[Editor’s Note: On this day after 2018’s International Margarita Day festivities, Tequila Jockey,Jim Johnston, shares his fond recollections of margarita making inside Ireland’s renowned Dick Mack’s Pub & Brewhouse, while visiting relatives in 2017.]
No Country for Cocktails
Ireland is not a cocktail country.
Don’t get me wrong, I had several well made drinks during my visit, but, in most pubs you’re going to find a diverse tap and a shelf stocked with whiskey.
Historic Dick Mack’s has been serving up liquid refreshments since 1899. It has been in the same family and built a reputation as the classic example of an Irish pub. Besides a pristine tap, a brass fixture, polished daily with the pub’s name engraved on the front, there is a shelf from bar to ceiling full of Irish whiskeys.
In recent years, Dick Mack’s also has been awarded Munster province and Overall Irish whiskey bar of the year for 2014, 2015, and 2016. The pub also serves a fair amount of Dingle Gin from the distillery up the road.
I was told that most Americans drink the traditional Guinness draft, one of the light American lagers available, or they choose to taste some whiskeys from the impressive collection.
When I asked if there was any tequila in the house, Finn, grandson of Dick Mack himself, produced a bottle of what I typically keep on hand at home, Jose Cuervo Tradicional Reposado.
Ireland’s Cocktail Culture
What followed was a great discussion about the cocktail culture of Ireland, including the failed attempts of previous spirits brands to promote tequila on the island. Patron’s The Patronic (Patron tequila, tonic and lime) did not take off here.
Finn’s hope is that the acquisition of Bushmills by Cuervo flagship Proximo in 2014, would lead to a more modern, consumer savvy, tequila-esque promotion of the Irish whiskey label.
As we spoke I noticed a bottle of Cointreau hiding behind some whiskey, as well as some fresh lemon juice and quite a few limes waiting to be sliced.
We were staying with my two cousins in Dingle and it was they who, when they lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, introduced me to tequila and the simple art of the margarita.
The Simple Art of The Margarita
It was a particularly warm day for Ireland in late May, about 75 degrees. Perfect for enjoying margaritas.
I offered to give the Irish crew behind the bar a quick lesson in margarita making and they went about putting together the Irish version of the first really good margarita that I had ever had, the House Traditional, at the famed Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen in Santa Fe, where lemon juice is the citrus of choice.
We made margaritas, and the boys behind the bar agreed that they were a far better effort than the last attempt at tequila marketing that they had been exposed to.
I would venture back to Dick Mack’s several times that week but, knowing that I had a steady stream of tequila to taste when I came home, I stuck to the perfectly poured Guinness and local whiskey.
When I go back to Ireland, I may have a margarita waiting for me.
Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!
Douglas French, pioneer Master Distiller of legacy brand Scorpion Mezcal™, innovates Sierra Norte Native Corn Whiskies™ produced using Mexican heirloom corn.
Due to mezcal’s burgeoning global popularity, “…there is currently a shortage of agave and lots of the small palenques are not distilling,” explains Douglas French, creator of legacy brand, Scorpion Mezcal™.
“I am in the same boat,” he continues, “but instead of looking for an outside job, I have developed recipes to make whiskey.”
It is this kind of ingenuity that has positioned Scorpion Mezcal™ as the perennial leader in introducing and elevating award winning, high quality mezcals to over 38 states and 16 countries.
Sierra Norte Native Corn Whiskies™ was launched in the United States in 2016 to mark Scorpion Mezcal’s 20 successful years as a purely artisanal business that promotes social values and economic stability in Oaxaca.
“All of my business ventures have been driven by social responsibility as a keystone,” declares French.
The Sierra Norte mountain range of Oaxaca is acclaimed as one of the richest zones of biodiversity in Mexico.
Oaxaca is also the cradle of corn to the world with over 2,090 varieties in existence. But, in an era of genetically modified organisms (GMO), many of the native corn species are in danger of extinction.
To keep native cultures and traditions alive, all three expressions of Sierra Norte Native Corn Whiskies™ are made the old fashioned way in a blend of 85% corn and 15% malted barley.
Each batch is carefully distilled from the finest yellow, white and black heritage corn grown from seeds that were passed down from generation to generation.
Finally, every individual lot is aged for approximately 9 months in French oak barrels.
The result is three uniquely flavorful whiskies unlike any style before or since.
“Whiskey is a rich category,” asserts Doug, “and, these days, it is going way beyond just mere introductory basics.”
Most importantly, responsible enjoyment of Sierra Norte Native Corn Whiskies™ promotes these five points:
The preservation of endangered native heirloom corn in Oaxaca.
