Men In Mezcal: Douglas French

Men In Mezcal: Douglas French http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4LfPioneer 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.

My Story

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 forMen In Mezcal: Douglas French http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4Lf 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.

What Next?

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.

Men In Mezcal: Douglas French http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4Lf

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.

Turning Point

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.

I couldn’t bring myself to do that.

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.

Phase 2

Men In Mezcal: Douglas French http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4LfI started phase 2 of the distillery by adding a second 350 liter copper still and then a third 500 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.

Phase 3

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 samples were sent out to the Beverage Tasting Institute (BTI) and numerous competitions.

Accolades

Scorpion Mezcal received a Gold 94 points rating on the basic Silver, a Gold 92Men In Mezcal: Douglas French http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4Lf 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.

Dispelling Myths

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.

Men In Mezcal: Douglas French http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4Lf

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.

Scorpion’s Sustainability

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.

Men In Mezcal: Douglas French http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4Lf

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.

Men In Mezcal: Douglas French http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4Lf

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!

Judging at The Monterey Bay Tequila & Cuisine

In mid-August of 2014, the organizers of the 6th Annual Monterey Bay Tequila & Cuisine, which took place on October 11, 2014, graciously asked Tequila Aficionado Media CEO, Mike Morales, to participate as a judge.  Their unique, take-at-home blind tequila tasting competition used the Tequila Matchmaker smartphone application to score and bestow awards.  You can review the results of the tasting competition here.

Take-Home Test

I dreaded tests and pop quizzes in school.  I never did well on them no matter how long I studied.  The only answer for someone like me to improve his grade was to do extra credit work.  Often, that meant the blessing of the occasional take-home test.

The entire text book, notes and other related materials was at my disposal.  In addition, the stress of competing against my smarter classmates was lifted, as well as any pressure about time limits.

Really, it was a license to cheat!  How could I go wrong?

That’s why the concept of the take-home cata made the Monterey Bay Tequila & Cuisine’s tasting competition so intriguing for me.

 Matchmaker, Matchmaker,

Make Me A Match…

Grover Sanschagrin, co-founder of TasteTequila.com, is the designer of Tequila Matchmaker, the only smartphone application to date that aids tequila

TasteTequila
TasteTequila

aficionados in finding tequilas that are suitable to their taste preferences.  It also allows enthusiasts to rate and grade brands on a sliding numerical scale.

Grover has introduced Tequila Matchmaker in some of the leading and trending tequila bars in the US.  The Monterey Bay Tequila & Cuisine is the first event to exclusively use the Tequila Matchmaker app for its blind tasting competition.

Grover Sanschagrin of TasteTequila.com.
Grover Sanschagrin of TasteTequila.com.

In this Facebook interview, Grover shares some of his thoughts on the aftermath of the competition.

TA:  So…did the results amaze you?

GS:  Not really.  I wish there were more brands involved so we could get a better comparison.

Last year, when we announced the results, several brands were in the room.  They immediately asked questions about the judges.  This gave me the idea to “test” the judges as a way of giving the brands an idea of who they were dealing with.
So, duplicating a tequila as a way to “judge the judges” was my answer.  A total experiment.  Not totally scientific, but definitely interesting.

TA:  Did they know who the judges were this time around?

GS:  No, we didn’t disclose which judges gave which scores.  Also, all of the judges, except for one, did well.

TA:  Did they know the names of the judges on the roster?
GS:  I believe so.

Also, rating these tequilas from home is a totally different method than rating them with all of the judges in the same room.  Not that any one is better than the other, just

Freddy the Cat judging añejos.
Freddy the Cat judging añejos.

that they are different.

I would actually like to try an experiment where the same judges rate things at home, and then again, together (like the SOM [Spirits of Mexico competition] format) and then see the differences.
Grover continues…
GS:  I also want to experiment with the order of the selection.  We can actually use our app to create a random order for each person, so nobody will have the same [order].
Ready to judge for Monterey Bay Tequila & Cuisine.
Ready to judge for Monterey Bay Tequila & Cuisine.

TA:  That would be a cool variable.

GS:  For me at SOM [Grover was a judge at 2014’s contest], palate fatigue is an issue, so it would be interesting to see if tequilas at the end of the line tend to do better.  I am fascinated by blind ratings, so I’m having a blast trying all these new experiments.
TA:  I think [for me] tequilas at the beginning of the line may also suffer from palate “under work.”

GS:  In our blind tasting tour, we found just the opposite.  The tequilas in slots 1 and 2 tended to score higher that 3-6.  No idea why, really – but it was clear in the comparison of the events.

