La Verdad: Ron Cooper
With all the depraved Tales madness erupting, as evidenced by erratic, incomprehensible text messages streaming in from New Orleans, around the clock—I wanted to address something. As has been the case for the past few years, now—particularly at events like these—the word of the day is, Mezcal. For those who have been following this spirits category—in terms of explosive growth, from an industry standpoint—or dedicating themselves to the preservation of indigenous culture, one man stands in the middle of both labyrinths. He is the eight-hundred-pound guerilla—this is his wilderness. To ignore him is perilous, to affront him is absurd. He has truth on his side.
Decades ago, Ron Cooper single-handedly architected Mezcal’s revival. His unbending integrity and authenticity drew great people around him, organically; and those people continue to empower him. His supporters—many of them among the most influential in matters of gastronomy—have never been driven by marketing budgets, nor multi-national corporate might but, rather, by the purity of Cooper’s quest. Conversely, he has paid his partners in Oaxaca premium dollars, far above market demand, since the inception of Del Maguey, long before ‘fair-trade’ was a trend. He was pre-green, pre-organic and he has built micro-economies in multiple villages throughout Oaxaca for more than fifteen years. He is the embodiment of truth, la verdad.
As recently as a few months ago, the Bricia-Effect was born—a grassroots movement, resulting from one barman’s love for Del Maguey’s Mezcal Vida. It was widely known that this product, in spite of being the most important addition to the Mezcal category in several years, would have no marketing dollars, ambassadors, nor payola to burn. Thus, a new cocktail revolution was christened in honor of Bricia Lopez, a staunch proponent of Oaxacan culture and an integral figure in the gastronomic culture of Los Angeles. “Bricia” cocktails began popping up all over the country—some are even rumored to have surfaced in London—and its original author was never compensated a dime. When asked, he humbly responded: ‘it was the least that he could do for two people so great.’ How often does that happen?
For some of us, what Del Maguey represents transcends the booze business, entirely—it’s about protecting an ancient ritual that pre-dates the Spanish conquest. Though you’ll hear a distinctly different, and inaccurate, tune up in Jalisco (unless you ask any of the remaining great makers). Mezcal is the sacred physical incarnation of a fragile culture’s soul. A spirit that has yet to be desecrated—in the name of progress and bottom line—as we’ve seen all over the world. Each of Del Maguey’s villages—Chichicapa, San Luis del Rio, Santo Domingo Albarradas, Santa Catarina Minas, and a few others—are making their distillates exactly as they have for generations. In the case of Santa Catarina Minas, it’s with a bamboo and ceramic still that was likely brought over decades before Columbus stomped American soil.
The second word of the day, of late, seems to be pueblo—used interchangeably with ‘village.’ If you have the great fortune of visiting the palenques of Del Maguey, you will experience true Single Village Mezcal production. Santiago Matatlán and Tlacolula are not pueblos, nor villages. Tlacolula is actually the county seat and home to the largest market in the region. ‘Village’ means dirt floors, clean air and the absence of asphalt. Frankly, it is glorious that all of these new brands have flooded the category—some of them well-made distillates—and it’s a sign that our culture is finally evolving. But, it needs to be said here (because you won’t hear it elsewhere) that there is only one product commercially available in the United States which is a genuine, small-village, artisanal, farmer-produced Mezcal. And, it is Del Maguey–and, by extension, Sombra. These distillates are completely organic and unblended—the only yeasts present are those of airborne microbes, there has never been a single additive in any of the villages. Del Maguey represents the mother of all agave-based distillates. Same as it ever was.
Don’t take it from me—do a blind tasting of every artisanal, village Mezcal (and those purporting to be) commercially available in the US. Not only will each Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal distinctly reflect its place of origin—its very dirt, soul and hand of the maker but it will reveal all others to be cheap imitations. The Mezcals of Del Maguey are among the purest, most beautiful distillates on earth and, as of yet, they are entirely incomparable.
Del Maguey is truth. Esto es la verdad.