By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
It’s a phenomenon I both predicted and hoped for, more than a decade ago. Finally, that new breed of mezcal aficionado, youths as well as the not-so-youthful who have been gravitating to the agave distillate over the past several years, has come around to respecting the spirit aged in oak barrels (as opposed to simply joven or blanco; silver for the benefit of tequila drinkers). For me, the first glimmer of sunlight came just this year, 2022, when Dalton Kreiss of the Maguey Melate agave distillate membership club finally elected to feature reposado in one of his bi-monthly kits he sends out to his mezcal geeks. Then more recently, an up-and-coming convertee to the spirit, Zack Klamn, discussed aged mezcal on one of his entertaining podcasts.
Prior to the mid-1990s, aged mezcal was indeed available in the US, well before the boom began. But the quality was rather suspect. Then when the better hooch arrived in the US, imported by brands such as Del Maguey, Encantado and Scorpion, it was initially just unaged. And so began the boom. Encantado faltered, Del Maguey kept on attracting new imbibers to the unaged spirit as did Scorpion. But Scorpion began enticing a new generation of mezcal drinker, those with a hankering for that oakiness, in a quality product; a là scotch, bourbon, rum, Canadian whisky, brandy and cognac.
Oak barrels have been around since about 350 BC, not always used to store or transport alcohol. Amongst several other uses, they were employed to hold water, and even commodities such as nails. Their shape is more resistant to breakage / cracking than for example a square or a rectangle. And they are less prone to their contents evaporating than clay receptacles. Back in the day, the Spanish, and presumably others including the French, would transport water in barrels over long distances, but found that it was becoming putrid. So they added alcohol, increasing the “water” to about 6% alcohol to reduce the likelihood of it going bad and becoming unhealthy for sailors. The English called it Grog. And of course a secondary perhaps initially unintended effect was keeping them happy, as drunks.
Scorpion Mezcal owner Douglas French actually began learning about mezcal during or about 1995, as an employee of Encantado. But his knowledge of aged spirits dated to much earlier, as a high school student in Switzerland, France and Spain, drinking scotch, brandy, and whatever else youths in Europe were drinking at the time. He learned empirically about spirits aged in oak, eventually beginning to read voraciously about all things alcohol. Over the course of about eight months working with Encantado, his team shipped six 40-foot tractor trailers northbound to the US, loaded with that brand of mezcal.
French had learned about exporting from Mexico into the US, while working with his mother, the late Roberta, in the textile industry. All was going well until the advent of NAFTA, which caused about 75% of Mexican manufacturing plants to close. But he had been working with Encantado. Even prior to working with that brand, French had purchased a large tract of land in San Felipe del Agua, a suburb of the city of Oaxaca, and began growing agave on it.
French’s aim was, and continues to date, to follow in his mother’s footsteps, helping Oaxaca which is currently the second poorest state in the country. Most importantly, he has prioritized employing women, mainly single mothers who typically languish at the bottom rung of the economic ladder. That was also a priority for his mother. Single mothers are the most vulnerable segment of Oaxacan society. I have written about Douglas French’s dedication to providing employment to this particular class of Oaxacan worker, elsewhere.
Drawing upon his college education in business administration, his earlier years drinking oak-aged spirits in Europe, his employment with Encantado, and working with his mother exporting finely woven textiles, he began Scorpion Mezcal, which included the export of reposado and añejo even in the early years. He began barrel aging in 1997. He had other brands as well such as El Señor and Caballeros, but decided to concentrate his efforts on Scorpion.
Towards the end of the millennium, while mezcal blanco began as French’s flagship product, his reposado began to creep up, and in fact eventually overtook the joven, with 10 – 20% of his sales coming from añejo. And in 2005, he began marketing 5-year and 7-year añejo in the US. All was going fine with all products, helped along with the cocktail craze which began around 2008 or somewhat thereafter. Then, as French puts it, “the carpetbaggers” came along. “We can make good money without the expense of purchasing barrels and/or waiting for the mezcal to age,” might be an accurate amalgam of their thinking process. And of course by then, other brands had emerged following the Del Maguey business model of promoting unaged mezcal based on type of agave, growing region, village and palenquero. And so the new generation of mezcal drinker either didn’t have an opportunity to try reposado / añejo, or believed what they had been wrongly fed by the so-called in-the-know agave distillate promoters. They were told that drinking aged mezcal is not drinking traditional mezcal, the way it is and has always supposed to be imbibed.