Beginning of the line for blanco category.
Beginning of the line for blanco category.
TA:  Did the time of day also make a difference?
GS:  It was mid afternoon for all of the events.
TA:  So time of day was pretty consistent?
GS:  I know that the SOM guys insist that spirits must be evaluated in the morning, but that seems a little odd to me.  I think the judge needs to be consistent, but should be able to choose when they drink.  I don’t usually drink in the morning. usually. :-).  There’s an element of “real life” that isn’t present when you drink Tapatio 110 at 9am.

TA:  Did the certified catador do better than was expected?

GS:  Nope.

Rant Alert!

Before I go into my pros and cons of rating tequilas using the Tequila Matchmaker app for the Monterey Bay Tequila & Cuisine, let me get a few pet peeves off my chest.

Judging Competitions–What A Concept!

In all my time studying, analyzing and observing the Tequila Industry, not once have I ever known any tequila enthusiast, purist, newbie, connoisseur, collector or consumer (let alone brand owner and/or importer) to be happy with the results of any spirits judging competition.

Whether it’s the venerable San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the respected Beverage Testing Institute, the famed Spirits of Mexico, or any of the smaller, regional tasting events throughout the country, no one has ever been completely happy or agreed entirely with the outcomes.

The older the judging tournaments are, the more importance their annual medal counts are given by an unsuspecting public who only purchase award winning beers, wines and spirits based on their perceived value, instead of trusting its own taste buds.

Those long running competitions become more expensive to enter, forcing smaller more deserving brands out and leaving the larger, transnational corporations with deeper portfolios and bigger budgets to duke it out.

Accusations of alleged backroom negotiations for awards has also been an issue, of late.

And let’s not forget the most lucrative part of the tasting event–

Licensing

Paying for the rights to use the competition’s branded medals and seals in addition to the entry fees per spirits expression submitted.

Yet, spirits brands in general, and tequila brands in particular, continue to allocate hard-earned marketing dollars toward entering these yearly competitions for the privilege of hanging neck tags from their bottles or affixing stickers onto their labels named for precious metals or gemstones.

Double Vibranium, anyone?

Collecting medals and awards have gone the way of tattoos and piercings–

Everyone has them, and the novelty and mystique have worn off.

At the end of the day, it seems like everyone who participated in the competitions scored some sort of hardware and the rest of us are left shaking our heads in dismay or agreement.

Lastly…

Scoring

Monterey Bay blanco category and glassware.
Monterey Bay blanco category and glassware.

I was once told by a very respected spirits writer that a unified scoring system was good for an event should the organizers decide to hold other branded spirits competitions.

Puh-leez!

Whoever said that a templated numerical  scoring method used to grade different kinds of spirits was appropriate for tequila tastings?  Diffusers aside, tequila itself is so unique, it doesn’t compare with the flavor profiles of all other spirits, so why rate them that way?

How about a rating system that’s good for the juice instead of one that’s good for the show?  (BTW…one already exists.)

Pros And Cons

Pro–scoring on the Tequila Matchmaker app is amazingly simple.

Con–There’s no numerical rating for the tequilas’ appearance on the Tequila Matchmaker app.  Takes the whole sensorial feeling out of tequila tasting.  Only your nose and mouth get to have all the fun.

Pro–Shipping two ounce samples is neat and cost effective for the organizers of the show.

Con–See what happens when minis are compromised.  (Warning:  It’s not pretty.)

I particularly found that my sealed reposado samples were extremely alcohol-y even after sitting at room temperature for a couple of days.

Pro–It’s lovely to take your time judging samples at your leisure.  I agree with

You never know who might stop by to help judge tequila.
You never know who might stop by to help judge tequila.

 

Grover that it saves on palate fatigue, too.

 

Con–I miss the camaraderie of other expert judges and learning from them.  It ups your game like playing one-on-one with LeBron James or batting against Clayton Kershaw.

 

Pro–Depending on my schedule, I chose what time of day to judge my samples.

 

Con–According to the guidelines set forth by the original Mexican Tequila Academy, tastings should begin by 11 AM when a catador’s (tequila taster’s) palate is freshest.  [See also their tequila scoring sheet and criteria.]  This article here explains where this custom began.

 

Pro–I knew which glassware and other tips and tools to use to make me, as a judge, more effective.

 

Con–The lack of uniformity and protocol among the judges could have affected the final results.

 

Pro–It was exciting to use Tequila Matchmaker’s breakthrough scoring system.

 

Con–I can’t, in all honesty, say that I was pleased with the awarded outcomes or my graded performance.

 

See!  What did I tell you?  I hate tests. 

 

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!

How to Get Paid to Drink Tequila:

How you can turn your passion into profits and get paid to drink tequila as a blogger, vlogger, podcaster or author

 

Salud!!