Ron Cooper & Del Maguey: Selling Isn’t Always Selling Out

Ron Cooper & Del Maguey: Selling Isn't Always Selling Out https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5DoIn Support of Del Maguey Mezcal

Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Since about autumn, 2017, there has been grumbling and boycotting by some in the bar business and others who consider themselves mezcal aficionados in the know, as a consequence of alcohol giant Pernod Ricard buying a controlling interest in Del Maguey Mezcal. Instead, these naysayers should all be pressuring the state of Oaxaca, if not Mexico, to honor Ron Cooper with testimonial dinners. Were it not for the brand’s founder, Mr. Cooper, we would be far behind where we currently are in terms of the mezcal boom and what it has spawned for many, including the complainers.

Mr. Cooper is the father of all present manifestations of the global artisanal mezcal movement. Though an acquaintance and no more. I have been paying homage to him regularly over the past few years to anyone who would listen. And now, a much broader audience deserves to know, and to recognize the importance of Del Maguey Mezcal.

The brand began during the dark ages of artisanal mezcal, that is, 1995. Who else in that era would have thought of equating mezcal with lofty single malt scotch? The marketing brilliance of Mr. Cooper’s registration and continuous use of the phrase “single village mezcal” has not been matched since. Yes, more recently there has been a movement towards including more information on labels which has elevated consumers’ levels of knowledge and sophistication (i.e. including village and palenquero name, specie and sub-specie of agave, type of fermentation vessel and still, and the list goes on). But whose business plan have virtually all of these more recent brands followed, that is having contractual relationships with palenqueros in different villages and promoting the spirit based on the region and the type of maguey?

Ron Cooper & Del Maguey: Selling Isn't Always Selling Out https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5Do

Until the mid 1990s, with few exceptions all we knew was mezcal unaged, “with the worm,” reposado, añejo, and to a more limited extent tobalá. Look at where we now are, thanks to Del Maguey Mezcal and Mr. Cooper. Would the other artisanal brands even exist if it were not for the pioneering of Del Maguey? Perhaps.  In fact I firmly believe in independent invention.  That is, when the time is right, different people arrive at the same idea, independently, and develop it. And so, for example, if distillation began in Northern Africa, Asia, the Philippines and elsewhere around the globe more than a thousand years ago, since we all have the same brains, it makes sense that also in Mexico distillation should similarly have dated back to roughly the same era.  As long as human beings are able to cease being hunters and gatherers and begin building settlements and as a result have more leisure time to think, they will innovate.  So the analogy is, the latter part of the 20th century proved to be ripe for artisanal mezcal promotion in Mexico, by anyone.  But who first had that vision, the entrepreneurial work ethic, and the willingness to invest capital to see it through to fruition?

 

About ten years ago I came across Mr. Cooper on a downtown street in Oaxaca. He readily acknowledged that he was finally making money, after a decade or so of seeing nothing but red.

During March, 2018, I had an opportunity to speak at much greater length with Mr. Cooper, and to ask the hard questions. It’s actually pretty difficult, though certainly not impossible, to pull the wool over my eyes, not suggesting for a minute that he would ever consider attempting to do so.  In fact, on a regular basis I am in some of the villages where Del Maguey Mezcal is produced.  I speak to palenqueros every week. I have been witnessing the economic ebbs and flows of the city of Oaxaca and its central valleys since the early 1990s, before Mr. Cooper began. Having been trained as a litigation lawyer, I know how to probe, to question, to doubt, and to understand and evaluate all sides of any argument.

Ron Cooper & Del Maguey: Selling Isn't Always Selling Out https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5Do

Did Mr. Cooper sell out? Of course not. Who more than this 74-year-old artist hailing from New Mexico deserves his just desserts?  He spent more than 22 years developing the brand and helping to advance the industry into what it is today. When we recently spoke I was not concerned about knowing how much he and his partners received from Pernod Ricard.  Though I have heard all the rumours, having an accurate or a ballpark figure was not important, and so I did not ask. My interests were, amongst other things, what was going to happen to the quality of his mezcal, the extent to which if at all Mr. Cooper had ceded control over the brand by signing contracts with Pernod Ricard in mid 2017, his take on the sustainability of the industry, and what we can envision for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Cooper was approached by a number of suitors dating to close to a decade ago; the big players in the alcohol business. But he waited for the right opportunity to arise, and then once Pernod Ricard came along, it was easy.  He recalls one meeting with their group in Paris that was, to use his words, “a love fest.”

He continued:

“I was so impressed, and at one particular moment I just knew it would work out great for the artisanal mezcal industry; for Mexico and in particular Oaxaca; for my palenquero associates, their families and their communities; and yes of course for me and my partners and our employees. PR knows how to grow brands, whereas others we had been associated with or which had come knocking at our door, had respectively failed to help us grow in a way we wanted to, or didn’t seem to have our vision for the future. ”

I have been a part of Oaxaca for an extended period of time and like Mr. Cooper have been able to assess the impact of the growth of the industry on the lives of many. It is inconceivable that the Pernod Ricard purchase can do anything but move the artisanal mezcal industry into the future in a positive way. Isn’t that what we all want?

