Mezcal Sunrise: Searching for the ultimate artisanal distillate.
It was only a matter of time before someone recognized the potential of artisanal mezcal and scaled it up. In 2013, Fausto Zapata, an entrepreneur from Los Angeles, launched a brand called El Silencio, an approachable mezcal aimed at mainstream American drinkers—in Scotch terms, a smooth, honeyed Oban rather than a peat monster like Laphroaig. “We’re the slick ones—as much a marketing company as a mezcal company,” he says. “We’re elevating into a pop-culture phenomenon something that people like seeing as niche.” Jeremy Piven is an investor; El Silencio is featured in Aeromexico’s first-class lounge.
Zapata grew up in Mexico City, drinking tequila-and-Sprite to give himself nerve when he went out to the clubs; as he grew older, he took road trips to Oaxaca, in search of something authentic, mythic, and cool, and found mezcal. His sipper is an 80-proof combination of wild and farmed agaves; his mixing mezcal, an 86-proof Espadín, comes in a bottle the matte-black color of the Batmobile. He sold ten thousand cases last year, and hopes to double that in 2016. “We want to create a global brand,” he told me. “You don’t just drink single malt in a village in Scotland, or sake in Japan.”
Outside my hotel, in the bright morning light, a white bus waited, stocked with bottled water, beer, and straw hats. Zapata was standing by, in a pair of hiking boots and a company T-shirt. He was taking Cedd Moses, an American bar owner, and a few of Moses’ employees to visit the palenque where El Silencio’s Espadín is produced, an hour to the south, in a village called San Baltazar Guelavila. El Silencio is in the well at Moses’ bar Las Perlas, in Los Angeles, which was one of the first mezcal bars to open in the United States. The bar goes through six cases a week. “Our customers demand products with integrity, that don’t use chemicals to bring the proof down,” Moses told me. He wanted to see the production for himself.
Moses is in his fifties, tall and rangy, with tightly curled graying hair and a disarmingly uncertain manner; in his thirties, he was a money manager, regularly featured in the financial press for generating spectacular returns. Now, in addition to Las Perlas, he owns fifteen bars and restaurants in Los Angeles, and others in San Diego and Austin. He lumbered onto the bus, wearing sunglasses and his own straw hat. “Let’s roll,” he said.
Nikki Sunseri, the general manager of Las Perlas, a former chef with long black hair and pale skin scrimshawed with tattoos, had come, too, along with Andrew Abrahamson, a gentle booze savant who oversees Moses’ single-spirit bars, and Pedro Shanahan, a by-donation-only yoga teacher and freelance philosopher, who is Moses’ “spirit guide.” Shanahan runs tastings and palate-education programs at Seven Grand, Moses’ whiskey bar. “I can heal you from the yoga with the whiskey or heal you from the whiskey with the yoga,” he said.
We drove with the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca on our left, until we reached San Baltazar Guelavila, where a hand-painted sign warned of dengue, and small boys bear-wrestled beside a pickup truck full of piñas. The palenque was simple and clean, newly built: a pit filled with burning coals; four fermentation barrels brimming with mashed, cooked agave that smelled of apple-cider vinegar; six wood-fired copper stills; two gleaming ten-thousand-litre stainless-steel storage tanks; and a small bottling facility. In the center, a dingy white mare pulled a heavy stone wheel—“like Fred Flintstone’s tire,” Sunseri said—around in a circle, crushing cooked agave that would be added to the fermentation barrels. “For breaking it down, the faster way would be with chemicals, but it ruins the quality,” Moses said. The horse stopped to take a bite of agave. “That horse has got it made,” he said.
The hills all around were stitched with Espadín plants; cattle and goats wandered among them. Zapata poured mezcal, and we watched as workers unloaded a truckful of eighty-kilo piñas onto the coals. Quartered, they looked like an infestation of green armadillos. The men arranged them into a mound, and covered the mound with sacks and then with dirt, while the heat made fun-house mirrors of the air. Pedro Hernández, El Silencio’s distiller, explained that he waits until the coals are smoldering before he adds the agave, to prevent the mezcal from getting too smoky. “Hand of the maker,” Moses said, approvingly.
Shanahan wandered over to the stills and filled a little cup with second distillate. He tasted, and guppied his lips. “Sweet, huh?” Zapata said.
“Excellent,” Shanahan said. “This gets cut with water?”
“What you’re drinking is not adjusted,” Zapata replied; straight off the tap, it was 120 proof. El Silencio adds water to decrease the potency—sacrilege to some makers, who distill to proof or adjust with tails, the last products of distillation, which can be complex and flavorful but also yield inconsistent batches.
Later, sitting under a palm-thatched roof at a long table littered with bottles, Abrahamson turned to Zapata. “Would you ever want to talk about a special collaboration?” he asked. Zapata nodded: he was always ready to talk business. “What do you have in mind?” he asked.
“A joint venture,” Moses said—an uncut sipping spirit that could also be used for powerful cocktails, of the kind his customers preferred. El Silencio’s undiluted mezcal was viscous and high-test, like cask-strength whiskey, and there was nothing like it on the market. “There’s no day like today,” Zapata said. It could be ready by Q2.
Zapata started pouring Koch, a mezcal that is also produced by Hernández. Moses sipped, while his team spieled tasting notes that reminded me of a Shel Silverstein poem.
“Banana, yogurt, grass clippings that have been kept in a garbage can for a little bit then opened. And then some menthol.”
“There’s something gelatinous, like okra. I would hesitate to say mucus in a tasting note. . . .”
“Inky fern. Andrew—help me, help me, I’m having mezcal brain!”
Hernández, the mezcalero, sat straight-faced, with his arms folded across his chest, as a three-man band began playing classic Mexican crooners. He said that many of the men at the palenque had lately migrated back from the United States, where they had been working as gardeners and landscapers and on construction sites. His daughter, who is six, came to sit on his lap. He brightened, and reported that she was learning Zapotec in school.
After the mezcal was drunk up, Sunseri delivered tasting notes on the Oaxacan air. “Super-mineral, with molasses and grass,” she said. At a certain point, Zapata interrupted the reverie to proclaim that he had just received a four-hundred-case order from Southern Wine and Spirits, the largest distributor in the United States. Shanahan looked deep into Hernández’s eyes. “Village by village, let’s build this thing,” he said. “Let’s not go big. Keep it small, spread it out. It’s information. It’s history and culture. Es possible grandes cosas.” Hernández received him impassively. In poetry, not every contradiction needs to be resolved. The stars came out, shockingly bright in a world without electricity. Abrahamson stole away with an empty Koch bottle and filled it with the 120-proof mezcal from the still. They would spread the love to Los Angeles, and then the world, if they didn’t drink it on the bus ride back to the hotel.