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Underground Spirits and Beer

MEZCAL: Liquid Art

Wyatt Peabody • 5/23/10        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

How one man’s beautiful obsession sparked a rebirth of the Americas’ oldest spirit.

You find yourself tearing down a seemingly endless dirt road—a rooster tail of dust marking a chaotic path as your body jolts athwart the backseat. The oscillating radio signal renders faint traces of a narco-ballad on the blown out speakers of Ron Cooper’s Jeep, occupying the quiet spaces in between his diatribes. At this point, you’re sure to be living out one of the lost scenes from Apocalypse Now; then the landscape pulls you back in: a twisting labyrinth of trails, cosseted by steep mountains, which flaunt a surreal tapestry of maguey plants. Your destination is a Zapotec village nestled along the Hormiga Colorada River, 8,000 feet high in the Oaxacan Sierra. Paciano Cruz Nolasco is the elder of the village made famous by its eponymous Mezcal, San Luis del Rio; and he is responsible for some of the purest distillates on earth.

Hunched over the wheel is Cooper—the architect of Mezcal’s resurrection—who has seemingly single-handedly revitalized the misunderstood Mexican spirit. As he speaks, his eyes gauge your awareness through the rearview mirror with little regard for the 500 foot drop a car’s width to his right. His cadence is distinctive: beatnik-meets-paladin. While surmising if and how you could hike your way out, you realize that you’re in the hands of a crusader, and his sense of danger is different than yours. They might someday write songs about Cooper, chronicling his Sisyphean journey, battling corrupt government regulators, multinational thugs and cut-throat rivals. But until now, it’s been a long and lonesome road.

Cooper sleeps little, walks fast and is driven by a singular intensity that is rarely found among civilized peoples. It is the drive, almost primordial, that is most intriguing about Cooper—having taken root long before his tangles with Mezcal. When he is at his best, his purest, he wears the exuberance of a 15-year-old driving around his hometown of Ojai in a 1951 Ford pickup. There, he was surrounded by the likes of Krishnamurti, Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, cowboys, Mexican farmers and fellow expatriated New Yorkers. That was before the dragons were born—those which would earn him his reputation as a “radical” at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, which he attended from 1963-65 before leaving for ‘political reasons.’ During his time at Chouinard, contemporaries and what would become lifelong collaborations were shaped—Ken Price, Larry Bell, Terry Allen and Ed Ruscha, among them. When pressed for details about his premature departure, he’ll simply say, “I didn’t like the direction the school was heading.” Integrity is everything to Cooper.

Cooper’s odyssey from artist to Mezcal producer all started with a simple question on a hot summer night in Los Angeles, circa 1970. “Do you think the Pan-American Highway really exists?” It was Riko Mizuno’s gallery on La Cienega, after a group-show opening, including Cooper, one of the catalysts of the contemporary L.A. art scene. Hopped up on Herradura and hubris, Cooper—along with Jim Ganzer and Robbie Dick—hastily piled surfboards atop a VW van and headed south. Four months later, they hit Panama. En route, the fabled highway led them a few hundred yards from the Zapotec village that Cooper—and his company, Del Maguey Mezcal—now call home, four decades later: Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca. Home, that is, when he’s not in Taos with his family, or plane-hopping with contraband as the consummate nomadic messenger is often wont to do.

The Del Maguey project took hold of Cooper in 1990, when he started following rumors down dirt roads, in search of legendary Mezcal. He inadvertently discovered Mezcal through his art—his work has been featured at the Whitney, Guggenheim, LACMA and resides in significant international collections—when he spent three months living and making art in the state of Oaxaca. Among his works was the production of a sculptural limited edition of 50 hand-blown blue glass bottles with the profile of the supreme Aztec god of intoxication, Ometotchtli, to be filled with rare Mezcal, the likes of which few foreigners had ever tasted. When Cooper attempted to cross the border with three months worth of art and a five-gallon jug of sacred wedding Mezcal—gifted by Zapotec farmers after an eight-day celebration—the Texas border patrol forced him to dump out his prized distillate. He obliged, tearfully, and vowed that nobody would ever stop him from bringing Mezcal into the United States again. “I decided right then and there that I would have to go into the liquor business. There was nothing like this Mezcal in the U.S.—nothing even close,” Cooper recalls. Since then, he has dedicated himself almost entirely to this project.