French owns another brand, Escorpión. But Scorpion generates most sales. At its lowest point French’s añejo represented about 3 – 5% of sales, and reposado 50%. But over the past three years revenue from reposado and añejo has been creeping up, now at upwards of 60%. Their sales have been increasing so much so that French recently stepped up operation of his barrel restoration program, something he had not done for a number of years.
In July, 2022, he contracted two barriqueros (coopers) from Jalisco, that is, tequila country. Based upon figures of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, it appears that most sales of that spirit is oak barrel-aged. The barriqueros, together with several of French’s employees, began a program of restoring and re-charring upwards of 100 barrels which had not been touched in years. Some were French wine barrels which had never been used for aging a distillate, others had been used for aging his Scorpion and Escorpión brands, yet others which had been used for whiskey dated to the era of American prohibition. His total number of barrels stands at about 600.
The tasks are arduous; removing metal bands, checking each stave and replacing where necessary, inserting thin lengths of carrizo (river reed) between staves from where the mezcal could potentially leak, and finally charring using both oak firewood and damaged oak staves not able to be used in refurbishing the barrels.
Aged mezcal has been gaining in popularity. But now, as distinct from years past, its quality has begun to mirror that of the unaged agave distillates. These are the brands sought after by this new breed of drinker, the mezcal aficionados of the middle classes in the US and further abroad.
Why the change? I believe that there are several reasons:
- Consumers are fickle, and it was just a matter of time.
- They are no longer buying into the mantra that aged mezcal should be shunned, and are beginning to question the veracity of such dogma.
- They may be taking it upon themselves to sample reposados and añejos, and are actually liking them.
- Part and parcel of the mezcal boom are the scotch, whiskey and bourbon drinkers who are descending upon Oaxaca and other states in Mexico where agave distillates are being produced and aged in oak, and are willing to decide for themselves.
- Supporters of aged agave distillates such as French, and me, after beating the pavement (in my case in writings) year after year, are finally being heard, and listened to.
- Even some of the brands known for their jovens, are beginning to barrel age as a way of capturing a different segment of the spirits-drinking consumer market, and attempting to convert some who have traditionally gravitated to competitor brands.
The pendulum has begun to swing back. I strongly believe, as I suspect French does (and hopes), that it will continue in the same direction. More and more, consumers are awakening to the unbridled potential for variations in nose, taste and finish encountered in mezcal. They are sampling pechugas, agave distillates with just fruits and herbs, and infusions with virtually anything including lemon grass, fruits, and now even cannabis. It’s being consumed neat, in cocktails, and in modern culinary creations. As palates awaken to the value in the foregoing, it’s not much of a longshot to suggest that drinking mezcal aged in oak barrels will be part of what piques the interest of the spirits consuming public for decades to come. Let’s just hope so, and that it continues as a means by which the economic lot of the mezcal-producing communities improves.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (mezcaleducationaltours.com). Together with photograph Spike Mafford, he is the author of Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances (Third Expanded Edition with Portraits).
 One of French’s female workers has been employed by his family for 46 years.
 Over the years as part of his export initiative he has helped over 40 brands increase their sales in 25 – 30 countries, sending more than 100 different expressions out of Mexico. French estimates that since living in Mexico he and his mother have supported between 2,000 and 4,000 families over 47 years. He has been one of the most dedicated promoters of the spirit for the past three decades, before most of the current spate of export brands even existed and some of their owners had even been born, French having traveled hundreds of thousands of air miles, personally giving out about 200,00 samples near and far, using a grassroots effort, talking to any alcohol consuming individual willing to listen, and to industry professionals; just telling the story of mezcal.
 They also contend that the oak alters the natural nuances of the different species and sub-species of agave, which is true; but so does making mezcal de pechuga, using different kinds of firewood to bake, using different mediums of fermentation vats, etc., etc., etc., all of which they relish illustrating to their friends, relatives, those who support their brands, and those who enter their mezcal bar inner sanctums. Don’t they realize that Mexicans have been drinking aged mezcal for literally hundreds of years, or that the mezcal they buy in New York, LA, Toronto, Chicago, London or Paris, is not traditional mezcal, a Mexican regulatory board governed by the “suits” during or about 2005 having begun to dictate what can and cannot be called “mezcal?”
 In French’s barrel aging program, he does not switch a barrel used to age mezcal, thereafter for whiskey for his Sierra Norte Whiskey brand, nor vice versa; at least until now.