Every great discovery begins as a quest for the simplest of things.
The start of my journey, a journey that would carry me deep into the culture, tradition and mystique of the most remote corners of Mexico, a journey that would help me find paradise, get me beat up, find me a wife and bring some of the finest mezcals to the rest of the world – came one morning fifteen years ago, when I was just trying to find some breakfast.
My buddy Dylan and I were in Oaxaca looking for a taqueria local -- something a little bit hidden, unknown, maybe even a little bit dirty. As we crossed the zocalo and ducked down a narrow privada, we were overrun by a parade of young Oaxacaños who had just graduated from trade school and were celebrating with banners, fireworks and -- this is the scary part -- gasoline cans.
The fifty or so graduates grabbed us, pulled us into the street, circled us and shoved at us … the gasoline cans! They chanted, “Toma! Toma! Toma!” They wanted us to drink? Gasoline?
With nothing to do but acquiesce to that kind of peer pressure, we raised those gasoline containers high and drank. What hit my lips was so smoky and powerful that, momentarily, I thought it might actually be gasoline. In fact, it was my first taste of mezcal.
I was used to tequila, with its mild flavor and lower alcohol content. Mezcal was different. Mezcal was like a slap to the face from a beautiful woman -- sure it hurts a little, but you savor the sting. Because you know she wouldn’t hit you if she didn’t care.
That first encounter with mezcal, like so many after it, fueled an adventure like nothing else can … except maybe gasoline itself. As we were swept away with the party and washed through the streets of Oaxaca, stopping every short while to drink the powerful potion those gas cans held, and as one poor soul vending whole, raw, plucked chickens from the back of his bicycle was caught in the middle of the band of wild, drunk graduates who started the world’s only raw chicken fight, and as I learned that a pollo missile hurled twenty meters packs quite a thump, and as we, not really hard drinkers, drank mezcal shot after mezcal shot before breakfast, I grew accustomed (drunk) to the flavor, and I enjoyed it as much as a young, naïve American man could at nine in the morning before breakfast.
When I awoke late that afternoon in my cot, dazed and confused, and saw Dylan sound asleep on the cold tile floor with a smile curling the corners of his mouth so that you might have mistook that dirty, mosaicked tile floor for a plush bed, I didn’t know that that day would eventually bring us to where we are now, sharing the wonders of mezcal with you. Today we share mezcal one sip at a time in beautiful bottles, not chugging from a gas can!
But somehow that day I knew my life would never be the same.
That day I fell in love with Oaxaca. I spent many years exploring its remote beaches, looking for hidden waves and uncompromised culture. Luck and vague stories brought me to a wild island west of Puerto Escondido, where I found an unbelievable wave and a quiet town of 300 mostly Afro-Mexicanos, with full-on island aloha. Surfing uncrowded, barreling waves and feasting on fish, I knew I had finally found my version of paradise.
Dylan and I opened a little beachside bar. Then luck struck -- in the guise of an ear infection. In the little rural health clinic, while sitting in the waiting room, feeling so much pain I was hoping to have my ear removed, out walked the nurse and instantly my ear pain faded, only to be replaced by a powerful heartache. The nurse was the loveliest woman I had ever seen. From that first instant I saw her, I knew that she would be the mother of my children.
To make that dream come true, I need courage. Lots of courage. It took all my courage to wait for her to finish work every day so we could walk hand in hand on the beach until dark. It took all my courage to pretend to be an English teacher - with the nurse as my first pupil. It took a little mezcal -- exactly four shots -- to give me the courage to absorb the news that she was already engaged to be married, to a man who lived in the provincial capital. (I may have puked those four shots back up.)
But ... el amor es todo … and I spent the next six months courting her like we were living in the Victorian era. That’s how everything works in rural Mexico -- slow, well-considered, and proper. But worth doing.
And I was learning to love mezcal. All the more so because the family of Valentina -- that was her enchanting name -- manufactured that lovely clear elixir in the hills above her town, in the heart of mezcal country.