Mezcal—the mother of Tequila—one of Mexico’s national treasures, had long been forsaken for her corrupted daughter. Any time an agave-based distillate is made, it is called Mezcal; thus, all Tequilas are Mezcal. Tequila was once called Vino de Mezcal de la Region de Tequila. Think Cognac and Brandy. For those who are late to this whole conversation about Mezcal: the tired, clichéd notion of gusanos (worms) has no place in a serious conversation about Mezcal. It would be equally irrational to mention cheap Brandy and fine Cognac in the same breath. Since the 1950s, the entire category of “Mezcal” had been high-jacked by marketers from Mexico City, who used lurid gimmicks to sell inferior spirits. The only notion of Mezcal in the United States was represented by false, adulterated products; which was largely the case—by volume—with Tequila, as well, not too long ago.

Of late, there has been a sudden explosion of Mezcal in the press—which is being guardedly whispered as the next spirits category. Bar chefs all over the world—from New York to Los Angeles, London to Barcelona—are enthralled by Mezcal, which has fast become the very inspiration for avant-garde watering holes from coast to coast. And, the reverberations have made their way down to the back roads of Oaxaca, where behemoth factories are sprouting-up like golf courses in a desert, readying for the onslaught.

The least likely person to call this a sudden transformation would have to be Cooper—the man who conceived of this metamorphosis, over two decades ago, which he ultimately coined single village Mezcal. In essence, this methodology gives palenqueros (Mezcal producers) the freedom to produce Mezcal using age-old practices that the indigenous people of Oaxaca have been employing for more than four centuries. The result is a distinct character and purity from village to village. The true art of distillation is in no place more evident than in the palenques of Oaxaca, where—thanks to Cooper—endangered culture is being preserved, pre-organic practices are being protected and fair trade micro-economies are being created—one village at a time.

With minimal resources, the indigenous Zapotec people are up against multinational might and multimillion-dollar facilities, complete with laboratories and plush tasting rooms, and they’re still producing the most important distillates on earth. Unlike the nearest competition, these unblended spirits are made by individual family producers in tiny remote villages and varying micro-climates; they employ strictly natural, rustic methods, as they’ve been using for over 400 years (or even longer, according to some scholars). And, like their ancestors, many producers still make offerings to ancient deities asking for permission and blessings, prior to harvesting their revered maguey, which they regard as a spiritual entity.

While these distillates have always been organic, they are also OCIA approved, making Del Maguey the first and only Mezcal in the world with organic certification. There are no chemicals, colorings or additives of any kind used in any stage of the production of Del Maguey Mezcal. There are only two ingredients: water and the heart of the maguey (agave), which is roasted over hot stones, covered with earth and eventually mashed in horse-drawn stone mills—or by men with mallets, depending on the village. After a completely natural fermentation in wooden vats, the liquid is then distilled in wood-fired clay or copper stills, preserving 16th century methods and, as Cooper says, “Leaving room for the will of God and maguey in the bottle.”

Steven Olson—world renowned wine & spirits expert—has exalted the virtues of Cooper’s Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal for more than a decade, calling it the “most complex, versatile and rarified distillate on earth.” José Andrés—internationally celebrated gastronomic innovator—claims that Cooper’s creation is “the best thing a man can put in his mouth.” But for Cooper, it transcends libations; it’s really about the preservation of culture. Today, he carries the burden of protecting an indigenous people and their centuries-old traditions from the threats of a savage world. In an industry expertly manipulated by multinational conglomerates and robber barons, Cooper inadvertently discovered a frail artery which—through rigid dedication—has evolved into one of the most important phenomena in the global world of wine and spirits.

