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.

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!

Mezcal and Dogmatism in Oaxaca: Agave Species (Part 5 of 7)

tobala1“Tobalá [Agave potatorum] is a wild agave; tepeztate [Agave marmorata] takes 35 years to grow.”

Yes some, but certainly not all of the mezcal made with the former uses wild tobalá, and some tepeztate no doubt takes 35 years to mature.  But such statements, made as hard-fast truths not subject to discussion, bandied about by staff in some Oaxacan watering holes, lack absolute veracity.

I now rarely speak or write about mezcal or agave with a tone of certainty, and prefer including in my own bluster qualifying words such as “usually,” “on average,” “it is suggested,” or “in my opinion.” Tobalá is being cultivated from seed and thereafter transformed into mezcal.

espadinSome producers are apparently dropping seeds or small plants from airplanes, and letting them grow and mature in the wild prior to harvesting.  Others are germinating seeds, growing small tobalás close to their homes or palenques, and then transplanting them in the wild.

I confess that I don’t know whether such projects result in mezcal made with wild, domesticated or cultivated maguey. Regarding tepeztate, my palenquero friends tell me that it usually matures after 12 – 15 years of growth, but that yes, it can take much longer.  They do not speak in absolutes.

Agave Madre cuisheI suppose that this promulgation as fact of matters relating to agave species, does help the proponent of half-truths, and to some extent initially the industry in a couple of ways.  It advances the sense of romanticism and uniqueness regarding mezcal.  But it could also be a means of rationalizing a highly inflated price for mezcal made with tobalá, tepeztate and other “designer” agave species (without of course denying the often dramatic increased cost of producing mezcal with them; although with the current stratospheric cost of buying espadín piñas on the open market, who knows?).

The ultimate disservice to the client, and it is suggested adverse impact for the retailer and broader business interest, is occasioned when the novice begins hearing and reading alternate viewpoints reasonably not stated as dogma; he then may become confused and frustrated.

Read our next installment on this thought provoking feature by Alvin Starkman tomorrow where he’ll discuss glasses, cups, jicaras, and clay.  

alvin starkman, Oaxaca, mezcalAlvin Starkman is a permanent resident of the city of Oaxaca, from where he operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca.  He can be reached at mezcaleducationaltours@hotmail.com.

Alvin Starkman holds an M.A. in social anthropology from Toronto’s York University and a J.D. from Osgoode Hall Law School.  He has written one book about mezcal (Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market:  Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances) and over 35 articles centering upon Mexican craft beer, pulque, mezcal and sustainability, as well as a further 250 articles about Oaxacan life and cultural traditions. He co-authored a chapter in an edited volume on culinary heritage (published August, 2014), and wrote an article about brideprice in a Zapotec village (scheduled for release in autumn, 2014, in the Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies).