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Del Maguey Mezcal: Bottling Liquid Art in Mexico’s Zapotec Villages

Distillery Spotlight: Del Maguey
Region: Mexico

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It’s 1960s, you’re an art student in Southern California on the cusp of graduation. You drive down to Baja California in Ensenada for a trip and every night for a week straight, you and your motley crew of 17 friends while the night away at a bar called Hussong’s Cantina.

It is here that you get your first taste of Mezcal. Truth be told, it wasn’t very good and tasted like diesel fuel, but the smoky flavour profile was enough to leave an impression and leave you wondering about the possibilities of this mysterious Mexican agave spirit.

Ron Cooper and friends at Hussong's Cantina (Image source: Del Maguey)

This was the first indelible introduction that artist Ron Cooper had to mezcal – tequila’s smokier, mysterious cousin. Fast forward a few years later, and undeterred by his initial experiences with the spirit, Ron would go on discover artisanal single-village mezcal at its finest before being one of the first to bring it onto a global platform through the founding of Del Maguey in 1995.

If you’ve never heard of Del Maguey, you may have nonetheless spotted one or two of their iconic green bottles lining the shelves of a bar in your area. Each bottle of mezcal calls to mention the name of the Mexican village where it was produced by their respective Zapotec villagers and bottled within. 

What is Mezcal? And What is Del Maguey?

For the uninitiated, mezcal is a Mexican spirit distilled from all species of agave plant. While tequila is the more popularly known spirit, it’s worth noting that tequila is actually produced from only the blue weber agave species, and actually constitutes only one type of mezcal. Typically when making mezcal, the heart of the agave – known as the piña – is roasted in the ground through wood-fire, thus bringing forth a smokiness and depth that you’re unlikely to taste in tequilas.

 

Click to watch a quick primer on the difference between Mezcal and Tequila!

That said, you can’t really talk about mezcal without bringing Del Maguey into the conversation, as Del Maguey is largely recognised as the brand that brought the spirit into the mainstream. For many new drinkers, Del Maguey is the gateway to the world of mezcal.

But what exactly is Del Maguey? First off, Del Maguey is not a mezcal distiller - or palenque as they are called - nor does it claim to be one. Instead, the brand works directly with various Zapotec family-run palenques in Mexico to bottle and sell different types of village style mezcals. Each mezcal expression is handcrafted using traditional techniques and bottled directly in the various old-style towns where the family resides. Hence, the term “single village mezcal”.

To say that Del Maguey is a mezcal bottler would not be accurate either. Instead, Cooper and his team at Del Maguey take a more hands-on, collaborative approach, acting as a partner with each family and seeding resources needed to help them maintain operations and production. This may entail a range of things, from investing in new facilities or even offering medical support for the families they work with.

The family palenques behind Del Maguey mezcal at Del Maguey's 20th Anniversary celebrations. (Image source: Del Maguey)

Mezcal being bottled at Del Maguey's bodega in Teotitlan Del Valle . (Image source: Ritch Wedeking, Del Maguey)

Perhaps a better way to understand Del Maguey is to view it as a collective of different Zapotec family palenqueros. At present, Del Maguey works with over nine villages, offering over twenty different expressions of single-village mezcal. Each are uniquely handcrafted using traditional production methods and local agave.

You Don’t Find Mezcal, Mezcal Finds You

Ron Cooper (Image source: Adam Lerner)

There’s a famous saying in Mexico: you don’t find mezcal, mezcal finds you.

Years after his mezcal encounter in Hussong’s Cantina, Cooper had transformed from budding art student to a fully-fledged decorated artist, having racked up a sizable amount of wealth from his art commissions. Basically, “fuck you” money that gave him the freedom to pursue whatever next venture he wanted to. Perhaps the world of mezcal was making a silent call to Cooper, for it was at this point that he felt so compelled to return to Mexico and devote serious time to exploring this agave spirit.

Ron Cooper was likely to have encountered traditional stone mills such as this one, called a molino. Molinos are used to crush agave hearts and extract the juices for fermentation. (Image source: Del Maguey)

In 1990, he set off on a pick-up truck into Oaxaca, asking locals he encountered along the way where he could find the best-tasting mezcal. Every three days, he would drive down unmarked dirt roads until he chanced upon stone grinding mill, called a Molino – a sure sign that mezcal was being made in the vicinity. Once he found the villager the wheel belonged to, he would purchase what mezcal he could.

“I had finally figured it out. The mezcal available in the city at that time was watered down. The closer it came to the city, the more adulterated it became. I went to the source and found the pure stuff. Bang! It was magical.”

Three months and lots of exploration later, Cooper had amassed over twenty-eight different mezcal samples from various local producers. At the border checkpoint heading back into the US, the guards stopped Ron Cooper, citing a limit of one litre export per traveller.