Still the consummate activist, Cooper has been employing unconventional methodologies since the inception of Del Maguey, two decades ago—among them fair-trade, sustainable farming and micro-finance. Cooper was driving the bandwagon—he was pre-green, pre-organic, pre-fair-trade—for him, it’s a consciousness. And, the social impact of Del Maguey is hard to ignore. Cooper has had an inexorable effect on numerous indigenous families, paying fair-trade premiums over and above local industry standards and encouraging ecologically beneficial agricultural educational programs to achieve sustainable, organic production. Among the people who are directly impacted by the efforts of Del Maguey in the region: two entire villages of 150 women who weave traditional palm fiber bottle covers; five palenqueros, their families and their villages; a family of ceramicists who make Del Maguey’s signature sipping cups, and employees of the bottling facility. Each bottle is hand-dipped in organic bees’ wax, which is recycled from the local church’s offering candles, bringing yet another spiritual layer to the bottling.

The sacred nature of this project has always been indispensable for Cooper—partially resulting from unbending ethos and residual principles from a different era. “When it was just me, Pancho and the Indians, we were living in paradise—surrounded by the most gracious, beautiful people on earth,” Cooper recalls nostalgically. Pancho Martinez—the oldest of four brothers—who has been Cooper’s right-hand for nearly two decades, is a master Zapotec weaver and the stubborn keeper of the customs for his bloodline. Incidentally, his hobby is training burros. It all changed in February 2005, with the coming of the NORMA—federal production regulations; think FDA for spirits—which Cooper welcomed optimistically in his quest to eliminate adulterated Mezcal from the marketplace. Thus far, however, it appears to be about tax revenues for the federal government. “You can’t have a verifier looking over your shoulder all the time when you’re making art or Mezcal—it spoils that heavenly transcendence that you feel when you’re right on,” insists Cooper.

Del Maguey has served as a vehicle to expand the consciousness surrounding the native cultures of Oaxaca and Mezcal as a spirits category. Cooper has taken ambassador palenqueros to the United States, to be celebrated as true artisans; and he has been invited to participate in the Venice Biennale, to broaden the scope further still. As of today, hundreds of visitors—including some of the most influential global spirits experts—have visited the palenques of Del Maguey. It has become a right-of-passage, of sorts among international libation cognoscenti. And, it is within this group where Cooper has found a sense of community, camaraderie and vitality that he hasn’t experienced since the art scene of L.A. and New York in the 1960s. But, as Cooper asserts, “They better enjoy that sense of communality now because the zeitgeist won’t last long with commercialism chipping away at its soul.”

As Actor Dennis Hopper, Cooper’s friend of more than four decades, explained “Ron’s art was always forward thinking. He created work using minimal materials before others even thought about doing it.” The same sentiment could obviously be applied to his most recent project, Mezcal—both in terms of Cooper’s vision and the artisan’s minimal materials. Recently, Cooper participated in a group show which was curated by Hopper entitled, Hopper at the Harwood: L.A. to Taos 40 Years of Friendship. Hosted at the Harwood Museum in Taos, the show featured the work of Cooper, Ken Price (incidentally, the creator of Del Maguey’s labels), Larry Bell, Ron Davis and Robert Dean Stockwell, who all made the pilgrimage from Los Angeles to Taos beginning in the 1960s. The show generated substantial interest among artists, critics, collectors and gallerists.

If you happen to find yourself drinking Mezcal while perusing his art portfolio—at three in the morning, after visiting palenqueros all day—and, if you unwittingly pose the question, “when are you going to start making art again?” Cooper might just look at you—panic and rage in his eyes—and say, “What the [heck] do you think this is, man?” At that moment, you will realize that this is the artist’s most significant work, to date. Not his trailblazing contributions to the Light and Space art movement of the 1960s—when Cooper was among the first to work with resin and light installations. It’s right here and now—and it’s sustaining a living art form and a people. And, while his medium might have shifted, as it always has, Cooper firmly contends that Del Maguey is “his greatest work to date.”

