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Mezcalaria, The Cult of Mezcal: Book Review by Alvin Starkman

Mezcalaria,The Cult of MezcalMezcalaria,The Cult of Mezcal:  Book Review

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

Mezcalaria, Cultura del Mezcal, The Cult of Mezcal (Farolito ediciones, 2012) is the third edition, first bilingual (English-Spanish), of the seminal 2000 publication by author Ulises Torrentera.  The book is highly opinionated on the one hand, yet on the other contains a wealth of both historical and contemporary facts about agave, mezcal and pulque.  Torrentera places his subject matter within appropriate social, cultural, ethnobotanical and etymological context, at times referencing other Mexican as well as Old World spirits and fermented drinks.  And where fact is uncertain, or when Torrentera feels the need to supplement in order to hold the reader’s interest, he infuses with myth and legend.

Torrentera takes the reader far beyond the decades old introductory book, de Barrios’ A Guide to Tequila, Mezcal and Pulque and much deeper into the field of inquiry than the more recent series of bilingual essays in Mezcal, Arte Traditional, although the latter does include excellent color plates(the Spanish first edition of Mezcalaria contains a few color plates). It stands at the other end of the spectrum from the monolingual coffee table book Mezcal, Nuestra Esencia and is far more comprehensive than the English portion of Oaxaca, Tierra de Maguey y Mezcal.

Torrentera’s passion for mezcal rings loud and clear.  In discussions with him and in the course of hearing him hold guidecourt, he has repeatedly indicated that it’s crucial that more aficionados of alcoholic beverages taste and appreciate all that mezcal has to offer.   That’s his motivation for writing, speaking, and exposing the public to mezcal in his Oaxaca mezcaleria, In Situ. The spirit, paraphrasing his viewpoint, leaves its main rival tequila behind in its wake, primarily because of the numerous varieties of agave which can be transformed into mezcal, the broad range of growing regions and corresponding micro-climates, and the diversity of production methods currently employed,  the totality yielding a plethora of flavor nuances which tequila cannot match.

His treatise, on the other hand, to some extent does his raison d´être a disservice. He is overly critical of mezcal that is not to his liking.  For example, in the Prologue to this first English edition (don’t let the poor and at time incomprehensible translation of the Prologue dissuade an otherwise prospective purchaser; the balance of the book is well translated) Torrentera writes of mezcal with more than or less than 45 – 50% alcohol by volume:  “above that graduation [sic] the flavors of mezcal are lost and there is more intoxication; if it is below this one cannot appreciate the organoleptic qualities of the beverage.”  He also writes that unaged or blanco is the best way to appreciate mezcal.  He continues that in his estimation “cocktails are the fanciest manner to degrade mezcal.”

Indeed, I regularly drink one particular mezcal at 63%, which is exquisite, and numerous other mezcales in the 52% – 55% range which my drinking partners and I enjoy; we appreciate flavor nuances without becoming overly intoxicated.  At the other end of the spectrum, a recent entry into the commercial mezcal market, produced in Matatlán, Oaxaca, is 37%.  The owners of the brand held well over 50 blind taste testings in Mexico City, including mezcales of less percentage alcohol, of greater potency, and of popular high end designer labels; 37% won out by a wide margin.  In the first year of production it shipped 16,000 bottles of 37% alcohol by volume to the domestic market only; not bad for a mezcal lacking organoleptic qualities.

Regarding the blanco/reposado/añejo issue, why not encourage novices to try it all and decide for themselves?  Why dissuade drinkers of Lagavulin, or better yet Glenmorange sherry or burgundy cask scotch from experimenting with mezcal aged in barrels from French wine or Kentucky bourbon?  While I appreciate Torrentera’s zeal and his belief, his dogmatism may very well serve to restrict sales of mezcal and inhibit valiant efforts to find convertees.  Many spirits aficionados might prefer a mezcal which he does not recommend.  Furthermore, if mixologists and creative bartenders can increase sales and market mezcal through mixing mezcal cocktails, isn’t that what the Maestro wants?

