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.
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.
I 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.
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.
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.