Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Resurrecting mezcal

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Fascinating article in the LA Times Magazine by Wyatt Peabody:

You find yourself tearing down a seemingly endless dirt road in Ron Cooper’s Jeep—a rooster tail of dust marking a path as your body jolts in the backseat. The radio signal renders faint traces of a Mexican narco-ballad on the blown-out speakers, punctuating his diatribes on purity.

At this point, you’re living out a scene from Apocalypse Now. Then the stark landscape pulls you back: a labyrinth of trails among steep mountains adorned in a sea of maguey plants—the raw material behind mezcal, one of the most complex and misunderstood distillates on Earth. Your destination is a Zapotec village nestled along the Rio Hormiga Colorada, 8,000 feet up in the Oaxacan Sierra, where village elder and master mezcal distiller Paciano Cruz Nolasco awaits.

Hunched over the wheel is Cooper, the architect of mezcal’s resurrection, who has single-handedly revitalized the misunderstood Mexican spirit. His eyes gauge your awareness in the rearview mirror, and with a 500-foot drop a hair to your right, you realize you’re in the hands of a crusader and that his sense of danger is different from yours. They might someday write corridos about Cooper, chronicling his odyssey battling corrupt government regulators, multinational thugs and cutthroat rivals. But mostly they would speak of his drive.

Long before his tangles with mezcal, Cooper was looking for trouble. In his hometown of Ojai, he was surrounded by the likes of Jiddu Krishnamurti, Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts. That was before the demons were born, those that would forge his reputation as a “radical” at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, which he attended from 1963 to ’65, before leaving for “political reasons.” Lifelong collaborations were shaped there—Ken Price, Larry Bell, Terry Allen and Ed Ruscha among them. When pressed about his premature departure, he will only say, “I didn’t like the direction the school was heading.” Integrity is everything to Cooper.

His journey from artist to mezcal producer started with a single question on a summer night in 1970: “Do you think the Pan-American Highway really exists?” It was at Riko Mizuno’s gallery on La Cienega, after a group-show opening that included Cooper. Hopped up on Herradura and hubris, he—along with buddies 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 to the village that Cooper and his company, Del Maguey Mezcal, now call home: Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca.

For Cooper, formative thoughts of Del Maguey began in 1990, and he started following rumors down dirt roads. But it was his art that inadvertently began his fascination with the spirit. Among his works—which have been featured at the Whitney, Guggenheim, LACMA and in a recent show curated by Dennis Hopper at Taos’ Harwood Museum—was the production of a sculptural limited-edition of 50 hand-blown blue glass bottles bearing the Aztec god of intoxication, Ometotchtli, meant to be filled with mezcal, the likes of which few foreigners had tasted.

When his zeal led him to try to cross the border with 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 his beloved distillate. He obliged but says, “I decided right then and there I would go into the liquor business. Mezcal like this didn’t exist in the U.S.—nothing even close.”

Mezcal, one of Mexico’s national treasures and the mother of tequila, had long been forsaken for its corrupted daughter. Any time an agave-based distillate is made, it is called mezcal; thus, all tequilas qualify. Tequila is a region, like Champagne or Cognac. It was once called vino de mezcal de la region de Tequila. The clichéd notion ofgusanos (worms) has no place in a serious conversation about mezcal. Since the 1950s, the entire category of mezcal had been hijacked by Mexico City marketers, who used lurid gimmicks to sell inferior spirits. The only notion of it in the United States was through false, adulterated products.

Of late, there has been …

Continue reading. And here’s the Del Maguey “Single-Village Mezcal” site.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 November 2009 at 1:50 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, Drinks

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