Most casual drinkers know Scotch is a drink to be sipped and there are some Bourbons you just shouldn’t make an Old Fashioned with. But whether it is because of the ubiquity of margaritas — or that one bar that had shots on special for College Night — tequila, unfortunately, doesn’t get its due.
This is in large part because people don’t consider that you can actually sip tequila. But organizers for an event benefitting the Tequila Interchange Project (TIP) at The Monterey this Monday from 7 -11 p.m. hope to challenge this assumption. The entrance fee of $15 includes food from Mixtli and The Monterey, and you’ll be able to purchase a variety of agave-based spirits to learn about the differences.
“Pricing (of the spirits) will be more than fair,” said Chad Carey, founder and owner of The Monterey. “We will have some cocktails made with tequila and Mezcal, but will also be pouring lots of different selections straight, which is how they’re best enjoyed.” Carey notes that they will be offering small portions so that attendees will be able to try a variety of styles.
But besides drinking fantastic tequila and Mezcal, the event hopes to shed light on those families and craftsmen that are creating these agave spirits.
How Modernization Affected Tequila
Tequila began growing in popularity in the ’90s, most likely to the rise of the margarita as a mixed drink. Big conglomerates started replacing family estates and modernization to achieve efficiency replaced traditional methods that gave tequila a unique character.
“Tequila got big and distilleries needed to make product faster,” said John Garrett, director of Spirits and Fortified for the Victory Wine Group. Art and craftsmanship gave way to process and mechanization.
With the changing landscape, Garrett said the average consumer is not aware of what traditional tequila even tastes like because most retail stores opt for big brands rather than craft spirits. “Consumers are drinking what is available and that is normal to them,” Garrett said. “The traditional methods started going away in the early ’90s so unless you were around before that drinking tequila you wouldn’t know.”
Shedding Light on a Craft at Risk of Being Forgotten
Fortunately, a group of bartenders, consultants, educators, researchers, consumers and tequila enthusiasts decided to take on this problem and advocate for all agave spirits, founding the Tequila Interchange Project (TIP). According to their website, their mission is to “place a renewed emphasis on the importance of preserving the great heritage of agave distillation in Mexico.”
“If you enjoy drinking tequila and Mezcal—and I do—vigilance is required for their preservation,” Carey said. “TIP advocates for the preservation of sustainable, traditional and quality practices.”
While not a member of TIP himself, Garrett agreed and said he has a unique role to play as a distributor. “I’m a importer/distributor so I get to represent the art of the people who support TIP or are even involved,” Garrett said. “For me it isn’t about being a member of TIP, it’s about supporting the cause. I have a unique opportunity as a distributor.”
Garrett has seized on that opportunity by being an evangelist of sorts for agave spirits. At the San Antonio Cocktail Conference in 2014, he was on a panel that hosted a master class on tequila where participants were able to try some vintage — and very rare — tequilas. And just six months ago he helped bring three mezcaleros to the conference to talk about their craft. Garrett said that working so closely with those families gave him “an outlet to use their stories to help educate … and discuss their cause and even raise funds to help.”
The Ascent of Mezcal
While tequila has gone mainstream, Mezcal is just now beginning to catch fire here in the States. But because of how Mezcal expresses terroir, or the sense of place where the spirit was made, the particular taste is hard to explain to a person who has never tried it before.
“The flavor spectrum is immense: smoky, sweet, tropical, herbaceous, nutty, spicy, grassy, fruity, earthy and the list goes on and on,” said Houston Eaves, beverage director at The Esquire Tavern and El Mirador and member of TIP. “Most people are generally not accustomed to tasting an un-aged, full-strength (45-55% ABV) spirit neat. So, it can be a bit jarring for people tasting Mezcal for the first time. It really helps to taste with someone who can help talk them through tasting techniques, and what it is they’re tasting.”
But it is not just the flavors that enamor consumers — there are also the stories of the mezcaleros and their families who pour so much love into creating the spirit. After visiting Oaxaca for the first time, Eaves was so impressed by what he saw that he later returned for a six month stint to work with the family that produces Mezcal Vago. In that time he helped manage the daily operations of getting their Mezcal out to the world and wore a variety of hats, including trucking liters of Mezcal to Oaxaca City, hosting tastings and managing the bottling process.
(Watch an interview of mezcalero Aquilinio Garcia Lopez of Mezcal Vago on SA Flavor.)
“To see the history, tradition, love, care and pure hard labor that goes into each drop of Mezcal, was a hugely eye-opening experience,” Eaves said. “The one thing that impressed me more than anything was that everybody in the family participated in the Mezcal production somehow and that this all essentially happens at their home.”
Diego Galicia, chef and co-owner of Mixtli was born and raised an hour away from Mexico City. Recently he opened up Mezcalería Mixtli, a bar that features more than 40 varieties of Mezcal, because he felt a responsibility to help tell that story of Mezcal.
“Mezcal is at a pivotal point,” Galicia said. “It has a lot of depth and complexity and (it’s) no wonder it became so popular in the last few years.”
For people who have never tried Mezcal, Galicia said they will be surprised that it actually has a flavor profile.
“It’s always fun talking to our guests after they try it and listen to the notes they catch,” he said. “Sometimes it’s clay, sometimes it’s soil, or smoke. It’s the learning factor about Mezcal that really catches me.”
Preserve Something Special
But as the category continues to grow, some worry that the same industrialization that changed tequila will also happen to Mezcal.
“Popularity was a natural progression. Anyone who got into Mezcal early preached it to their friends,” Garrett said. “Although I have some (distillers) that can produce enough output to ensure consumers can get (enough), I regularly get in batches that are super small and this makes it hard to ensure everyone gets some.”
As more people start enjoying Mezcal, Garrett is concerned that larger companies will build massive facilities to satisfy that need. But it will be done at the cost of quality. “Why would some big company want to drive four hours on a dirt road in the mountains of Oaxaca to get 50 liters of Mezcal when they can have a industrial facility on the edge of the city that can produce for them?” Garrett asked.
Carey, for one, believes in being an advocate for those traditionally made things that give that “sense of place,” which is why his restaurant is hosting this event.
“TIP is doing heroic work in advocating for traditionally-made agave spirits,” Carey said. “We live in a world where everything is ‘optimized,’ conceived with uniformity as the primary goal, designed to be produced by idiots or machines and made/sold as cheaply as possible. If no one advocates for agave spirits, they will be lost to history.”
Help support the Tequila Interchange Project by attending the benefit at The Monterey this Monday, June 15 from 7 -11 p.m. Entry is $15 which includes food from The Monterey and Mixtli. Tequila and Mezcal will be available for purchase. All proceeds go directly to TIP.
*Featured/top image:Light trails pass The Monterey just after the sun sets. Photo by Scott Ball.