Women In the Mezcal Industry: Karla Amtmann

IMG_0915-4With the burgeoning mezcal trend in full bloom throughout the world, a new kind of Boss Lady has also emerged.

One who is not only willing to navigate the big business of spirits brand ownership, but is also courageous enough to nurture the delicate balance between successfully marketing her own mezcal and preserving a way of life.

Karla Amtmann is one such leader.  A relative newcomer to the mezcal industry, she shares a passion for all agave spirits that began in her native Mexico City.

Believing that, “drinking mezcal evokes a deeper connection with the earth,” and “connects me with my heritage and the history of my family and culture of Mexico,” she has triumphantly spearheaded the crowdfunding of her own Santo Diablo mezcal.

Similar to our Women In the Tequila Industry articles, here, she launches ourSD karla 3 Women In the Mezcal Industry series with her thoughts on our customary handful of questions, along with additional views on the romance of mezcal.

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TA:  How would you describe your experiences as a woman in a primarily male dominated industry?

KA:  There are many men in the spirits industry, but I truly haven’t really thought about it that way.

Yes, I am a woman in a man’s profession but in today’s world, I honestly don’t think it has anything to do with gender but more of one’s passion.

The women I know that are working in the industry have also been able to gain the respect of everyone in the field.  It is inspiring to see smart, capable people in fields that take charge and exhibit their passion.

Just as in any industry, loving what you do and working hard will bring success.

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TA:  How have you been able to change things within the mezcal industry?

KA:  It has been hard because often I am not taken seriously.  As many women experience, there is the question of whether to play up to feminine strengths or emphasize more male associated traits.

I have strived to combine the two, which, once again, ultimately highlights the passion that I truly have about Mezcal.  There are some challenging moments, but you just work through it and keep going.

TA:  What do you see as the future of woman working within the mezcal industry?

KA:  As a woman, being the face of a spirit is powerful and intriguing.  I feel that men in the industry are starting to see how the passion of a woman really represents the sexiness of Mezcal.

I think a woman is very much how I describe mezcal.

It is up to us to keep the family and the tradition together.  It is our job to care for it–to make it grow like we grow our own children, with dedication and responsibility.

IMG_0772-6TA:  What facets of the Mezcal Industry would you like to see change?

KA:  We must put more plants into the ground than are currently being taken out, and very importantly, sharing profits of the brand to the real producers of the mezcal by helping them grow.

After all, the brand growing is them having  the secret recipe.

TA:  Do you approve of how mezcal brands are currently marketing themselves?

KA:  I think right now, all the new owners of Mezcal want to come to the United States and are just focused on taking over the market and I don’t think that’s the right way to go.

There needs to be some sort of united front, where we as Mezcaleros educate consumers on what Mezcal actually is, its history and its magic as opposed to just focusing on one’s own brand.

Mezcal is like wine:  different regions, different earths, different climates, different agaves which impacts the mezcal flavors.  There are an infinite number of flavors that will suit each palate.

Our responsibility comes first to Mezcal then to our brand.  If you don’t respect Mezcal, Mezcal won’t respect you.

TA:  Is there anything you’d like to say to women who may be contemplating SD karla 2entering and working in the mezcal industry in one form or another?

KA:  Go for it!!!  I am living proof that with perseverance anything is possible.  If one is passionate about Mezcal (and what’s not to be passionate about!), then any woman will be successful!

I see the future of the industry as having more heart, more passion…just like every woman has!

I think I’m proving fact that a young woman can perform on the same level as the big boys, always knowing to control what I can control and following my instincts.

Cheers to the magic of Mezcal!

Romancing Mezcal

To taste Mezcal is to taste a unique individuality with every glass and every sip. No two Mezcals are alike; the perfect Mezcal requires just the right combination of fresh agave, authentic culture, and a dash of magic.

SantoDiabloMezcal is a reflection of the beauty of the land it originates from.

You can find it hiding within the rugged mountains, living amongst the native groups who are committed to preserving its ancestral traditions while they watch others around them let the jewels of their culture fade into distant memories.

A true Mezcal is one of those jewels.

It is the hills, it is the palenques, it is the isolated villages still holding on to what brings them closer to who they know they really are.

