And yeah, he lived to tell the tale.
“That was really the start of this love story with Mezcal because it goes so much deeper than just the Spirit. And I think if you've spent time in Oaxaca, you understand that it's about the community, it's about the landscapes, it's about the families, it's about the art. Mezcal is essentially a conduit,” he adds.
A return trip to the desert for more Mezcal, followed by a chance encounter with childhood friend Stefan Wigand, cemented the vision for a new company: Madre Mezcal.
But not before two more chance encounters. One with Davide Berruto, a former mentor and owner of a sustainable furniture business, and Chris Stephenson, a former Chief Marketing Officer at MTV who’d done some experiential marketing with Pernod Ricard and Anheuser-Busch. The four amigos decided to pool their talents together and begin producing some mighty fine Mezcal under the name of Madre (which, incidentally, translates to “mother”).
So we sat down with co-founders Tony and Stefan to dig a little deeper into the Mezcal mystique, why cumbia is the perfect soundtrack to a glass of Mezcal and what makes Madre a 2020 Flaviar Awards winner.
Tell us more about what Madre Mezcal is.Tony: When Stefan came down to Oaxaca with me one time, it happened to line up that we met a family who was producing out of San Dionisio, Oaxaca and they had the same idea to grow. And I think it's really important to understand that for anything to grow, you need a family or a group. Nothing can really grow as an individual.
At that time, the governing board of Mezcal had just started to institute these rules that really regulated Mezcal and made it difficult for a lot of families to continue to produce without applying for certain legal documents.
We were able to come into this family's life at a moment where we could assist with that and I think that's what solidified our union as a company. So we were able to grow with them, they grew with us. And then we met Davide and Chris, and it really became a company. It became Madre Mezcal as we know it today.
Stefan: Going to Oaxaca was this wonderful escape. And almost initially, this beautiful creative outlet and creative process. And I think what that has translated into for Madre is this whole feeling that you get off the plane or you get out of the car when you arrive in Oaxaca — it's just this energy that exists within that environment that we have now translated into a brand.
Mezcal is a product that’s difficult to scale given the long growth cycle of its agave. Why choose Mezcal?Stefan: I just have one thing to say to start that. We didn't find Mezcal — Mezcal found us. I think that's a big point here. We didn't go down there with the intention of starting a brand. We didn't go down there thinking that this was going to be a business. This was something that just really slapped us in the face in a really beautiful way.
And we just fell in love. And we weren't thinking about scaling or about this becoming a big business. It was more so just wanting to be a part of it. We just wanted to feel the air and feel the dirt.
And jokingly, the guys give us a hard time because when we go down to Oaxaca, Tony and I jump out of the car and get to work straightaway. We just love being a part of this family and the environment in Oaxaca.
Tony: You definitely nailed it. For us, it's a larger feeling. It's a larger investment than just the Spirit. But the Spirit is the product. And it became very apparent that as we scale, we need to consider sustainability.
Thankfully, it's the largest discussion happening in the Mezcal community today. And I think it'll stay at the forefront for a while. It's interesting. Essentially, we have Tequila to look to and learn from. Tequila went through this huge growth period and they were going through agave shortages. When Mezcal started to pick up popularity, I think people were able to look at that and take an alternative route to a lot of the problems that Tequila faced.
For one, with Mezcal, you can produce from multiple varieties of agave. There are over 30 different agaves that can be used to make Mezcal and they come from multiple states. So you have this huge geographical footprint.
Oaxaca being the second largest state in Mexico, there's a lot of space and there are a lot of agaves that are growing. Compared to Tequila, which comes from a few states. It's very limited. So you have access to a lot of these agaves. And brands can pick and choose which agaves they want to use. Some take longer to grow than other ones.
And there are certain agaves that are cultivated. We took all of that into account and made our juice primarily from a fully cultivated agave, the espadin. Most Mezcals at this point are being made with espadin, because it grows faster, it has more sugars and it's easier to use. But we do use some wild harvested agaves. We harvest them in a sustainable manner, which means leaving some plants to recede. And we also plant a lot of small, baby agaves each year to keep up with demand.
To your point, they're slow-growing plants, so even though we've started to cultivate some of these wild types — like the cuishe that we use — we're still probably seven years away from the first use of a cultivated wild agave. So we really have to be mindful of our harvesting practices and be resourceful, always talking to new communities, accessing new agaves and continuing our cultivation program to ensure the future of agaves.
Stefan: Industry-wide right now, there are very active practices of cultivation — especially with the wild agave, which is super exciting. Everybody was a little bit scared about some of these wild agaves going extinct. But within the last five to ten years, people have figured out how to cultivate these wilds.
But as Tony said, the maturation points, they're anywhere from seven to ten years. For some agaves, it's 21 years. But the beauty of it is, that these plants are in the ground and currently being cultivated.
