Mezcal mogul Ron Cooper sources his small-batch, high-end hooch from remote villages in Mexico. The job takes him over some pretty interesting terrain. On one adventure, the founder of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal is steering his jeep along some back roads in Oaxaca when he and his crew rumbles into a lush canyon – “with the most beautiful wild agaves, growing straight out of vertical walls,” he recalls.
“All of sudden, there are eight Indians with rifles, right in front of us. And these two guys [in the Jeep] scream. I go, ‘Namaste. Take it easy, take it easy…’
“The first thing I do, I roll down the window and I say in Spanish, ‘Hey, what’s the name of that agave growing up there?’ And this Indian walks up to me and goes, ‘You like agaves?’ I go, ‘Yeah, I like mezcal.’ I always have a clay cup on the center console of my Jeep, so I hold it up and I ask him, ‘Have you ever heard of Rio Minas?’ And he goes, “I’m the maker of mezcal in Rio Minas.” And he mumbles to his buddies in their Mixtecan tongue and one guy shakes a water bottle, brings it up, opens the bottle and pours me a sip of his incredible elixir.
“That’s the perfect embodiment of ‘You don’t find mezcal, mezcal finds you.’”*
*Excerpted from an earlier interview no longer available online @stationtostation
Here’s the full Q&A:
On a recent afternoon, Station to Station poured a stiff cup of Cooper’s brand and spoke to the man widely credited for mezcal’s recent resurgence about his adventures in art and agave. The first taste came with explicit instructions. “Sip it, don’t shoot it,” Cooper said. “Most of our mezcals are very high proof. So you want to get your palate tuned up. You just take a tiny sip and squeeze it up against the roof of our mouth, swallow, give it about 30 seconds and then sip it normally.”
I’ve heard the slogan, “You don’t find mezcal. Mezcal finds you.”
COOPER: That’s true, man. That’s really true.
Where were you when mezcal found you?
Oh, man, mezcal has found me so many times [laughs]. The very first time was when I was an art student at Chouinard in, like, 1963. A group of us went down to Ensenada to camp out on the beach for a week. We went to this bar called Hussong’s Cantina. And, I was the fool, with this bottle tipped upside down, waiting for the worm to come down. It was my first sip ever of any agave spirit. I had a horrible hangover, but I managed to crawl back from the beach the next evening for a beer to cure myself. And once I had a beer and was feeling a little better, I went, “Hmm, I wonder what that stuff was that I had last night?” and decided to check it out again.
Another time, in 1970, two buddies of mine, after an art opening, shared a bottle of Herradura with a dealer on a Saturday afternoon. Somehow, over the course of drinking the only good tequila in the U.S. in 1970, the question came up, “Do you think the Pan-American Highway really exists?” No one remembers who asked the question. But, two weeks later, we were on the road. Four months later, we got to Panama. On the way there, we found Oaxaca and made friends in a Zapotec weaving village. At that point, we began to understand the ritualistic use of mezcal.
The most recent time, two and a half years ago, two friends wanted to go on an adventure with me. I said, “OK, I’ll take you to the most remote village I’ve ever been to, and we’re going to go on the back road, ‘cause the front road is a road I never want to go on again [laughs].” It’s so bad!
Like a 45-degree downhill for one hour with six-inch rocks—just break-your-neck, jar-your-car-to-pieces kind of terrain. Then you hit a zone that’s all, like, sand and palm trees, and you drive through this six-inch dust for an hour. So, we’re going the back way, and four hours into the trip, we’re up in the mountains. It’s now 10 o’clock in the morning, and we’re in this high river valley and we stop for breakfast. And this woman who’s cooking for us asks where we’re going. I tell her we’re going to San Pedro Teozacoalco. “Why are you going there?” she asks. I tell her we have a mezcal maker out there. Then she asks, “Well, have you ever heard of San José Río Minas?” No. We get a map out of the car and it’s this detour. I said, “How long is this detour?” She said about four hours. I said, “Is the road better than this.” She said, “No—it’s a lot worse.” So, I go, “OK, never mind. Next time!”