To see a similar article, as it was published in Los Angeles Times Magazine, go to: http://www.latimesmagazine.com/2009/11/mezcal.html

Looking Back:

The Underground Wine Journal was the first major publication to write about Del Maguey Mezcal—in 1999, in Volume XVIII, #2. More than a decade later—and particularly over the past few years—Mezcal has truly come into its own, assuming its place as the darling of barmen all over the world—from New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles to London and Paris.

These ultra-premium, handcrafted, Mezcals from Del Maguey, made in remote villages are, without a doubt, some of the very best produced. Each Mezcal, named for the village in which it was produced, is unblended and unique to that region. These premium, single village Mezcals take on characteristics of their region, preserving its integrity, and that of the agave from this region, as well. Like premium Tequilas, which must be made from 100% agave, Del Maguey too is made from pure ingredients. The only difference is that while true Tequila must be made from 100% blue agave, Mezcal can be made from many different kinds of maguey. Del Maguey prefers to use the most flavorful of these, espadin maguey.

True Mezcal generally comes from the state of Oaxaca, though it can be found from Michoacan all the way up to the Sonoran desert. It is made from the agave plant, known as mezcal or maguey in Mexico, a member of the lily family, which is akin to the century plant. Fermented drinks, most notably Pulque, were concocted from maguey by the Aztecs, as early as the third century. However, it was not until the Spaniards brought the art of distillation that Mezcal was born. There are more than 400 kinds of maguey, one of which is tequila. Hence, Tequila is Maguey, but Maguey is not Tequila, simply because true Tequila is a particular kind of Maguey that is made from 100% blue agave.

In order to produce such premium Mezcal, Del Maguey must take certain measures. The maguey plant can take up to 10 years to mature, at which point the entire plant is harvested. After the spiny leaves are removed, its starchy core is revealed. Resembling a pineapple, hence the name piña, this plant can weigh up to 100 pounds. The piñas are then placed in rock-lined pits (palenques) and covered with hot rocks. The piñas bake for two to three days, during which time the starches are converted into sugar, delivering flavors of earth, smoke and caramel to the already present agave essence. After cooking, the piñas are crushed to a pulp by the use of a tahona (horse-drawn millstone). The pulp is transfered to wooden vats and mixed with water to make the aguamiel. This mixture ferments on natural yeast for 8 to 15 days. It is then placed into 25-gallon stills of copper or clay, which are heated over a wood fire and double distilled to create a rich, smoky, earthy liquor.

Del Maguey began in 1990 when president and founder, Ron Cooper discovered Mezcal through his art. He spent three months living and making art in the state of Oaxaca, working on several projects, including the production of a sculptural limited edition of 50 hand-blown blue glass bottles with the profile of the supreme Aztec god of intoxication, Ometotchtli. As Ometotchtli was the leader of 400 gods of Pulque, Cooper intended to fill the bottles with the best Mezcal. During the three-month period, Cooper traveled around the countryside, following rumors of great pure Mezcals down dirt roads in remote villages where he “discovered an incredible elixir!”

When it was time to return to the U.S., he loaded his pickup with works of art and bottles of different Mezcal samples, including a five-gallon jug of a special Zapotec wedding Mezcal. Upon reaching the border, the U.S. customs officials gave him two choices. He could return to Mexico and drink his collection or pour out all but one liter (all that an individual citizen is allowed to bring into the U.S.). According to Cooper, he “decided then and there to make this fine liquid available to me and my friends!”

That was the beginning of Del Maguey, the producer, exporter and importer of fine, rare, Single Village Mezcal from Oaxaca, Mexico. Cooper founded the company in 1995, and manages it from its headquarters in Taos, New Mexico.

Each Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal is identified by its own unique, hand-woven palm fiber basket, with designs of ancient Zapotec or Mixtec origin. The labels, which are drawings by noted artist Ken Price, bear the name of the village where the Mezcal is produced.