Torrentera’s reflections are otherwise sound and should find broad agreement with readers, be they mezcal or tequila aficionados or novices, or those who are otherwise followers of the industry.  I’ve often expressed his point that far too many exporters and large scale producers are padding their bank accounts at the expense of campesino growers and owners of small distilleries, the mom and pop “palenques” as they’re termed in the state of Oaxaca.  He laments the regulatory direction mezcal appears to be heading, and pleads for change in the NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) and for a better and more discerning and detailed system of classification.  He warns of mezcal heading in the direction of tequila in terms of homogenization.

Torrentera’s work is the most comprehensive and detailed endeavor available in English, which combines and synthesizes literature about agave (historical uses and cultural importance), pulque (within global context of fermented beverages) and mezcal (as one of a number of early distilled drinks). He appropriately criticizes, mainly in the Prologue, academic studies which have provisionally concluded, using a bastardized form of scientific method, the existence of distillation in pre-Hispanic times.

alvin starkman

Available from the author for $12pp via PayPal. Click on image to email for availability.

The author shines in his compiling, extensively drawing from, and quoting diverse bodies of work; scholarly, historical anecdotal, as well as both secular and religious Conquest era laws and decrees.  His bibliography is impressive.  He correctly cites inconsistencies in and difficulties interpreting some of the centuries old references, allowing the reader to reach his own conclusions.  If a criticism must be proffered, occasionally it is difficult to discern when he is quoting versus using his own words.  But this is likely an issue with editing and printing than fault of Torrentera. At times he does neglect to indicate dates and sources, making it hard to determine precisely how much is independent research.  Footnotes would have helped in this regard, and also would have made it easier for the reader to go to the original source material.

Torrentera vacillates between seemingly attempting to write in an academic manner, and inserting intra-chapter headings and content which would appear to be attempts at humor.  To his credit, however, the difference is easily discernible, and accordingly the reader should have no difficulty distinguishing fact from lightheartedness.

Mezcalaria, Cultura del Mezcal, The Cult of Mezcal, is an important and extremely comprehensive body of work.  It should be read by everyone with an interest in agave, mezcal (or tequila) and / or pulque.  Torrentera is to be congratulated for compiling an excellent multidisciplinary reference text which no other writer to date has been able to do.

Alvin Starkman

alvin starkman, mezcal, Mezcalaria,The Cult of MezcalAlvin Starkman has been an aficionado of mezcal and pulque for more than 20 years.  A resident of Oaxaca, Alvin frequently takes visitors to the state into the outlying regions of the central valleys to teach them about mezcal, including different production methods, flavor nuances and the use of diverse agave species. He owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca.  Alvin has written extensively about mezcal and pulque.  He is the author of Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market:  Unrivaled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances.

 

Read more articles by Alvin Starkman at MexConnect.

Oaxaca Culinary Tours 

Casa Machaya, Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast

 

 

 

 

Review of Grant MacPherson’s Word of Mouth by Lisa Pietsch

grant macpherson, chef, morgan freemanOne of the benefits of working at Tequila Aficionado is that we’re often privy to tequila scuttlebutt.  When I heard whispers that Mary Clemente, boss lady of Jurado Tequila, was working on something with well-travelled celebrity Chef Grant MacPherson, I had to know more.

It isn’t just about the tequila for me.  My interest lies in all that is Tequila Culture - the people, history, places, and pairings that make up what our CEO, M.A. “Mike” Morales calls the “Anejo Lifestyle.”

The pairing of exclusive, ultra premium Jurado Tequila with world class Chef Grant MacPherson was news that definitely piqued my interest.

word of mouth, cooking, food, grant macpherson, jurado tequilaAfter a bit of Googling, I discovered Chef MacPherson had recently released a book entitled “Word of Mouth,” so I brazenly asked for a review copy.  In the publishing industry, handing out PDF versions of advance reading copies (ARCs) for review is commonplace.  What I didn’t expect was to receive a signed hardcover copy from Chef MacPherson himself.

