An Interview with Founder Ron Cooper

Mike Morales, from Tequila Aficionado Magazine, describes you as someone who (has a singular passion for mezcal) speaks about mezcal with a singular (or noteworthy) passion.

There is a saying that ‘You don’t find Mezcal. Mezcal finds you!’ I can’t drink more than an ounce or two of other liquors like tequila, vodka, rum, cognac, single malt scotch, or bourbon without feeling bad… but I can sip a good organic mezcal all day or night and not feel bad the next day… It does not hurt my body. Discovering farmer producers in remote villages was a eureka moment for me and the idea of bringing this great elixir out of those remote villages to friends outside, with a similar taste sensibility, turns me on. You see, the closer any good mezcal gets towards the city of Oaxaca from where it was made, the more adulterated it becomes, kilometer by kilometer.

Describe what happens, in a physical and spiritual way, when you drink a very good mezcal.

To begin with, the nose is unlike any other, smelling of pure earth roast maguey… and the taste and warming effects, the acids stimulating saliva and creating appetite are quite incredible. A good mezcal has a very different high than other spirits. After a sip, it seems my feet come off the ground a centimeter or two – a floating feeling— and an intense, comfortable connection with the earth and the sky. Next, the colors become a bit brighter, and if drinking with others, the connection between people gets stronger and the conversation more humorous and fluid (this is called saca palabras by the Zapotecs) and finally, I have humorous thoughts running around the back of my skull that I am normally not aware of, and the truth of any situation seems clearer.

How do you describe the spirit of mezcal?

I think it is one of the very, very few spirits that talks about the place it came from: terrior in French, or tierra in Spanish. Our mescals are made by the will of God and the maguey. The maguey itself is a spiritual entity. After asking for permission and blessings from the gods, our producer of tobala wanders through the forest three months each year harvesting this wild plant that takes twelve years to mature. In those twelve months he will harvest just enough tobala to supply his annual village fiesta and make 600 bottles of Del Maguey. Upon covering the roast, all of our producers place some kind of offering to the gods to protect the spirit of maguey. All our producers and consumers have reverence and love for the plant and the drink.

Do you consider mezcal an art form?

A work of art is successful to me if in the act of experiencing it one is transformed in some way. A good mezcal is certainly transformational, so it fits my criteria for art. Think about great weavers, painters, sword makers, ceramicists, and writers… all are treated in different countries not only as artists but cultural treasures! I have recommended that we have an annual public contest in Oaxaca, voting for and selecting the greatest living palenquero each year… and celebrating this person as a “State Living Treasure”. The state and federal governments are more interested in making programs to give money to established and connected entrepreneurs. Think what great international news and positive propaganda would be generated for Mexico, Oaxaca and good mezcal by this simple program.

In an article of the online magazine, Star Chefs, you talked about the traditions around the mezcal in the local culture. As a foreigner, how was your initial experience with the indigenous people like the Zapotecas, and interacting with their culture and customs?

It was like coming home. Many of us in the outer, modern world have lost our history and sense of tradition… it is a big hole in many people’s psyche… so when I began to know the Zapotecas, in the small villages, with their rich customs and hospitality, it was a very enriching experience. At the start of every fiesta: a wedding, funeral, saint’s day, baptism, Dia de los Muertos, etc, in the family altar room, a small amount of mezcal is ritually poured in a cross on the floor honoring the four directions, mother earth and our ancestors.

Today, after 12 years of experience with Del Maguey, what do you think about the situation with the mezcal industry in Mexico and its future?

I think it is like the rest of the world… the majority of people in the micro-industry of mezcal are interested in making a buck without caring about the quality of life for the producers and the consumers. Since Pancho and I started DM, a very small group of people has developed who have followed our lead and are producing and educating about good mezcal. I hope our voices are heard.

Currently, the massive industry is eating the local industry. What do you think about the situation of the mezcal industry in this matter?

It is unfortunate… but like the rest of the world… people want to survive financially so they do what they can to make a living. The responsibility for poor-quality mass-produced mezcal rests a great deal with the Oaxacan government who makes funds available to medium and large sized entrepreneurs (not small producers) with the idea that it will help develop the Oaxacan economy (without any idea of quality) and end up shooting us all in the foot.