The purchase of this corn from small, family owned farms at fair prices.
Provides long term employment and above-average wages at the Scorpion Mezcal™ distillery where Sierra Norte Native Corn Whiskies™ are made.
Supports employment for the most vulnerable members of the community—women and single mothers.
Lastly, by reviving the domestic economy of both the farmers and workers, Sierra Norte Native Corn Whiskies™ and Scorpion Mezcal™ supplies them with much sought after security making migration away from their families unnecessary.
“I do my best to treat and pay my workers well,” says French. “In return, they are very loyal and have decided to make their careers at the distillery.”
“I have a pretty awesome crew!” he beams.
“Because of my upbringing,” concludes Douglas French, “I believe that socially responsible policies should always be a normal part of any business.”
Pioneer innovator, Douglas French, founder of Scorpion Mezcal kicks off a new feature on Tequila Aficionado called Men In Mezcal.
Establishing his distillery in Oaxaca in 1995, Scorpion has just celebrated its 20th anniversary as the original leader in introducing entry level mezcals to over 38 states, and globally to 16 countries.
Even before this current mezcal boom, Scorpion was often overlooked as the forerunner of producing varietal and barrel aged mezcals, while at the same time elevating its image into the “cognac of Mexico.”
Here to set the record straight–in his own words–is Douglas French of Scorpion Mezcal.
This is my story of living and working with the Zapotec peoples in Oaxaca to help build a category that has been hidden in the Sierra Madre del Sur for centuries.
It has been forsaken and beaten down by taxes and tequileros over the last century.
Now is its time to bloom as a category in the global arena. I am a part of this movement.
I have exported 14 mezcal brands to 16 countries around the world and my import company Caballeros, Inc., is adding more brands to the portfolio to get even more mezcal into the US market.
I have worked on this project for 20 years.
Weaving The Tapestry
“To make something of quality means that you put your body and soul into it. To create something new is an art form and an extension of oneself.”
I was a yarn and textile designer and weaver in San Francisco before I moved to Oaxaca, Mexico with my small craft mill. I made high quality original designs of natural cotton, wool and silk fabrics for interior decorating, and some clothing.
In Mexico, my mill started to thrive until it went bankrupt as a consequence of the NAFTA Free Trade Agreement between the USA, Canada and Mexico.
Most (about 70%) of Mexico’s factories closed down because of the free trade agreement. I was just one of many to suffer this collateral damage.
The mezcal industry in Oaxaca has been a subsistence level business activity. Most of the producers make very small quantities and are quite poor. However, I felt that there was potential to carve out a small business.
So, I changed my career to make mezcal. I hired Don Lupe, a Zapotec and 3rd generational maestro mezcalero to start work.
Establishing a Palenque
We set up a rudimentary palenque.
We dug a hole in the ground for the pit oven to cook the maguey. Lupe bought a log and had it cut into a rectangular block and had it dug out for mashing with wooden mallets.
I bought a bunch of sabino boards and Lupe sent them to the carpenter to make the fermentation vats. I found an old 100 liter still and had a local coppersmith patch it up. I also built a home made bottling machine.
The Small Batch Process
With this equipment Don Lupe started to make mezcal, teaching me and some of my weavers how to do it.
We were cooking the agave with oak logs in the pit. We cooked about 3 tons at a time per batch. I say about, because there were no scales, it was just a 3-ton truckload.
We pounded the agave with wooden mallets to make the mash that was then fermented and distilled. A batch ended up yielding about 175 liters of mezcal.
In the beginning we cooked 1 oven load a month. Then, we got up to 2 oven cookings a month for a maximum production of about 350 liters of mezcal a month.
I figured that 100 cases a month would be a perfect business and I could set up a hammock to relax in and watch the liquid gold drip out of my pot still.
It was looking like a great plan.
Off to Market
I set off to market to sell my mezcal.
Unfortunately no one wanted to buy. The local buyers already had suppliers and didn’t need any more. So the Oaxacan market was saturated with mezcal.
I decided to go back to the USA to sell it. However no one knew what mezcal was and no one wanted to buy it. No importer was interested in investing in it.
So with an old buddy in California, we started our own import and distribution company, Caballeros. This way we at least had the product in the USA ready to deliver without any delays.
Still no one wanted to buy mezcal.
Worms Are for Wimps!
I didn’t have the millions of dollars necessary to run a promotional program, so I needed something to get sales started. I came up with the Scorpion name and a real scorpion in the bottle.
That was exciting, and it got sales going, even though very slowly.
I soon realized that 350 liters a month wasn’t enough for me and my partner and my employees to earn a living. We were doomed to live in poverty unless we sold the product very expensively and abused the consumer.