So, we keep driving and driving. At one point, we get to this place. It’s like four mountain peaks, each with a village on top, a mile apart. You could see across, but you couldn’t shout across. Then we start going downhill and we get to this valley where a volcano once exploded, and house-sized black lava rocks flew through the air. And there’s just weeds growing around. This little two-lane track splits. I take the left fork. There are no signs, nothing. I go, “Nah, let’s turn around and go the other way.” And we end up in this lush canyon, with the most beautiful wild agaves, growing straight out of vertical walls. All of sudden, there are eight Indians with rifles in front of us.
The first thing I do, I roll down the window and I say in Spanish, “Hey, what’s the name of that agave growing up there?” And this Indian walks up to me and goes, “You like agaves?” I go, “Yeah, I like mezcal.” I always have a clay cup on the center console of my Jeep, so I hold it up and I ask him, “Have you ever heard of Rio Minas?” And he goes, “I’m the maker of mezcal in Rio Minas.” And he mumbles to his buddies in their Mixtecan tongue and one guy shakes a water bottle, brings it up, opens the bottle and pours me a sip of his incredible elixir.
That’s the perfect embodiment of “You don’t find mezcal. Mezcal finds you.”
How is the stuff in Rio Minas different?
It’s so tender. It’s so sweet. It’s really, really sweet and soft—it’s true art. A month ago, I took [mixology expert] Steve Olson and [Del Maguey president] Michael Gardner and we went out to this village and spent two days with [the maker]. The mezcal that he had this time was a two-year-old bottle of 58 percent—that would be 116 proof—and we just sipped it, the three of us, and his wife, just sat around and sipped it, for two days.
As Del Maguey has grown in popularity and output, does it become harder to find these small producers?
No. So far, they just keep sort of hitting me in the head….With my team helping me, I’m finally free to carry on with my adventures and find these small producers. Who cares if you only get 60 liters? That’s 12 cases. You can share that with the world.
You came up in the art scene of the 1960s, arguably the heyday for contemporary art. Nowadays, the food and drink scene is experiencing its own renaissance. As a player in both eras, how do you think they compare?
That’s a really good question, man. The early ‘60s and the early ‘70s had this great society where we shared, you know? California shared with New York and Europe. There were so few collectors, there was no money to be made, and there were so few artists that we knew everybody and there was no competition. It was incredible.
When the scene died, around the time I left LA, things had gotten very competitive and financially goal-oriented. That beautiful social quality was lost. Our game got invaded by people who wanted to make a living for next week and it just turned to shit.
It’s funny. Right now, I’m reading an interview with Marcel Duchamp in The New Yorker. This is Duchamp in the ’50s, talking about how cool it was back in 1913, and then, by the ’20s, how it got wrecked by artists making a living. History sort of repeats itself, I think.
When I got involved in this food and wine and spirits world, I started telling people, ‘You’re so lucky, Right now, it’s not competitive—it’s a love fest. It’s just like the art scene in the ‘60s.’ And it still is. It hasn’t gotten wrecked yet.
Give me an example of this enduring love fest.
I got the old man in Santa Catarina Minas who makes Pechuga for me to make a fresh batch. But instead of using chicken breast [in the distillation process], he used [the Spanish pig] pata negra, hooves and all. We got 55 liters, and I took it to the Aspen Food and Wine Classic. The chef José Andrés had this party on his porch, with Mario Batali, Rick Bayless, Jacques Pepin—all the heavy hitters. José Andrés is walking around, grabbing your hand, putting one-inch dollops of caviar between your thumb and forefinger, and we’re sipping this stuff, and it was just amazing.
Producing spirits as an art form, does it resonate better with people than other art forms? Not everybody knows how to consume visual art. Most people know how to sip. Is there a greater level of self-fulfillment with spirits?
For me, a work of art has to be transformative to be successful. I don’t care if it’s a nude, a sunset, words on a page, a pile of garbage—it’s just got to make that “a-ha” light bulb come on inside your head. Sipping Del Maguey is very transformative. It makes you have very humorous thoughts and it changes you. So it fits my criteria. I’m totally fulfilled.