It is the sun shining down on our face, a consistency of time, and it is the collective passion of a culture dedicated to preserving its inner spirit.

This spirit gets whispered and passed along with every sip of Mezcal.

The story has been passed down in Mexico for over 24 centuries.  With Santo Diablo, we are committed to sharing it, and the spirit of Mexico, with the rest of the world.

Thank GAD for Gracías A Dios Mezcal

[Long before the general public does, Tequila Aficionado Media often gets tipped off about new agave spirits brands that will be entering the market.  One such tip was for Gracías A Dios (GAD) mezcal.  We had no idea that we would bump into them during the San Antonio Cocktail Conference in mid- January, 2015.  Of course, we had to invite the co-founders to HQ to learn more about this hot mezcal label making amazing traction across the country.]

 

GAD To Meet You!

GAD_lineup

You can’t help but get wrapped up in the charm of Gracías A Dios mezcal.  You also can’t help but be drawn in by the infectious enthusiasm of its co-founders, Pablo López, Enrique Jimenez and Xaime Niembro.

Here, the trio introduce themselves.

Whose Idea Was It?

From a pure love of drinking mezcal, to owning a mezcalería (mezcal bar), to making lofty plans for the future, the three friends tell how their mezcal brand was born.

Invoking the Name Of GAD

The phrase, “gracias a Dios” (thank God) has been uttered by families in Mexico and throughout Latin America since the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors.

In this clip, the friends give their explanation behind the name of their mezcal.

Maestro Mezcalero de Matatlán

GAD_Oscar

In the town of Santiago Matatlán, considered the world capital of mezcal in Oaxaca, lives Oscar Hernández, the force behind Gracías A Dios.  A third generation Maestro Mezcalero, or Alchemist as Enrique refers to him, he learned his craft from the young age of eight years old.

The trio discuss how they came across such a talented distiller.

GADTobalaCuixe

Distilling from espadín agave at first, it wasn’t until Oscar met with the co-founders of Gracías A Dios, that he considered producing mezcals made from other types of agave.

Enrique and Xaime continue relating Oscar’s fascinating personal history.

Xaime expounds further on why they chose to work with Oscar Hernández, then demonstrates the purity of GAD’s specialty mezcals made from tepextate and cuixe agave.

The GAD Line Up

Pablo, Enrique and Xaime give us the rundown of Gracías A Dios’ core line, what type of barrels they use for aging, and how they decided on the proof of each of the expressions.

True Small Batches

Xaime describes the labeling plans for the Tepextate and Cuixe expressions and how they will tie in to a Texas-Oaxaca relationship.

Organic Investments

Each of Gracías A Dios’ agave expressions are certified organic.  Xaime details what investments and improvements were made to the brand’s palenque to meet those standards.

Xaime reveals what it takes to maintain GAD’s organic certification, including the innovative improvements made to the brand’s palenque that were invented by Oscar himself.

Wild Harvesting

Xaime chronicles each of GAD’s expressions and then illustrates the difficulty in harvesting wild tobalá.

Image Reboot

GAD_espadinOutside of their mezcalería, the partners had virtually no background in the
spirits sector.  Keenly aware of their limitations, they met with industry consultants for advice.

In this segment, Pablo, Enrique and Xaime recall their experience in bringing GAD to market, and how they managed to rebuild their entire initial concept and image from the bottom up.

These three amigos are the first to admit that Gracías A Dios is still a work-in-progress and are proactively solving challenges that unexpectedly crop up such as using synthetic corks versus imported ones from Portugal, and labeling special edition batches.

Love and Passion Will Take You Places

The GAD triad disclose how working together to get Gracías A Dios into the market has deeply and completely changed their lives.


GAD_shotThe partners all agree that their passion for great mezcal–long before it became trendy–is what fuels their love for GAD.

Cheers For Tomorrow

Xaime and his partners explain how their program, Cheers For Tomorrow, will tackle the Mezcal Industry’s sustainability issues and how the use of biofuel will play an important part of their palenque.

Continuing, Niembro describes how the used bagazo (solid waste) is recycled as an insulator during the roasting of agave piñas.

Sharing the Mezcal Experience

GAD_sharing

Long term plans for the group and the land surrounding their palenque include a boutique hotel, restaurant, and a complete mezcal experience for visitors.