I was absolutely blown away by the quality of mezcal that Valentina’s father was producing. For more generations than they can remember, going back 500 years, they have been making mezcal. I bought many liters and sold them on the beach in my bar. I eventually learned more and more about the craft. I traveled all over Oaxaca searching out lost and hidden palenques. I tried mezcals from many different mezcaleros comprised of different magueys and made with wildly varying techniques. I built up my collection, my knowledge and my palate. I learned that though high in alcohol content, when made just so, mezcal could be so smooth. It could be savored sip by sip, on its own, no need for a shot or mixed in a cocktail. I realized nothing is on par with mezcal as far as subtlety of flavor and variety of tasting note.
Finally, one sweltering afternoon, fate found me. Doom found me. As the crowd watching the cockfight going on in front of the clinic dispersed, the man Valentina was supposed to marry marched up. We were two roosters. Our spurs came out.
He had arrived unexpectedly from the capital. And I don’t think he liked being told in faltering Spanish by a gringo in a cowboy hat that Valentina wasn’t his anymore -- but not to worry, that there are plenty of fish in the sea. With the testosterone still hanging heavy in the air from the pelea de gallos, the remaining bystanders could sense the inevitable.
I’m a lover, not a fighter, but I did what I could. I did not back down. I had romanced his girl. He had come for revenge. I let him use my face as a heavy bag, so he could go home to his friends saying he beat me up. I’m pretty sure he hurt his fist on my face. He belted me in the head until la policia showed up. They permanently expelled him from the island.
Slowly but surely, the wounds healed. Valentina is a nurse, after all. And I won her love.
But I was terrified of asking her father, Aquilino, for her hand in marriage. Her stories of a strict, intimidating, gun-owning father did not quell my fears.
One hot, dry, late-summer day, I made the long trek up into the mountains, through the cactus forests, through the dry arroyos and finally waded across the river to her ranch with my plan of asking for her hand.
When the moment of truth came, mortified, Valentina was rendered speechless. I was left to my own devices, with my poor vocabulary. We walked to the bodega where Aquilino poured us jicaras of mezcal from his special reserve, surely with a glint of anticipation and enjoyment in his eye that I did not catch as I was so preoccupied with my imminent speech. Nearly ready to start, I took a sip of mezcal for courage. I was absolutely bowled over by the power of it, gasping for air as my throat closed. This was no ordinary mezcal but the alta, the very first part of the liquid that comes out of the still. Around 130 to 140 proof, it takes some getting used to.
I was feeling less than manly, but when I recovered, I bucked up, sung my tail of love and our prophetic plans for the future.
I really thought he might shoot me.
He listened quietly to all I had to say and in the end, replied simply, “you are adults, I trust your decisions and I am here for you as family.”
We picked out a fat goat, marinated it with chilies, onions, garlic, oregano and avocado leaves, roasted it underground and commenced the celebration. It was one to remember.
As I became part of her family, witness to their mastery in crafting mezcal, I knew the time had come to share these beautiful mezcals with the world.
With my old friend Dylan, we formed Vago, a company that exports Oaxaca’s finest, most undiscovered mezcals. We will feature many different mezcals and always have something new and different. Mezcal, like wine, varies with each batch. Much of the mezcal will come from my father in law, such as our Espadin and the Elote, but others, such as our Tobala and Madre Cuixe, found hard-fought on this epic journey, will come from other remote towns, from master mezcaleros whose mezcals must be shared with the world.
Each of our mezcals is unique and on the front label of each of our bottles, all the info is there about who made it, what pueblo, what agave, details in the process, size of batch and more. This is connoisseur mezcal. We aim to empower both the master craftsmen with a celebration of his art, and also the consumer by giving them the knowledge they need to find a great mezcal. All of our mezcals are joven and clear. Aquilino and his peers taught me that all mezcal should only be drunk this way. Storing or aging mezcal in wood should be avoided, as it chemically alters the mezcal adding flavors that should not, and traditionally were not there.
At Vago, we believe in walking away from the beaten path, losing ourselves in the hills, and searching out the extraordinary. We seek out small batch mezcaleros, who for generations have been perfecting their craft deep in the mountains of Southern Oaxaca.
As you enjoy this drink, I want you to savor the taste, the texture, and the kick. I want you to forget how far I’ve come to bring it to the rest of the world. I want you to focus on the flavors.
I won’t forget. I’ve got the scars. I’ve got the wife. And now, we’ve got a daughter -- Ami.
But you’ve got the mezcal. From my new family to yours. Dust off a bottle, and drink it in.
Judah Emanuel Kuper