[Editor’s Note: All photos and videos are by Tequila Jockey, David Dinius, Special Correspondent to Tequila Aficionado Media at the Mammoth Margarita Festival. Thanks also to Michelle Dinius and David Decker.]
Doug French, Founder of Scorpion Mezcal, was on stage depicting the intricacies of distilling his unique mezcals. I wandered over to the vendor tables that lined both sides of the narrow section reserved for the Spirits of Mexico.
A single woman standing behind a table shyly asked if I had ever tried Scorpion Mezcal. When I confessed that I hadn’t, she suggested that I try their joven espadin expression.
Expecting to feel the burn and the smoky aroma of a much stronger mezcal, I was amazed at how approachable Scorpion was. Barbara then proceeded to guide me through an entire flight of all their expressions.
That was my first sip of Scorpion Mezcal, and chances are, Barbara Sweetman handed you your first taste of Scorpion, as well.
A Mezcal Lifer
As Doug French explains in his own words…
“With Barbara’s efforts sales grew and I needed to produce more.
“This was a pattern with Barbara for the last 15 years. Her relentless enthusiasm and determination is what took Scorpion–and the whole mezcal industry–forward into becoming a category in the USA.
“I dare say that over the last 15 years, she has single handedly given more human beings in the world their first taste of mezcal than any other person or company in the industry.
“She is also the first person to take multiple brands into all the levels of the Three Tier System so that mezcal could settle into the system as a new functional category.”
The Second Time
For only the second time (and the first time for mezcal), Tequila Aficionado presents Barbara Sweetman’s videotaped responses to our standard handful of questions for our Women In the Mezcal Industry anthology.
TA: How would you describe your experiences as a woman in a primarily male dominated industry? (What are the challenges you face when dealing with the male dominated Mezcal Industry?)
TA: How have you been able to change things within the Mezcal Industry?
TA: What do you see as the future of women working within the Mezcal Industry?
TA: What facets of the Mezcal Industry would you like to see change?
TA: Do you approve of how Mezcal brands are currently marketing themselves?
TA: Is there anything you’d like to say to women who may be contemplating entering and working in the Mezcal Industry in one form or another?
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!
A new circus has replaced “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Imagine the spotlighted and off kilter Ringmaster who, in a booming Michael Buffer-eske voice announces–
“Ladies and gentlemen, turn your attention to Ring Number One!”
Unless, you’ve been living under a rock since January 2017 (we wouldn’t blame you if you are!), you’ve no doubt heard of POTUS’ proposed 20% import tax on Mexican goods to fund the building of “The Great Border Wall” with Mexico to prevent illegal immigration.
Further, POTUS has promised that Mexico itself would pay for the wall.
Anyone with an iota of understanding of economics knows that this tariff would simply be passed onto consumers by the manufacturers of these goods.
And that includes tequila producers and mezcaleros.
According to this recent article, the collateral damage to other peripheral industries would be devastating.
Moreover, the archaic Three Tier System that was established in the United States after Prohibition, and on which alcohol distribution is based, demands that each level of the tier also pass along this 20% tax.
“Clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung,” P.T. Barnum
Once POTUS bullied Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in late January 2017 into cancelling his visit to the US if Mexico refused to pay for the 2,000 mile border wall, his strategy backfired.
While POTUS berated the Mexican President and screamed about the lopsidedness of the NAFTA agreement, Peña Nieto vehemently argued that Mexico would never pay for such a wall and managed to rally a divided country to his side.
Meanwhile, under the Big Top, the Center Ring was where everyone clamored to sit near because only the most prestigious routines happened inside.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we direct you to the Center Ring!”
In early February, an interesting thing happened in court. A precedential ruling was handed down in the case Luxco, Inc. v. Consejo Regulador del Tequila, A.C.
The decision allowed the CRT (Tequila’s governing body in Mexico) to register the word TEQUILA as a certification mark and control its use.
Isn’t that the CRT’s job, anyway?
The CRT aggressively protects Tequila like Disney or Levi’s conserve their trademarks.
When you read this article explaining the timeline and judgment of the case, you’re amazed at the depth of Luxco’s arrogance to file the lawsuit in the first place and to completely ignore Tequila’s geographic indication.
Surprising, too, since Luxco imports and distributes El Mayor tequila, and re-bottles Exotico and Juarez tequilas that are certified by the CRT as authentic, all at Destiladora González González (NOM 1143).
Makes you shake your head and wonder what Luxco was thinking.
“Ladies and gentlemen, feast your eyes on Ring Number Two!”
Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Sammy Hagar has found a way around his alleged Cabo Wabo Tequila non-compete clause, and recruited his friend and fellow rock star, Adam Levine of Maroon 5 to develop–
According to its marketing copy, it’s a blend of 100 percent blue agave and espadín agave to “create a smooth and rich tequila flavor with the sweet and smoky taste of mezcal.”
But, what is it?
It’s not completely tequila, even though the 100% blue agave tequila portion is being distilled at Sammy’s original maquiladora, El Viejito (NOM 1107).
It is still unknown, however, at which palenque the mezcal portion is being distilled, and whether it comes from an industrial producer or not.
One thing for sure, the label will NOT have a NOM number on it.
The Shell Game
As an adult, you realize now that the three ring circus was nothing more than an elaborate con. An enormous shell game dressed up in glittering sequined costumes and face paint to keep you guessing where the action would take place next.
The thrills and chills of trapeze artists, lion tamers, high wire stunts, acrobats, jugglers and clowns performing all at once.
Slight of hand and misdirection at its very best.
A View From the Cheap Seats
Unlike today’s stadiums and auditoriums, there was always a bad seat in the house underneath the Big Top, and chances were, you were sitting in it.
There was always a feeling of missing something–a triple somersault, or dancing stallions, or roaring big cats jumping through flaming hoops.
To keep track of the drama from one ring to another, you craned your neck, unless…
You sat in the cheap seats, high above in the nosebleed section.
“Ladies and gentlemen, back to Ring Number One!”
At first, there was some question as to whether tequila and mezcal would fall under the proposed tariff.
Being the largest consumer of tequila in the world, America’s agave lovers were hoping that their favorite spirits would be spared.
Since 100% de agave tequila, and other agave spirits with an appellation of origin, can only be made in Mexico, it seems that the additional tax is almost a certainty.
Due to an unexpected snowstorm in Arandas in March 2016 that damaged agave crops; subsequent substantial contracts with medium sized maquiladoras (distilleries that produce tequila for various other brands) by transnational corporations tying up enormous quantities of tequila to be bottled under their labels; and aggressive competition for ripe agave by los mieleros (pharmaceutical companies), tequila prices were scaling up.
Whether Mexican spirits are affected by a tariff or not, or due to the scarcity of blue agave, look for prices to increase across the board.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s return to Ring Number Two!”
Speaking of the blue agave shortage…
Accusations persist that truckloads of espadin agave, generally used to make mezcal, are still being sent by the truckload from Oaxaca to Jalisco headed for tequila distilleries to fulfill pending orders.
Rather than hide this clandestine fact any longer, Sammy and friends have perhaps decided to take the practice public and spin it into Santo Mezquila.
As a result, long time mezcaleros like Doug French of legacy brand Scorpion, have taken to distilling whiskies from heirloom corn to ride out the storm of the espadin shortage.
Also, to conserve wild agave species, as well as to ensure future supplies for his wildly popular mezcal expressions, Doug has planted small plots of agave instead of trying to compete with deeper celebrity pockets.
“To the Center Ring for the Grand Finale!”
While we still scratch our heads about the Luxco court decision, and if, in fact, POTUS does levy a 20% tax on all Mexican imports, including Mexican beer and spirits, here’s a few possible scenarios to consider.
The Human Cannonball
If the above cited article is correct, beer and tequila companies are using NAFTA only 8% of the time, and tequila comes in free for all World Trade Organization (WTO) members, anyway.
The proposed tariff would, in essence, tear up NAFTA, regardless of whether POTUS decides to renegotiate it or not, and fire a message across to Mexico that he’s not kidding around. But…
Mexican President Peña Nieto has an ace up his sleeve.
POTUS’ blatant disdain for Mexicans could lead to the CRT and Mexico retaliating by requiring that all tequila shipped in bulk to the United States be bottled in Mexico to insure the quality of the juice.
The consequences of this move, as described in the above cited DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council of the United States) press release could be cataclysmic, particularly for those bottling plants in the Southern US.
Surely, this tactic would be fully endorsed by former Mexican President, Vicente Fox, who has no love loss with POTUS, and under whose term the ban was originally proposed.
Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys
Enraged, POTUS might completely disregard Appellations of Origin, in general, and not just Mexico’s.
He could allow micro and craft distillers across the country to make American tequila, mezcal, sotol, champagne, Bordeaux, and anything else that is protected by geographic indicators, triggering international incidents.
Pernod Ricard, maker of Avión and Olmeca Altos tequila, has already expressed its concern about this possibility.
51-49% cognac, anyone?
Don’t look now. It’s already happening.
Products like Three Wells from Tucson, Arizona, and the controversial Besado
calling itself “tequila” are already capturing the public’s attention, and commanding shelf space.
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!