Everybody's extremely focused on the preservation of these plants.
Tony: Yeah, it's really nice because the community is small. All the brands know each other and support each other because we realize that sustainability is the single most important issue to all of us. So it's been really nice to be able to speak with other brands, to share information, to share techniques and just make sure that we're all going down this road together.
Mezcal has a strong smokey flavor that might be a bit “too much” for consumers. Were you concerned about that? How do you recommend people enjoy Madre Mezcal?Tony: Up until recently, it was really considered a peasant's drink and there are still parts of northern Mexico where they believe Mezcal is made of horse piss and gasoline. So educating the consumer is huge, and I think now that there’s more access to different kinds of Mezcal, it's more fun and easy for the consumer to understand what's going on.
It's much more approachable as a Wine than it is as other Spirits, because you really have to take into account so many variables of what the plant is, what region it comes from and what the method of distillation is.
With Madre, we were very intentional about honing in on this blend. And it's blended because we wanted to alleviate some of that smokiness and make it a little bit more approachable for the first-time drinker. But also something really fun, special and dynamic for the experienced drinker. And I think that's exactly what we've done with this blend of espadin cuishe.
Stefan: The whole conversation around smoke, too, is quite a funny thing, because everybody in the north pigeon holes Mezcal as being the Scotch of Tequila. I think, unfortunately, a lot of people's entry point to Mezcal is probably a cheaper espadin Mezcal which does have over smoked flavors. And I'll never deny that we don't have a smoky flavor within Madre because it's part of the process. The agaves are roasted in the earth, and they're essentially permeated by the flavor of the mesquite wood that is part of the roast.
We try to challenge people and pull that out of the conversation. When you get into these wild agaves, you’ll find so many other flavors to Mezcal. And Madre is such a great entry point for that, and we jokingly call it a “gateway Mezcal” because it's a Mezcal that you can drink.
We've had tastings or events where people walk up and say, "Oh, I don't like Mezcal. It's too smoky for me." And we challenge them to sip it. We challenge them not to drink it in a cocktail. Just try it straight. They say the first sip is the kiss, that's like the palate cleanser. Then, the second sip starts to expose these different layers and flavors. Mineralities, beautiful vegetative flavors, botanicals. And every time, every batch you get these different notes and it's such a fun rabbit hole to go down.
Tony: It tastes like a sunset in Oaxaca, while copal smoke is burning behind you and dust is getting kicked up by the horse that's standing next to you. The flavor of what Mezcal does, at least to me, is magic. And I think that's what people taste. And that's what I like to explain to people, because everyone’s palate is so dynamic.
What’s the flavor profile?
What you taste is hardwired into you and it corresponds with memories and experience. And for us at Madre, it's all about the experience. And Mezcal is an experience. It's not meant to be shot, it's meant to be sipped and kissed and taken with you on adventures.
Stefan: I love how you put that, Tony. It's really about a feeling and the whole experience — from the flavor profile to the feeling it gives your body when you drink it. And the best way to taste Mezcal, if you ask me, is in Oaxaca, because you get the full experience. You’re consuming Oaxaca in a liquid form.
A lot of the profile you’ll find in our agaves and the cuishe, or the karwinskii in particular, is a sense of crispness. Karwinskiis in particular are known for having this wonderful crispness that, when put into a blend, really smooths out the flavors of the espadin. It balances everything in the middle. And you have a beautiful minerality that comes from the dirt along with wonderful vegetative flavors that come through, and there are a lot more natural sugars within the cuishe that really balance it and make it quite sweet and smooth.
Sure, there's a general flavor that comes from Madre, but it could have rained on the day of the roast. Or the humidity in the air could have been slightly different. And those variances, really do permeate the Mezcal and that's one of the most beautiful things about it. It really is the last fully natural Spirit. Compared to Whisky and Vodka, which are made pretty much like a science lab a for consistency, we own up to the fact that Mezcal is natural and it comes from the environment. The environment is forever changing, and that's the beauty of the flavor. That’s the fun part about it.
Tell us more about Oaxaca.Tony: I think to Stefan's point, it’s about how the Spirit is made in the real world with real things by real people — not in a lab. That's what Oaxaca is. It's very much this real place that has this magical veil over it that I don't think anybody could ever articulate. You know, there's a certain mysticism that rests in the area coupled with tradition that’s drowned in this beautiful serum that is Mezcal.
And when you're in Oaxaca, you really are absorbed by all of it. You realize how important this Spirit is to the culture in its entirety. It was used for medicine and was arguably distilled before the Spanish arrived. I mean, no pun intended, it has strong roots in the community.
They celebrate things like death, you know, and they celebrate it light heartedly. And there are just so many things that stack up in Oaxaca to paint a picture of something that's very surreal, and yet very tangible. And I think Mezcal is the most tangible part of it.
