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Interview with JBF Award Nominee Ron Cooper of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal

Maggie Borden

April 23, 2015

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The revival of mezcal as a celebrated spirit was anything but an overnight success. Ron Cooper, nominated for the Award for Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits professional, has worked tirelessly for the last two decades to bring the traditions of Oaxaca to the global market through his company, Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal. Read on to learn more about Del Maguey’s humble origins, Cooper’s devotion to tradition, and how the dedication to highlighting and supporting the local Mexican distillers has transformed mezcal into the darling of craft bartending. 

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JBF: It's written that your work as an artist is what led you to make mezcal. How does your background in art continue to inform your products?

Ron Cooper: For everyone at Del Maguey, these Single Village mezcals represent “liquid art.” When we first found these mezcals that were being distiled by Zapotec palenqueros in the mountains of Oaxaca, I wanted to bring them back to the U.S. to share with friends, but I wasn’t allowed. So we created Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal, and made it our personal mission to protect the ancient process and preserve the culture of this native liquid art and the people that make it. We continue to source new producers, and bring mezcals crafted from previously unheard of wild magueys to the world, always with the same dedication to the quality of the ancestral art, and always with the same focus on the producer and the family.

JBF: How would you sum up the philosophy of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal?

RC: The mission of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal is to bring the liquid art of traditionally distilled mezcal to the world, and in so doing, protect the culture of the Mexican Native American producers, preserve the ancestral process of crafting this amazing mezcal, and make it possible for these people to continue to create their art for all of the world to enjoy. One side benefit is that we’ve found ways to make their lives better, such as providing them with better living conditions, as well as the income needed to educate their children. In the families of these palenqueros, the children no longer have to go to U.S. and find farm or construction work so they can send money home. Now they finally have a reason to stay at home and work with their families distilling mezcal, carrying on and thereby protecting a process that continues to be in great danger of being lost.

JBF: Can you speak about your relationship with your local mezcal producers?

RC: We consider our palenqueros to be members of our family, and we treat them as such. Every producer we’ve ever chosen to work with is still part of the Del Maguey family, and indeed the original producers are all partners in Del Maguey. 

JBF: What place does traditional, Oaxacan technique have in Del Maguey's process? Can you describe some of those techniques?

RC: All of our mezcals are made in the ancestral and traditional fashion. The original four villages that we brought into the U.S. were all made from Espadín (agave angustifolia), and are all to this day made from organic, sustainably raised, naturally harvested magueys (the native word for the agave)—Del Maguey means "from the maguey.” These magueys have been roasted over heated stones in an underground horno (a conical pit in the ground), ground to a mash using horse-pulled stone mills or handheld oak bats, fermented slowly with ambient yeasts in open-top wooden vats, and distilled to proof by hand, in minuscule batches by native American palenqueros, each of whom are the finest distillers in their individual villages. No water is ever added to any Del Maguey Mezcal. You can see how terroir plays a role in mezcal through the differences between these four villages. Each one is as unique and different from the other as a Highland malt is from an Islay malt, yet they’re made from the same species of maguey by similar ancestral processes, handed down from generation to generation. I’ve always referred to these often subtle differences as being evidence of “the hand of the maker.”

JBF: How do you think the American spirits market has changed in the 20 years since you launched Del Maguey?

RC: That’s a big question. From our standpoint, mezcal has evolved from something that we had to work hard to get people just to taste, to seeing it become a rapidly growing category globally. The renaissance of the craft of bartending as a profession has fueled this growth of the category. From the beginning, Del Maguey was first accepted by chefs, bartenders, and sommeliers, and then they shared that passion with their guests. 

JBF: What's a cocktail that you love to make with one of your products? Or do you prefer to sip them on their own?

RC: We always say “sip it. Don’t shoot it.” We drink small sips of Del Maguey in copitas, and we respect the spirituality of the Oaxacan ritual of drinking, so we toast by saying the traditional Zapotec prayer for gratitude: “for Mother Earth and our ancestors, stigibeu.” It is symbolic of our thankfulness for the earth, nature, and those that have come before us. That said, we do also enjoy it in cocktails. One of our favorite mezcal cocktails is the Mezcal Negroni, and we created a special variation on that classic that we call La Vida Buena (check out the recipe here).

JBF: Can you tell us about a few bars or restaurants that you think use mezcal well?

RC: In the beginning of the renaissance, bars such as Jimmy’s in Aspen, Mayahuel in New York, and Las Perlas in Los Angeles took mezcal to new heights. They featured Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal as the main event in their bars, introducing it to Americans in copitas, and used it in their cocktails. Today virtually all craft bartenders use Del Maguey in their personal arsenal of great spirits to make cocktails, and “green walls" of Del Maguey are featured in bars from California to Texas to Massachusetts. 

JBF: Where in Chicago do you plan to eat when you attend the Awards this year?

RC: Blackbird, Frontera Grill, Big Star, Aviary, Masa Azul, and Sable Kitchen & Bar.

The 2015 James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional is presented by BACARDÍ® Gran Reserva.

Maggie Borden is assistant editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.