Ron Cooper & Del Maguey: Selling Isn't Always Selling Out https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5Do

Mr. Cooper will maintain control over production for the foreseeable future. He has not ceded the helm to anyone.  On the contrary, he is busy exploring new growth avenues by working with additional palenqueros to complement his existing team, interacting with the powers that be in towns and villages to address sustainability issues, and dealing with matters relating to practices to diminish the likelihood of adverse environmental consequences of production. Rather than move in the direction of industrialization as a mean of addressing increased demand, as some brand owners have done, Del Maguey Mezcal is being diligent in its attempts to keep artisanal production methods and tools of the trade the same.  It is increasing still and fermentation vat numbers at the palenques, with change coming only to the extent that quality is not adversely impacted. In other words, if the horse has always been pulling the tahona, it will continue to do so, and if the family has been accustomed to baking piñas in an earthen oven over logs, rocks, bagazo and dirt, there will be no change.

 

Mr. Cooper continues to respect the mantra he learned some time ago: “one guy one still.” In fact he is bent upon rejuvenating the concept of “mezcal del campo,” the old way of making mezcal just using whatever agave is available. It seems somewhat counterintuitive for someone who has built a brand based on distinguishing species and sub-species, but on the other hand it illustrates the extent to which Pernod Ricard has granted Mr. Cooper artistic license.

Del Maguey Mezcal has grown well on its own, but of course Pernod Ricard gives it a bigger footprint.  The plan is to develop European and other international distribution through a gradual yet decisive evolution, and thus making it easier to maintain growth in a way that does not adversely impact artisanal production.

I have only met three of the Del Maguey palenqueros.  But none has complained about being squeezed in terms of price or suggested that they are being pressured to compromise quality. They laude Mr. Cooper’s investment in their palenques. About a decade ago a close palenquero friend from Santiago Matatlán told me that Del Maguey Mezcal was not having any significant impact on palenqueros’ lives because Mr. Cooper was only buying a few hundred liters at a time from each of them.  Things quickly began to change, and one can more recently see advancements in the paving of village streets; new home and commercial building construction; and the “toys” many families now have, parked in their driveways, for watching TV in their living rooms, and for connecting with the world.  Certainly other brand owners are having an impact, but Mr. Cooper has been at the fore.

Ron Cooper & Del Maguey: Selling Isn't Always Selling Out https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5Do

Pernod Ricard can only further positive growth of the industry and local (as well as international) economies.  We will witness more global exposure to artisanal mezcal. Through healthy competition our ability to explore new flavors and aromas will increase, via more brand development and/or Del Maguey Mezcal discovering new horizons.

The economic woes of Oaxaca, a state which relies almost solely on tourism for its very existence, date to the civil unrest of 2006. Since then net state revenues have dramatically increased and decreased like peaks and valleys. There was recovery from 2006, then the Mexican swine flu, then recovery, then the US economic crisis, then recovery, then the drug wars, then recovery, then Zika, and here we are in yet another state of recovery and economic advancement; until the next US state department alert and journalistic sensationalism.

Tourists arriving for crafts, cuisine, architecture and archaeological sites are impacted by what they hear and read. The state’s only saving grace is mezcal tourism. Why?  We don’t know for sure, but what I have witnessed is that travelers who come to Oaxaca because of mezcal, do not appear to be phased like others, by what they hear and read. They keep coming, their numbers exponentially increasing literally monthly, and indeed with little seasonal fluctuation. We cannot obviously attribute all to Mr. Cooper, but certainly what he has done for the industry over more than two decades has helped keep Oaxaca afloat.

We live in a capitalist society. I view the owners of export brands and other entities in the business of mezcal, along a continuum. At one end are those in it purely for altruistic reasons, wanting to advance mezcal’s reputation locally or on the world stage, with not a care about advancing their own economic fortunes. At the other end are those in it just for the money, the opportunists not caring about the lot in life of the palenqeros, the growers, or anyone else except themselves. Mr. Cooper lies towards the former axis, more so over the past few years because of his brand success, than at the outset. Mezcal is his baby, always has been and always will be.

Ron Cooper & Del Maguey: Selling Isn't Always Selling Out https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5Do

What will the mezcal industry be like in 20 years when some of your favorite brands have sold out?  Visit Oaxaca now, but be sure to peak behind the curtain to see how some have already changed to meet demand. Many but not all are valiantly maintaining integrity. At least for the foreseeable future we can be reasonably assured that Del maguey will remain as it has been since 1995.

We have witnessed dramatic change in the industry especially over the past decade, some good and some bad. I know of brands currently being courted by multinationals. We can only hope and pray that those producing quality agave spirits maintain significant decision-making power over means and production and tools of the trade, after selling an interest in their brands like Mr. Cooper has, or otherwise in order to meet increasing demand. Will you stop buying and drinking your favorite brands just because of a change in ownership? If you do, soon you may not be imbibing any good mezcal. Alternatively, you can start your own brand, then see what happens when someone comes a calling. On balance the best you will do is what Ron Cooper has done with Del Maguey Mezcal.

A few weeks ago I placed an online order for 48 bottles of one of my favorite reasonably priced national artisanal beer brands, Cucapá. The return address of the courier slip stated Grupo Modelo, the consortium with 32,000 employees, which owns amongst other brands, Corona, Modelo, Pacífico, León, Victoria, and, Cucapá.  Will I stop drinking Cucapá?  Of course not, as long as the quality remains as I have known it.

Alvin Starkman owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).