My vision had been to give the best quality mezcal that I could make at a reasonable price to the consumer. So the solution was to make larger volumes.
So much for hanging out in the nice, comfortable hammock.
I started phase 2 of the distillery by adding a second 350 liter copper still and then a third500 liter copper still. I got a motorized shredder and a bunch of fermenting tanks.
For a while, I produced more than I was selling, so I put the excess into oak barrels to start aging. I started offering reposado and anejo mezcals to compliment the basic silver, as per my customer’s requests.
Phase 2 started to separate my palenque from the standard poverty/subsistence level indigenous artisan mezcaleros in the villages spread throughout Oaxaca.
There are 2 reasons for this: 1) the volume we were making was generating a larger cash flow and 2) we were enhancing the product with barrel aging, which the indigenous producers could not afford to do.
An old textile friend, Barbara Sweetman, decided to join in the effort and started selling mezcal full time in the USA. She is based in New York City. With her efforts, sales grew and I needed to produce more.
I started phase 3 with several bigger stainless steel stills: one 800 liter and one 1400 liter and eventually a 1,800 liter copper finishing still.
I built a brick oven to steam cook 5,000 to 6,000 kilos at a time. The steam cooking reduced the smoky flavor of the mezcal, and it let the agave flavors unveil themselves.
I was producing a lot and again more than I could sell. I bought a container load of fine French oak barrels from a Bordeaux red wine producer. This really ratcheted up the aging program.
Scorpion Mezcal received a Gold 94 points rating on the basic Silver, a Gold 92 on the Reposado, a 95 for the Anejo 1 Year. Platinum 96 on the 5 year Anejo and Platinum 97 on the 7 year Anejo. Plus, Best Mezcal from Food & Wine Magazine.
In all the other competitions, Scorpion Mezcals were awarded Golds, double Golds and a couple of Silvers. The market reacted very well to this change and sales increased quite quickly.
Soon I had to set up phase 4 of production with more stills, fermenting tanks and bigger ovens to process more agave to be able to supply the growing demand.
Scorpion Never Bores
I have always produced more than I sell so that I was sure that I could deliver my customers’ orders on time. The excess mezcal is put into barrels for the Reposado and Anejo mezcals.
Like anything, the repetitive process of making silver mezcal becomes tedious and boring. Also, drinking silver mezcal is ok for entry-level drinkers, but again gets boring.
The Reposado and Anejo are always welcomed delicious variations to the basic silver mezcal.
Variety: The Spice of Life
The aging process is always an exciting and mysterious process.
Since every barrel is different, the number of uses is different, the type of wood is different, the char is different, etc., so as a result, the flavor is always different.
I also discovered early on that different varietals of agave create different flavored mezcals.
So during the process of buying the agave from the indigenous agave farmers and cooperatives in different regions of Oaxaca, a fellow would pop up with a batch of a wild agave. I would usually buy it.
I then made it into mezcal–delicious stuff!
Since I wasn’t selling it, it just sat around. If it were a big batch, I would put some into barrels to age and become even more delicious.
Finally in 2012, I started introducing the Tobala varietal for sale, long considered the King of Agaves.
I sent samples of the Tobala to BTI and they were judged and awarded Platinum 96 rating for the Silver and a Platinum 97 rating for the Extra Anejo Tobala.
Little by little, I am designing different presentations to offer more varietals for sale.
A long time ago, I realized that there wasn’t enough wild agave available to bring a product to market and still be able to deliver it consistently. So in 1997, I started to plant Tobala along with the Espadin agave that I was already growing.
The existing folklore in Oaxaca says that Tobala can only grow in the wild; it cannot be cultivated. I collected seed in the mountains and I planted some experimental plots.
Tobala grows very well when cultivated; the folklore is not true.
I also hired an agricultural engineer to study Oaxaca’s agricultural university records on the subject.
He discovered that in the 1930s and 40s, Tobala was a standard production crop. This was an era before the government introduced programs to establish Espandin as a monocultural crop in Oaxaca.
To grow a plant you need seeds to start. So I have hiked through the mountains of Oaxaca many times looking for, and sometimes finding, ripe seeding wild agave varietals and collected bulky bags of seeds to carry back to my nurseries.
I have created a seed bank of agave varietals, and maintain nurseries to grow the baby plants. It is slow work to create a basis for commercial crop cultivation of varietal agaves.
It takes 1 to 2 years in the nursery to germinate the seeds and to get the plant large enough to be transplanted as a crop. Then, it takes 6 to 15 years in the Oaxacan central valley, where I live, to grow the crop.