A desperate Cooper was forced to pour away most of a 5-gallon container of super wedding mezcal (mezcal produced by villagers for special occasions) from Chichicapa. Tears were shed at the sheer waste. But the silver lining? The guards were so distracted by what mezcal Cooper had already poured out, that they failed to discover other smaller containers of twenty-eight mezcal samples, tucked in the back of Cooper's pickup truck under a hoard of arts, sculptures, weaving, potteries.

It was at this point that Cooper make a solemn vow that he would never be forced to pour away fine mezcal again. The natural course of action? Applying for a license to export mezcal from Mexico and import it into the United States -  a decision that led to the establishment of Del Maguey.

Bringing Mezcal from Mystical to Mainstream

Prior to Del Maguey’s founding, the craft mezcal made in the indigenous Zapotec villages remained undiscovered gems. Such mezcal would typically be made only for special occasions like rituals, births, funerals, and weddings, and shared only among inner circles of friends and family.

Prior to the Del Maguey’s founding, mezcal was a spirit shrouded in mystique. It was common practice for some producers to insert a worm into mezcal bottles as a somewhat questionable marketing practice to demonstrate its potency. This led to the common perception of mezcal as “the one with the worm that’ll make you go blind”.

The inaccessibility of such mezcal didn’t help to dispel the negative PR that used to plague this agave spirit. At that time, most outsiders had thus far only experienced mezcal produced within the Oaxaca city, much of which was usually adulterated with unsavoury additives or flavourings. Worms were even be added to mezcal bottles, further fuelling the hesitance of consumers towards trying it. The good stuff, made artisanally by the Zapotec villagers, was simply not making it’s way out!


Ron Cooper with the late Espiridion Morales Luis of Santo Domingo Albarradas, one of the early palenqueros who worked with Del Maguey. (Image source: Del Maguey)

Hoping to introduce the world to the true potential of quality mezcal, Cooper started travelling to various Zapotec villages in hopes of convincing them to sell mezcal to Del Maguey for bottling. Yet in the initial days, getting the buy-in of the villagers proved harder than Ron expected:

“At first, they were real suspicious of me and the producers were suspicious of each other. We started with small purchases, convinced them we wanted to make sure everything they did stayed in the old way, that it was not a commercial thing. That reassured them, but this was not a business, it was monkey business and if I had known how complex it would be I would have never started.”

With some persistence, small purchases eventually turned into steadier, bigger orders. Today, Del Maguey works with nine different villages to bottle various expressions of their unique mezcals – all of which are shipped worldwide and enjoyed by a growing community of global fans. Del Maguey’s numerous relationships with various palenqueros across villages allows the brand to showcase the diversity of artisanal mezcal in its various forms. Consequently, you will find that every expression from Del Maguey proudly references the village where it was made on the label. Each bottle offers a chance to savour how a specific varietal of agave, specific type of production method, or specific terroir can influence the final flavour of the spirit.

What to Sip (And Not Shoot): A Look Into Some of Del Maguey’s Expressions

The best way to drink mezcal? Clean, sipped, from copitas! (Image source: Del Maguey)

If you’re new to Del Maguey, or even mezcal for that matter, you may be wondering which bottle to try first. While sipping your way through Del Maguey’s extensive line-up will surely make for a worthy bucket list, pace yourself! Here are select picks we recommend for your next mezcal tasting session…

For the beginner:

Most fans’ formative experience with Del Maguey tends to be with their most popular and widely available expression, the Vida. We’d certainly agree that this is a great gateway bottle to the world of mezcal, and one worth trying if you haven’t.

The Vida Expression

Vida is one of six expressions produced in the village of San Luis Del Rio by Paciano Cruz Nolasco and his family. Here, Espadin agave is roasted in a conical, earthern horno on heated wood-fired stones, before being crushed with electric molinos (production leans more industrial at San Luis Del Rio, who produces at by far the largest scale amongst the other villages Del Maguey works with).

 The Espadin agave goes through natural, ambient fermentation in 1,000 liter open-top wooden tinas used at San Luis Del Rio. (Image source: Del Maguey)

As with all traditional and ancestral mezcals, the palenquero uses natural yeasts which are microbes that are present in ambient environment, to ferment the agave juice that is later distilled in direct-fire, alembic stills. This allows the terroir of the tropical riverbed near the Red Ant River to influence the fruit-bomb, earthy flavours you often find in the Vida.

The Vida de Muertos

Once you’ve tried Vida, consider giving the Vida de Muertos – a higher ABV version of Vida – a try. It’s a slightly more complex variation of the Vida, offered at a slightly higher price point. For beginners with a sweeter tooth, the Crema de Mezcal is also another alternative, offering a unique blend of Vida mezcal and natural agave syrup.