In this snippet, the trio discuss where they see themselves in five years and spill the beans on a specially blended Mezcal Del Cura that’s in the works.

Pablo and Enrique continue the conversation by revealing GAD’s plans for replanting different types of maguey and other projects within the region of their palenque.

Free Your Mind–And Your Taste Buds!

Team GAD divulge the one thing that they would like their audience to know about Gracías A Dios mezcal.

Pablo, Xaime, and Enrique have no intention of changing their methods create a more industrialized mezcal.  Their long term mission remains staunchly intact–

To get their small batches to the right audience who will honestly and passionately cherish and appreciate them as much as they do.

Gracías a Dios!

A Sotol By Any Other Name

[On a sweltering August afternoon, Tequila Aficionado Media was invited by Mike Groener, CEO and President of Genius Liquids to sip and savor the latest addition to their Desert Spirit line, Texas Sotol, at their distillery in Austin, TX .]

Here Comes the Rain Again

MonsoonDay

Ask anyone who has spent any significant amount of time living in the Desert Southwest during Monsoon Season, and they will tell you that they can smell rain.  At those times, your part of town may be sunny and bone dry, but a strong breeze will carry the scent of falling raindrops for miles.  Sooner or later, the skies darken, thunder rolls, lightning strikes and the floodgates open.

Similarly, those who have sampled significant amounts of tequila or mezcal wet-cement-signduring their lifetimes will admit to the elusive “wet cement” flavor profile evocative of rain hitting a hot, dry sidewalk.

The latter is so rare these days with tequilas attempting to become smoother and more neutralized, and mezcals being distilled at the more accepting entry level 80 proof (40% ABV) than traditional higher strengths.

But try to describe true sotol such as Don Cuco as I meekly attempted to in Tom Barry’s insightful article, A Sotol Story , and you can fumble to find the words.

“To me, Don Cuco Sotol carries the best of all worlds.  It opens up — blooms — so much that it demands to be treated like a fine wine.  It has the smokiness of some of the best mezcals, but the flavor is simultaneously reminiscent of the best tequilas and then, not at all.”

Tumbando_sotolThe best descriptor that one can come up with is that sotol made in Chihuahua, Mexico smells and tastes like desert rain falling in that region.  It is arguably the truest illustration of the term terroir.

But what does Texas Sotol represent?  That’s what we came to Genius Liquids’ headquarters to find out.

Humble Beginnings

Mike Groener describes Genius Liquids’ humble beginnings and explains the process and challenges in producing Genius Gins and their new Texas Sotol.

The use of champagne yeast was at the suggestion of tequila Siembra Azul’s maker, David Suro, whom Mike met through John Garrett, a friend and spirits supervisor at distributor Victory Wine Group based in Dallas.

Here, Mike discusses more about the inspiration to use champagne yeast in his spirits.

Conscientious Objector to Vodka

Genius Liquids distills three types of gin (standard strength, navy strength, oaked), and Texas sotol, but no vodka.  Distilling something “odorless and tasteless doesn’t represent any piece of art” according to Groener.

Why Sotol?

2015-08-15 13.05.20To learn more about Chihuahua’s native spirit, Groener did his homework.  Through his relationship with Garrett, he has met Judah Kuper, co-founder of Mezcal Vago and spent time at Judah’s family mezcal palenque.

He has also sought advice on his Texas Sotol from Jacob Jacquez, fifth generation distiller of the legendary Don Cuco Sotol, and creator of newcomers, Ocho Cientos and Por Siempre sotol brands.  He has also communicated with representatives of the globally available Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol.

Groener admits that Genius Liquids is a bit egotistical when it comes to deciding what to distill, and prefers a challenge instead of the easy way out.

Sotol By Any Other Name

das_texanum(3)
Dasylirion texanum.

This lovely spirit of Mexico is not without its controversy.

Sotol from Chihuahua, Mexico is distilled using the dasylirion wheeleri plant, more commonly known as desert spoon or sereque in Spanish.

Genius Gin’s Desert Spirit Texas Sotol, however, uses North American sotol or Dasylirion texanum grown, wild harvested, cooked, fermented, and distilled in Texas.  This variety has evolved into a more compacted and hardier plant, designed to survive the harsh Texas summers.