Del Maguey Single Village Mezcals are fine, pure, rare, complex, distinctive and delicious. They are ultra-premium spirits designed for connoisseurs. Be adventuresome and give them a try but, as Ron Cooper advises, “Sip it. Don’t shoot it.” (In order to find where to buy these intriguing spirits, telephone or fax 505/758-1211 or visit the web site, www.mezcal.com.)

The Chichicapa (19) (100% agave espadin, bottle #2,915 of 3,200 produced in 1996, 95.6 proof) has straw and honied, dried fruit aromas with lemon/lime, pineapple, mint, apple, pear, spice and herbs. The similar flavors are complex, elegant and refined, with tremendous balance and finesse ending in a long finish, etched with smoke, citrus and mint. $60.

Tobala Wild Mountain Mezcal (19) (100% Tobala, a variety of agave, bottle #200 of 375 produced in 1997, 94.4 proof) displays soft, supple aromas of red currant, yellow plum, honied apricot, melon, peach and flowers. The flavors, resembling the nose, have added notes of lychee, mild soil, camphor, mineral and spice. It is well-balanced with good texture and depth. The lingering finish is rounded and lively, with a smoke tinge. $125

The San Luis del Rio (18½) (100% agave espadine, bottle #3,182 of 3,200 produced in 1996, 96.6 proof) has a bright, balanced nose of cherry, red plum, red currant, mineral, clay, smoke, slate and mild, herbal and camphor scents. Intense smoke, mineral, slate, soil, spiceand mineral flavors are nuanced with tangy, smoky citrus and plum in the lingering, clean, balanced, warm finish. It is spicy, rich and creamy. $60

The Minero (18) (100% agave espadin, bottle #398 of 3,200 produced in 1997, 98.2 proof) shows peach, yellow plum, apricot and tropical fruit on the nose, hinting of straw, quince, apple and mineral. Flashy, slightly herbal notes offer rustic, earthy flavors with mineral, slate, camphor, mixed citrus, spice, chile and white pepper. It is somewhat hot on the finish and displays plenty of depth and complexity. $60

The Santo Domingo Albarradas (17½) (100% agave espadin, bottle #564 of 3,200 produced in 1997, 98.4 proof) is lively, sweet and subtle, with tropical fruit, apricot, passion fruit, coconut, vanilla, lychee, melon and floral aromas. It is more earthy, raw and rustic in style with prominent soil, mineral, slate, herbal, camphor flavors that offer slightly less fruit character. It is balanced, with depth and complexity and the finish is long, hinting of spice and smoke. $60

Post a Comment

10 comments for “MEZCAL: Liquid Art”

  • […] Be sure to check out Wyatt Peabody’s superb, in-depth profile of Ron Cooper at MEZCAL: Liquid Art. […]

  • steven Olson says:

    you are one in a million mr peabody
    i can think of very few that could capture with a pen, the passion of the maguey man, ron cooper, or his compadres, the zapotec palenqueros, as you have done here….not that this surprises me.
    we have come to expect this from you
    saludos mi hermano!

  • Cedd says:

    Well done!! Another astounding piece on the magic of Del Maguey Mezcal.
    Cm

  • Jimmy Yeager says:

    Wyatt, as a true lover and disciple of our hemisphere’s oldest and ultimate organic spirit, thank you for continuing to promote, endorse and enlighten lovers of agave based spirits on Del Maguey Mezcals.
    Jimmy

  • Julian Cox says:

    Once again you make us all so proud.

  • Steve Livigni says:

    Fantastic piece Wyatt! I almost had to crack a bottle of San Luis Del Rio at 11am whilst reading this.

  • forrest says:

    Another lovely piece to celebrate the spirit we love…

  • Eric Alperin says:

    Brilliant…

  • Bricia says:

    This is beautiful

  • ron cooper says:

    Wyatt… as always you are amazing.

    R

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