Stefan: Man, it's so funny. I will never forget the moment that we pulled into our distillery for the first time. One of the really beautiful facts about Madre is we produce it in the middle of nowhere. There are a couple towns in Oaxaca that are considered main production points of Mezcal, Matatlán being one of them. They consider that the capital of Mezcal.
But we're a good 30 minutes outside of Matatlán. We're in between the town of Matatlán and San Dionisio. Closer to San Dionisio, which is kind of our reference point for production. But where the hacienda sits, it's this little dirt patch sitting on a mountain in this insane valley. And the first day we met with the family, we had this beautiful meal of mole with the sun setting in the distance. We were all sipping Mezcal. There was beautiful music playing in the background and the colors of the traditional garb that Jose's wife and grandmother were wearing… and just the whole environment. Things just slow down for a moment.
We've learned patience. We've learned that when you arrive in Oaxaca, time does stop. You learn about the important things in life, like enjoying a glass of Mezcal while watching a sunset with the family that we work with. Those are the important things to the people of Oaxaca — being with people that you love and sharing something that you've created together. And I think that's the part of Mexico as a culture, or the Oaxacan culture, that people instantly fall in love with.
That’s what Mezcal and Oaxaca are to me.
1. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Tony: Is there a superpower that can create world peace and harmony? Because that would be it. I mean, as cheesy as that sounds, at this point, that's what we need. And if that could be my superpower, I would take it any day.
2. How would you describe Madre Mezcal in three words?
Tony: I think it would be “around the corner.” Or “just over the hill.” There's this ideology that me and Stefan share that's purely based on exploration. Wherever you are, you just wanna see what's over that hill, what's around that corner. And Mezcal is that. So it wouldn't be a set of words, it would be a direction.
3. What is your favorite music and what drink goes with it?
Stefan: Cumbia. We have a very vast appreciation for music. Mexico is, hands down, regarded as one of the most culturally diverse places on the planet. And the music that goes through every single speaker in that country is incredible. And cumbia is just a beautiful blend of music that I think we're both very attached to. It’s really very much an audio embodiment of what Madre's about. I would say it's my current favorite kind of music.
Tony: There's a composer named Thomas de Hartmann. He used to create music with this philosopher, Gurdjieff. And the piano pieces that they created together are some of the most moving pieces I've heard. And something to drink with it? I mean it has to be Madre, for sure.
4. What would you eat and drink for your last supper?
Tony: Anything that my mom makes.
Stefan: Continuing along the lines of Mexico and Oaxaca, Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, is a massive part of Oaxacan culture. It’s a celebration of death. And it's a celebration in Oaxaca. It's this really beautiful thing where you are sharing food as well as drink with the loved ones that you have lost. And I think there never really is a last day and that's the beauty of the Day of the Dead. It’s a celebration that goes on forever. And Mezcal is a massive part of that within the culture. And I think that, yeah, it lives on through life or death. And I think Mezcal is that. So that would be my dying drink, knowing that it would continue onwards with my family in honor of who I was.
5. Assuming Madre Mezcal is your favorite, what's your second favorite Mezcal?
Stefan: There's this really beautiful bar in Oaxaca called Mezcaloteca that actually exports Mezcal under the brand Mezcalosfera. But one of our favorite pastimes is to go down there and have the guys at the bar give us something new. And they always have some weird, random, obscure Mezcal that just blows your mind.
We were sitting at the bar and our friend gave us this Mezcal with a particular kind of agave. But it had been aged in glass for 10 years. Which is a big thing that people are starting to bottle. It's very traditional with Mezcal. You don't age it in wood, because the wood permeates the flavors. I mean, there are a lot of opinions within the Mezcal community about whether you do that or not.
But aging in glass really does pull the flavor out in so many different ways. Tony and I both grew up working in bicycle shops, which is a funny thing we both share. And there's a citrus degreaser that you use when you're cleaning bicycle parts that has a very distinct, wonderful smell. And we both drank this Mezcal and looked at each other and said, "That tastes like citrus degreaser," but in the most wonderful way possible. And it took both of us back to the exact same moment in time — cleaning bicycles in Colorado.
I have a bottle sitting on my shelf because I haven't opened it. I don't think I'll open it for a long time. I can't wait to see what happens to it 10 years from now.
Tony: Years ago, I gave a ranchero a ride home in the hills outside of Oaxaca. I drove him to his house and then we had to walk another mile, because he just had a dirt road. I ended up spending the night there. He pulled out a bottle from under his bed that had been aging in glass. And it was an ensemble of several of the wild varieties that grew around him. And I think it was also just drinking it with him. So much of Mezcal is who you're drinking it with. That was by far my favorite Mezcal.