All dasylirions were at one time considered distant relatives of the agave (agavaceae), but it is actually more akin to asparagus.

Mike furthers the debate and recounts the labeling issues concerning the word sotol, and why Genius Liquids prefers to brand it through their Desert Spirit line.

Texas Hill Country in A Bottle

Mike Groener pours a sample of Texas Sotol into my three types of glassware.  Unlike tequila, and to some degree, mezcal, sotol still does not have an official tasting glass.  Lisa Pietsch, Tequila Aficionado Media’s COO, describes it as “Texas Hill Country in a bottle.”

Beam Me Up, Scotty!

Like Master Distiller,  German González elaborating on how he came to create his opus, Tears of Llorona, Mike expounds on how, through their process, Genius Liquids has composed a transportive spirit in a “non-Auto-Tune way.”

 Tails of The Funk

Much like Montelobo’s Dr. Ivan Saldaña’s love affair with mezcal’s funkiness, Mike demonstrates how he carefully uses the colas (tails) after distillation to enhance Genius Liquids’ Desert Spirit Sotol.

The Magic Ingredient

Careful not to get too technical with his method of distillation, but with the same umph of Carlos Camarena’s (Tequila Tapatío) passion, Groener breaks down the love involved in producing a Genius Liquids spirit.

The Future

The first batch of Desert Spirit Texas Sotol was so well received that it sold out within two weeks of being launched.  The plan is to move Genius Liquids to larger digs due to the oppressive heat that prevents them from fermenting properly.

Groener spells out what the future holds for Genius Liquids and its expansion.

Off camera, Mike divulged that he’d like to wrestle with the challenge of producing a traditionally made Texas mezcal agave spirit, and has already sourced maguey for that project.  There are also plans for a blended agricole rum.

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In whatever direction Groener takes Genius Liquids, one can be sure that it will continue to seek, define and express the true meaning of Texas terroir–one small batch at a time.

The Montelobos Mezcal Project

[After The San Antonio Cocktail Conference held in January, 2015, Tequila Aficionado Media caught up with Dr. Iván Saldaña, producer of the upstart mezcal, Montelobos, a partnership project with the makers of Milagro tequila.  A featured speaker during the conference, here’s our in-depth discussion held at the bar of the lavish Westin Riverwalk Hotel.]

La Anatomia del Mezcal

Iván Saldaña (Photo courtesy of David Suro)
Iván Saldaña (Photo courtesy of David Suro)

In Dr. Iván Saldaña’s nifty little primer, The Anatomy Of Mezcal–which, by the way, belongs in every serious agave students’ reference library–he goes to great lengths to demystify maguey (agave) and mezcal in a concise and easy-to-understand fashion. As an introduction into the fundamentals of mezcal, the book covers it all, from what it is to how it’s processed.  Saldaña also defines the differences of artisanal mezcals distilled in palenques and haciendas from those using industrial methods. The latter is a situation currently being hotly contested inside the Mezcal Industry as it tries to cope with its alarming expansion without repeating the mistakes made by the Tequila Industry while still in its infancy.

A Double PhD.

Montelobos_ABVFrom his research, Saldaña asserts that the maguey plant efficiently evolves when affected by environmental stress.  It is precisely the plant’s adaptability to extreme conditions that makes it not only a versatile prime material for tequila and mezcal production, but also gives it its unique flavors and aromas that set it apart from other spirits. The same could be said about Iván’s versatility as a passionate scientist, researcher, environmentalist and mezcal developer who prefers to be challenged to come up with unique solutions. Here, Dr. Saldaña elaborates on his academic background leading to his PhD. In this segment, Iván recounts how his wine and spirits experience working for global distiller, Pernod Ricard, led to a craving to create something more intrinsically fulfilling.

My Way

Montelobos_derecho

Taking a lesson from Frank Sinatra, Iván explains what it was like to compose a mezcal like Montelobos without following any commercial guidelines.