Of course, all of this takes money, money and more money, which is very scarce for us small artisanal mezcaleros.
We have no source of financing except or own hard-earned profits. The only way to grow is to tighten the belt and reinvest as much of the profits as you can into growth and crops.
I now have about 50 acres growing, with 5 varietals. Every year I harvest and every year I plant; that is the way with maguey.
Last year I planted 5000 Barril agave plants (also called madrecuixe, verde, largo of the Karwinski family). They take about 15 years to mature. At my age, I have no idea if I will live long enough to see the harvest.
I also realize that my efforts are just a drop in the bucket in comparison with what is needed for the growing mezcal market. However, it is a starting place to get this segment of the market going.
I am now presenting these small exclusive varietals under my trademark ESCORPION.
The Mother of Invention
There is currently a shortage of agave and lots of the small palenques are not distilling because there is no maguey. I am in the same boat.
So instead of looking for an outside job, I have developed recipes to make Rum and Whiskey. They will be launching in the USA by the end of 2016 under the SCORPION brand trademark.
The whiskies are especially exciting, because they are made with heirloom corn. I am using white, yellow and black corn. Oaxaca is the origin of corn in the world and has over 2,090 varieties of corn.
Mezcal is Trending
As I write this, there are about 100 Zapotec indigenous people in Oaxacan villages who eat every day because of the business transactions that I conduct with them, their fathers, brothers, wives or children.
Things are getting a little better now that mezcal is becoming more recognized and appreciated.
I hope to continue working and building the Scorpion brand, the mezcal category, and more jobs in Oaxaca.
Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!
There are few books on the subject of Tequila that are considered classics. The Book Of Tequila by the late, great Bob Emmons, stands out as the most essential for any student of agave spirits.
I consider Emmons the first, true Tequila Journalist. He was the first American author to demystify the much maligned Mexican tipple, and give it its rightful place among other elite sipping spirits.
Even posthumously, Emmons’ tome is so sought after that it is almost impossible to buy in paperback, let alone in hardcover. Obtaining a used copy, in any condition, is like discovering a treasure bottle of Porfidio Barrique, and just as pricey.
Ian Williams’ Tequila: A Global History, is not that kind of book–
But it could be.
To say that Emmons volume was ahead of its time goes without saying.
Chock-full of such useful information as addresses of the then existing distilleries, to the history of tequila, and even drinks recipes, Emmons covered it all.
So, what’s left to report?
The Rest of The Story
Since the first printing of Emmons’ book in April 1997, coinciding with the bilateral agreement between Mexico and the European Union that recognized tequila’s and mezcal’s denominations of origin a month later, the Tequila Industry has boomed and busted at least twice, maybe even three or four times.
And Agave Spirits, in general, has zoomed to the forefront of every mixology menu riding the wave of an unprecedented global cocktail craze.
That’s where Williams’ Tequila: A Global History steps in.
Have A Drink!
Sadly, Emmons is no longer on this earthly plane to have a drink with and to discuss the dawning of the growth of the Tequila Industry. Ian Williams, on the other hand, is alive and well and free for a drink!
We asked Ian to join us on Open Bar to discuss Tequila: A Global History. You can view that episode here or read on.
A wordsmith of the most delightful kind, the affable Williams literally embodies the voice and narrative of his book. With a sly smile and a gleam in his eye, this witty Brit kept us in stitches, sumptuously entertaining us with his tequila and mezcal travel tales.
Something For Everyone
His information isn’t just historically priceless (his interview with the controversial pariah Martin Grassl, innovator of Porfidio tequila, alone is
worth the purchase price), but also timely.
Williams deftly discusses the contentious implications of the recently tabled NOM 199 facing the Mezcal Industry and explains the true meanings of the newest designations (ancestral, traditional, artisanal, and industrial) that marketers have diluted into buzzwords to drive the craft spirits sensation.
He skillfully weaves the known Mayan, Olmec and Aztec chronology with current archaeological discoveries of Asian influenced distillation methods that stand to rewrite that history and the part played by the Spanish conquistadors.
And for Millennials seeking to educate themselves, Williams tackles sustainability issues, organic agave spirits, premiumization in the agave spirits market, and the sexiness of the agave plant itself. Even photos and cocktail recipes are included.
Mr. Williams does all this while craftily drawing parallels and similarities from his whisk(e)y, scotch and rum experiences (see Rum: A Social and Sociable History) as well as touching on other Mexican spirits like sotol and bacanora.
If Bob Emmons’ quintessential primer is considered The Greatest Tequila Story Ever Told, then Ian Williams’ Tequila: A Global History, could be its worthy sequel in a continuing agave saga.