For the casual mezcal drinker wanting to dive deeper:

The Tobalá

If you’re keen to explore more of Del Maguey’s extensive line up, the Tobalá expression should be next on your list in our opinion. Hand-crafted on a tropical hillside in the village of Santa Maria Alberradas by palenquero Rogelio Martinez Cruz, this mezcal is made from wild Tobalá agave, dubbed the “king of mezcal”. Tobalá agave is a rare species of agave, as it can take up to 15 years to mature in wild mountain microclimates, resulting in a unique minerality in its distilled mezcal. (Click here for our review of the Tobalá expression).

 

Rogelio Martínez Cruz tossing Tobala on to the roast. (Image source: Del Maguey)

Uniquely, the Tobalá expression is also known for their bottles having the only circle-shaped label artwork in the collection. Designed by the late artist Kenneth Price, it depicts a narrow winding road through a high mountain pass in Mexico, with three big semi-trucks and a little pink car caught in the middle of them. Ron Cooper shared his interpretation of the design:

“I got it. It’s like the big trucks…. You know how dangerous people drive in Mexico on these winding narrow roads. Well, here’s this little pink car that’s Del Maguey, and there’s those big tequila companies winding through the mountains."

Las Milpas

Other than the Tobalá, you could try getting your hands on this relative newcomer to the Del Maguey line up: Las Milpas. Produced in the remote village of Las Milpas by palenque of Anastacio Cruz Antonio, this mezcal is made from Espadin agave harvested in the region, where it benefits from the surrounding terrior of corn, bean and squash fields. Uniquely, the agave is roasted in earthen horno directly hewn into the granite hillside, helping the earthy mineral flavours from the ground become ever more pronounced in the mezcal.

Anastacio Cruz Antonio alongside his sons Rigoberto, Abel, and Pedro - the producers of Las Milpas. (Image source: Del Maguey)

The agave is also milled traditionally by horse-drawn molinos - which some agronomists have argued results in uneven crushing and larger pieces of solids, better preserving the sugars in the agave liquids to yield richer tasting mezcal.

For those already mad for mezcal:

More seasoned mezcal drinkers seeking something more adventurous may eventually find that all roads inevitably leads to the Del Maguey’s Pechuga – an expression well worth trying at least once.

The Pechuga

Created in the village of Santa Catarina Minas by Luis Carlos Vasquez, Pechuga translates to breast in Spanish. This is a special type of mezcal that triple distilled in a clay pot still. On the third time, the spirit is redistilled with apples, plums, plantain bananas, pineapples, almonds, uncooked white rice, and – importantly - a whole chicken breast suspended by strings in the still for 24 hours.

Del Maguey's Pechuga Mezcal in the making. (Image Source: Del Maguey)

The collagen released from the chicken is said to help round of the texture and add a subtly savoury note to the final mezcal product – which have been lauded by fans for its smoothness and smokiness. There’s also a variation on the Pechuga called the Ibérico, also produced in Santa Catarina Minas. As you’ve probably guessed, this expression swap out the chicken for Ibérico pork during the third distillation, infusing the final mezcal with charcoal barbeque smoke and jammy fruit notes.  

The Future

News broke sometime back in 2017 that Del Maguey had been acquired by spirits giant Pernod Ricard. And since then, the question on many mezcal enthusiasts’ mind is what the future holds in store for this iconic mezcal brand.

Some commentators have expressed concerned that the act of Del Maguey joining a larger conglomerate is at odds with the brand’s longstanding commitment towards smaller-scale, artisanal, craft mezcal production. The worry was that under the influence of the parent company, the drive for profits could compromise Del Maguey’s ability to continue producing authentic mezcal in the traditional way.  

While some corporatization is certainly to be expected, we’re inclined to take a less cynical view. The reality of the matter is that demand for mezcal – and specifically, Del Maguey’s mezcal – is slated to keep rising, and simple computing does dictate the need to scale up operations to support this demand. An investment from Pernod Richard could well mean the provision of financial support needed to invest in necessary production infrastructure, fund research and development into sustainable initiatives, broaden distribution to make their products more accessible to all, and – we certainly hope - ensure better wages for those working in the palenques.

If anything, what the Pernod Ricard acquisition does signal is that mezcal’s popularity looks set to rise. It’s already come a long way from its days of being known as “the one with the worm that’ll make you go blind”. Credit is no doubt due to the efforts of Cooper and the original palenqueros that helped create the many expressions that constitute Del Maguey’s product line.

All in a day's work for Ron Cooper.

In Cooper’s own words: “I think the worm is dead. I think I killed the worm.”

 

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@lotusroot518



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