Montelobos Explained

Iván has been quoted as insisting that “Mezcal is too often dominated by either an excessive smokiness or inopportune proportions.”  In his quest for the perfectly balanced mezcal, he concentrated on bringing forth Montelobos’ sweeter notes, along with citrus and smoke using cultivated espadin. 006The successful result garnered Montelobos a double gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2013. Not wanting to create a single faceted mezcal, or replicating an old family recipe, Dr. Saldaña further breaks down Montelobos’ complexities.

The Value of Innovation

Dr. Saldaña produced his mezcal under the guidance of fifth generation Maestro Mezcalero, Don Abel López Mateos, but still believed in exploration and experimentation when designing its unique flavor profile.  Coupled with innovation, Iván contends that Montelobos is not about science, but about passion.

43.2 ABV

Montelobos_label   Iván explains how he arrived at the perfect 43.2% (86.4 proof) alcohol by volume to achieve the flavors and aromas unique to Montelobos.    

Sustainability

Agave_MontelobosNot only vigilant on creating Montelobos his way, Dr. Saldaña was also concerned about its environmental footprint on Oaxaca where it is distilled. Montelobos uses only organic, commercially grown espadin, certified so by certifying agency, Certimex.  Iván also makes sure that the wood used in roasting the espadin comes from a sustainable source.

The Universe Within the Universe

Dr. Iván Saldaña’s expedition into the anatomy of mezcal is by no means over. He confessed to having an urge to distill other variations of Montelobos that would emphasize additional flavors and aromas often hidden in traditional mezcal flavor profiles. For the time being, he prefers to continue to examine and discover the world within the world of mezcal.

Mestizo Mezcal–A Perfect Convergence of Cultures

 

When we first met Arturo Palencia, co-founder of the award winning Mestizo Mezcal, we were struck by his boyish charm and seemingly tender age.  We were surprised to discover that this thirty-something was no newcomer to the competitive and often brutal spirits industry.

In this clip, Arturo tells how he became involved with mezcal and the surprising birth of Mestizo.

 

What’s In A Name?

According to Wikipedia, the term mestizo refers to a person of combined heritage, usually European (Spanish) and indigenous peoples of the Americas.  The term was later used as a racial category during the Spanish Empire’s control of its colonies.

During that colonial period, mestizos became the dominant race in many Spanish speaking countries in Latin America, including Mexico.

Today, Hispanic or Latino is the more appropriate term, but for Arturo the meaning of mestizo for his mezcal is much more poetic and thoughtful.

 

 

Jessica Rosman (right), co-founder of Mestizo.
Jessica Rosman (right), co-founder of Mestizo.

A Formal Introduction

Arturo and co-founder, Jessica Rosman, spent countless hours journeying throughout the mezcal producing regions of Mexico in search of the perfect single village, settling on Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca.

In this taped portion, Arturo introduces us to his 4th generation maestro mezcalero and his nearly 300 years of tradition.

With more brands popping up at an alarming rate in the current booming mezcal market, Arturo discusses Mestizo’s process in gauging its target audience that is looking for a more palatable mezcal.

Fat Ass donkey logoDoes This Donkey Make My Ass Look Fat?

 

As a college student in the mid-2000s, Arturo was actively involved in the initial launching of the infamous Fat Ass Tequila.

Produced as an old style tequila in a hand blown bottle, and marketed to the Spring Breakers that invade Cancún and Cabo San Lucas,  it became wildly popular with both connoisseurs and young people, winning numerous awards along the way.

Then, it virtually disappeared from store shelves.

Here, Arturo describes what it was like to be on the ground floor of this provocative brand.

 

Truly Handcrafted

Mestizo Mezcal añejoWords like artisanal or handcrafted are loosely bandied about in the spirits industry these days.  But, whether as a young college student helping friends launch their tequila brand, or today, plotting Mestizo’s success, Arturo Palencia’s focus hasn’t changed–

To bring to market a high quality spirit while preserving its tradition.  In Mestizo’s case, maintaining consistency and promoting sustainability also go hand-in-hand.

In this snippet, Arturo reveals how Mestizo does both by their unique barrel aging process.

 

 

One Thing…

Like the name illustrates, Mestizo Mezcal has centuries of pedigree, and from Arturo Palencia’s point of view, the future promises to hold true to its roots.

Dii’zh bèeyuu!

(cheers and good health in Zapotec)

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