Reading Word of Mouth, I realized the passion and care that goes into a well-crafted tequila is the same that goes into a well-crafted meal–both are art forms.

terroir, grant macpherson, chef, foodMacPherson considers the terroir of the foods he sources in the same way a Master Distiller considers the source of his or her agave.  Whether you’re distilling a fine agave spirit or preparing an herb-crusted rack of lamb, as you’ll find on page 88, the true artist ensures every ingredient is the finest available so that he can create something unlike any other.

Jurado’s tagline is “Let taste be the judge.”   Mary Clemente is taking that a step further by enlisting the talents of a top chef who regularly cooks with wine, vodka, and Scotch, and plans to let him innovate epicurean masterpieces with Jurado Tequila.

macpherson, chef, jurado tequilaI would love to be at the chef’s table the evening he premiers that menu!

Word of Mouth is an eclectic compilation that is part resume of the positions MacPherson has held at exclusive resorts, part gratitude for all the mentors and management who have had a part in his career, part who’s-who of the superstar chefs he’s butted heads and knocked elbows with, and part endorsements from the many who have had the pleasure of working with him.

Jurado Tequila will be so exclusive that it will only be available through duty free retail stores in certain countries for those with the means and sophistication to travel internationally.  One of Chef MacPherson’s dishes in Word Of Mouth is likely to be just as rare a find.

chef grant macphersonFor those of us who may not have the opportunity to dine at Chef MacPherson’s table, Word of Mouth teases us with some luxurious and artistically presented dishes such as Singapore Chili Crab, Eight-Hour Golden Pineapple, and Maine Lobster Scotch Eggs that only the most brave and adventuresome will attempt to recreate.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention presentation in my discussion of Word of Mouth.  Photographer Bill Milne has supplied each page with a stunning image related to each dish and meal creation.

This is the Anejo Lifestyle at its finest.

Word Of Mouth isn’t just a cookbook, homage, or resume.  The entire piece is an opus, packed with stunning images meant to spur discussions of world travel, meals enjoyed, and the friends one meets along the way.

It’s the sort of book we might browse and discuss while enjoying a treasure bottle of tequila with cherished friends.  Gratefully, Mary Clemente has persuaded Chef MacPherson to add premium Jurado Tequila to his artist’s palette so he might lend his talents to Tequila Culture and lead the way for other chefs to explore agave spirits and bring them into the mainstream for all to appreciate and enjoy.

Mary Clemente gets her close-up.Word of Mouth isn’t just a book; it is an experience for the senses, something tequila aficionados worldwide can certainly appreciate.      

If you’re wondering what Mary Clemente has up her sleeve, stay tuned. I’ll get it out of her eventually!

You can find Jurado Tequila at www.juradotequila.com and Chef Grant MacPherson at www.scotchmyst.com

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Review of Ilana Edelstein’s The Patron Way by Lisa Pietsch

the patron way, tequila, ilana edelsteinBusiness Narrative, Marketing Manual, or Romance?

Described as a “deeply personal business narrative,” the story centers around the development from the ground up of Patrón tequila, a “brand that single-handedly changed the face of the liquor industry,” by its co-founder, Martin Crowley, and as told by his then young and lively life partner, Ilana Edelstein.  

Tequila is by far my spirit of choice.  I’ve loved it for decades, and I still love learning by tasting more tequilas and by researching its fascinating history.  That’s why when the offer to preview Ilana Edelstein’s new book, The Patron Way, came across my desk, I jumped at the opportunity.

I wasn’t fooled by the above description, however. In fact, I’m not even a fan of Patron Tequila.

Drinking it is an unsettling experience for me, though I do understand the big batch Patron Tequila available today is a different product than the one the partners Martin Crowley and Jon Paul DeJoria fell in love with years ago.  I simply wanted to learn about the early days of one of the biggest brands ever.