There is now under construction near Tacolula (and two more financed and planned for the state) a humungous factory being built by a powerful investment group centered in Guadalajara that will have a production capacity of 100,000 liters daily. This means that to feed the factory and it’s difusora (the new technological machine now used in tequila) there will need to be 150 to 300 trucks of 3 ton capacity on the little two-lane Pan American highway every day. I only hope that the present laws of the: NORMA Oficial Mexicana NOM-070SCFI-1994, Bebidas alcoholicas-Mezcal enforced by COMERCAM-Consejo Mexicano Regulador de la Calidad del Mezcal –which do not allow the use of difusoras—will not be changed by hidden powerful underground political/economic forces.

The reputation of mezcal in the greater world is much worse than one can imagine. I personally am fearful of over-consumption of agave by the new industrial factories developing at this time Oaxaca. It is certain that industrial production and over-manipulation of the plant destroy the will of God and the Maguey. That is what we get from a commercial mezcal… Alcohol with no spirit.

Beside mezcal producers, who else do you think might be important for the appropriate mezcal education and consume?

There is a very small, but growing group of Aficionados, Chefs, Sommeliers, Bartenders and Restaurateurs in Oaxaca, Mexico City, Monterey, Baja California, Europe and USA (even Vietnam) that are well qualified to talk about good mezcal. The Internet as well is interesting. When I started our website www.mezcal.com in 1995, there were only 2,500 mentions of mezcal on a search… now Google gives 836,000 results when you enter the word mezcal on a search.

What kind of maguey do you prefer to use for your own mezcal production?

That is an interesting question and I think it has more to do with the maguey grown in certain regions… I prefer Oaxaca, Guerrero and the mountains of Monterey as the most flavorful. All maguey varieties yield their specific flavors… however one of our older producers (77 years old – producing for 55 years in clay stills) can produce with pure espadin or with a mix of espadin, tobashishe, arroqueno, blanco, and barril and still come out with the same signature flavor. That is where the miracle of the hand of the maker comes in. And of course a true wild shade grown, high mountain tobala has its very own special character.

Has the educational work of your non-profit organization “Foundation for the Sustainable Development of the Producing Communities of Maguey and Cultural Rescue of Mezcal” achieved any positive results on the community yet?

I believe on a public level the four or five Semana Cultural de Mezcal events don e by Jorge Quiroz and University Vasconcelos certainly made a large difference in pulling together the mezcal community here in Oaxaca and the results can be seen in promotions by CAMINEZ and in the recent events given by Patronato Nacional de la industria del Mezca at the X Fiesta Nacional Del Mezcal Oaxaca 2007. I think consciousness has been raised a great deal over the last twelve years. There have many videos promoting mezcal production and there is a core group of about thirty individuals in Mexico that have been promoting high quality mezcal, some even by plant variety.

Tell me three rules to enjoy mezcal.

1) Sip it. Don’t shoot it.

2) Always warm your palate first. Smell the mezcal first. If it is low and sweet on the nose; chances are there are no chemicals. If it goes to the top of the inside of your nose up by your eyes… Look out! Start with a very small sip, keeping your mouth closed to let no air in, press your tongue up to the roof of your mouth and into your teeth and let the mezcal slide den the sides of your tongue. Swallow. Savor the taste and mouth feel for at least a minute. Smack your lips. Move your tongue around in your mouth, feeling taste in various areas. Your palate will then be tuned up. You will notice on the second sip, how different it was from the first. You only have to do this when you start sipping and thereafter sip normally.

3) I always recommend taking your time and sipping slowly and paying attention to how mezcal feels and tastes in different areas of your tongue and mouth, how it warms your chest and how long the finish is. The worst vessels to sip from are caballos, brandy snifters, wine glasses and tumblers (straight sided glasses) as they intensify and reflect the alcohol and lose all the subtle fruit, vegetal, mineral and earth overtones. The best vessels are our clay sipping copitas, a saki cup, a martini glass, a classic grappa tulip or a half jicara as they have an open form and do not concentrate the nose. Don’t forget 90% of tasting is in the nose.

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