Del Maguey is one of the most recognised mezcal brands in the UK. Its tall green bottles with boldly coloured drawings for each of its single village spirits are eye-catching and iconic. Arguably this is the brand that brought mezcal out of the villages of Oaxaca and onto the back bar, pioneered by Ron Cooper who journeyed to the Mexican state in 1990 to make art and instead became a brand owner.
28 years later his honest, witty, informed and moving account of this journey is hitting bookshelves today (June 12th).
Written with Chantal Martineau, who also penned How the Gringos Stole Tequila, the book, published by Ten Speed Press, weaves in evocative photography and portraits of the local distillers with Cooper’s story of discovering each village, each palenque and how he bottled and sold them to the world.
It’s a moving story beautifully told, as each family in their tiny villages hidden away from the main roads, towns and cities has to be won over, their trust gained. Cooper managed to hold out against those who told him to blend, allowing each distiller to express their mezcal exactly as they made it, shining a light on the individual expressions and character imparted by the crops, altitude and the people who took it from an agave growing in the field to a liquid in a bottle.
It’s also honest, with the setbacks included, the swear words unedited and Cooper’s unease at the gratitude he’s often shown laid out for all to read.
Interestingly, Cooper starts off by noting that the mezcal he eventually decided to bring to the USA and, after that, the world wasn’t even being drunk in the main cities in Mexico, let alone Oaxaca. There he describes the spirit as cut and unclean. ‘He [Oaxacan friend Arnulfo] had never tasted anything like the mountain mezcal I brought him. The pueblos (villages) they came from – San Pedro Ixtlahuaca, Sola de Vega, San Andrés Zabache – were foreign to him.’
Finding Mezcal isn’t just a well-written story though. There’s plenty of gritty information included in its pages, including a look at the regulations around the spirit and how it’s made. Each one of Del Maguey’s expressions is explored with details on its still size and type, the age of its agave, the name of each palenquero and which village they hail from.
Finally there’s the cocktail section, with 40 cocktails from the likes of Houston’s Bobby Heugel, New York’s Jim Meehan and Joaquín Simó and London’s Erik Lorincz, Alex Kratena and Simone Caporale.
‘This lovely, conversational, and often very funny book is the next best thing to sitting in the shade of a big, old Oaxacan Encino oak tree with Ron and sharing a copita (or three) of the local mezcal. I can’t think of a more pleasant way to pass the time,’ says David Wondrich of the book.
The real gem is perhaps Cooper’s own notes on each of the mezcals he’s brought to market, such as this note on his first ever bottling: ‘Chichicapa is often characterised as the smokiest of the Del Maguey Single Village Mezcals. I’m not sure I agree. It was the first mezcal we ever released – and is often the first great mezcal people taste – so perhaps the smoke registers more significantly simply because it’s a new flavour to many people. To me, this mezcal is intricate and sinewy, like the musculature of a dancer. It shows plenty of citrus notes and a refreshing hint of mint at the finish.’
Finding Mezcal is available from Amazon for RRP £25.
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