A Lifestyle Business

Yes, business is a key player in this story.  At a time when the term “Lifestyle Business” had yet to be coined, Patron was just that.  Ilana Edelstein and Martin Crowley, along with J.P. and Eloise DeJoria, lived that lifestyle and created the Patron brand around it.

The DeJorias had money and plenty of Hollywood connections.  Martin Crowley had hustle and Ilana had an instinctive, albeit racy, style.  The combination was magic.

Great juice, sexy presentation of the distinctive bottle with the green ribbon, and even sexier presenters in a time when using gorgeous women to promote liquor was a novel idea.

Today, products and celebrities are branded intentionally and strategically.  By contrast, the Patron brand grew organically through the millionaire lifestyle lived by J.P. and his gorgeous wife, Eloise, and guided by the hustle and determination of the rough-around-the edges Martin Crowley and his bombshell lover, Ilana Edelstein, who softened his brash approach to business.

Having a background in branding and marketing, I understood all that. I’m a novelist with a degree in business who pays her rent with marketing work.

It made perfect sense – top end lifestyle and top shelf tequila.  But, what captivated me was the love story.

*Spoiler Alert*

ilana edelstein, the patron way, tequila

The Patron Way is the tragic story of a thirteen-year love affair between Martin Crowley and Ilana Edelstein that ended when ego, greed, and lawyers got in the way.

Ilana was making a great living as a financial advisor to school teachers.  When Martin asked her to give it all up and work with him full-time on Patron, she didn’t hesitate to accept.  He didn’t offer her shares, a paycheck or a wedding ring, only the opportunity to continue their love affair living the glamorous lifestyle they both enjoyed.

She was madly in love with him and, by all accounts, he with her.  What more could two lovers want than a business they could build together?  Why wouldn’t she accept?

It all went well for a loving couple that seemed to complement each other perfectly.  A beautiful home, parties, A-list social circles, yachts and island vacations.  Until Patron became so in-demand that it caught the attention of Big Liquor.

The book blurb describes it as an “astonishingly competitive and sometimes cutthroat industry.”  Cutthroat it was.

Lawyers swooped in and worked on Martin’s insecurities.  His health was failing due to advanced heart disease and he and Ilana weren’t married.  It doesn’t take a genius to see how lawyers could play that to their advantage.

What if she broke up with him and filed a palimony lawsuit?  If he’d known the history of Marvin vs. Marvin, Martin Crowley wouldn’t have given it a second thought, but lawyers can make persuasive arguments.

What if she tried to take half of his half of the company?  What if she sued for unpaid wages?  Did she have a contract?  Did they have an agreement?

Martin follows the questionable advice of lawyers, enacted by an even more questionable court system.  This is where the glitter fades and the story turns ugly.

He breaks up with the woman he loves, the woman he can’t bear to sleep without at night.  Hearts break.  There is a long drawn out trial, her reputation is smeared and yet, he continues to watch her, to stalk her, to love her, and she still loves him.

He moves to a house on Antigua and shelters his money.  A new will is drawn up.  Though he assures her she’ll be fine, he promises her nothing.

At the end of the story, Ilana is rebuilding her life.  All those years of love for Martin and Patron earned her nothing in the way of financial security.  Though she is still loyal to the Patron brand and loves Martin dearly, she realizes she must press on.  Martin’s story doesn’t end as well.

His financial future is secure with Patron, but when he has a heart attack at the top of the stairs in his beautiful home in Antigua, the lawyers that he depended upon to protect his interests were nowhere to be found.  He died alone, at the bottom of the stairs, surrounded by his wealth.  His body was found the next day by his staff.

My heart ached for Ilana, for her hard work, love and devotion, for what she’d gone through with the breakup and then what she must have felt when she learned how the love of her life had died.

Though I may never be a fan of Patron Tequila, I can honestly say The Patron Way by Ilana Edelstein was a delicious cocktail of innovation and inspiration with a twist of tragedy for a bittersweet finish.

The Patron Way is available at Amazon.com and other booksellers in both ebook and hardcopy.


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