varieties of maguey plants in Oaxaca that result in distinct yet subtle aromas and tastes. “The different varietals have radically different flavors,” says Kuper. “Mezcal is created in a traditional manner on farms, not in labs, yet somehow is such an elegant spirit. The variety of flavors available between regions, maestros and agave types is unmatched aside from maybe wine and scotch.”

 

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Most people take their first – and often their last – sip of mezcal from one of those cheap bottles with the signature worm at the bottom that somebody brought back as a souvenir from Tijuana. Mezcal long had a reputation in the US as a bastardized version of tequila, but tequila is actually just one type of mezcal, made only from the blue agave. Cheap mezcal tastes a bit like kerosene; it is mass-produced more quickly by separating the agave sugars from the mash and adding chemicals like urea and ammonium sulfate to speed the fermentation. But like fast food and slow homecooking might both be called “food,” the two are nothing alike. Cheap mezcal and fine mezcal are also utterly different. And today, well-made mezcal is making its mark on the high-end liquor industry as the newest fad, and one of the oldest spirits.

In ancient times, Aztecs revered the agave plant and believed the fermented mash (called pulque then, or mosto today) had medicinal and spiritual value, exorcising evil spirits from the body. Most historians believe that native Mexicans were only able to ferment the mescal, and that they learned to distill it from Spanish conquistadors. But archaeologists are uncovering ruins in Colima and Oaxaca that far precede the Spanish invasion, and the stills they unearthed are identical to those employed today by one of Kuper’s producers, who uses clay pots, an adobe oven, bamboo, and banana leaves, all of which were available in the pre-Columbian era. “The jury is still out,” says Kuper, “but it’s an interesting investigation. With the recent discoveries pointing in the direction of mezcal being distilled for potentially thousands of years, it is – in my opinion – the most important distillate in the Americas.”

 

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Photo by Joanna B. Pinneo

Keeping these antiquated distilleries operating is not just important because of the cultural significance, it is also meaningful for the families and their heritage. Branding and exporting the spirit is helping to keep the mezcal traditions alive, and sparking interest among the younger generations. The hope of making money could lure Kuper’s brother-in-law back from his work illegally picking fruit in the US, and bring him home to learn his father’s craft. His father has already earned twice what he made last year, just since the launch of Mezcal Vago.

When asked what Mezcal Vago has done for him, Kuper’s father-in-law shrugs his shoulders and says he was able to generate some income and buy some things for his family. But he seems oblivious to the buzz his mezcal is creating in Mexico and the US, and it hasn’t changed his simple way of life on the palenque. Kuper says that is the way it is for all the great mezcaleros. “The best mezcal comes from the most humble producers. They just take life as it comes.”